On ViewThe Jewish Museum
New York: 1962–1964
July 22, 2022 – January 8, 2023
Don’t be fooled by the tight, three-year focus: this show is so dense, so multifarious that understanding what is present and figuring out what might be missing is virtually impossible. The intention, however, is clear. During the 1960s, The Jewish Museum, under the leadership of Alan Solomon (1920–1970) from 1962 to 1964, played a major role in introducing new art in a city fast becoming a global art market. He engineered major surveys of Robert Rauschenberg in 1963 and Jasper Johns in 1964, as well as blockbuster shows like Towards a New Abstraction (1963) and Black and White (1964). In doing so he redefined the mission of all museums: no longer temples of tradition, museums instead would aspire to define actuality. Following the precepts of New Journalism, another product of the sixties, museums were not just in the news—they were making news.
Conceived by Germano Celant (felled by COVID-19 in 2020) and executed by his studio, 1962–1964 is a synchronic view of what was happening in the New York art world and in the world at large during those three years. As headstrong and unrestrained as the sixties themselves, the show covers so much ground it can only be fully appreciated after multiple visits.
The historical context now seems as remote as the Trojan War. Fidel Castro’s victory in January 1959 led to the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, when Cuban exiles sought to overthrow Castro with U.S. aid. This assistance never materialized, and President Kennedy had to appease the survivors with promises and false hopes. His speech is incorporated into the show. That failure led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when Soviet leader Nicolai Khrushchev installed and then withdrew intercontinental missiles on the island. World War III was narrowly averted. The East German government sealed off East Berlin in 1961, and at home, Malcom X pushed for militant Black resistance while Martin Luther King advocated nonviolence. The show also includes videos of both Black leaders. In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved the oral contraceptive known as “the pill,” and the sexual revolution was underway. President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and then the Tonkin Gulf incident of 1964 enabled President Johnson to send thousands of troops to South Vietnam. Try bearing all that in mind during your visit.
1962–1964 perfectly mirrors New York, in the early sixties, when it was still possible to be poor here and live the artist’s life. With Duchamp’s “readymades” in mind, artists could feel free to make use of whatever detritus they encountered. Robert Rauschenberg is the perfect example: his “combines” here are collages gone mad; he recycles trash, turning banal material into art. His paintings, also collages, simultaneously fuse many subjects and myriad materials. And he delved into performance as well! That he is prominently featured here is natural, though his presence overshadows that of Andy Warhol or Jasper Johns, whose contributions to the new artistic spirit were just as consequential.
But not all artists of the moment were bricoleurs. In 1961, Claes Oldenburg subverted the conventional art gallery by opening The Store, where he displayed in a storefront deliberately crude, outsized plaster copies of ordinary objects like food or clothing. Included here are a poster for the show, written partially in Spanish, and Braselette (1961): intimate apparel made grotesque. The materials and the subjects were commonplace, but the results defined Pop Art’s fascination with artmaking as a defamiliarization of the commonplace (pies, soup cans). Marisol’s Self-Portrait (1961–62) takes that grotesque humor in a different direction. It is a sculptural group comprised of seven heads and six legs, as if to say the artist has many personalities, some male, some female. The transition from parody to overt social criticism takes place here in works by Black artists denouncing racism. Jack Whitten’s astounding Birmingham (1964) is a collage at the center of which is a newspaper picture of a Black man being attacked by a police dog. Surrounding that image is a black field with a hole around the photo, as if a bullet had blasted it.
Other artists included here set aside social criticism and instead focus on formal matters. Lee Bontecou’s 1959 wall piece, made of fabric stretched over a steel frame, is like the lair of some dangerous animal. Startlingly new then, it is just as striking today. The same can be said of two large-scale paintings by Kenneth Noland: Spread (1958), a brilliant enactment of Helen Frankenthaler’s “soak-stain” technique and Tropical Zone (1964), shown at the 1964 Venice Biennale and an outstanding example of Op Art. Minimalism, the last word in art-for-art’s sake, is generously represented, with large sculptures by Donald Judd and Anne Truitt. We also encounter a small but stunning Agnes Martin, Little Sister (1962), studded with brass nails. Yayoi Kusama’s sculpture Chair (1962) delightfully pokes holes in the high seriousness of such self-reflexive art: it appears to be made of myriad penises inviting us to sit on them.
1962–1964 manages to encapsulate the artistic explosion taking place in New York in the early sixties in art, in dance, and in poetry. Even comics are represented here by a 1963 copy of Mad Magazine, a humor magazine that began life as a comic book illustrated by Will Elder, one of the most imaginative caricaturists of the last century.
Don’t miss this show.