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BLAM! The explosion of pop, minimalism and performance, 1958-1964.

BLAM! The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism and Performance, 1958-1964

It is possible to view the history of painting in the present century as a sequence of revolutionizing questions of increasing scope. Cubism was a narrower investigation than Abstractionism, since it assumed that painting would remain representational while asking why it must remain tethered to our optical experiences of the visible world. Abstractionism denied representation altogether, but assumed all the conventions of pictorial space. Abstract Expressionism broke the identification between painting and pictorialism by making the act of painting central, with the work itself but a record of fierce interaction between artist and pigment. But even this abrupt reduction of paintings to the energy of their execution assumed all the formal boundaries that segregated painting from sculpture, from dance, from poetry or music or drama. The final revolution sought to erase even those, not to speak of the deeper boundaries between art and philosophy on the one side, and art and life on the other.

"Erase' is too mild a term: "explosion' is more violently apt, and the inspired exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art (until December 2) surveying the crash of barriers breached or broken in the hectic period between 1958 and 1964 is appropriately titled "BLAM!' "BLAM!' is also the title of a painting by Roy Lichtenstein, pivotal in this show, which embodies all the revolutions that preceded it and made it possible by holding them at a distance. It is perceptually equivalent to a real visible object: namely, what could be a panel from any of the standard adventure comics of the era; it is utterly pictorial because it is no longer important not to be; it camouflages painterliness by appearing to be as mechanically produced as its subject; it internalizes the boundary between fine and popular art; and it flaunts the boundary between word and image by presenting the image of a word--"BLAM!'--the violent sound of shell striking plane, sending the pilot spinning from his anguished cockpit. It encapsulates by negative synopsis the history through which the art of our century has defined itself, and stands in defiant liberation from divisions it rejects as arbitrary. It is a perfect emblem of the spirit of its time.

Pop Art drew its energy in part from the fact that it allowed itself everything that had been repudiated as extrinsic to painting by earlier revolutions, in much the same way that triumphant feminists might allow themselves to look "feminine' if it were no longer required to submerge that quality in order to claim their autonomy. From this perspective, Pop would be philosophically equivalent to Minimalist Art--a second category in the Whitney show--which explicitly eliminates what it pleases Pop to tolerate, seeking for a kind of pure, reduced artistic essence through systematic subtraction. Drawing its subtractionist imperative from the history of successive artistic purgations, Minimalism at last arrived at objects--cubes, slabs, planks, poles, metallic squares-- that could finally not be told apart from their industrial counterparts in the real world save with reference to the mere concept of art. But this achieved in Minimalist vocabulary what the Pop artist achieved with Campbell soup cans and Brillo boxes and Tide cartons, the domestic flotsam of commercial reality jostled into the space of art by a kind of conceptual determination. Both Pop and Minimalism were in effect philosophical exercises, for each was groping toward something that had finally to be recognized by philosophy itself: whatever was to distinguish art from reality was not going to be something evident to the eye. Once this was acknowledged, the visual arts became detached from the act of vision, and the way was open to fusion with the other arts. And it became a matter of artistic choice what is to be the relationship between work and eye, and whether the eye is to be treated as part of the mind or as an organ of sense that can be stimulated or violated.

The happening, which is the third of the forms arrayed in the Whitney exhibition, addressed itself to breaching the boundaries between art and life by inviting viewers to participate as agents of artistic modification, enabling art to become, reciprocally, an agent for the modification of life. In a moment admittedly more often hoped for than attained, all esthetic distances were to collapse. Allan Kaprow's original happenings were exciting in part because the insulating conventions of gallery space could no longer be counted on to protect work and viewer from each other, and one entered them with a sense of danger: just to experience the works in the way they demanded required decisions of an order not commonly called for in the moral spaces of museums or theaters. Of course, nothing like this is possible any longer, and the reconstituted happenings at the Whitney are distancing quotations of original environments which the visitor now enters as a tourist, secure in the identities the happenings once attacked, as little in danger of being swamped as the visitors to colonial Williamsburg are of turning into Minutemen.

This is true, I think, even of the spectacular jumble of tires, hundreds and hundreds of them, deployed in the areaway below street level in front of the museum. It re-enacts an environment of 1961 which Kaprow created in the cortile of the Martha Jackson Gallery. Called "Yard,' it was to have made a transcultural reference to the raked gravel gardens of Zen, and in the manner of Zen it was supposed, I imagine, to illuminate through the sudden shock of seeing worn tires in the atmosphere of refined sensibility the art gallery once stood for. The 1984 reconstitution is vastly augmented in size and number, but it cannot resuscitate the shock. Piles of tires, piles of anything, are what people expect to see in proximity to museums these days. The only avenue for serious shock, at least within the limits of moral possibility, would have been for the Whitney to have allowed some of its more famous holdings--its Hoppers and Averys, Gorkys and Mother-wells --to be strewn outside and exposed to the fumes of taxis and buses, or to the tossed butt. We are all prepared to see tires elevated to art, but there is a barrier against seeing paintings demoted to the status commonly occupied by tires. There is a political asymmetry in artistic revolutions, where rude objects clamor for the prerogatives of artistic aristocracy, but aristocrats are seldom flung into alleys or even symbolically junked except by maniacs.

The entire brief period canvassed at the Whitney had, in its own right, some of the properties of its most representative achievements. It was itself a kind of happening, in that no one who entered it knew how it was to come out, and everyone was driven by the most extraordinary optimisms regarding the transformative powers of art. The period began insidiously, under the sullen shadows of Abstract Expressionism, and ended sharply, when everyone became slick and expensive, and the art world became a precinct of the world of high fashion, and the great dealers assumed the role of makeweights in the marketplace of taste. The works here have a tacky urgency, a willed impermanence, which gives the show its air of paradox. For these works were not aimed at museum installation, but were meant to be effective in some way that is at odds with the apparatus of preservation and connoisseurship and constrained presentation that defines the space of even the liveliest museums. The initiating works of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, for example, have the dusty look of memorabilia dragged from the attic. Rauschenberg's legendary combine, in which a lonely tire rings the neck of a stuffed goat, is too fragile now to travel, I was told by Barbara Haskell, to whose superb curatorial enterprise the exhibition is due. There is something grimly comic in the thought of that pretty funny assemblage being kept intact by geriatric measures when it is the destiny of stuffed goats to fall apart. But in a way this is true of almost everything here: in almost every instance ephemerality is given permanence by artificial infusion--a kind of esthetic taxidermy.

The way these works were meant to be effective was the way the political happenings of the later 1960s were meant to be, and one cannot overlook how the spirit of the artworks surfaced in what we refer to as The Sixties (well after Johns and Lichtenstein, Warhol and Oldenburg, Rosenquist and Rauschenberg had become established as cultural monuments) in the forms of protest and confrontation. Politics, it was often enough observed at the time, had become a genre of happening, and protest a mode of theater, and rebellion a style of life. The transformative ambitions of the artists were transmitted, perhaps through the massive publicity these movements received in the popular press, and inherited by the counterculture. And the ragbag thrift-shop look of so many of these works became the costume of political participation in the peace marches and teach-ins, the demonstrations and rock festivals that swept the youth of the world. Much in the way that young people began to "dress for success' and take up positions in the corporate establishment, the prefiguring artworks took on the air of permanence we find among those that made it to the second floor of the Whitney, where visitors wander reverently past crushed automobiles and elaborate rearrangements of shambled furniture.

But here, in suitably temporary quarters on the fourth floor, everything is rowdy and daring and playful and brash. It was a moment of delicious freedom, when the rules of the game became part of the game and everything seemed open. The giant presences of Abstract Expressionism had lost their power to paralyze, and the corporatization of the art world had not yet taken place. The Whitney has given the art world of today a glimpse, shattering in its innocence, of its marvelous, irrecoverable childhood. It did not grow up to what it promised, but the boundaries it trampled deserved, mostly, to be trampled, just as the boundaries assaulted in the 1960s deserved, mostly, to be broken. It is often claimed that artworks offer metaphors for life. What the Whitney has done is to show how a period of art history is a metaphor for social transformation. Its short, boisterous duration is sobering, though it would be nice to believe that the spirit of liberation might live on in society, despite the cautioning rigidities that have overtaken the art world.

There is another perspective under which the exhibit may be pondered: that of the historical counterfactual, which enables us to speculate about what might have become of these artists had the movement not taken place. Rosenquist, and certainly Warhol, were so congruent with the movement that gave them prominence that we cannot imagine an identity for them outside it. Oldenburg would have been a master whichever way art had gone, and Judd might have been. So might Lichtenstein, to judge from two exuberant drawings of 1958, though of Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. I am provoked to this reflection by a haunting, even exquisite portrait collage by Tom Wesselmann, as luminous as an old master. Wesselmann is represented here by later works, irreverent and audacious, incorporating the appurtenances of bathrooms and kitchens. And he went on to paint his variations on the Great American Nude, pink, heavily nippled female forms with neat public triangles, bathing and lounging, like plastic cutouts of the women of Bonnard. They are fine, sassy pieces, but the collage of 1959 is a poem, and it induces a nostalgia for the artist Wesselmann might have become and for the art world in which he might have become it. Of course this might be only a deflected nostalgia for a world in which such an art world would be possible rather than the one to which, considered now as social documents, these works were a collective response.
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Title Annotation:Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Author:Danto, Arthur Coleman
Publication:The Nation
Date:Oct 20, 1984
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