The first exhibition of a newly made work of art is in the studio. This first audience of the artist’s friends views the art in the work place in which it was created, in the artist’s presence and associated with the rest of his life. The satisfactions of his contact are obvious, both to the privileged group and to the artist in touch with his peers. The second exhibition, as a rule, is in an art gallery where it is seen by a larger but still specialized section of the public. (The average attendance at an art gallery during a show is rarely more than a thousand people.) From the gallery the work may be purchased by a collector, travel to other galleries or museums, or be actually acquired by a museum. Each change of milieu will encourage different expectations and readings by a changing audience. A fourth context is literary, the catalogues and magazines in which the work of art is no longer substantially present as an object, but is the subject of information.
By this point in a work of art’s distribution a description in stages is no longer sufficient; it has acquired a record, not simply in terms of places shown and changing hands, but a aura of esthetic interpretation as well. It belongs in the context of the art world, with its special opportunities for comparison and meditation for analysis and pleasure. The density that a work accrues as it is circulated means that it acquires meanings not expected by the artist and quite unlike those of the work’s initial showing in the studio. Although wide distribution is the modern equivalent for the classical fame, there is an inbuilt alienating factor. Wide distribution can separate the work from the man who produced it as the variables of other people’s readings pile up and characterize the object.
The alienation by distribution effect is not to be avoided except by withdrawal from the art world, for art is now part of a communications network of great efficiency. As its capacity has increased a progressive role-blurring has taken place. Before World War II, for example, museums worked at a fixed distance from the art they exhibited, which was either of some age or could be regarded as the latest form of tradition of acknowledged historicity. Most American museums have abolished the time lag that previously regulated their policies and now present not only new work but new artists. Though on a different scale and with different motives, such activity connects intimately with private galleries, whose profits can be affected by museum shows of their artists. The Alan Solomon-Leo Castelli collaboration at the Jewish museum in the early ’60s, the Rauschenberg and Johns retrospectives, at the ages 38 and 34 respectively, is a remarkable example of the convergence of intellectual interest and high profits. Art historians prepare catalogues raisonnés of living artists, so that organization of data is more or less level with their occurrence. Critics serve as guest curators and curators write art criticism. The retrospectives of de Kooning and Newman at the Museum of Modern Art were both arranged by the editor of Art News, Thomas B. Hess. (A cross over in the opposite direction was made by John Coplans, former curator of Pasadena Art Museum and now editor of the magazine.) William Rubin, a curator at the same museum wrote a monograph on Frank Stella; he is also a collector and lent a Newman to the retrospective. In ten years I have been a curator, a teacher and an art critic, usually two at a time. The roles within the system, therefore, do not restrict mobility; the participants can move functionally within a cooperative system. Collectors back galleries and influence museums by acting as trustees or by making donations; or a collector may act as a shop window for a gallery by accepting a package collection from one dealer or one adviser. All of us are looped together in a new and unsettling connectivity. (1)
Henry Geldzahler typifies the interconnections of roles in the system very well. He waswith the dealers Richard Bellamy and Ivan Karp, then at the green gallery and Leo Castelli respectivelyearly in recognizing emergent trends of the ’60s, and he appeared in two of Oldenburg’s happenings. As a curator at the Metropolitan Museum he has retained his knack for publicity even though his big exhibition, “New York painting and sculpture 1940-1970,” was essentially a recapitulation of his commitments of the early ’60s rather than a view from the later ’60s, when the show was executed. His capacity to expand the traditionally narrow role of curator has been admiringly recorded by Calvin Tomkins (2): the keeper of the flame doubles as a media hero.
In 1910 Apollinaire described attendance at the opening of the annual exhibition of the Société des Artsten Français: “lovely ladies, handsome gentlemen, academics, generals, painters, models, bourgeois, men of letters, and blue stockings.” (3) This was written for a newspaper so the 19th-century typology is journalistically apt but the assumption of a recognizable art world is clear. Painters and models were solidly legible in their roles and their supposed system was equally cleargenerals, young couples, writers. The art world now is neither as clear nor as simple as it seemed then. Not only has the group of artists expanded in number but art is distributed to a larger audience in new ways, by improved marketing techniques and by mass media. What does the vague term art world cover? It includes original works of art and reproductions; critical, historical, and informative writings; galleries, museums, and private collections. It is a sum of persons, objects, resources, messages, and ideas. It includes monuments and parties, esthetics, and openings, Avalanche and Art in America. I want to describe it as a system and consider what effects it has on art and on our understanding of art. Let me state at once that the system does not mean merely “establishment”; as Tomás Maldonado has pointed out,(4) system is often used as a synonym for regime, which vulgarizes an exceedingly useful term.