On ViewThe Jewish Museum
New York 1962-1964
July 22 – January 8, 2023
“EXHIBITING THE CITY” reads one heading, and indeed this extraordinary exhibition includes, at its beginning, a few works from key exhibitions in New York in 1962 and 1963, feeling remarkably full. The International Exhibition of the New Realists at the Sidney Janis Gallery in October 1962, with pop art and mass media presiding, leads off. Lawrence Alloway’s Six Painters and the Object graced the Guggenheim Museum in March of 1963 and, in Alloway’s words, “[drew] from the communications network and the physical environment of the city.” Dorothy Miller’s Americans 1963 opened in May of that year at the Museum of Modern Art. All three were all about the relation between the artists, their art, and the urban landscape.
Exhaustingly, I need to say what a remarkable experience this is, no matter what one is surrounded by! Take the television set blaring away in the “typical” living room of the epoch: it endures! Just entering was enough to make you nostalgic, even if you hadn’t been alive in those years. The outside walls recreated the gas stations (we called them filling stations) and pawn shops and hot dogs and ice cream stalls, and you longed to walk there in the present like the past, holding someone’s arm, perhaps just for today as in yesterday. Goofy smiles drifted past me on my walker, as I was wanting so much to take cell phone shots of scenes I passed through and among. Hard to put the hand brakes on to hold the phone when of course the chattering visitors sauntered by and around, occasionally with pitying or sympathetic regard: we’ve all been in that situation, or many of us. The few years magnified in this remarkable show manage to condense so many issues of the era in a careful and thoughtful way.
Alan Solomon, who directed the Jewish Museum from 1962–64, welcomed Jasper Johns and also Robert Rauschenberg for their first museum retrospectives. Rauschenberg’s Combines, those assemblages of street trash, found objects, paint, and newspaper were about elements acquiring a new meaning through their association. The artist had been living in New York since 1949 and his Talisman of 1958 with its glass jar on its metal chain and fabric struck me forcefully, its name corresponding to the celebrated French talisman by the Breton painter Paul Sérusier, the primary and guiding image of the Pont-Aven painters and colony, which many of us have greatly loved and continue to. It forms one of my Creative Gatherings: Meeting Places of Modernism (2019) and, in this selection of essays, there appears another more recent talisman: all seem to me part of a vast and yet intimate correspondence.
Extravaganza for certain! It feels like everything everywhere, as full of objects unusual and not. Historic as can be, with book covers and readings by so many New York School of Poets we know—Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard, Ed Sanders, LeRoy Jones (later, Amiri Baraka) curated by Ted Berrigan, so you could sit and listen as long as you like, on a bench for listening: there are places for seeing, hearing, and meandering among the plenitude of occasions for that and more.
Ah, the coffee shops! In one of them, we see and hear a nickelodeon: I could linger and listen. Jane Jacobs famously likened the energy of New York to a dance performed on the sidewalk, “a complex order … composed of movement and change.”
Among challenging competition for the most dwellable-upon labels are the various voices in various languages commenting on it all. Of course, you listen mostly to what interests you, as always, but this time the topics appeared to concentrate on what the strollers-through had remembered of the pre-seen or pre-read. A bit of Joseph Cornell, a bit of John Cage and Black Mountain… Or totally other, as in “Everyone has a therapy bit, especially in this city.” And you could spend all the time you had or could make watching Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown here, or Martha Graham there, with a snatch of Yoko Ono and the much-lamented John Lennon. I’ve always loved Lee Bontecou’s spiral targets with their black centers and their spinning of our minds along with them.
Among the architectural marvels, Louise Nevelson’s Sky Cathedral’s Presence I (1959–62) stands out as rising from the evictions of low-income tenants from the various areas targeted by Robert Moses, including the sculptor’s home in Kips Bay, a brownstone on East 30th Street—the scraps and crates and detritus making up the celebration of this cathedral on a city street.
I lingered long in front of the screen showing Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1962) with its closeups of just about everything imaginable and unimaginable and far more interesting than the programs on the television in the typical American living room which made me unproud to be part of this country—if this was indeed typical of the years 1962–64.
And now having returned to reflect on that enormous experience, I am having a glass of Ouzo, thinking how Greek is some of New York, and reviving that wide-ranging, much encompassing display of living, deep-breathing art. I learned early on not to say “artistic”—like my friend Hedda Sterne saying I am not “Jewish”—I am a Jew. Nothing “ish” about it. I wonder if sometimes we water down in that fashion the things we write about, and resolve to try no “ishness.”