Seth Siegelaub, Pioneering Dealer and Curator of Conceptual Art, Dies at 71

Seth Siegelaub, the venturesome dealer and curator of conceptual art in New York in the 1960s and 1970s who helped

Siegelaub outside 44 East 52nd Street, a temporary space where he housed the exhibition 'January 5–31, 1969.' (Photo by Robert Barry/MoMA)
Siegelaub outside 44 East 52nd Street, a temporary space where he housed the exhibition ‘January 5–31, 1969.’ (Photo by Robert Barry/MoMA)

Seth Siegelaub, the venturesome dealer and curator of conceptual art in New York in the 1960s and 1970s who helped lead efforts for artists’ rights and devoted his life to studying textiles, died on Saturday in Basel, Switzerland, according to a friend, confirming a report by Metropolis M. He was 71.

After closing a gallery he ran on 56th Street in Manhattan from 1964 to 1966, where he showed contemporary art and Oriental rugs, Mr. Siegelaub, still in his 20s, presented the work of artists who would become some of the core members of what would be termed conceptual art, like Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. He showed them in experimental curatorial formats that often eschewed gallery shows in favor of publications. In a busy period between 1968 and 1971, he organized 21 projects, according to MoMA, which holds a collection of his papers that it presented in an exhibition earlier this year. When Mr. Siegelaub donated his art-related archive to MoMA in 2011, the museum also acquired a number of works from his art collection, which included a number of important early conceptual works.

What is arguably Mr. Siegelaub’s most famous exhibition took the form of a publication, Xerox Book (1968). For that show, seven artists—Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Huebler, Mr. Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris and Mr. Weiner—each contributed a 25-page work. Its title was a bit misleading: though inspired by photocopying, it was made using the more traditional offset printing because of the high cost of Xeroxing at the time.

In interviews, Mr. Siegelaub often emphasized the collaborative nature of the radical advances being made in art in the late 1960s, in which he played a leading part. “This was a very collective art,” he said on a panel at MoMA in 2007, adding, “It’s not like I had these great ideas that I came up with like magic, or whatever, all by myself.”

Though many of the artists he worked with have gone on to be among the most critically and financially successful artists of the postwar period, Mr. Siegelaub said he had generally not been successful selling their art on a large scale at the time he first showed them. “I was in the research and development department…and I was never in the marketing or sales department,” he said during that panel.

“Well, you tried,” Mr. Weiner cut in, good-naturedly.

“I tried, that’s for sure,” he said, “but I never saw myself as that, and I never even thought people should make money, or could make money…I never thought that was the purpose of it.”

Seth Siegelaub was born in 1941 in the Bronx, the first of four children, served in New York State Air National Guard from 1959 to 1960, and briefly attended Hunter College in New York, before leaving to work as a plumber and part-time gallery assistant at SculptureCenter. He credited artists, particularly Mr. Andre and Mr. Weiner, art dealer Richard Bellamy, who ran the Green Gallery, and art historian and curator Eugene C. Goossen, with helping develop his interest in the latest in contemporary art.

For another seminal show, “March 1969,” Mr. Siegelaub asked 31 artists to produce a work for one day of the month, publishing the text responses of those who replied—many took the form of ephemeral works—in a book. Mr. Barry said he would release two cubic feet of helium into the air. Mr. Weiner piece read: “An object tossed from one country to another.” Claes Oldenburg’s: “Things Colored Red.” For still another show, “July, August, September 1969,” 11 artists created works throughout the world, and the complete exhibition was presented only as a publication. (Primary Information has a nice selection of digital scans of these books on its website.)

In the late 1960s, Mr. Siegelaub was involved with the Art Workers’ Coalition, a group that lobbied for artists’ rights and opposed the Vietnam War. In 1971 he published The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement, a contract he designed with lawyer Robert Projanksy that would pay artists a royalty fee when works were resold (assuming that a dealer and an artist both signed it). In an interview with Frieze earlier this year, the curator recalled that he began the project after hearing Mr. Barry complain about a collector reselling some of his works for a huge profit. His motivation, he said, was “to help level the playing field.”

Mr. Siegelaub left New York and the art world in 1972, moving to Paris to focus on leftist media studies and help build a library on the topic. “I was provoked into doing it by people saying that there was no theory about how the left or progressive movements use the media, despite the fact that there clearly was a history,” he told Frieze. In the 1980s, he devoted himself to assembling a library on the history of textiles. He moved to Amsterdam in 1990.

In a 2000 interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist (whose ongoing Do It project owes a debt to Mr. Siegelaub’s book exhibitions), Mr. Siegelaub explained, in part, why he stopped curating contemporary art. “If one is involved with the art world and you are not an artist but an organizer…it basically means finding young artists who you work with successfully, and then either continuing your successful project with them, or trying to do it again with another group of young artists based on your experiences and especially the contacts you made the first time,” he said. “Having done that once, for me, it didn’t seem interesting to do it again—either then in 1972, and certainly not today.”

Despite venturing beyond art in his 30s, art types remained interested in him, and he periodically appeared on panels or assisted art historians with various research projects. “From time to time I’m called back into the art world to do a service, another tour of duty or something like this, but basically I’ve had very little to do with the art world, and, well, that’s that,” he said at the MoMA panel, commenting that the art world had changed tremendously since he was involved with it—”the size, the amount of galleries, the amount of artists, the psychology of artists making art, the kind of models, sort of from the fashion world and things like this that have been imposed on the creation activity, how the territory of art making for individual artists has been very, very constrained.”

He was also vocal in interviews and writings about his frustration with the way art history is often written. “The determination of quality—who remains, who is forgotten—is very much, well, about power, in a way,” he said. “And I must say I’m quite cynical about that.”

Talking in Artforum last year, on the occasion of a show of his textiles collection at London’s Raven Row gallery, Mr. Siegelaub explained his interest in the subject: “I was intrigued by this specific relationship between beauty and commerce, but I was also struck by the fact that, unlike artmaking, the production of textiles is a social activity—it is always a collective endeavor.”

Though he had mulled trying to help develop an encyclopedic collection of textiles, he said that he quickly realized that would be impossible. “I’ve been under the illusion that somehow it would be possible to have a complete collection of books on the history of textiles, whereas a comprehensive archive of the objects themselves is definitely impossible,” he said in that same interview. “I am very far from accomplishing my goal, and perhaps I never will. It’s something that can be done, however. Most likely by someone who’s crazy and rich enough to really do it.”

He is survived by his longtime partner, Marja Bloem, and three children from previous relationships. (Raven Row has a comprehensive chronology of his career.)

In his Frieze interview from earlier this year, art writer Vivian Sky Rehberg asked, “Do you believe in art, Seth?” He replied:

I believe that art can increase our awareness of the world around us. When I was young and active in the art world, I thought the most interesting art was that which asked questions, which was on the very edge of what might even be considered art. For me, that was the definition of art; it wasn’t about having a painting hanging on the wall in your house.

(Image via MoMA’s website for its 2013 exhibition “‘This Is the Way Your Leverage Lies’: The Seth Siegelaub Papers as Institutional Critique”)

Seth Siegelaub, Pioneering Dealer and Curator of Conceptual Art, Dies at 71