ISSUE 1 Curatography
Les fleurs américaines
This is a fiction. A fiction that might begin in the following way: “Once upon a time a story known as the history of modern art…”
A fiction whose characters would be the artists, curators, art historians and collectors together with the artworks, exhibitions and institutions that have played a part in shaping that history such as we know it today. As Walter Benjamin stated in 2003: “Art is defined only within the story called art history. Artifacts shown at this exhibition are not works of art. They are rather souvenirs, selected specimens of our collective memory.”
The exhibition Les fleurs américaines presented at Le Plateau / Frac Ile-de-France, Paris, in 2012 began like a tale. It was conceived by The Salon de Fleurus, an educational institution dedicated to assembling, preserving and exhibiting memories of early 20th century modern art and the Museum of American Art, an educational institution, which opened in Berlin in 2004, dedicated to assembling, preserving and exhibiting memories of Modern American Art shown in Europe during the 50’s and early 60’s.
The exhibition recounted the story commonly known as the history of modern art from its origins in the beginnings of the twentieth century to its accession to dominant narrative in the 1950s. Its aim was to examine the construction and legacy of this story while circumventing the criteria of originality, unicity and authenticity in art works – qualities we still associate with an artwork today – through the presentation of un-signed copies.
If all the works on view in the show were reproductions, they were not seeking to hide their status as copies: their dates of creation were inaccurate and their producers had in no way tried to repeat the material quality of the originals. What we saw there were not so many individual artworks but series of artifacts, memories of works playing a special part in what had helped to define the “history of modern art”.
These memories were arranged into three stories, as told through the eyes of the three American characters whose portraits adorned the entrance wall: the American writer and collector Gertrude Stein, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art of New York, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and Dorothy C. Miller, the first paid curator at the MoMA.

From The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

The first of these three stories begins in Paris on 27 rue de Fleurus, between 1905 and 1913. Titled From The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (after the eponymous book by Gertrude Stein), it consisted of a memory of the famous Salon de Fleurus where Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo would show their collection of avant-garde works of art – most of which were European – and entertain a number of literary and artistic personalities. An American collection of European art that some thirty years later would have a decisive influence on the positions adopted by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for the MoMA in New York.
The life and works of Gertrude Stein have already received a great deal of critical attention. Let us simply note that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, this American settled in Paris was not only in possession of one of the most avant-gardist collections of art works of that period, she had also made her apartment on the rue de Fleurus into the setting for a now legendary narrative of modern art – casting herself as heroine.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was published in 1933, and turned its author into a literary star. It would play a determining role in Stein’s career, and in the manner in which the paintings on display in her Salon were understood and promoted. In it, Stein narrates her life with Alice B. Toklas. Through her partner’s observations, she lifts the veil on the history of modern art as it unfolded before her eyes. Stein’s strategy of writing in the perpetual present elevated the story to the status of mythological tale. A tale that would be deliberately taken up again by the Salon de Fleurus when it opened in New York in 1992, with a permanent collection entitled From the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.1
1 Salon de Fleurus’ permanent exhibit titled From the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, located at 41 Spring Street, New York, was open to the public from 1992 to 2014.
In the first room of the exhibition Les Fleurs américaines, the collection of artifacts from the Salon de Fleurus was presented as an ethnographic diorama; a period room the visitor was invited to contemplate but was forbidden to enter.
With the help of moldings, objects, furniture and subdued lighting, the room reconstructed the décor of the Steins apartment, the setting in which their collected art works were displayed together for the very first time. The display repeated the division operating in the New York Salon itself. On the left-hand side, there were copies of the paintings, amongst which several variously sized portraits of Gertrude Stein by Picasso. On the right, more painted replicas, but this time the copies were made from documentary photographs of the Stein’s apartment. In those copies one could find the paintings shown on the left-hand wall repeated in their original setting.
At no point was the status of the copies as copies dissimulated; they had very clearly been made by amateur hands. And, indeed, confronted with the Salon’s collection undated paintings, it was not the individual qualities of the works themselves that one was being invited to contemplate. It was rather the mythological reconstruction of a collection considered as a complex entity – a collection that foretold of the American interpretation of European Modern Art and decisively influenced the writing of its history.

Museum of Modern Art

The second part of the exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, included 46 iconic works by European artists dated between 1990 and 2035 and presented on the basis of Alfred Barr Jr.’s diagram reproduced on the cover of the catalogue of the exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art” held at MoMA in 1936.
In replacing in particular the notion of “national schools” by that of “international movements”, this exhibition as well as the exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism”, also held the same year at MoMA, formulated an American interpretation of European art, as Barr had represented it through his chronological “evolutionary tree”. They played a decisive role, forming the loam in which American art developed a few years later, and so contributed to this latter’s gradual domination on the international scene after the Second World War.

Alfred H. Barr, Jr.

In 1929, at 27 years old, Alfred H. Barr Jr. was appointed as the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the first few years of its life, the museum existed in name only: it had no permanent collection and to begin with functioned more as an art centre where the works on display could be purchased. In those years, Barr organized a number of temporary exhibitions of works by the European avant-garde, inspired by the exhibitions by the Société Anonyme (founded in 1920 in New York by Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray) and by the artists he met on his 1927 trip to Europe and Russia.
Through those early exhibitions and with the support of some influential patrons, Barr gradually built up a permanent collection.2 It was a collection that told a coherent story, enabling Barr to make connections between the avant-gardes without reference to their country of origin.
2 In particular Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan.
The two exhibitions he organized in 1936: Cubism and Abstract Art and Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism put all the European avant-gardes on display together, and the mode of display would become standard not only for the MoMA’s permanent collections but also for the countless museums of modern art that would come after it throughout the world.
The paradigm shift with respect to how museums were displaying art in the first decades of the twentieth century is evident in Barr’s diagram. Beginning his story at the end of the nineteenth century with Cézanne and Postimpressionism, Barr then took the narrative – which until then had only ever been told in a wholly linear fashion – down a forking path. One path took in Picasso and Cubism by way of Suprematism and Constructivism to arrive at what Barr would call Geometrical Abstract Art. The other followed Matisse and Fauvism by way of Surrealism to arrive at what he called Non-Geometrical Abstract Art.
For the very first time in museum narrative, the chronological approach of ‘national schools’ was displaced by a concept of ‘international movements’.
The effect of MoMA’s exhibitions (and those that followed them) was to institutionalize a story about European art that had been anticipated by the Steins. These exhibitions would receive unprecedented critical acclaim and proved hugely influential, providing not only the terrain on which American Art would develop a few years later but also the basic plot line of a writing of the history of modern art that would emerge as its dominant narrative.

MoMA Made in France

Produced for the exhibition, the collection titled Musée d’Art moderne comprised a selection of forty-six colour copies of the artworks that were on display in MoMA’s two historical exhibitions of 1936. The display adhered to the two paths that Barr sets out in his diagram.

The copy of Cézanne’s The Bather was the point of departure; the story continued along the right-hand wall with Matisse’s Woman With a Hat, Dance, then Red Studio by way of Van Dongen, Kirchner or Nolde. On the left-hand wall it proceeded directly to Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, taking in Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and Malevich’s White on White and concluding with Mondrian. The only ‘sculpture’ in the collection was a plaster copy of Duchamp’s Fountain that had clearly been made by hand.

This Musée d’Art moderne was a faithful image of the MoMA in the middle of the 1930s, at a time when the story it was telling was wholly based on European Modern Art. Incidentally, the MoMA’s permanent collections are still hung in a very similar way today (taking Cézanne’s The Bather as their point of departure).

The difference is that the paintings on display in the exhibition were quite clearly copies: they were neither the same size nor made of the same materials as the originals. This Musée d’Art moderne could be seen as the antithesis of all existing art museums insofar as they rely on two categories: the original and the artist. In this Musée d’Art moderne there were no originals – and as a result no artists. What is more, this Musée d’Art moderne was not, in fact, an art museum. Rather, it was a museum about the memory of modern art, a “meta-museum”, where the history of modern art was presented ethnographically through artifacts. Visitors were invited to contemplate that history from the outside.

The labels accompanying the copies of paintings revealed that they were dated some hundred years after their original fabrication: that is to say, between 1985 and 2036. Barr’s diagram, translated into French and reproduced as a painting in the exhibition, was also dated one hundred years in the future – as if France were still immersed in modern art today.

When the same collection was produced and shown for the first time in an exhibition titled A Museum That Is Not held at the Times Museum of Guangzhou in 2011, all the copies of paintings were dated one hundred years prior to their original production (in other words: 1785-1836), thus turning China into the cradle of modern art.

These temporal slippages allowed the visitor to view the paintings on display with a new critical distance; at the same time, they served to short-circuit the linear chronology normally associated with the writing of history.
Produced for the exhibition, the collection titled Musée d’Art moderne comprised a selection of forty-six colour copies of the artworks that were on display in MoMA’s two historical exhibitions of 1936. The display adhered to the two paths that Barr sets out in his diagram.

The copy of Cézanne’s The Bather was the point of departure; the story continued along the right-hand wall with Matisse’s Woman With a Hat, Dance, then Red Studio by way of Van Dongen, Kirchner or Nolde. On the left-hand wall it proceeded directly to Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, taking in Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and Malevich’s White on White and concluding with Mondrian. The only ‘sculpture’ in the collection was a plaster copy of Duchamp’s Fountain that had clearly been made by hand.

This Musée d’Art moderne was a faithful image of the MoMA in the middle of the 1930s, at a time when the story it was telling was wholly based on European Modern Art. Incidentally, the MoMA’s permanent collections are still hung in a very similar way today (taking Cézanne’s The Bather as their point of departure).

The difference is that the paintings on display in the exhibition were quite clearly copies: they were neither the same size nor made of the same materials as the originals. This Musée d’Art moderne could be seen as the antithesis of all existing art museums insofar as they rely on two categories: the original and the artist. In this Musée d’Art moderne there were no originals – and as a result no artists. What is more, this Musée d’Art moderne was not, in fact, an art museum. Rather, it was a museum about the memory of modern art, a “meta-museum”, where the history of modern art was presented ethnographically through artifacts. Visitors were invited to contemplate that history from the outside.

The labels accompanying the copies of paintings revealed that they were dated some hundred years after their original fabrication: that is to say, between 1985 and 2036. Barr’s diagram, translated into French and reproduced as a painting in the exhibition, was also dated one hundred years in the future – as if France were still immersed in modern art today.

When the same collection was produced and shown for the first time in an exhibition titled A Museum That Is Not held at the Times Museum of Guangzhou in 2011, all the copies of paintings were dated one hundred years prior to their original production (in other words: 1785-1836), thus turning China into the cradle of modern art.

These temporal slippages allowed the visitor to view the paintings on display with a new critical distance; at the same time, they served to short-circuit the linear chronology normally associated with the writing of history.

50 Years of Art in the United States

The third and final character in Les Fleurs américaines was Dorothy C. Miller, first curator of the painting and sculpture collections at the MoMA. Between 1940 and 1960 she organized a series of exhibitions, known as the Americans shows, which introduced the American public to works by Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella, among others. Miller organized an ongoing sequence of travelling exhibitions for the MoMA that would radically change the European perception of American art. They would also play a decisive role in establishing the importance of Abstract Expressionism on the international stage – a movement that, despite its apolitical appearance, broadcasted America’s values of individualism and freedom.
It was indeed only after the Second World War, with the emergence of the generation of Abstract Expressionists, that the MoMA began to include American artists in its story of modern art, seeing them as part of a continuum that began with the European avant-gardes. It was also at this point that the MoMA began promoting its American artists abroad through its international program.3 In 1955, in response to a request from the French government, the MoMA put together an exhibition with works from its own collection. The exhibition was titled 50 ans d’art aux Etats-Unis (50 years of art in the United States) and was shown at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris.4 That exhibition was an attempt to get a European authority to officially recognize the legitimacy of American art in all its forms. Under the name Modern Art in the United States it then travelled to eight European art capitals (Zurich, Barcelona, Frankfurt, London, The Hague, Vienna, Linz et Belgrade), making it the biggest exhibition of American art ever to be sent abroad.
3 Between 1932 and 1953, so prior to the creation of the international program, there was a department of national and international travelling exhibitions at the MoMA. In 1956 this department underwent a huge expansion and was given the new name of International Council. Financed by a grant of 625 000 dollars from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the international program took the MoMA’s activities to Europe and Asia, generating seventy exhibitions abroad in fifty different cities.
4 The festival Salut à la France, hommage culturel américain presented every aspect of American artistic life: dance, music, theatre, film, exhibitions…
The painting section of that travelling exhibition – devoted to ‘Contemporary Abstract Painters’ and curated by Dorothy C. Miller – was the centre piece of the final chapter of Les Fleurs américaines. The paintings were presented in the form of copies made from archive documents.
In the first room of this last chapter, the walls were covered with drawings made from the catalogue pages and covers of the Americans exhibitions series while 50 ans d’art aux Etats-Unis was presented as a small scale model containing miniature copies of the paintings that were shown to scale in the following rooms.
With Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train5 playing in the background (jazz being another symbol of the American way of life), the second room showed a selection of undated, unsigned and unlabeled copies of paintings by Pollock, Kline, Motherwell, Gorky and others, all of which appeared in the original 50 ans d’art aux Etats-Unis exhibition.
5 Take the A Train was the theme tune of the jazz program on Voice of America radio, the international broadcasting service of the American government.
In the middle of that room was an improvised living space: leather armchairs placed around a coffee table piled with copies of Life magazine from the 1950s. That domestic set-up gestured toward the beginnings of the private market and the future decorative potential of Abstract painting. The copies of the paintings themselves – produced in various shades of grey – were made from the photographic reproductions that often appeared in magazines of the period; a way of calling attention to key role of documentation in the global circulation and dissemination of American Abstract painting.
In the last room were painted copies of catalogue pages (reproducing the paintings seen in the previous room), together with painted copies of photographs of the exhibition and press articles. Documentary videos on the subject of the exhibition’s run in Paris played alongside paintings of film stills extracted from some of their sequences, interspersed with display cases containing the original catalogues.
Once again, whether dealing with copies of original works made from their reproductions in catalogues or copies of the pages of those catalogues, this last section in black and white made no distinction between art works and documents – treating both as actors playing a similar role.

Along with MoMA’s other travelling projects, 50 ans d’art aux Etats-Unis may be considered a form of cultural propaganda, having played a key role in establishing the artistic supremacy of the United States following the war to the detriment of Europe. Be that as it may, this exhibition marked a new phase in the legitimization of the most recent American art under the auspices of a new ‘international’ language of contemporary art – and is now one of the main exhibits in the permanent collections at the MoAA in Berlin.

Conclusion

By juggling with the established categories of the original and the copy, history and fable, signature and anonymity, painting and conceptual art, Les fleurs américaines aimed at setting in motion the facts and strategies, which helped to define 20th century art. In this sense, it was not an exhibition of modern art, but a contemporary exhibition about the construction of the history of modern art and the way it still defines most of today’s art criteria.
In a lecture titled “Politics of Installation,” Boris Groys argues that since Marcel Duchamp there is no longer any “ontological” difference between the fact of making art and the fact of presenting it, between art’s production and its exhibition.6 We might add that throughout the twentieth century, it is the exhibition — whether handled by artists, curators or conservators of museum collections — that has made it possible to communicate the artwork and to effect its transformation into an object to be viewed by a public. Hence, we could argue that a work of art does not exist until it is exhibited, criticized, debated and incorporated into a history. The history of art from the nineteenth and twentieth century would thus appear indissociable from the history of its exhibitions — the study of which has dramatically expanded over the last twenty years.7
6 Boris Groys, “Politics of Installation,” lecture delivered at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, October 2, 2008, published in e-flux journal, no. 2 (January 2009).
7 See on this topic a number of published works on the history, or the art, of the exhibition, for example, the two volumes edited by Bruce Altshuler, Exhibitions that Made Art History, published in 2008 and 2013 by Phaidon; and the massive recent expansion of taught “curatorial” programs within the university.
If there is still a difference between the sovereign and subjective choices of the artist and the public responsibility of the curator, Boris Groys makes clear that, ever since the first museums were founded in the eighteenth century, it is the curators, the historians, the museum conservators who have produced art in the modern sense of the term — and they do so by putting it on display in the setting of the exhibition or museum.
It is precisely this awareness of the decisive role played by those actors that underpins the projects of the Museum of American Art or the Salon de Fleurus. For many years, they have been engaged in offering approximate reconstruction of exhibitions, museum rooms or homes of collectors so as to point up the importance of these settings for the writing of art history and the sacralization of its masterpieces in the twentieth century. And by laying bare the writing of its most canonical narrative, the activities of the MoAA and the Salon de Fleurus interrogate the construction and the continued existence of an art system constantly in search of its own legitimization.
In film, theatre or in literature, it is accepted practice to engage in historical reconstruction, to revive characters who once actually existed – all in the service of telling a story. For the sake of this story, let’s leave the last words of this text to Walter Benjamin, the art theoretician and philosopher who in The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) reminds us that the replica, the copy, and the reconstruction have always acted as auxiliaries to artistic creation, and have been endowed with a variety of precise functions depending on the era.
Many years after his tragic death in 1940, Walter Benjamin reappeared in public in 1986 with the lecture Mondrian ‘63 -’96 in Ljubljana. Since then he published several articles and gave a few interviews on museums and art history. In recent years Benjamin became closely associated with the Museum of American art in Berlin. At Le Plateau in Paris, on February 17, 2013, he took the form of a young French-speaking woman to deliver a lecture titled The Unmaking of Art.In that lecture, Benjamin declared:
“Art is most likely a notion defined by the story called art history, and it exists only within that story. A Mondrian composition is a work of art only within art history and within the art museum. Outside of that context it is just a piece of painted canvas. An outsider could recognize it as an object that some people admire and call art. And those are the people who believe in art history. Once we manage to position ourselves outside of art history, the work of art becomes an artifact of a certain cultural milieu. It is time to consider a possibility that (art) history could be not the story but a story.”
* A longer version of this text was published in the exhibition catalogue “Les fleurs américaines”, edited by Elodie Royer and Yoann Gourmel, Frac Ile-de-France, Paris, Les presses du réel, 2014.
* Captions and credits: Exhibition view of “Les fleurs américaines”, Le Plateau / FRAC Ile-de-France, Paris, 2012. Photo credits: Martin Argyroglo
1 Salon de Fleurus’ permanent exhibit titled From the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, located at 41 Spring Street, New York, was open to the public from 1992 to 2014.
2 In particular Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan.
3 Between 1932 and 1953, so prior to the creation of the international program, there was a department of national and international travelling exhibitions at the MoMA. In 1956 this department underwent a huge expansion and was given the new name of International Council. Financed by a grant of 625 000 dollars from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the international program took the MoMA’s activities to Europe and Asia, generating seventy exhibitions abroad in fifty different cities.
4 The festival Salut à la France, hommage culturel américain presented every aspect of American artistic life: dance, music, theatre, film, exhibitions…
5 Take the A Train was the theme tune of the jazz program on Voice of America radio, the international broadcasting service of the American government.
6 Boris Groys, “Politics of Installation,” lecture delivered at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, October 2, 2008, published in e-flux journal, no. 2 (January 2009).
7 See on this topic a number of published works on the history, or the art, of the exhibition, for example, the two volumes edited by Bruce Altshuler, Exhibitions that Made Art History, published in 2008 and 2013 by Phaidon; and the massive recent expansion of taught “curatorial” programs within the university.
8 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” [Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1935)], Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, translated from the German by Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968 / Schocken Books, 1969).
9 Walter Benjamin, The Unmaking of Art, was first delivered in Chinese at the Times Museum in Guangzhou in 2011 and published in English in Walter Benjamin, Recent Writings, New Documents, Vancouver, 2013.
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Authors
Elodie Royer is a curator working at KADIST (www.kadist.org), a non-profit organization based in Paris and San Francisco. In the frame of a curatorial collaboration between Kadist and the Museum of Contemporary art in Tokyo (MOT) initiated in 2016, she is co-curating the exhibition Things Entangling that will take place at MOT in Spring 2020. She has previously worked with gb agency, Paris and at Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Her texts are regularly published in magazines and exhibition catalogues.

Since 2016, Yoann Gourmel is a curator at the Palais de Tokyo (www.palaisdetokyo.com) in Paris. He was recently co-curator and curatorial coordinator of the 15th Lyon Biennale of Contemporary art, entitled “Where Water Comes Together with Other Water” (2019 – 2020). His recent projects include the solo exhibitions of Julien Creuzet (2019), Massinissa Selmani (2018) and Taloi Havini (2017) as well as the large-scale collective exhibitions “Another Banana Day for the Dream-Fish” (2018) dedicated to the imaginaries of childhood and their influence on the construction of identities, and “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (2017) which examined “emotional capitalism” and the impact of the market economy and new technologies on the production of our emotions and their representations. He previously has taught history of exhibitions and history of contemporary art. His texts are regularly published in magazines and exhibition catalogues.

Since 2006, they are working in collaboration as independent curators. In 2014 – 2015, they were guest curators at the Centre Européen d’Actions Artistiques Contemporaines (CEAAC) in Strasbourg, France, where they curated a series of three exhibitions, “Rose”, “Seymour”, “Ernesto” after fictional characters from literature. From 2011 to 2013, they were associate curators at the art centre Le Plateau, FRAC Ile-de-France in Paris where they curated the exhibitions “Une Préface” (2013), “Les Fleurs américaines” (with the Salon de Fleurus, New York and the Museum of American Art, Berlin, 2012), “Abitacollection” (2012), “Le Mont Fuji n’existe pas” (2012), “Le Sentiment des choses” (2011).
Together they have also curated exhibitions in museums and art centers in Canada, Italy, Germany, Great-Britain, Poland and France.
Archive
Archive
Issue 2 Curators' Living Rooms
Editorial /​ Curators' Living Rooms Sandy Hsiu-chih Lo
Extended Living Room: Space and Conversation ruangrupa(Ade Darmawan, Mirwan Andan)
Freeing the Weights of the Habitual Raqs Media Collective
Curating Topography Sandy Hsiu-chih Lo
Issue 1 Curatography
Editorial /​ One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward Hongjohn Lin
What is Curatography? Hongjohn Lin
Les fleurs américaines Yoann Gourmel, Elodie Royer​
There are No Blank Slates Eileen Legaspi Ramirez​
Archive
Issue 2 Curators' Living Rooms
Editorial Curators' Living Rooms Sandy Hsiu-chih Lo
Extended Living Room: Space and Conversation ruangrupa(Ade Darmawan, Mirwan Andan)
Freeing the Weights of the Habitual Raqs Media Collective
Curating Topography Sandy Hsiu-chih Lo
Issue 1 Curatography
Editorial / Curatography Hongjohn Lin
What is Curatography? Hongjohn Lin
Les fleurs américaines Yoann Gourmel, Elodie Royer
There are No Blank Slates Eileen Legaspi Ramirez