For its first exhibition at Artists Space in 1982, the artists collective Group Material filled Gallery 207 with an installation of furniture, flags, banners, posters, and paintings – objects that landed at various points on the spectrum from recognizable art objects to disposable media and political paraphernalia. Included in the exhibition were works by James Brown, Sharon Hunt, Conrad Atkinson, Dorothy Kohn, the FSLN of Nicaragua, Futura 2000, and Tim Rollins, and six children from the South Bronx. The participating artists created individual responses to a list of 31 words that where then displayed on the exhibition postcard.
The exhibition title’s reference to the British academic Raymond Williams calls to mind that author’s seminal work, Keywords (1978), in which he approaches the etymology of particular words - “art,” “bureaucracy,” “culture,” and “work,” for example – from a cultural perspective, revealing the ways in which culture influences and complicates semantic meaning. The title of the exhibition, Primer, played with the idea of ambiguous etymology with a double meaning of its own, as a simultaneous reference to both a preparatory coat of paint as well as a textbook for learning to read. The installation worked as a primer in both senses: as a presentation of objects just on the edge of being artworks, and also as a semi-controlled experiment in understanding how subjective interpretation obfuscates the most basic components of language.
From its inception in 1979, Group Material had operated out of a storefront space on East 13th St., New York, and this exhibition at Artists Space marked the start of an experimental transition towards collaborating with more institutional venues. In a statement on his involvement with Artists Space as part its 25th anniversary publication, 5000 Artists Return to Artists Space: 25 Years, Group Material founding member Tim Rollins recalled, “We tried to create an alternative artists’ space within the context of Artists Space.”