1960s Revisited - Catalog
The 1960s: Other Trajectories
by Peter Frank
The ‘60s aren’t what they used to be. We know these fabled years constitute a decade of rapid and continuous change, but we’re learning that we don’t really know the half of it. In American art, for instance, the decade of Pop Art and Minimalism was also a decade of hard-edge and gestural abstraction, painterly figuration, and eccentricities of many kinds. The decade of New York’s
pre-eminence also saw the emergence—and re-emergence—of other art centers throughout America. A decade dominated by white American males hosted a plethora of women artists, artists of other ethnicities, and artists from other countries—long before Black power, feminism, and other civil and social movements burst on the scene. Art took over America in the 1960s, and in doing so, rode off in every direction.
This exhibition looks at several developments in art—that is, among artists—working in the United States during the 1960s. None of these developments has rated much above a footnote in most standard histories of modern or even contemporary art; at best, they might serve as frameworks for specific painters now lauded as heroes of American art, but as phenomena in their own right, these tendencies have been paid little heed since their heyday. More’s the pity—not simply because so much of what got buried was and remains so engaging and attractive in its own right, but because it gives body to the context of art at a time of dynamic fluctuation. The transition from modernism to post-modernism began in the 1960s, and the complexity of that transition can be so much better understood—actually, felt—by examining the vast range of expression and investigation
comprising that era’s art. Artistic “pluralism” supposedly characterized the 1970s. Well, the singular was already translating into the plural the decade before.
By focusing on abstract approaches, this survey implicitly examines the legacy of abstract expressionism, the dominant mode of postwar American painting that had limped into the 1960s practically spent. We see abstract expressionist practices drive the work of a number of these painters; translate in the hands of others into something recognizable but still new and distinctive; nd be overtly rejected by still other artists who wanted to examine very different aesthetics, and at least a few cases had been examining them for quite a few years. Indeed, several of the artists here were veterans of artistic disputes going back to the 1930s; with the superannuation of abstract expressionism, some of them found themselves adrift, seemingly put out to pasture, while others found themselves re-emerging almost in triumph. But all were active, engaged, committed not just to what they were doing but to the need for even their enemies to be doing it. Art was their belief system, their philosophy and their
religion, their raison d’être; in the ‘60s they found the audience suddenly growing much larger and more curious (thanks in such great part to the romance and controversy abstract expressionism had engendered in the previous decade), and now they could reasonably hope, no matter how radical their ideas or practices, to catch someone’s ear—and eye.
It wasn’t even necessary to work in New York to maintain the sophisticated concerns the nation’s (and now the world’s) art capital cultivated. It was certainly necessary to expose one’s accomplishments in New York, but that, rather than actual residency, was what it took to participate in the contemporary discourse. The abstract expressionists themselves had begun to move out of New York in previous years, the successful ones gravitating to the Hamptons, Woodstock, and other ex-urban locales and those less successful, or more committed to an academic framework, taking positions at universities around the country. Several outlying regions—northern New Mexico, the Pacific Northwest, upper New England—were re-discovered by whole new generations of avant gardists seeking to cultivate their ideas in atmospheres of natural as well as cultural inspiration. And the buzz of native art activity in other urban centers beyond New York grew louder and more confident; even though places like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New Orleans were likely to lose their best and their brightest to New York, those best and brightest maintained close ties with their hometowns, spoke up for their homies in the New York ferment, and often returned home after a few years of fleeting
success and/or enduring obscurity.
Washington may seem an unlikely place for a vital network of artists to emerge, but, both despite and because of the unique nature of our nation’s capital, at least one such network did appear there late in the 1950s. It took the advocacy of the country’s most influential art critic, Clement Greenberg, to put the Washington Color School on the map, but his support of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland in particular proved crucial to the broader recognition of that “school.” In 1965 Greenberg brought Louis and Noland together with Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Paul Reed, and Howard Mehring in a survey mounted at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art that made waves in New York; and other Washington painters such as Leon Berkowitz, Hilton Brown, and James Hilleary were also able to attract attention up the pike with their balanced negotiations of luminous color and fluid or rigid proto-minimalist form.
The Washington painters’ emphasis on color and visual field endeared them to those like Greenberg who saw such an approach as a—the—logical evolution out of abstract expressionism. But their reliance on geometric shapes and compositions betrayed their awareness of the emerging “hard-edge” tendency (a tendency Greenberg tacitly supported), and in fact defined most of them as geometricists. Certain of them even became identified with “op art,” the highly hyped post-Pop phenomenon that zeroed in on perceptual dynamics within a geometric framework. By the mid-1960s such opticality had helped geometry reassert itself forcefully as a credible and available formal language. Older artists devoted to constructivism such as Ilya Bolotowsky and (in New Mexico) Raymond Jonson were now joined by younger talents such as Leon Polk Smith, Ward Jackson, Sidney Wolfson, and Paul Huxley in rendering clearly and precisely defined shapes on canvas, while op artists such as John Goodyear and Roy Colmer took their compositional strategies a step further. Interestingly, as we see in Bolotowsky’s work and that of Lyman Kipp, the geometric style made painting out of sculpture and vice versa.
The gestural approach to abstract painting, a hallmark of abstract expressionism, was in eclipse, but its practitioners proved durable, obstinate, and mutable by turns, refining their original styles with various levels of response to the “new going thing(s).” While Greenberg maintained tight control over the color-field circle around him, more independent-minded individuals such as Vivien Springford, Albert Stadler, and the redoubtable artist-gallerist Betty Parsons engaged the techniques and effects of color field painting—the saturated color areas, the de-emphasis on texture, the mutable contours—in more painterly manners. Other painters such as Mario Garcia, Ralph Rosenborg, Lawrence Calcagno, and (arguably) Beatrice Mandelman hovered similarly near representation, their compositions implying the presence of figure, landscape, or even microscopic life. The echoes of preabstract expressionist experimentation—in particular the “Indian Space Painting” that sought a fusion of geometric and organic form—lingered in the work of Howard Daum, while “orthodox” abstract expressionism endured in the work of such artists as the Chinese-born James Kuo.
The ranks of geometric artists, op artists, color field painters, gestural painters, and artists of all kinds in New York were broadened considerably by influxes of foreign artists who brought their own methods and experiences with them. Of course, many of these émigrés were coming over as students or recent graduates; but just as many settled in New York for extended periods, even taking American citizenship, once they had achieved artistic maturity in their native lands. The Japanese influx, in particular, comprised a profound presence in and among all aspects of the New York art scene. Within a decade of their country’s defeat and devastation, Japanese artists had developed an experimental scene of their own. Enamored of the overseas avant garde, they felt compelled to go to the source of their inspiration. Before the war, that would have been Paris. Afterwards, however, Japan’s new generation, already Americanized by the occupation, gravitated to New York. Reflecting both native cultural leanings and the philosophical mindset(s) of New York’s late modernists— leanings and mindsets that strongly corresponded (in, for example, the influence of Zen)—the Japanese artists who worked in New York at this time reflected local tendencies but re-interpreted them in distinctive ways, bringing notable accents from home. Taro Yamamoto, for instance, practiced abstract expressionism with an austerity that was neither minimalist nor gestural, while Minoru Kawabata practiced hard edge painting with an almost gestural lyricism. Matsumi (“Mike”) Kanemitsu—who had come over earlier than most of his countrymen and had fully integrated into the abstract expressionist scene—evolved a style that bestrode hard edge and color field painting, never fully abandoning the gesturality of his earlier work even once he’d moved to Los Angeles in 1965. Sumiye Okoshi’s and Masatoyo Kishi’s work bespeaks both American color field painting and the theatrical gesturalism of Japanese Gutai, while Rakuko Naito's vibrant black and white composition falls squarely under the Op art rubric and Hisao Hanafusa’s elegant object-painting evinces, but does not truly partake of, the first blush of minimalism.
Art always comes in all shapes and all colors, as it were, and in great centers of artistic activity, art is likely to be practiced quite variously. Even so, the exigencies of art history locate specific tendencies in specific places at specific times, so that, for instance, a painter practicing International-Style miniaturism in late-15th century Florence has been entirely overshadowed by Michelangelo’s early mannerism while one practicing that style in Sienna has not. Who now thinks of the Italian Cubist Mario Sironi or the Belgian Futurist Jules Schmalzigaug? But Schmalzigaug, Sironi, and that poor Florentine miniaturist are all worthy of attention—for more than just their exotic displacement—and, likewise, those American artists who were not Pop artists or minimalists in the 1960s must unfairly swim upstream in our collective memory the same way they had to in the public opinion of their own time. But art history, finally, is no more a history of mere winners than it is of mere objects, and in their idiosyncrasies and anachronisms, their fiercely independent minds and poignantly unfashionable practices, artists such as the ones collected here lend fullness to the art history of their time. They are not extras, nor even bit players in a pageant of highlights, but supporting characters who, separately and together, comprise a rich, varied discourse—a discourse, to be sure, that bristles with contradictions and disjunctures, but is all the more artistic, and all the more human, for that. A few of these figures, in fact, are destined for full paragraphs in future histories. But all are worth a look on their own merits, and on their own merits already belong in the annals of American art. After all, they, too, made the 1960s what it was.
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