“Canceled: Alternative Manifestations & Productive Failures,” Introduction to Exhibition Catalogue

Canceled: Alternative Manifestations and Productive Failures

Lauren van Haaften-Schick


…Failure is not merely an error. One could also describe it as a cultural technique, a manner of enlightened awareness that rehabilitates the aesthetic principle by the very act of freeing it from the duty of having to be an absolute principle at the same time.


…If that means starting your own pirate radio station; get out and buy a transmitter.


Canceled presents a selection of historic and contemporary exhibitions that were canceled due to various political, economic, legal, and personal reasons, and the secondary projects that artists and curators created in response to, or in place of, these foreclosed efforts. The project highlights the book form and printed matter as a crucial means of disseminating artworks, documentation and information on a wide scale, potentially in ways that are more historically accessible and effective than the intended exhibition would have been.  As such, these productive reactions to potential defeat stand as important markers in a history of artistic critical agency.  As curator Wu Hung has written, “a cancellation does not mean a failure. In fact, a cancellation always enriches the significance of a canceled exhibition: it confirms the experimental nature of the exhibition and enhances its impact on the public consciousness. It also confirms the unofficial identity of the curator and participating artists, and strengthens their determination to change the system.”

In a history of cancellations, political upheaval and controversy is not always the direct cause of a conflict. There are numerous instances of canceled exhibitions that are the result of acts of self-negation, initiated by an artist as a means of asserting control over their labor, their artwork, and the cultural context or economy through which it circulates. For the New York Art Strike against War, Repression, Racism and Sexism of May 22, 1970, artist-activists, including members of the Art Workers Coalition, called for museums and galleries to close their doors and stop the business of art for one day in protest of the US military involvement in Vietnam.

Participants in the Art Strike sought to leverage the established economic or commodity value of their artwork, and to assert their labor as possessing value, such that their withholding of art production and exhibition was thought to have concrete ramifications. As curator Seth Siegelaub posited during the Open Hearing of the AWC: “…the art is the one thing that you have and the artist always has and which picks you out from anyone else… This is the way your leverage lies.”

For the Art Strike, Frank Stella closed his solo show at MoMA for the day, and Robert Morris prematurely ended his retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art a few days prior.  Jo Baer and Robert Mangold requested that their works be removed from the MoMA galleries for the month of May. In a gesture foreshadowing the strike, Lee Lozano, another member of the AWC, announced her General Strike Piece in 1969, for which she effectively withdrew from the art world. Here Lozano embodied one of the key understandings among members of the Art Strike and AWC, that the strike served to actualize their belief in the potential for political power within aesthetic and conceptual gestures. This ethos is made clear in the groups’ response to a letter from then MoMA director John Hightower, accusing the strike of resembling fascism, when they write “You fail to understand the meaning of the symbolic denial… which speaks to the actual denial of life by forces of violence.”

Such self-initiated cancellation is a politicized act of withholding and a means of claiming agency over oppressive or opposing forces. Censorship however presents a converse scenario where suppression may be imposed by state or religious forces, or by oneself in anticipation of such conflict. In recent years, censorship by the state has led to highly publicized legal action, including the charges of obscenity brought against the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center director Dennis Barrie after exhibiting Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs depicting homoeroticism and sadomasochism, and the “obscenity laws” of 1990, created in reaction to Mapplethorpe’s work and to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ of 1987. Three years prior to the passing of the law, Serrano had received a grant from an arts center in North Carolina, a re-grant of funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, so that upon its exhibition, Piss Christ, depicting a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine, was viewed by religious groups and certain members of congress as offensive, blasphemous, and an abuse of tax-payer funds. The work soon became a catalyst in the so-called “culture wars” against the public funding of “obscene” works of art.

These instances resulted in the creation of the ‘Helms Amendment,’ which required the NEA to take into account “the general standards of decency and respect in the diverse beliefs of the American public” with regard to determining who and what would be deserving of public funds. In 1997 during Serrano’s retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, museum visitors again took great offense to the piece and attempted to remove or destroy it, leading ultimately to the cancellation of the entire show. These episodes undeniably changed the state of public funding for the arts in the US, with the NEA no longer directly funding individual artists, and implicitly dissuading organizations from seeking funding for political or potentially controversial projects. The debate surrounding the limits of socially and politically acceptable art, and the question of the right to artistic freedom remains relevant for the persistent ambiguity over whether or not art is protected speech.

In many cases, the censorship or erasure of an artwork is justified by the accusation that it is not in fact art, on the grounds that the work is too political, lacks aesthetic value, or is found to be obscene. The materials and manifestation of an artwork can also determine the extent to which it is protected or permitted an elevated status of art, in the eyes of both cultural and legal establishments. While the aforementioned instances serve to illustrate how political or sexual content may be instrumentalized to nullify an artwork’s status as such, Chapman Kelley’s Wildflower Works, consisting of their namesake material and planted in abstract compositions in urban spaces, have received the most severe challenge on the basis of their material and aesthetic elements. Kelley’s Chicago Wildflower Works, a non-commissioned public work by the artist, thrived in Chicago’s Grant Park for twenty years, until 2004 when the city decided to re-landscape the area and introduce a structure by architect Frank Gehry. Though Kelley challenged the destruction of his work on legal grounds, citing that it should be covered by the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, a court decision determined that its organic quality prevented it from being copyrightable, and thereby denied it the protections given to works of art.

Beyond these issues, as questions of authorship and artistic control balloon in the wake of increasing intellectual property disputes and lack of clarity for a definition of “fair use,” the development of alternate and provocative modes of address is increasingly necessary, both in the creation of works and in retaliation of their misrepresentation, wrongful appropriation, or unwarranted destruction. The case studies that follow not only lend crucial insight into a particular history of cultural barriers and artistic resistance, but question the power of linguistic determinations and cultural expectations for art to either fulfill a role of pleasure, or to bear social and political weight.

The items in Canceled range from documents of the process and politics of censorship, exist as an alternative manifestation of an exhibit, act as a critique of prohibitive forces, or may be an admission and exposition of an ultimately productive failure. In addition to publications, the exhibit also includes supporting correspondence, photographs, video or other visual information illustrating these historic projects, their reconfigured iterations, and works by other artists inspired by these conflicts, missteps and rejections. The exhibitions discussed primarily took place in the US, and involve legal and economic issues that are particular to this national context. They are divided thematically, determined by the factors that led to their cancellation and the revised forms they took.

The first publications of Seth Siegelaub set a critical precedent for exhibitions that take the form of printed matter. Douglas Huebler: November 1968 and Lawrence Weiner’s Statements, now iconic pieces of early conceptual art, were the first two works produced where the lack of an available exhibition space and the immaterial nature of the art necessitated that the work manifest and circulate in an entirely new way: as a catalog. In a more recent example of a self-reflexive alternative route of distribution and realization, the free school United Nations Plaza in Berlin, Mexico, and later as Night School in New York, created a springboard for an open and accessible space of exchange in response to the politics surrounding the cancellation of Manifesta 6, whose curatorial focus considered the current function, format, and status of the art school.

Many of the exhibitions featured were canceled because of state and religious censorship or institutional barriers, so that their re-presentation as printed matter or as another public format positions them outside of and able to navigate around those restrictive forces. Wallace Berman’s Semina portfolio reproduces works in his 1957 exhibition at the Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, which was shut down by the Los Angeles Police Department on the night of its opening on charges of obscenity. Soon after, Berman left Los Angeles and focused his efforts on producing Semina, a self-published portfolio series of his peers’ work. Hans Haacke’s retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971 was canceled when it was discovered that some of the works in the exhibition revealed illegal and unethical real estate practices by businessmen thought to be linked to trustees of the museum. The controversy provided ideal material for the artist to discuss the museum’s questionable policies in a revised version of his essay for the catalog, and to produce a subsequent work concerning the corporate affiliations of the entire museum board.  Just prior to Haacke’s exhibition, the Sixth Guggenheim International denied the participation of one of its included artists, Daniel Buren, the day before the exhibition was set to open. Buren’s site-specific installation was found to assert itself over the dramatic museum interior, and the work of the other artists, and so was removed overnight without Buren’s approval. Years later Buren was invited to create another installation for the Guggenheim, for which he once again challenged the dominance of its physical and institutional architecture. The Guerrilla Girl’s iconic poster from 1989, Do women need to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?, was first rejected by the Public Art Fund, and second by New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, yet continues to be updated and reinstalled wherever and whenever possible by the activist art group. Jill Magid’s multifaceted project Becoming Tarden shifted continually to meet its ever-increasing redaction by the Dutch national secret service agency, Algemene Inlichtingen en Veiligheidsdienst (AIVD), despite their commissioning of related works and approval of her proposal to explore the “face” of the organization. The full manuscript was eventually confiscated by the AIVD while on view at the Tate Modern in 2009, though Magid has since reproduced portions of it as a paperback novel.

In other cases of institutional censorship, third party venues and curators have taken a direct hand in ensuring the rebellious dissemination of controversial or risky artworks. The destruction of Diego Rivera’s mural Man at the Crossroads from the newly built Rockefeller Center in 1934 remains one of the most prominent cases of enforced censorship. Intended to depict the contrast between capitalism and socialism, Rivera’s inclusion of a portrait of Lenin proved too great a provocation. It was feared by Rockefeller to “seriously offend” many people, and the work was eventually destroyed. Rivera later recreated the mural at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City where it was renamed Man, Controller of the Universe. Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1989 retrospective The Perfect Moment at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, was preemptively canceled after extreme political pressure, but was instead shown by the artist-run Washington Project for the Arts. In response to the Smithsonian Institution’s censorship in 2010 of David Wojnarowicz’s film A Fire in My Belly, the artist’s estate and P.P.O.W. gallery offered to distribute the film to any art institution that would screen it. A subsequently published exhibition catalog for The Aesthetics of Terror, curated by Joshua Simon and Manon Slome, and canceled before its planned opening at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York, exists as an important archive of the exhibition that was to be. Though never fully mounted, the exhibition was presented in a smaller format or virtually by venues internationally, where dialogue over the politics of its cancellation was integrated with its visual exposure. It’s Me, an exhibition of experimental Chinese artists in Beijing in 1998, was canceled due to repressive state censorship, yet was re-presented at the Smart Museum in Chicago two years later, accompanied by a catalog which offers equal discussion of both the original and latter iterations of the exhibition. In the catalog, curator Wu Hung also provides an overview of other “experimental” exhibitions and the strategies curators and artists have devised to persevere in an environment of tightly controlled public expression.

The conversations resulting from and precedents set by a controversy may also constitute the greater life of a canceled exhibition, as seen in the many widely discussed legal cases ensuing from such situations. Illegal America, the landmark first exhibition by Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo under the name Exit Art in 1982, sought to give voice to artists’ projects that test and provoke the limits of the law and legality, thereby offering exposure to works that were destined to meet resistance. Though intended as a permanent commission by the United States General Services Administration, Richard Serra’s site-specific sculpture Tilted Arc was only installed at Federal Plaza for eight years, during which time the work was a source of sharp controversy.  A polarizing public hearing held in 1985 over whether to relocate the work against the artist’s wishes includes statements by members of the art community, federal employees and elected officials debating the ethical and political implications of the decision. Video and a written compilation documenting the hearings and subsequent court proceedings serve as primary evidence of how the notion of public art in the US has been shaped by the political and legal forces that rule it. A year after the destruction of Serra’s work, a group of artists known as the NEA Four were denied public funding on the grounds that their work was in violation of the newly implemented “decency” clause within the agency’s guidelines. Their seminal court case challenging the decision, Finley v.  National Endowment for the Arts, has come to serve as evidence of the limited public support available to artists who are truly challenging accepted norms. Christoph Büchel’s Training Ground for Democracy at Mass MoCA in 2006 was left unfinished by the artist yet was partially exhibited by the museum as a “collaboration” and “work in progress,” resulting in a heated debate and complex court case surrounding the Visual Artists Rights Act and the responsibility of institutions to support artists’ visions and, vice versa, what is reasonable for them to expect of that support. In response to her frustration that photography of the installation was prohibited, and the impression that the debacle was being glossed over by Mass MoCA, Amy Wilson produced a suite of drawings based on personal photos taken in secret in an attempt to capture first-hand evidence of the exhibition gone wrong. Copyright infringement and intellectual property rights form the basis of the case Patrick Cariou v. Richard Prince, which concerns a body of work by Prince that, according to the initial 2011 ruling by the 2nd Circuit District Court, unlawfully utilized and capitalized on a substantial portion of a series of photographs by Cariou. Prince’s appropriation resulted in the cancellation of an exhibition of Cariou’s photographs, and, following the suit by Cariou against Prince, it was demanded that all works by Prince from the series be destroyed or never exhibited. While an exhibition opportunity was lost for Cariou, the ruling effectively destroyed Princes’ works and his claim to their authorship. Though an appellate court overturned much of the first decision, the case remains an ongoing affair. Intrigued by the complexity of the arguments from both legal teams and of Prince’s cryptic testimony in particular, Greg Allen produced a series of substantial volumes compiling the myriad primary documents of the case as it progresses.

In scenarios where there is clearly little room for negotiation some artists will decide to opt out, enacting the latent power in the act of self-negation. There is a great deal of personal agency to be claimed when artists choose cancellation as a means of maintaining creative control over their work, as these acts serve to protest demanded or anticipated concessions. An eruption of artists asserting demands over the context and circulation of their work began in January 1969 when the artist Takis physically removed his sculpture while on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  His ensuing protest became the catalyst for the formation of the Art Workers Coalition, who fought for the greater recognition of artists’ rights and for a voice in national politics. A letter from AWC member Jo Baer to Whitney Museum of American Art curator James Monte exposes her frustration with the increasingly smaller gallery space being allotted to a significant ten-year survey of her work. After identifying gender discrimination as the cause of her dispute with the museum, Baer concludes her letter by simply saying “No thank you.” Why the Exhibit was Canceled, a widely distributed text published by the artist group Temporary Services, documents the correspondence between an artist and curator as concerns over copyright infringement and trademark violations in the artist’s work are raised, and eventually lead the artist to call off the show.  The cancellation of Imaginary Coordinates at the Spertus Museum in Chicago, 2008, prompted numerous artists, curators, political and religious groups to speak out against the accusations made by members of the board that the exhibition, examining historic and contemporary concepts of mapping the Israel and Palestine region, was “anti-Israel,” simply for its presentation of voices from both sides of the persistent religious and cultural conflict. The flood of letters around the particular sensitivity of these issues, and the boycott of the Spertus by other artists, forces an exploration of the broader implications posed by the curatorial premise, which challenged accepted truths and unfounded erasures. In another rejection of anticipated positions and artistic behavior, Brendan Fowler’s abrupt break from his performance practice as BARR to producing primarily visual works served to disrupt the typically sturdy barriers that exist between genres, and turns a factual cancellation into critical performance. In the ultimate act of self-cancellation, Bas Jan Ader’s infamous final work In Search of the Miraculous now hinges on the lore surrounding the artist’s disappearance while carrying out the piece. Marion van Wijk and Koos Dalstra’s book In Search of the Miraculous Bas Jan Ader: Discovery File 143/76 collects the police reports of the investigation into Ader’s unsolved whereabouts. In another interpretation of the puzzle of Ader’s persona and his final work, David Horvitz’s Rarely Seen Bas Jan Ader film and flipbook tempt the possibility of new and undiscovered material, advancing the mystery with an homage as farewell, and with the optimistic posit that the work and its producer are truly never finished.

The projects in Canceled pointedly transform a “failed” exhibition or artwork, and re-cast them as something entirely new, while commenting on and providing insight into the political, artistic and personal logics behind the destruction or silencing of these efforts. Initially presented at the Center for Book Arts in New York, Canceled highlights the book form as a crucial means of disseminating documentation and information on a wide and accessible scale, potentially in ways that are more historically stable and effective than the original exhibition would have been. In later iterations of the exhibition at the Freedman Gallery at Albright College in Reading, and other venues, the project has become broader in scope, further exploring the legal implications of certain incidents, and consciously highlighting the role that independent curators and alternative arts organizations have had in influencing historic narratives by ensuring that dissenting voices remain heard. Through adopting printed matter and other easily disseminated media as a means of exhibition, these artists and curators have found alternate routes by which the politics surrounding the presentation and creation of art become at least as relevant as the work itself.