Curious Crystal of Unusual Purity
MoMA P.S.1 | June 27 - October 3, 2004
As I’m writing about Curious Crystal of Unusual Purity, Bob Nickas’s latest group show manifesto at P.S.1, WLNY is broadcasting Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), in which the crew of the Enterprise, now middle-aged in Stardate 2286, must time-travel back to San Francisco in 1986 to retrieve a pair of humpback whales, repopulate the species on Earth of the future, and save mankind from an alien whale-seeking probe. As the crew warps time, a montage of rippling water and Greco-Roman busts spins across the screen to represent the paradoxes of time and causality set in motion by their trip. Later on, in San Francisco of the 1980s, Mr. Spock wears a white terrycloth robe and matching headband to cover his Vulcan ears, and is mistaken by the San Franciscans for an acid casualty of the sixties. As I am watching the film and sitting at my desk thinking about the show, I am wondering why some ideas seem like good ones at certain times and not others.
Curious Crystal of Unusual Purity raises questions of cultural time travel. The earliest of the 125 pieces in the show was made in 1960. Most of the work was made in the past three years. There are new works by young artists, new works by older artists, and old works by people who have gone on to do different things. A lot of the new work in the show looks like the older work, or vice-versa. Most of it has something to do stylistically with art and culture of late sixties, but the question of what exactly opens up a time conundrum worthy of Star Trek.
Nickas and co-curator Steve Lafreniere charitably give us two points of reference to deal with this. The first is the show’s title, borrowed from a song by sixties folksinger Bridget St. John. The second is the notion of the wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, a pre-modern collection of scientific, medical, or cultural oddities that olden-days aristocrats would assemble in their homes for the delight of their aristocratic friends. The show fits the bill: there’s lots of mysterious stuff made for occult purposes, things are generally small and intimate rather than big, official, and public, and nothing is organized in the standard contemporary art museum fashion. There are lots of crystalline shapes, pulsing colors, and portentous symbols. Creepy, churchy music emanating from a Matthew Brannon film gives the room an antiquarian incense-and-candles feel. In the absence of a princely host to give a guided tour, one is forced to rifle through the ten-page checklist to match works up with their makers.
This effort yields some rewarding surprises: two psychedelic 1965 paintings by Adrian Piper are a challenge to our understanding of her work. Filmmaker and musicologist Harry Smith’s seventies mandala drawings look forward to contemporary mystics Fred Tomaselli and Steve DiBenedetto. Peter Huttinger and Peter Young are represented by intensely specific paintings that could paradoxically belong anywhere.
All of the work emits a counter-cultural aura, either by referring explicitly to sixties and seventies pop ephemera—album covers, concert posters, science fiction—or simply in the sense of privacy one gets in the room, that the art is speaking in a language that may not be decipherable to everyone. The vector implied by the show is from surrealism through drug culture and on into the peculiar psychedelic revival we are currently witnessing in New York. The curators do a good job of keeping their intention up for grabs. On one hand they are engaged in tracing the path of a generation of artists who have time warped back to different points on culture’s trajectory. But on the other hand, the way the show is set up, its odd overlaps and tight-lipped presentation, keeps us from getting too cozy with our representations of past epochs. B. Wurtz’s 1979 collage sums it up as "I don’t know what to say about 1968," a phrase that should be repeated as a mantra when thinking about collective cultural memory.
The phenomenon of period revivalism has become so normalized in art and music that we tend to accept it uncritically. More than anything else Curious Crystal raises the question why now? Is there an intrinsic, occult link between 1968 and 2004 that makes the reemergence of these tropes specific to this historical moment, or could artists just as well be making things that look like, for instance, neo-geo artworks? Is it the artists in the show or the demands of the art market that are rewriting history here?
Depending on which version of the relationship of culture to history one subscribes to, retro is either a symptom of something or a productive force. It can be a very powerful gesture to take an idea from the past and apply it to the present. Often the job of the artist is to sift through discarded material and decide what’s useful and worth saving, like traveling back in time to rescue a humpback whale from extinction in the future. But it can also be an end in itself, and an excuse to simply rearrange signs with meanings that have long since been decided. Modernism, with its fantasy of a radically new artwork freed from the burden of historical tradition, still makes us suspicious about what innovation is supposed to look like. I don’t know what to say about 2004.