01 Oct 2009
Sophie Richard (Ridinghouse, London, 2009)
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sophie Richard conducted extensive research on the European networks of distribution of Conceptual art for a PhD at Norwich School of Art and Design. Tragically, Richards died after giving birth to a baby girl in the months following the submission of her paper, and so did not live to see it develop into this momentous and handsome book, prepared for publication and edited by her supervisor Lynda Morris. Unconcealed comprises Richard’s concise and clearly written chapters, as well as charts and databases chronicling museum acquisitions and artists’ exhibitions at what she terms ‘dealer galleries’ and museums. It also includes a rich array of informative and anecdotal interviews, illustrated by a series of photographs by Jacques Charlier featuring the main characters of Richard’s narrative at exhibition openings.
Focusing on the period 1967–77, Unconcealed follows the careers of 15 artists including Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Hanne Darboven, Gilbert and George, Douglas Huebler and Lawrence Weiner. Richard uses the terms ‘Conceptual artists’ and ‘Conceptualism’ throughout, even though some of the artists she identifies (such as Carl Andre, Mario Merz, Bruce Nauman and Robert Ryman) are often thought of in different ways, while she pays little attention to more familiar conceptualists such as Robert Barry or Dan Graham. I had the feeling, however, that Richard struggled with these terms even as she felt compelled to employ them.
We learn how exhibitions were organized, and how dealers enabled the artists’ works to enter private and public collections. The book is useful because previously general (i.e. non-monographic) accounts of the period have been restricted to analyzing the roles played by key shows. Richard shifts the emphasis onto dealers such as Konrad Fischer, Gian Enzo Sperone or Nicholas Logsdail, whose innovation and commitment becomes evident. It emerges very clearly that the most powerful figure in the European art world at this time was Fischer. While showing the most important artists at his gallery, he simultaneously played a huge role in curating shows for public institutions – something almost unimaginable now.
Several other interesting points emerge from the research. I was staggered to learn of the speed with which shows were organized, despite the fact that most correspondence was via airmail. Fischer, for instance, first contacted Sol LeWitt in New York in November 1967; by 6 January LeWitt had installed an exhibition in Dusseldorf! In contrast to this alacrity, it is also interesting to see how slow the British were to recognize the work of Richard Long, whose career flourished in mainland Europe before he had gallery shows in London. Richard also allows us to appreciate how open certain countries were to new art; for instance, she shows that both collectors and museums’ acquisitions departments in the Netherlands and Germany were far more adventurous than those in France and Britain.
Richard set about to produce a study of distribution networks, and achieved this through immaculate and thorough research. It is no criticism of the book to say that there are many questions left unexplored; perhaps these would have occupied Richard in her post-PhD research. For instance, I would be interested to hear more about the particular backgrounds of the collectors: why was it that some of them at this time were drawn to art works consisting of statements or photographs? And what of the relationships between the art works themselves and the networks of distribution? As Richard explains, artists would have several exhibitions in European commercial galleries in quick succession: for the Americans, these shows often coincided with breaks in their teaching schedules. If this mobility was facilitated by the networking of the dealers and, of course, by the material nature of their work (which was often easily transportable, or made in transit or on site), then how did artists begin to reflect on these new conditions? At the end of the book Richard briefly suggests that André Cadere’s practice reflected critically on the network of galleries, but mentions neither Weiner’s statements about borders nor Huebler’s radical revisioning of travel photography, both of which seem particularly important in this respect. Finally, given the importance of dealers in the establishment of these artists’ careers, how was it that artists such as Michael Asher, who didn’t supply anything to sell, were able to develop strong reputations in Europe? As scholars of the future think through these and other questions, they will remain grateful to Richard’s extraordinary and meticulous scholarship.
First published in Issue 126