Beyond Objecthood

Beyond Objecthood

The Exhibition as a Critical Form since 1968

By James Voorhies

The rise of the exhibition as critical form and artistic medium, from Robert Smithson's antimodernist non-sites in 1968 to today's institutional gravitation toward the participatory.





The rise of the exhibition as critical form and artistic medium, from Robert Smithson's antimodernist non-sites in 1968 to today's institutional gravitation toward the participatory.

In 1968, Robert Smithson reacted to Michael Fried's influential essay “Art and Objecthood” with a series of works called non-sites. While Fried described the spectator's connection with a work of art as a momentary visual engagement, Smithson's non-sites asked spectators to do something more: to take time looking, walking, seeing, reading, and thinking about the combination of objects, images, and texts installed in a gallery. In Beyond Objecthood, James Voorhies traces a genealogy of spectatorship through the rise of the exhibition as a critical form—and artistic medium. Artists like Smithson, Group Material, and Michael Asher sought to reconfigure and expand the exhibition and the museum into something more active, open, and democratic, by inviting spectators into new and unexpected encounters with works of art and institutions. This practice was sharply critical of the ingrained characteristics long associated with art institutions and conventional exhibition-making; and yet, Voorhies finds, over time the critique has been diluted by efforts of the very institutions that now gravitate to the “participatory.”

Beyond Objecthood focuses on innovative figures, artworks, and institutions that pioneered the exhibition as a critical form, tracing its evolution through the activities of curator Harald Szeemann, relational art, and New Institutionalism. Voorhies examines recent artistic and curatorial work by Liam Gillick, Thomas Hirschhorn, Carsten Höller, Maria Lind, Apolonija Šušteršič, and others, at such institutions as Documenta, e-flux, Manifesta, and Office for Contemporary Art Norway, and he considers the continued potential of the exhibition as a critical form in a time when the differences between art and entertainment increasingly blur.


$34.95 T ISBN: 9780262035521 288 pp. | 6.5 in x 9.375 in 73 color illus., 15 b&w illus.


  • An exceptional book bridging exhibition histories, curatorial research, and contemporary practice rather than giving in to the strained rhetorics of their accompanying discourses. Voorhies brings us up to date with the evolution of the curatorial and its numerous exhibition forms over the last twenty years or so. Like Voorhies's own practice, it draws expertly upon a deep understanding of the entanglement of curatorial research and artistic practice, their educational remit and their multiple exhibition forms, discursive sites, experiences, and contestations.

    Paul O'Neill

    Director of the Graduate Program, Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College; author of The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s)

  • James Voorhies narrates major public moments for Western art of the past fifty years, while positing a trajectory from Michael Fried's modernist fear of objecthood to a more contemporary politics of aesthetics after Jacques Rancière. Refreshingly open in its understanding of what might constitute an exhibition, this timely book should be celebrated for defending the potential for criticality arising across myriad forms.

    Lucy Steeds

    Senior Research Fellow for Afterall at Central Saint Martins (University of the Arts London); editor of Exhibition

  • In Beyond Objecthood, Voorhies provides a clearly structured account of the evolution of context as the base of our aesthetic and political encounters with contemporary art. His account draws much-needed attention to the ways in which institutional habits and frames determine meaning in our encounter with an art object, and how key artists unsettle these habits to invoke critical power beyond the reach of much so-called 'political art'.

    Catherine Wood

    Senior Curator, International Art (Performance) Tate Modern, London

  • Although the history of art is centuries old, barely a book could be found just a few decades ago that treated that uncollectable, ephemeral thing called 'the exhibition'—as opposed to the art object itself. The breadth of that still comparatively new history is being amended with a number of new publications that probe exhibitions as critical forms. James Voorhies's study sits squarely among these, tackling an impressive range of exhibitions, art projects, and discursive structures from 1968 to the present. He invites readers to see that what lies around and indeed beyond the object might nevertheless be at the very center of its comprehension.

    Elena Filipovic

    Director and Chief Curator, Kunsthalle Basel; author of The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp

  • In Beyond Objecthood, James Voorhies offers a case study not only of the evolution of exhibitions as objects, but also of the role of any critical apparatus in relation to them. Here, today's emerging notions of audience engagement are afforded a complex history and set firmly within the armature of contemporary capitalist culture.

    Johanna Burton

    Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement, New Museum; editor of Cindy Sherman and coeditor of Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good