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Strategies of Display: Avant-Garde Exhibitions, The White Cube and Beyond


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Assessment: two 2500-word essays and a three-hour examination (BA) or two 2500-word essays and a 2500-word research exercise (Graduate Certificate) (33.3% each)

Module description

From the Salon des Refusés in 1863 to Martin Creed today, artists have knowingly employed strategies of provocation, spectacle or critique in their exhibitions. This module aims to introduce you to the issues and debates surrounding the exhibition of modern and contemporary art, and the ways in which the museum and other institutions have been challenged by avant-garde art practices.

Across the history of modernism, radically new art demanded new ways of seeing, and new ways of being seen. But as modernist and avant-garde practices and techniques developed, so the institutions of art - museums, the art market - were subject to their own historical transformations, driven both by artists and the public's changing definitions of art and who or what it is for. Whilst certain types of artistic and institutional aspirations appeared to come together in the idealised, hermetic, art museum space - the 'white cube' - even this was quickly challenged by new developments such as land art, installation or 'dematerialised' art.

Each lecture will focus on a specific exhibition, group or curator. Looking at historical documentation and responses as well as secondary commentaries, the key ideas and debates relating to exhibition practices will be discussed and set in historical context.

Indicative module content

  • Introduction: the spaces of art before 1850 (from the guild to the salon and the museum)
  • Anti-establishment: the Salon des Refusés and impressionism
  • Secessionism: Vienna and Munich
  • The avant-garde goes international: Fry's post-impressionism and The Armoury Show
  • A slap in the face of public taste: futurism and dada
  • Exhibition as propaganda: degenerate art
  • Surrealism and spectacle: first papers of surrealism, Dali at the World's Fair
  • Alfred Barr: abstraction and the rise of MOMA
  • The gallery as gesture: primary structures and minimalism
  • Pop's happening: This is Tomorrow Calling and Oldenberg's Store
  • Harold Szeemann: When Attitudes Become Form
  • Seth Siegelaub: The Xeroxbook and January 5-31, 1969
  • Lucy Lippard: dematerialisation and the Numbers Shows
  • Beyond the white cube: maximalism, land art
  • Biennale and art fair culture: art, nationalism and commerce
  • Sensation: The rise (and fall?) of Britart
  • Artangel: the gallery without walls
  • Strategies of exhibition and display now

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you should have:

  • a detailed knowledge of the issues and debates surrounding the exhibition of modern and contemporary art
  • the ability to observe, identify and analyse works of visual culture
  • a critical awareness of the functions of such works within the social and cultural contexts of their production and reception
  • become familiar with current debates and approaches to the subject
  • the ability to analyse and interpret critically historical evidence.