Sunday, October 1st, 2006

High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967-1975

The exhibition, curated by Katy Siegel with David Reed, was later seen at the National Academy Museum, New York

Weatherspoon Art Museum
Greensboro, North Carolina

August 6 to October 15, 2006

Dan Christensen Pavo 1968 acrylic spray paint on canvas, 108 x 132 inches Courtesy of the artist.
Dan Christensen, Pavo 1968 acrylic spray paint on canvas, 108 x 132 inches Courtesy of the artist.

Recently the art world has been much concerned with its own recent history. “The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984,” organized by the Grey Art Gallery, 2006, told part of that story, displaying Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and a number of other influential figures who turned away from painting. “High Times Hard Times: New York Painting 1967- 1975” tells another part of the history, showing artists who tried to keep painting alive.

Like the art world at large, they rejected Clement Greenberg’s ways of thinking. Most were Americans, but some distinguished visitors, Blinky Palermo and Kayoi Kusama for example, passed through this New York art world. Some of these artists worked with other media. Lynda Benglis and Carolee Schneemann did video while Mel Bochner and Dorothea Rockburne made installations. Others were using traditional materials in untraditional ways. Alan Shields created painted sculpture constructions; Harmony Hammond did fabric and acrylic constructions on the floor; Howardena Pindell and Louse Fishman constructed hanging grids; and Lynda Benglis poured paint on the floor. Artists tried to keep painting alive by using spray paint (Dan Christensen), by laying the canvas on the floor (Mary Heilmann), or by employing big mounds of paint (Guy Goodwin). Jo Baer and Jane Kaufman were minimalists; Michel Venezia and Lawrence Stafford played with optical effects; and Ron Gorchov, Mary Heilman, Ralph Humphrey, and Elizabeth Murray, who went on to have distinguished careers, were finding their styles. What perhaps unified this community was their desire to distinguish themselves from the clean designs of Greenberg’s color field painters. Their shared ambition, it might be argued, was to return to the era of Abstract Expressionism when, after all, painting was the dominant medium.

This exhibition interested me greatly, because when I started writing art criticism just a few years after this period, I too focused on abstract painting. I got to know some of these artists, and saw their paintings. And then in the 1980s I read (and participated in) the debates about whether painting remained viable. The catalogue gathers a great deal of interesting sociological material. I hadn’t known, for example, that four gifted black artists – Al Loving, Joe Overstreet, Howardena Pindell and Jack Whitten— were painting abstractly in this period. Nor was I aware of the range of women’s art presented in this exhibit. It was hard then to be an abstract painter, especially if you were female or black.

A great deal of this art is fascinating, at least to me, but in the end this style of abstraction didn’t have carrying power. The most important American who belongs with this group, Thomas Nozkowski, is not in the exhibition. And, to my surprise, David Reed, who advised the curator Katy Siegel and contributed an evocative essay to the catalogue, did not include his own early art. Some of the artists on show went on to have distinguished careers, but in the end, the interests of the art world moved elsewhere. And so now when the terms of debate have shifted so dramatically, it’s hard to recapture the sense of this moment when the attacks on painting were so ferocious.

What did in painting, Robert Pincus-Witten suggests in his catalogue essay, was October. As I see it, the situation is different. There is a lot of fascinating art on show, but nothing I would want to take home. Many of the artists in this show were immensely talented, but in the end none of them are as significant as their immediate precursors, or the Abstract Expressionists. In the end, then, painting survived, but not in the hands of the artists in this exhibition.

The exhibition will be on show at the National Academy Museum, New York, February 15-April 22, 2007