the particular way in which a thing exists
Martin Beck, Turn Take Merge, 2011. Video Still.
Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York.

This exhibition revisits a set of projects realized over the past twelve years by Martin Beck, whose interests lie at the intersection of art, design, architecture, and historical inquiry. Beck is concerned with shifts and changes of perspective that occurred in the period of late modernism; how their material, formal, and social structure impacts contemporary culture. The works assembled stem from a number of projects developed over time and include investigations into the history of communal living, notably the famous American commune of Drop City; the emerging discourse on ecology and politics at the 1970 International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado; student protest and history writing in the case of the brutalist Art and Architecture Building by Paul Rudolph at Yale University; and the impact of modularity on the exhibition, exemplified by designer George Nelson’s Struc-Tube display system. Beck distills from these references a paradoxical coexistence of emancipatory promises and logics of control that run through and between them.

An interrelated concern for Beck is what generates form making and what rules govern it, whether it be forms of organization, display, communication, enunciation, knowledge, or research and how it comes together, operates, and is perceived in the format of the exhibition. Conversely, in using the exhibition as a medium, Beck asks how the exhibition and the artworks therein provide and negotiate a space for this investigation.

the particular way in which a thing exists offers a way of looking, reading, and experiencing a body of work by Martin Beck as it interfaces with an exhibition space that is contiguous to a library, within a university environment. His recent film Turn Take Merge, presented here as an installation, provides a methodical framework for the connections and gaps between the works placed in the divided space of the gallery. The film is based on a journey shown by means of directional waypoints (and viewpoints). Turn Take Merge also works as a temporal hinge pointing to the very cultural shifts and ruptures Beck considers in his projects and how they are negotiated in the display of video, photographs, prints, sculptures, and artifacts in the gallery.

– Michèle Thériault


  • The display strategies made use of in this exhibition and the ways in which they contribute to visual and spatial communication.
  • The various forms of communication used by the artist, the information that is conveyed and its relationship to the visual elements of this exhibition.
  • Notions of time and history and how they function both in individual works and in the exhibition as a whole.
  • Connections, gaps, and ruptures in this exhibition. Where can you identify their presence and how do they function? What do they communicate?
  • The setting of this exhibition: an art gallery in a library building on a university campus. What are the functions of these sites and how do they relate to this exhibition?
  • What this exhibition reveals about artistic practice.
  • Enclosure and expanse and how we move through this exhibition.
  • The ways in which language is used throughout this exhibition.


Produced with the support of the Frederick and Mary Kay Lowy Art Education Fund.

The Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery’s contemporary exhibition program is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts.

Curator: Michèle Thériault

The Artist

Martin Beck

Martin Beck lives in New York and Vienna where he holds a professorship at the Academy of Fine Arts. In conjunction with his artistic practice, Beck also writes critically about art, design, and architecture. He occasionally also works as an exhibition designer.

Recent exhibitions and projects include Presentation at 47 Canal (2012), Remodel at Ludlow 38 in New York (with Ken Saylor) and Communitas at Camera Austria, Graz (2011); contributions to the Twenty-Ninth São Paulo and the Fourth Bucharest Biennales (2010); and Panel 2: “Nothing better than a touch of ecology and catastrophe to unite the social classes” at Gasworks, London (2008). Beck is the author of About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe (2007), An Exhibit viewed played populated (2005), and the recently published The Aspen Complex (2012). the particular way in which a thing exists, organized by the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery at Concordia University in Montreal, is the first exhibition to bring together and examine projects produced over the last twelve years.

The Works

About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe, 2007

High definition video, 11 min. 59 sec.
Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York

This video shows in one single twelve minute tracking shot the installation and deinstallation of a historic modular exhibition system developed by the American designer George Nelson in 1948. Nelson developed the system under the name Struc-Tube for a greeting card manufacturer who used it for a presentation of artist-designed Christmas cards at the Brooklyn museum.

The development of modular and portable exhibition systems was driven by the idea of making information visible and portable as well as by a desire for increased efficiency. Thus the exhbition could become a true “modern agent”. The system improved the logistics of exhibiting but at the same time submitted information and exhibitions to a more regulating geometric matrix that resulted in greater control over the viewer. The rationalized display system also calls up visual strategies that appeared in minimalism and conceptual art.

The title of the video is adopted from the subtitle of Charles and Ray Eames’ 1968 film Powers of Ten. Another inspiration is Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967). In both films, the movement of the camera is closely connected to vision and perception and shows how scale impacts our construction and understanding of the world.

abstracta, 2009

Five digital C-prints on paper
Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York

Originally developed in the early 1960s in Copenhagen by Danish architect Poul Cadovius, Abstracta is a commercial display system and the first of its kind to allow the modular construction of simple and complex structural shapes. The Abstracta system combines chrome plated steel tubes, connector joints and accessories to form display surfaces in structured units utilizing shelving and vertical panels.

The connector joint was central to the functionality of the cartesian logic of the modular display systems developed starting in the 1950s.

Diagrams, 2007

Five silkscreens on paper
Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York

A series of diagrams that show various possibilities of display within a system. The possibilities present elements that stand on the floor or are attached to the floor; are attached to the wall by means of grooves and pins; are suspended from the ceiling; are braced between the floor and the ceiling; are fastened by means of compression or tension between the floor, ceiling and walls.

Sculpture, 2008

Five stainless steel cubes
Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York

A work consisting of five cubes made of stainless steel open to top and to sides. The measurements of their dimensions are derived from a Golden Section progression. The aim was to come up with a progression that is based on the same principle as the Golden Section, but has a narrower range; same curve but closer intervals. The cubes are placed according to the geometry of the space in which they are exhibited. Recalling the aesthetic and logic of minimal art they reference a particular relationship to the art object as well as an ethos of display. Their openness and reflective characteristics examine different forms of spatiality within the gallery.

Rumor (June 14, 1969), 2002

Three pigment ink prints on paper and type transfer on wall
Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York

The Art and Architecture Building at Yale University was designed by Paul Rudolph and completed in 1963 as part of Yale University’s ambitious architectural building program featuring buildings by America’s leading architects. A prominent example of American brutalist architecture, it had unique corrugated concrete surfaces. Its reception and history were fraught and marked by extensive debate as demonstrated in the bibliography that accompanies the prints. In 1969, at the time of student protests, it was set on fire and subsequently underwent a number of internal transformations.

A drive to unite the disciplines of art, architecture, design and urban planning gave impetus to the project but was also the basis for divisiveness and dissatisfaction. The accumulation of events and conflicts around the aesthetics and functionality of this building marks ruptures and shifts that form a historical discourse.

We were simply delegates in Aspen…, 2008

Six gelatin silver prints on baryta paper
Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York

Aspen, Colorado gets its name from the aspen tree, a member of the willow family which grows in large colonies around this resort town of the Rockies. One of its characteristics is the quaking quality of its leaves which tremble in the slightest wind. From 1951 to 2005, Aspen was the site of the yearly International Design Conference created as an offshoot of Walter Paepcke’s Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, established there in 1950. The Conference, the only one of its kind at the time, was conceived as a way to bring together business and design interests. In 1970, however, the IDCA whose theme was “Environment by Design” became a site of conflict between the organizers and a group of dissenting participants that included environmentalists, design and architecture students, and a French delegation from the Utopie group who contested the lack of political engagement and the communications formats used in the conference.

half modern, half something else (Michelangelo Antonioni, The Passenger, MGM 1975, scene 4 [VHS version, photographic stills, index]), 2001

IRIS print on paper
Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York

The subject of alienation and identity in a late modern context runs through Antonioni’s films and plays itself out in a desert landscape in The Passenger, 1975. The seven film stills reproduced show images of a flat spatial perception, of projection surfaces without perspectives. They allow for shifting relationships between space and time that disturb conventional readings of representational space.

The following works stem from Martin Beck’s interest in the emergence of utopian socialities and, in particular, communes. He investigates their utopian and emancipatory programs, their social and spatial organization and their formats of communication.

The commune of Drop City was founded in 1965, near Trinidad in southern Colorado, and quickly became the emblem of countercultural communitarianism. Portability and impermanence characterized the architecture of Drop City, as shown in the grassroots application of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic design principles. Drop City was the inspiration for many other communes that developed in Colorado and New Mexico. Media attention, accelerated growth and internal tensions brought an end to the experiment and the site was abandoned in 1977, however, some dome structures remained into the 1990s.

Painted Side Up, 2010

Recycled car tops
Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York

Many domes were built in Drop City using Buckminster Fuller’s modular design dome structure. Commune inhabitants used the sheet metal from car roofs to fabricate the modular elements.

The geometric shape of these elements calls to mind the interest in modularization and rationalized production that was applied to the development of exhibition display systems in the late 1950s and 1960s, as well as to visual strategies used in minimalism and conceptual art.

We dismantle abandoned bridges…, 2012

Digital C-print on paper
Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York

Commune inhabitants in their efforts towards self autonomy and sustainabilty would look for and recycle various materials such as the sheet metal used in car tops. A car “cemetery” was located nearby the commune of Drop City.

During the same era in which new modes of social structures and living were being tested, the Apollo space program was in full deployment. Designed by NASA, the program’s goal was to land humans on the moon, which it did on July 20,1969, in the Apollo 11 mission. There were 17 missions in all, six of which landed on the moon.

Headlines, 2010

Two double-sided silkscreens on rag board
Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York

Headlines is a two sided (one side presented alongside the other) silkscreened montage of titles assembled from texts on communes published in various newsletters.

Directions, 2010

Vinyl lettering on wall
Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York

Directions is a mural scale wall text that lists a Google map itinerary to get to Drop City from Haight-Ashbury, an area in San Francisco that was the center of hippie culture in the 1960s.

Group, 2012

Woodcut print on paper
Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York

As experiments in communal living were tested, there developed a parallel interest in and investigation of the constitution and functioning of social and personal relations. Literature abounded on the subject and theories and programs to create cohesion, togetherness and more efficient human exchanges were also applied to modern corporate and business structures.

Incomplete Parts (version), 2012

Books, shelf, burlap
Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York

A shelf containing books from the late 1960s to the late 1970s about the commune movement, its social practices and impact. A previous, larger version of this work comprised a wall and vitrine display composed of books and pages torn from books on the same topic, from this same period.

The book, the archive and the library where knowledge is accumulated and administered form an organizational core. Reading, writing and observing become starting points and trajectories for an artistic practice and the research that sustains it.


On the Artist

Howe, David Everitt. Contentious Utopias: Martin Beck’s Avant-Garde Art and Design. Afterall. Web. October 1, 2012.

Bonin, Vincent. Exposer, publier. Intermédialités 15, 2010: 189-193.

Displayer. The Industrialization of Display Systems: An Interview with Martin Beck. Displayer 3, 2009: 18-27.

Messer, Ari. Panel 2 At Arthur Ross. Dwell Magazine. Web. December 8, 2009.

Perry, Colin. Martin Beck Panel 2 : Nothing Better Than a Touch of Ecology and Catastophe to Unite the Classes: Gasworks, London. Art Monthly, 321, 2008: 25-26.

Hunt, Ian. Martin Beck: Gasworks, London, UK. Frieze 119. Web. November – December 2008.

Burton, Johanna. Martin Beck: Orchard. Artforum, 46.1, 2007: 469.

Michalka, Matthias and Felicity D. Scott. Julie Ault and Martin Beck: Installation. Cologne: Buchhandlung Walther König GmbH & Co.KG., 2007.

Pollock, Barbara. Information: Storefront for Art and Architecture. ARTnews, 105.05, 2006: 168.

Platt, Ron. Borne of Necessity: Julie Ault and Martin Beck, Peggy Diggs, Anthony Hernandez, Tom Hunter, Ken Lum, Samuel Mockbee and Rural Studio, Marjetica Potrć with Liyat Esakov, Michael Rakowitz, Temporary Services with Dave Whitman, Camilo José Vergara. Greensboro: Weatherspoon Art Museum, 2004.

Vogel, Sabine B. Martin Beck: Galerie Hohenthal und Bergen, Cologne. Arforum, 33, 1994: 93.

By the Artist

Beck, Martin. A Landscape Without History. In Josiah McElheny: A Prism. Josiah McElheny and Louise Neri (Eds.). New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2010.

Beck, Martin. GEORGE NELSON, Display ( New York: Whitney Interiors Library 1953), p. 15-23. Intermédialités 15, 2010: n. pag.

Beck, Martin. The Band Members and the Band. Exhibition as the Artistic Medium, Curator of Contemporary Art as the Artist. The Changing Statuses of the Exhibition and the Curator in the Field of Contemporary Art. Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 1-2 October 2010.

Beck, Martin. Display: Eine Begriffsklärung. Audio recording, July 12. Web.
Retrieved on November 6 2012.

Beck, Martin. Panel 1 – Social Abstraction. Kunst, Sichtbarkeit, Ökonomie, Nürnberg, 25 und 26 November. Beatrice von Bismarck and Ulrich Bröckling (Eds.). Verlag für Kunst Nürnberg: Nürnberg, 2009: 33-37.

Beck, Martin. About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. London: Four Corners Books; Casco, 2007.

Beck, Martin. Methodologies and Formalism. In The Great Method: Casco Issues X. Peio Aguirre and Emily Pethick (Eds.). Frankfurt; Utrecht: Revolver; Casco, 2007.

Ault, Julie and Beck, Martin. Drawing Out & Leading Forth. In Notes for an Art School. Manifesta 6 School Books, 2006. Available as a download

Beck, Martin. Comparable, But Very Different: The Film 13 Lakes by James Benning. Springerin. Web. April 2004.

Beck, Martin. Half Modern, Half Something Else: Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh editions. Vienna: Montage, 2003.

Beck, Martin. Alternative Space. In Alternative Art New York, 1965 – 1985. Julie Ault (Ed). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Ault, Julie and Beck, Martin. Outdoor Systems Indoor Distribution. Berlin, Germany: NGBK Berlin, 2000.

Beck, Martin. Hohenthal und Bergen Exhibition Catalogue. Cologne: Hohenthal und Bergen, 1994.

Beck, Martin. Martin Beck: Munich and Vienna, Germany and Austria. Munich: Galerie Kampl,1990.