4.3 / Review

When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes

By Terri Cohn October 24, 2012

When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes, on view at California College of the Arts (CCA) Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, poses an open-ended inquiry into the nature and direction of conceptual art practice over the past forty years. The exhibition’s title—a riff on Harald Szeeman’s iconic 1969 exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form—situates Wattis curator Jens Hoffman’s project as a meditation on the question of what new tendencies arose from the break with traditional art media four decades ago. Hoffman has done this by reexamining how the shifting relationship between artist and artwork has prioritized artists’ activities and process over material realization, and the ways in which contemporary artists continue to draw from the dynamic legacy of Conceptual art. The currency Conceptual art holds today is, in part, a testament to the prescience of Szeeman’s organizing principles, and “how exhibitions themselves can influence artists and their works, and define history.”1 However, unlike the prevailing minimalist aesthetic that materially unifies Szeeman’s project, Hoffman’s curatorial response has resulted in a visually and conceptually rambling show that underscores the generational shift in thinking about and approaches to conceptually based art practices.

A maquette representation of the original exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, reveals that the bulk of the works in the 1969 Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form show were either abstract sculptural pieces (ranging from a Richard Serra Splash piece to early Claes Oldenburg Pop Art works); minimalist drawings (like Mel Bochner’s Infinite series); or involved early time-based media or performance (such as Joseph Beuys’s installation Ja Ja Ja Ne Ne Ne [1970], and Walter de Maria’s Art By Telephone [1969]). While there are also plenty of ephemeral pieces in Hoffman’s exhibit, more marked are the differences between the two exhibits, which are interwoven throughout Hoffman’s selections. For example, Hoffman includes Hank Willis Thomas’s Two Space Rope Sculpture—Redux (2012), a reinterpretation of Barry Flanagan’s Two Space Rope Sculpture (gr2 sp60) (1967), which was originally included in Szeeman’s show; Redux ties one end of a floor-snaking cord into a noose, evoking the entire history of lynching in one simple gesture.

What When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes really demonstrates, then, is how conceptually based art today takes on a much greater multiplicity of forms and demonstrates a greater variety of thought. This is immediately evident in Hoffman’s choice of eighty-two artists from six continents, which disrupts Szeeman’s largely European and American geographic narrative. This decision provides a greater range
of approaches, as well as inconsistency, in the realization of works. Some of the most interesting pieces include Maria Eichhorn’s Money at the Kunsthalle Bern (2001–02), for
which the artist used the project budget for her 2001–02
show to help pay for needed renovations to the museum by issuing shares to that museum’s visitors; and Claire Fontaine’s Untitled (Suspended Battering Ram) (2011), a suspended readymade metal battering ram intended to lampoon the political importance of art and exalted surplus value with which it is endowed. The politics of these materially simple works—and the institutional critique they offer—is taken up in other ways by Thomas’s other work, for example, as well as in  the art of such artists as Meschac Gaba. In his Horloges des Indépendances (Watches of Independence) (2011), watches, each bearing the photograph of an African dictator, are displayed in cases similar to those used by street vendors. Gaba corresponds each of the timepiece’s numbers and varieties of style with the spans of each dictator’s time in power, making visible the duration of dictatorial governments these now-independent countries had to endure. More materially allied with Conceptual art in its earlier iterations is Kiersten Pieroth’s Untitled (2012), a series of glass jars filled with boiled books, which is described as “brimming with knowledge, distilled facts, and epic stories.”2 Pieroth has chosen various jar sizes, liquid colors, and original jar uses for each book (like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, 2006, distilled into a tomato sauce jar), simply and elegantly giving concept form.

When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes, 2012; installation view, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San Francisco. Courtesy of the CCA Wattis Institute. Photo: Agnes Feria.
When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes, 2012; installation view, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San Francisco. Courtesy of the CCA Wattis Institute. Photo: Agnes Feria.

Some of the less successful pieces in the show are those where form’s ties to concept are not readily discernable, such as Chrisodoulos Panaylotou’s Operation Seranade (2010), a rolled-up red carpet that communicates very little, or Jan Timme’s We’re One But We’re Not the Same (2011), three mirrors that are supposed to reflect iterations of the back of one’s head, but—in my experience—failed to do so. The pieces most difficult to appreciate are by artists whose works are documentation or residue of artists’ actions. Among them are Jonathan de Andrade’s 3em1 (2 in 1) (2010), in which the artist mimics the visual format of a step-by-step instructional manual for putting together a bed that involves joining two bed frames into one, intended to equate the melding of two beds and two bodies. There’s also Yto Barrada’s Paper Pliés (2007), a series of chromogenic prints of found objects and folded, trampled scraps of paper that the artist collected at a park in Torgiens, Morocco, a city that falls geographically and metaphorically between Europe and Africa. The paper cones reclaimed by Barrada once held seeds of native Moroccan plants that were dispersed in guerrilla fashion by local activists in an attempt to reclaim the park from the flowers and concrete sprawl of real estate developers. While Barrada and de Andrade both work with traditional strategies of Conceptual art (instruction pieces and performance residue), the secondary experience of these works left me feeling underwhelmed.

Key to the comparative relationship between these two exhibitions is Hoffman’s reframing of Szeeman’s title. Just as When Attitudes Become Form implies the materialization that foregrounds concept, When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes reframes materiality in the context of postmodern appropriation and deconstruction. Szeeman’s show is now a time capsule that documents a period of great artistic transition as defined not by a singular aesthetic but rather by, as he wrote, “the tendency to contemplation and…the celebration of the physical and creative self through action. Or, more simply: the impulse to ‘live in your head.’”3 Likewise, When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes contributes to a better understanding of the deeply political and multivalent character of our own time. The fact that Hoffman’s exhibition is the first curatorial response to emerge from such a seminal project as Szeeman’s provides a new plateau from which to critically survey the babel of the contemporary artistic landscape.


When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes is on view at CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, in San Francisco, through December 1, 2012.


  1. Jens Hoffman, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts exhibition wall label for When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes.
  2. CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts wall label for Kirsten Pieroth, Untitled (2012) in When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes.
  3. Harald Szeeman as quoted in CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts exhibition wall label for When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes.

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