Exploring Primary Structures through the Archives

As the Shoshanna Wingate Curatorial Intern, my main project was to reconstruct the floorplan and checklist from the 1966 exhibition Primary Structures, one of the most significant and innovative shows presented at  The Jewish Museum. Primary Structures was one of the first shows that officially defined a new trend in sculpture – Minimalism. The curator, Kynaston McShine, invited 44 then emerging (many now legendary) sculptors from the U.S. and U.K. It included such names as Tony Smith and Anthony Caro to younger, more emerging artists mostly in their 30s. Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Sol Lewitt were among them and are now considered key figures of Minimalism. I spent a good deal of time during my internship period mining materials from the Museum’s Archive and Visual Resource Center.

Time-traveling to the 60s through the Archive

archival file foldersAfter an exhibition is over, relevant documents are filed in boxes and sent to the archives. The Jewish Museum Archive began with its 1947 inaugural exhibit The Giving of the Law and the Ten Commandments, and includes materials for every exhibition The Museum has ever presented to date. Leafing through the black and white photographs of the installation, negatives, numerous copies of correspondences between artists and curators, and various documents was like time-travelling back to the 60s. Glimpsing at the photos of the opening reception, it was fun recognizing established artists when they were very young.

Reconstructing the floor plan was like a jigsaw puzzle

Studying the floor plan was a big part of my archive research. While the documents and photos shed light on the individual works and curatorial logistics, the floor plan demonstrated how Primary Structures looked in its entirety. It was striking to see how it resonated with the architectural details of the Warburg Mansion.

archival file foldersI had access to a couple of different versions of the Museum’s floor plans: one from the 1966 exhibition The Lower East Side: Portal to American Life  and one from 1992 during a major renovation. The 1966 plan was missing many details and measurements, I had to compare it with the one from 1992, as well as with the current building structure. The history of the Jewish Museum’s building became a fascinating aspect of my project.

I was very lucky to talk with staff who offered me great insight about the Museum’s history.  I was also very fortunate to have an opportunity to meet with the artist Mel Bochner through a kind introduction by Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator Norman Kleeblatt. Bochner worked as a guard during Primary Structures and also wrote one of the first reviews of the show for Arts Magazine.

At the end of my internship I was able to completely reconstruct the checklist and the floor plan for Primary Structures. It was a great opportunity to be able to learn about such a  significant exhibition!

- Hanna Yoo, Shoshanna Wingate Curatorial Intern, Winter/Spring 2013