When ‘New Art’ Made New York the Culture Capital

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After I was a child within the early Sixties, my Eisenhower-Republican physician-father all the time had the newest copies of his favored subscription publications on his residence workplace desk: Time, Life, the Journal of the American Medical Affiliation, and Mad Journal.

To me, Time and Life pegged him an engaged citizen; JAMA, as a conscientious skilled. However Mad? With its Alfred E. Neuman mascot and anarchic, sacred cow-skewering humor? It signaled some entire different sort of reader, one with a style for cultural weirdness akin to the one I used to be growing.

That style ran via the early ’60s, a manic period and a hinge second between the Chilly Warfare and Vietnam, Civil Rights and Black Energy, repression and liberation; beatnik and hippie; Ab-Ex and Pop. It’s the period documented within the good, split-level present known as “New York: 1962-1964” on the Jewish Museum, an establishment which, we be taught, performed a major position within the cultural shifts.

This survey of near 300 artworks and ephemera, in a suave design by Selldorf Architects, begins by placing us smack in the midst of downtown Manhattan with a mural-size photograph of foot visitors on West eighth Avenue in Greenwich Village. With a neon liquor-store signal put in overhead and a soundtrack of city static, you’ve received a traditional, could-be-anytime New York Metropolis scene.

It turns into era-specific within the first gallery with a choice of pictures by the early ’60s pavement prowlers: Diane Arbus on town’s waterfront, Lou Bernstein on the Bowery, Leonard Freed in Harlem, Frederick Kelly on the subway, and Garry Winogrand on the Central Park Zoo. There’s a soundtrack right here too, emanating from a classic jukebox that includes a choice of interval cuts, and what an upstart second in pop music this was: Bob Dylan, Chubby Checker, John Coltrane, the Shangri-Las.

A brand new irregular in artwork begins right here too. Just some years earlier, new artwork in New York nonetheless meant Summary Expressionism: brushy, drippy, spattery portray, epic in scale, operatic in pitch. However that’s not what’s right here.

Within the middle of the gallery we see a thin, tilting scarecrow of a sculpture fabricated from development website scraps by a 20-something artist named Mark di Suvero. On the wall behind it hangs a hyper-realistic close-up portray, by Harold Stevenson, of a single staring eye. A shrine-like area of interest close by frames a roughly hand-molded, plaster-and-paint reduction of female underwear by a younger Claes Oldenburg.

All three artists operated exterior the Ab-Ex world. Stevenson (1929-2018) was a good friend of one other younger realist, Andy Warhol, and an early Manufacturing unit habitué. Oldenburg, who died this month at 93, was taking his pictures — sneakers, sandwiches, road indicators — from issues in his East Village neighborhood. Di Suvero, a part of a brand new loft-dwelling technology, lived far downtown within the Wall Avenue space, the place he scoured the streets for supplies at night time.

And never removed from his South Avenue Seaport studio, at Coenties Slip, was a small community of artists who had, for motive each of financial necessity and self-definition, distanced themselves from the artwork institution. These outliers included Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist and Lenore Tawney, and, forming a group of their very own close by, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. All are represented within the present, Johns and Rauschenberg extensively. And all have been as totally different from the one another as they have been from the dominant kinds of their day.

It wasn’t lengthy earlier than uptown got here knocking, with the Jewish Museum heading the institutional pack. A brand new director, Alan Solomon, arrived in 1962 decided to make the museum a groundbreaker in introducing what he known as “the new art,” and he didn’t waste a minute.

In 1963, he gave Rauschenberg his first retrospective. The next yr, he did the same for Jasper Johns. Additionally in 1964, on fee from the USA authorities, he took a considerable group present of younger American artists to the Venice Biennale and there scored successful that tipped the artwork world energy stability from Europe to New York.

The Jewish Museum might simply have packaged “New York: 1962-1964” as a small, tight institutional story. As an alternative, it makes the story a part of a lot bigger one, with an expansive view to be credited to its authentic organizer, the Italian curator Germano Celant, who died from problems of Covid in 2020. (The exhibition is billed as a collaboration between his studio and a Jewish Museum staff that features Claudia Gould, director; Darsie Alexander, chief curator; Sam Sackeroff, affiliate curator; and Kristina Parsons, curatorial assistant.)

The bigger historical past, multidisciplinary and far of it grassroots political, unfolds chronologically on the present’s second ground. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Disaster and the suicide of Marilyn Monroe, in several methods and to totally different levels, shook up the nation. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a lifted-up second, and the present provides it, and the civil rights motion itself, spacious consideration, via archival supplies and work produced by artists and collectives — the Spiral group, the Kamoinge Workshop — impressed by the motion.

Then, just some months later, the nation skilled a head-on psychic crash with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And right here the predigital widespread press turns into the chief expressive voice in gallery shows of newspapers, journal covers and a video clip of Walter Cronkite’s choked-up, on-air announcement of the president’s loss of life.

By means of all of it, a lot of Solomon’s “new art” was on the job, plugged into the manic nationwide temper. The present ends with an prolonged shout-out to the curator via documentation of the 1964 Venice Biennale triumph, when Rauschenberg turned the primary American to win its grand prize, the Golden Lion, in portray. In reality, within the context of “New York: 1962-1964,” the Venice occasion feels anti-climactic. It’s the audacity of a lot of the artwork that preceded it, and the political points that this work brings to the fore, that retains you trying and pondering.

Solomon’s Venice group present — meant, he mentioned, to “impress Europeans with the diversity of American art” — had no ladies, however Celant’s contains a number of. Materially wealthy assemblages by Nancy Grossman and Carolee Schneemann seen listed here are extra attention-grabbing to take a look at and take into consideration than nearly something round them. (Schneemann needed to wait many years for her personal Venice second; she gained the Biennale’s Golden Lion for lifetime achievement in 2017.)

And in an exhibition of what might be taken as, amongst many different issues, a mini-survey of the rise of Pop Artwork, the only most dynamic Pop picture is Marjorie Strider’s huge, daring “Girl with Radish.” The reduction portray initially appeared in a 1964 Tempo Gallery exhibition known as “The First International Girlie Show” which, in keeping with the warped irony that has all the time formed the market, had work by solely two ladies, Strider and Rosalyn Drexler, amongst its ten artists. (Clearly intent on righting this stability, Celant additionally included the Drexler piece, an antic self-portrait and, in different sections of the present, works by Lee Bontecou, Chryssa, Sally Hazelet Drummond, Martha Edelheit, Could Stevens and Marisol Escobar.)

Lastly, it’s value noting — the museum barely does — that in a pre-Stonewall period when having non-heterosexual intercourse might get you beat-up, arrested or killed, the “new art” world had a dense homosexual inhabitants. Proof of it’s right here, within the Coenties Slip crowd, in Johns and Rauschenberg, in Stevenson and, in fact, Warhol. John Cage and Merce Cunningham, in a bit of the present dedicated to experimental dance, will be counted in, as can the likes of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, whose voices ring out from recordings of avant-garde poetry.

After which there’s the good Jack Smith and his film “Flaming Creatures” (1963), by which a bevy of nonbinary our bodies, some clothed, some not, orgiastically tumble and swirl to the music of High-40 radio hits. It’s pure, daft poetry. And it received the filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas hauled up on obscenity charges when he screened it in March 1964, at a time when town was frantically attempting to wash up its act upfront of a World’s Truthful that may function, amongst different edifying entertainments, Michelangelo’s revered “Pietà,” imported from the Vatican.

Michelangelo. Jack Smith. Queer our bodies. “Pietà.” Artwork in New York within the early Sixties made for a heady combine. Culturally, we have been perched on the sting of one thing and leaning ahead. And a quick flip via the present’s catalog, an illustrated three-year timeline edited by Celant and designed by Michael Rock, provides a way of a bigger — nationwide, international — teetering situation.

Right here’s a shot of Jacqueline Kennedy main her televised White Home tour, and one of many segregationist George Wallace blocking entrance to the College of Alabama. There’s Martin Luther King Jr. speaking civil rights with Lyndon Johnson within the Oval Workplace; and there’s the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc self-incinerating in Saigon to protest American intervention in South Vietnam. Right here’s a studio shot of the “Leave It To Beaver” tv household; right here’s a blurry clip of two guys kissing in a Warhol movie.

Most of those pictures appeared at onetime or one other in widespread magazines. I don’t know what my father might need thought coming throughout them in Time or Life. However his devotion to Mad makes complete sense.


New York: 1962-1964

July 22 via Jan. 8, 2023 on the Jewish Museum, 1109 fifth Ave at 92nd Avenue, Manhattan; 212-423-3200, jewishmuseum.org.

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