What was and remains fascinating about this period is the perception it continues to provoke that something incredibly vibrant was happening in many places at the same time and this catalogue is just one of many that have sought to examine the efforts of these far flung artists and trace the diverse trajectories of the period. But, unlike the exhibitions Reconsidering the Object of Art, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995; Circa 1968, Museu de Serralves, Porto, 1999; Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950-1980s, Queens Museum, New York, 1999, and Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form, 1940s-1970s, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2004, Open Systems is less a comprehensive history than a proposition.
It takes a cue from the writings of Frederick Jameson who has described the period as one of transition and has argued that ‘the Sixties did not end in an instant but extended until 1972-1974’ and that the early Seventies encompasses the formal lessons and experiments of the Sixties while signalling the pluralism associated with the Seventies in general. And Rosalind Krauss, who characterised the period as ‘diversified, split and factionalized. Unlike the art of the last several decades, its energy does not seem to flow through a single channel for which a synthetic term, like Abstract Expressionism, or Minimalism, might be found. In defiance of the notion of collective effort that operates behind the very idea of an artistic ‘movement,’ ’70s art is proud of its own dispersal.’
Perhaps because the period defies easy categorisation, Conceptual art is the term most frequently invoked in reference to the works in these exhibitions. Although it does not adequately describe the diverse array of material practices and individual positions that characterised these years, the term remains a useful framing device. As gallerist Seth Siegelaub observed in 1973, ‘The debut of conceptual art is unique because it appeared simultaneously around the world. Prior to this artistic movements were very localized with all the leaders living in the same city (and usually the same neighborhood)… Conceptual art, which is an inappropriate name, was probably the first artistic movement which did not have a geographic center.’
One of the most characteristic developments of the late 1960s was a reconsideration of the object of art, a move away from the static and autonomous object towards a practice which, at times, literally moved out of the studio, in an attempt to be more responsive to the world.
This radical rethinking of the art object led to wide ranging experiments in all media - film, video, dance and performance, challenges to traditional categories of art making, and to the institutions and galleries that formed the art system. Many artists were eager to re-engage reference without forfeiting the lessons learned from the narrower formal problems that defined the early 1960s. While Open Systems does not make medium or ‘post-medium’ its subject, in exploring the widespread desire among artists of the period to open up the object to the world, it comprises works in myriad mediums and, perhaps more important, works whose materials and means are determined less by traditional media than by an effort to realise a concept or idea with whatever means are most effective.