The star show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York right now is a solo exhibition by explosion-happy Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. The show's big centerpiece, snaking all the way up inside the Frank Lloyd Wright spiral, is Seattle Art Museum's Inopportune: Stage One. It looks great in there, and on all the posters and ads for the show.

But wait—the same piece is up at SAM right now. How's that possible? Is the piece editioned?

Last week I ran across this little credit caption under an image of the installation on the Guggenheim's website: "Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Robert M. Arnold, in Honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2006. Exhibition copy installed at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008."

Now hang on.

I'm imagining that the defense for making an "exhibition copy" is that the work is conceptual. Essentially: The art is an idea that can be executed over and over again, rather than an idea that rests in specific materials—in this case, the white Mercurys and Ford Tauruses and rods of exploding light—themselves. The museum's text describing the piece says as much: "The concept of Inopportune: Stage One has been reconfigured..." (emphasis mine).

But if that's the case, if there is no physical original, then why is this one called a "copy"? And why not make exhibition copies for every work in the show, rather than going to the trouble of gathering together originals? (The recently closed New York nonprofit gallery Triple Candie presented the truly radical, post-art take on this idea with its parade of unauthorized retrospectives made entirely of reproductions.)

More likely than artistic motivations are career-based, logistical, and publicity justifications. The artist and the museum probably wanted the spectacular piece (first created at Mass MOCA) to get a New York audience. That's fine, but let's not confuse it with theoretical reasoning. Sol LeWitt, to my great dismay, is dead, and the practice of artists, galleries, and institutions using conceptualism as an all-purpose cover needs to die, too. recommended