Harald Szeemann was the most celebrated and influential curator of the late 20th century. With a career spanning almost 50 years, he invented the modern idea of exhibition making; pioneered the display of conceptual art and performance; created some of the first cross-disciplinary, non-chronological exhibitions; and experimented with non-museum spaces. For Project 2 in 1971, at the launching point of Szeemann’s long career as he prepared for the documenta 5 exhibition in Kassel, John Kaldor invited him to visit Australia and curate an exhibition of the latest contemporary Australian art. The exhibition,
, was shown in Sydney and Melbourne and was the first major exhibition of conceptual art in an Australian museum.
Between 14 and 27 April 1971, Szeemann travelled to Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne to view the work of 70 artists, visiting studios, galleries, museums and private collections. When asked about his plans for the exhibition, Szeemann said, ‘It will be my view of you from the outside. I am open to all forms of expression’. The result was a dynamic exhibition of works by 22 young artists in Sydney’s Bonython Gallery interior and courtyard and, later, including an additional artist, for Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria.
The atmosphere of the exhibition was lively and engaging, with works ranging from painting and sculpture to installation and performance. The artists included were John Armstrong; Tony Bishop; Robert Boynes; Gunter Christmann; Tony Coleing; Aleks Danko; Margaret Dodd; Neil Evans; Ross Grounds; Dale Hickey; Tim Johnson; Peter Kennedy; Warren Knight; Nigel Lendon; Ian Milliss; Ti Parks; Mike Parr; William Pidgeon, Brett Whiteley and Tony Woods (in collaboration); Guy Stuart and Alec Tzannes. A number of new works were created specifically for the exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria and artist Mike Brown was added with a large mixed-media installation. The gallery’s press release declared, ‘In many ways it is the most extreme exhibition of work ever seen in Melbourne’.
In his review for the Sun
(5 May 1971), critic James Gleeson explained the importance of the exhibition for conceptual art in Australia: ‘it presents the conceptual artist’s point of view as decisively and with as much impact as the now famous Field exhibition’s presentation of abstract minimalism in 1968 … The Szeemann selection isn’t the exhibition for the eye – it is intended for the mind. One must approach it without prejudices and with one’s sensory equipment stretched to the utmost in an effort to reach the purpose deep within the unfamiliar forms’.
This text is an edited excerpt from the publication 40 Years: Kaldor Public Art Projects