When New York Ruled the World

This is where I came in. A spectacular historical show of art and documentation, “New York: 1962-1964”, at the Jewish Museum, chronicles the exact years of my tattered arrival, from the Midwest, as an ambitious poet, a journalism jobber, and a tyro-artificial nut. The boisterous poetry scene of the Lower East Side of the time drew me into the thriving but not-yet-oligarchic art world. Artists, writers, dealers, patrons and intellectuals of all kinds, alert to sweeping changes in the world at large, shrugged their shoulders at parties far more stimulating than those of my second-generation New York School colleague.

It was an era of season-to-season – sometimes almost monthly or weekly – advancements in painting, sculpture, photography, dance, music, design, fashion and such hybrid high jinks as ‘happenings’. The exhibition also honors poetry by showing some of the scruffy, mostly stencilled little magazines that agitated in verse for the vernacular, anchored by a copy of Frank O’Hara’s definitive book, “Lunch Poems” (1964), and by featured readings . My favorites have always been Ron Padgett and the late, extraordinarily laconic artist-poet Joe Brainard, both from Oklahoma.

With pop art and the burgeoning minimalism, New York artists turned the tables on the solemn histrionic abstract expressionism that had established our city as the new wheelhouse of creative origin worldwide. Instrumental for the moment was a brilliant critic and curator, Alan Solomon, who died prematurely, at the age of forty-nine, in 1970. As director of the Jewish Museum during the years listed in this exhibition, he consolidated dubbed ‘The New Art’ , with the first museum retrospectives of the pioneers Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and the elevating of new pop phenomena such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist in combination with aggressively large-scale, radically formalistic abstract painters such as Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland. Solomon hosted the American Exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1964, where Rauschenberg received the Grand Prize for Painting, a coup that confirmed New York’s rise. If you weren’t there, you suddenly ran the risk of appearing provincial.

Poor Paris, where I spent most of a disillusioning year, from 1964 to 1965, recovered slowly from a tantrum of (to use the proper expression) lèse-majesté. As late as 1983, a prominent book by French-born art historian Serge Guilbaut, “How New York Stole the Idea of ​​Modern Art,” exposed the truth that after World War II, “the idea” was up for grabs. (Finder Keepers.) Guilbaut attributed the transatlantic theft to conspiratorial interventions by the US government, some agencies of which certainly viewed American expressive freedom as a soft weapon in the Cold War and supported its exposure abroad, sometimes covertly. That’s accurate enough as far as it goes, but it was just one of many converging conditions.

Artists and guests at the Jewish Museum’s 1963 retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg’s work, photographed in front of the artist’s ‘Barge’ from 1962-63. Standing, from left: Sherman Drexler, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Lippold, Merce Cunningham, Robert Murray, Peter Agostini, Edward Higgins, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, Perle Fine, Alfred Jensen, Ray Parker, Friedel Dzubas, Ernst Van Leyden, Andy Warhol Marisol, James Rosenquist, John Chamberlain and George Segal. Kneeling, from left: Jon Schueler, Arman, David Slivka, Alfred Leslie, Tania, Frederick Kiesler, Lee Bontecou, ​​Isamu Noguchi, Salvatore Scarpitta, and Allan Kaprow.Photo courtesy of the Jewish Museum / Artwork © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / ARS

In reality, New York rainmakers like Solomon, the quick-witted dealer Sidney Janis, and the European-emigration power couple Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend—whose split in 1959 resulted in separate galleries (one in Manhattan, one in Paris) exuding the reign of their bold and demanding, complementary tastes – not needing cloaks or daggers to create art that made each decisive case in itself. Open-minded young Germans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Latin Americans, Asians and even certain French artists were electrified. An influx of foreign talents to New York, which happened to have started during wartime, grew into an invasion. Some, like Bulgarian-born Christo and his French wife, Jeanne-Claude, became stars. Others encountered heavy sledding. In 1973, after fifteen eventful but lean years, the sensual, often eco-friendly Japanese sculptor Yayoi Kusama retired to her homeland and began an ongoing rise to international fame.

“New York: 1962-1964” was conceived by the world-renowned Italian critic Germano Celant, before his death, in 2020, as a sampler of exemplary works surrounded by pictorial and written evidence of coinciding political and social contingencies. A team of curators from the Jewish Museum, along with Celant’s studio, has pushed through its eclectic plan. Civil rights campaigns, the Sexual Revolution, the emerging second wave feminism, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK, the premonition of disaster in Vietnam, and much more, ripped from the headlines of that period, are letting their pressure to feel. (I might have thought I was done with tears at Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, but a wall-to-wall projection of it in the show proved otherwise.) The global context rhymes with energy, if not in direct connection with a rebellious avant-gardism in New York that, though rarely polemical (art for art’s sake remained a persistent ideal), rejected modernist detachment in order to engage with living reality. As Solomon noted, “TV commercials, comics, hot dog stands, billboards, junkyards, burger joints, used car lots, jukeboxes, slot machines, and grocery stores,” which “probably channel most of the aesthetic experience for 99 percent of Americans,” became regnant almost overnight.

Symbolic of this, the show features items from “The Store” (December 1961), by the recently deceased and lamented Claes Oldenburg: a pop-up storefront emporium, on East Second Street, of consumer goods rendered in lumpy plaster and slapdash paint. Poetized by futility, the work bridges gee-whiz delight and sardonic irony, while at the same time it seems to brag and lament the virulently commercialized culture that crowns and exacerbates America’s top power, prosperity and, frankly, hubris. I have to admit, now that I think about it, I have a false memory of personally seeing “The Store” and some of Solomon’s rousing exhibitions. I was far too disorganized, even as I absorbed the frenzy of that period—soundtracked by Bob Dylan and Motown—first vicariously and then through a burgeoning career I could never have imagined.

The eruptive early 1960s launched many people on all kinds of trajectories. After a few intrigues, some quickly flared up or stopped, suggesting to me a theory, which I kept to myself, of temporary significance in art: get it while it’s hot or miss it forever, at the expense of your sophistication. Others, on the fringes of fame, balked at unduly late recognition, as evidenced in this show by the achievements of the Spiral Group, a cadre of black artists who banded together in 1963 and were led along different but equally great stylistic tracks by the populist collage specialist Romare Bearden and the extraordinarily versatile abstractionist Norman Lewis. The group gained some notoriety in the art world, but it was fleeting. Meanwhile, few women in those days got what they deserved, which should have come to them afterwards. New to me is a garish relief painting, from 1963, by the unknown Marjorie Strider, of a glamor girl munching on a huge red radish, which could serve as an icon of pop gaiety and sexual brutality, combined with proto-feminist annoyance.

The show’s strengths include performances by dance revolutionary Merce Cunningham; photos of the unstoppable live-action provocateur Carolee Schneemann, who loved to romp naked with a strange ennobling effect; and the orgiastic, often officially censored film “Flaming Creatures” (1963), by Jack Smith. The latter signaled a seething gay underground that Susan Sontag pointed out the following year in her in-depth essay ‘Notes on ‘Camp.’ Aside from such highlights, at first glance I was annoyed by the surrounding abundance of non-art-historical matter that I already knew very well. Of course, I’d been present at the rush of events, consuming newspapers (there were at least seven daily newspapers in Manhattan at the time) and television (in black and white, matching Walter Cronkiet’s fatherly charisma, which I miss so much).

I imagine, and very much hope, that numerous teen school groups will visit the show and be introduced to a timeline that lays the groundwork for worldly and creative developments, captivating or disturbing or both at once, over the ensuing six decades. Personally, the memory of the chaos of my existence in the early 1920s makes me nostalgic for much of it. But I urge you young (almost everyone these days, relative to me) to explore the exhibit and imagine what experiencing the unbridled stormy weather it conjures up would have been like for you.

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