Thursday, January 7th, 2010

1969 at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

October 25, 2009 – April 5, 2010
22-25 Jackson Avenue, at the intersection of 46th Avenue
Long Island City, (718) 784-2084

R.L. Haeberle, Q. And Babies? A. And Babies 1970. Offset lithograph, 25 x 38 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Published by the Art Workers’ Coalition
R.L. Haeberle, Q. And Babies? A. And Babies 1970. Offset lithograph, 25 x 38 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Published by the Art Workers’ Coalition

The year 1969, subject of a current exhibition spanning the entire second floor at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, provides a compelling starting point for examining artistic production and contemplation, then versus now. With every work dating from the year in question, minus a few select contemporary works by younger, emerging artists, the show serves as a kind of thermometer for the vast range of avant-garde thought and practice emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nearly every work comes straight from the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, of which P.S.1 is an affiliate, revealing patterns of acquisition that mark an institution both ahead of its time and flawed.  The show was organized by Neville Wakefield, P.S.1 Senior Curatorial Advisor; Michelle Elligott, MoMA Archivist; and Eva Respini, MoMA Associate Curator of Photography

1969 counters the surface, buoyant stance on artistic practice exemplified in the Whitney’s 2008 ‘Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era.’ The tone of 1969 is of a darker, more restrained hue, reflecting not just the instability and turmoil of that year, but the marked change in what was considered avant-garde—absence of color, de-materialization of the art object, an ever-closer merging of art and life. Throughout the show we are taken on a journey through the predominant narrative of 1960s art history, as told by the institution that has dictated modern art as we know it. As a result, it is unsurprising that female and black artists are under-represented—particularly absent are Eva Hesse, Adrian Piper, and the late Nancy Spero.

Much of the work grapples with the then still-dominant narrative of minimal art—a Carl Andre floor piece and a Judd brass and plexiglas box are among the logical choices that open the exhibition. Richard Serra’s “Cutting Device: Base Plate Measure” illustrates the increasing significance of process, spreading the artist’s signature mediums of lead, wood, stone, and steel in raw form out on the floor. The late 1960s also witnessed the radical realization that art can be something quite apart from object, utilizing everything from the body to the earth as site. Performance, photography, and video emerged and increased in prominence, rapidly becoming the preeminent form of avant-garde expression. Several seminal video works by Bruce Nauman are represented, such as the inverted film Pacing Upside Down (all works 1969), in which the artist paces rapidly around the perimeter of a room with a square drawn in the center of the floor. Other video works, including Walter De Maria’s stunning Hardcore, shot in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, attest to the experimental and enthusiastic approach to video by artists who were primarily painters or sculptors.

1969 examines MoMA’s collecting history at a critical moment in the museum’s own history, a period fraught with the tension between institutional responsibility and the revolutionary, leftist politics embraced by many of the artists it engaged with. The curators have included seminal works like the Art Workers Coalition poster “Q: And Babies? A: And Babies,” which exemplifies the controversial and revealing fact that museums like MoMA are indeed ideological spaces, hardly removed from political, social, or economic issues. Archival documentation from the Guerilla Art Action Group, which removed Malevich’s “White on White” from MoMA’s walls and replaced it with a revolutionary manifesto, is included in a glass case nearby, as if to strangely pacify and domesticate the radical iconoclasm represented in these sheets of paper. Such actions show the engagement of artists such as Jon Hendricks (now, ironically, working closely with MoMA on the recent acquisition of Fluxus material) with institutional critique and the breaking down of barriers between art and politics. Additionally, the curators provide archival images and original exhibition catalogues from various groundbreaking exhibitions of the time, proving that 1969 was a historical moment for many other institutions of art worldwide—Harald Szeeman’s “When Attitudes Become Form: Live in Your Head” at the Kunsthalle Bern, and the Whitney’s “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” are among those catalogues displayed.

Mel Bochner, Theory of Painting 1969-1970. Blue spray paint on newspaper on floor, vinyl on wall, size determined by installation. Collection: Museum of Modern Art, New York, photo by James Ewing
Mel Bochner, Theory of Painting 1969-1970. Blue spray paint on newspaper on floor, vinyl on wall, size determined by installation. Collection: Museum of Modern Art, New York, photo by James Ewing

Mel Bochner’s thought-provoking “Theory of Painting,” in its debut at P.S.1/MoMA, is an installation of wall text, spray paint, and newspaper that conflates past and present, painting and installation. It both negates and depends on material specificity, while employing the “instructional” text often found in Conceptual art. Directly opposite to this train of thought are the environmental and spatially-motivated SoCal artists like Bob Irwin, who are represented in the gallery-within-a-gallery installation “Five Recent Acquisitions” with original text by MoMA curator Kynaston McShine. Besides getting a refreshing idea for what the museum was actually collecting in 1969, we are treated to these artists’ sensuous, luminous play with color and illusion.

The work of black and white photographers like Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand, Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz represent one of the most visually compelling and culturally resonant sections of the show. The selected photographs apply a sober, coolly removed perspective and an exquisite formal sensibility to a pivotal moment of cultural change in this country. Their influence was not just on subsequent photographers, but, on painters and Conceptual artists who would see American terrain and portraiture in a new light, from Ruscha and the Bechers, to Richter and Gursky.

1969 provides us with important reminders of how things evolved to the present moment. So many of the artists represented here have become textbook figures, to the point that we often forget how radical they were in their historic context. It was productive that P.S.1 commissioned several contemporary artists to interpret and engage with this context, although the results are mixed. Hank Willis Thomas’s boldly-colored window screens provide one of the sole references to African American culture and civil rights, yet they fade into the background in the presence of important 1960s work. The brilliant, if chaotic, collective Bruce High Quality Foundation offers “portable museums” placed intermittently around the galleries, commenting on the agendas hidden behind museum walls that have persisted since far before 1969. The exhibition succeeds in jumpstarting a renewed reverence for the 1960s avant-garde, but there needs to be more at stake here. 2009, and now 2010, are different years, in a different century, and no less fraught in many ways. Some sense of urgency seems nonetheless to leak from this exhibition, whether intended by the curators or not, and the contemporary art world should take note.