As both foundational event and conceptual model, "When Attitudes Become Form" holds a special place in the curatorial imagination. It was the exhibition that brought international acclaim to the most important curator of the post-war period, Harald Szeemann. And it was the show that led Szeemann to re-create himself as an independent exhibition maker, founding a career path that would be followed by generations of curators. "Attitudes" has also come to represent the romantic conception of the curator as inspired partner of the artist, a creative actor who generates original ideas and structures through which art enters public consciousness.
Szeemann was an advocate for the new art that emerged in the 1960s, work grounded in an "inner attitude" elevating artistic prcess over final product. Across the diversity of Conceptualism, land art, American Post-Minimalism, and Italian Arte Povera, he also experienced a desire to be free of a system supplying aesthetic objects for the wealthy. He displayed this attitude and this aspiration by turning the Kunstahlle Bern into a giant artist's studio, accommodating the practical demands of process -based art through Piero Gilardi's idea of the exhibition as workshop and locus of discussion.
The exhibition was curated and selected by the late Harald Szeemann, at the time director of Kunsthalle Bern, where the exhibition was first shown. The title was interesting in itself, as it implied the bringing together of ideas and thoughts, and their ability to inspire the formation of a material presence. Though in some instances they did the opposite, staying in the realms of language, or existing as works that — to quote the front of the catalogue — “live in your head,” which was the original title of Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949).
The exhibition was conceived and curated not as a means of defining or fixing the art of its time, but the absolute opposite: to open up the concept of art and to change human perception of contemporary art as it was then understood. To quote Szeemann in his introduction to the catalogue, “In order to entertain certain ideas we may be obliged to abandon others upon which we have come to depend.
This exhibition was and still is a prime example of a curator responding to the work of contemporary artists, letting the artists provide the initiative rather than the curator imposing their personal theories or worldview, as often happens today.
The subtitle to the exhibition, “Works-Concepts-Processes-Situations-Information,” in many ways describes its contents. These works asked spectators to join the artist in stepping outside their comfort zone — to allow their consciousness to be realigned with a new order of things.
During the late ’60s through the mid-’70s, it was often considered inappropriate or irrelevant to critically refer to an artwork’s context or its authorship. It was the time of the “death of the author,” when any understanding of the work of art was to come solely from its own presence, without reference to metaphor, biography or any other outside circumstances. It now seems commonplace to consider the context of a work of art, which could be said to carry at least fifty percent of its meaning, whether it is relating to its materiality, physicality in terms of place, or social and cultural position. Looking back on this exhibition, context seems especially relevant.
Capturing the ethos of the 1960s, Keith Sonnier contributed the phrase atop the catalogue page "Live In Your Head". The catalogue alluded to Szeemann'sprcess as well as to that of the artists, containing the address list he used in New York and letters responding to his invitations to exhibit.
Richard Serra splashed lead inside the Kunsthalle foyer, Jan Dibbets excavated a corner of the building to expose their foundations. Michael Heizer smashed the sidewalk outside the museum while Daniel Buren pasted his signature stripes around the town and was promptly arrested for his trouble. Illegality was compounded with the burning of military uniforms outside the museum, which wasn't part of the show but was associated by the public with it.
Puzzlement was understandable. The work, by almost 70 artists, jammed into two floors and a nearby annex, wasn’t quite sculpture and certainly wasn’t painting. Its mediums included ice, fire, broken glass, lead, leather, felt, fluorescent tubing, peas, charcoal and margarine. Ropes snaked through rooms; electric wires wound down a staircase. Nothing was framed or on pedestals or behind stanchions, and visitors trampled on work, though it was hard to tell where the art ended and the damage began.
Some damage was art. A piece by the American “earth artist” Michael Heizer consisted of craters punched with a wrecking ball into the pavement outside the museum. While popular reaction over all ranged from grumpiness to hilarity, officialdom took a more serious view. Certain kunsthalle staff members were so outraged that they effectively forced the resignation of the institution’s director, Harald Szeemann, who was also the exhibition’s curator.
The conservative Swiss public did not react well to the show. There was mockery in cartoons and manure, was indeed dumped at the entrace to the Kunsthalle. Despite positive reviews the museum cancelled Szeemann's planned Joseph Beuys show. He resigned as director and the rest, as they say, became history.