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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The turning of the screw : the Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition, Daniel Buren, and the new cultural conservatism Alberro, Alexander


In this study I have sought to explore the theoretical foundations of the French artist Daniel Buren's work and its subsequent resonance in a context of emergent cultural conservatism. The study also traces, the increasingly tenuous position of the avant-garde, the survival of which is contingent on the presence of certain liberal democratic institutions. For me these concerns led to a systematic investigation of the censorship of Buren's installation at the 1971 Guggenheim International Exhibition. This was the last in a series of exhibitions that was to promote international goodwill by bringing together the best of recently produced works by contemporary avant-garde artists from around the world, and awarding prizes to those considered outstanding. But the real ideological significance of this show was apparent in the aggressive attempt by the administrators of the Guggenheim to promote American cultural superiority. Buren was invited to contribute a piece to the show in the belief that his work fit into the formalist mode around which the exhibition was organized. Yet the day before the show opened Museum officials suddenly decided to remove his work from the exhibition. The official explanation provided by the authorities of the Guggenheim cited the size and placement of Buren's work as being in direct conflict with the work of other artists in the exhibition. However, this explanation was clearly specious given that the Guggenheim officials knew months in advance exactly what this work would look like, and its intended place of installation. Moreover, Museum officials used the complaints of four participating artists as justification for their actions. Meanwhile, fifteen other artists in the show objected to the Museum's use of censorship. The issue of the Guggenheim Museum's sudden decision to withdraw Buren's installation from the Sixth Guggenheim International is thus more complex than the official explanation would indicate. My thesis contends that the abrupt removal of Daniel Buren's work is traceable to efforts by Guggenheim officials to protect other works in the exhibition, and the International series as a whole, from floating into the avant-gardist-traditionalist polemic that had again flared up in the New York art world. Chapters One and Two examine the organization of the 1971 Guggenheim International and the rationale behind that organization. Chapter Three looks at the threefold controversy surrounding the 1971 International: the conflict that arose between participating artists, the questions of censorship that were raised by the actions of Museum officials, and the overwhelmingly hostile critical response to the exhibition. This study investigates a period of social and epistemological rupture in American art, the reverberations of which continue to be felt today.

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