High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967-1975
Exhibition curated by Katy Siegel with David Reed
National Academy Museum until April 22
1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, 212 369 4880
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, February 15, 2007 under the title ”Painting when Painting was Dead”
Maybe it is because the word “times” occurs twice in its title that “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-75” achieves such a feeling for period. Even for someone who was a toddler when the experimental abstract painting in this lively, intelligent, informative survey got going—in another continent, to boot—dejà vu seems to waft from the National Academy’s fabric walls. What must this show feel like for people who lived through those years?
This was the era of spray guns and masking tape. So many of these dishevelled yet sparky paintings and paint-based objects have the trippy, hippy look of the years of the flower power movement, civil rights, ecology, and emerging feminism and gay liberation. Even brightly colored works have a limp, tie-dye, impoverished quality. Everything is rough at the edges, made from cheap or recycled materials, informal or provisional in arrangement, sometimes ethnic-looking, other times futuristic, and always at once earnest and nonchalent—in harmony with what one knows (or projects) of the look and feel of bohemia, the city, and youth culture at that time.
The show looks at painting in a truly transitional moment. The medium was under sustained assault from an avant garde that, empowered by the ascendancy of sculpture, installation, performance and film/video, insisted that painting was dead. Of course, hundreds of painters worked experimentally and optimistically through such rhetoric, but there were some determined to be part of the revolution who nonetheless wanted to paint. For them, according to Katy Siegel, the exhibition’s curator (advised by painter David Reed, with whom the idea for this show originated) the radical critique of painting was liberating, “an opportunity, not a pink slip.”
Indeed, the heavy duty insistence on painting’s demise is now seen by defenders of the painters in this show as itself macho, authoritarian, and locked into an earlier aesthetic, which by the late 1960s was an institutionalized revolution. These artists found a space for themselves between the dogmatics of minimal and conceptual art on the one hand and the formalist abstraction championed by the critic Clement Greenberg, on the other. Having their cake and eating it, they wanted to enjoy playing with shape, form, color, and material and feel that they were structurally questioning the language of art in the process.
In terms of inclusiveness and free flow this new painting was obviously a backlash against the prim, austere negations of minimal art, but it would be simplistic to see it as a pendulum swing back towards the defiant gestures of Abstract Expressionism. If there is one artist in the show of whom this might be the case it is Joan Synder, whose painting, “The Storm” (1974) has a rich, romantic mythic sensibility. Generally, however open and loose looking their forms, the artists were interested in upfrontness and process, not in mystery and nebulousness.
The first galleries have the most pictorially conventional canvases of the show. “Pavo” (1968), a large Dan Christensen of nine-by-eleven feet, has overlapping fuzzy circles spray painted in bright colors, while Kenneth Showell’s “Besped” (1967) is a warped grid of spray-painted little squares bent into trapezoids and parallelepipeds. The spray in both paintings is at once illusionist and a literal, fact of process. Jo Baer’s “Speculum” (1970) is a precisionist geometric abstraction. On its front the picture is mostly monochrome, with most of the composition taking place along the deep edges. Ms. Baer had taken on the anti-painting rhetoric of Artforum magazine, which moved to New York from California in 1967, in an influential letter to its editor.
Once the visitor moves to the large second floor gallery, however, order and precision give way to scatter and flop. But still, however limp they have become, grids still predominate. “Put a Name on It Please” (1972), by Alan Shields, a diagonal grid looking at first like a badminton net caught in a gale, is made of cotton belting embellished by strings of bead. Its mix of a structural element from high modernism and almost louche use of cheap and unlikely materials sets the tone for a kind of hippy abstraction. Howardena Pindell’s “Untitled” (1968-70), an open grid of sausage-like rolls of canvas joined by metal grommets, and Louise Fishman’s “Untitled” (1971) of string sewn into strips of canvas, are limpid grids that tease this signifier of order and regularity. For many feminist artists, a use of craft elements like sewing was a self-consciously political gesture, a critique of masculine authority.
And women dominate this show in terms of the most striking and original forms: There is Lynda Benglis with “Blatt” (1969), a floor piece formed of poured pigment and latex that curdled into a free-standing puddle free of any canvas or support. Mary Heilmann’s “The Book of Night” (1970) is a deep-stained black canvas, free of stretcher, that also lies horizontally, in this case with a kink in it on a chest-high pedestal. Dorothea Rockburne’s “Intersection” (1971), a kind of oil sandwich in which thick, viscous black oil is contained within transparent plastic sheeting laid out of the floor. Imprinted on the plastic is, once again, a grid. Carolee Schneemann, a pioneer of performance and feminist art, is represented by a video of her 1967 piece, “Body Collage” (1967) in which she dabbed her naked body in glue and rolled around over bits of paper and fabric. Her inclusion is a provocative statement in a show of painting, an insistence that process, gesture and intention trump product or effect. It is taken as significant that she described herself, in early group shows, as a painter.
Many of the artists in this show have fallen from attention, while others—like Ms. Heilmann and Ms. Rockburne—returned to conventional formats in their mature careers. What also happened is that shortly after the time frame of this exhibition New York witnessed a resurgence of abstract painting. Figures who now dominate that genre such as Bill Jensen, Thomas Nozkowski, Melissa Meyer, Sean Scully, and Mr. Reed himself, all found their feet in the wake of these years of “way out” experiment. There is a clear trade off between radicality and quality in such artists who are more conservative in format but nuanced in painterly achievement. But for sheer permission to play there is a debt to those who scaled the high, hard times.