“This is one of my least favorite exhibitions at the Academy…”
I stopped reading because I didn’t want to spoil my first impression. However, what with my contrarian nature, I couldn’t help but wish to contradict the author of the message. I wanted to find something heroic about the New York painters of the late nineteen sixties and mid seventies who forged ahead when the market and the larger culture had declared painting to be dead. So off I went into the formal Academy galleries.
The exhibition “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975” promises to shed some light upon a time in the art world when painters were pushing the boundaries of their craft, opening up new ideas about process, and adopting new technologies such as video art and the resulting performance narratives that evolved out of it. The commonalties across most of the artists’ center around new materials, techniques and processes all resulting in unlikely outcomes. Since painting at the time was dead and buried these painters through caution to the wind, they had nothing to lose. The resulting creations such as Mary Heilmann’s “The Book of Night” extend the role of painting into that of an object. The effect was quiet and less baroque than Anselm Kiefer’s later explorations on the same form but still Heilmann’s book is a potent object and one of the stand-out works on display. Lynda Benglis’s lumpy morass of paint-as-sculpture titled “Blatt” seems comic, strange and an anachronism within the antiquated galleries of the Academy.
In some ways the experimentation and caution thrown to the wind reminds me of the New York art world at another transitional time; namely 1991. It was a time when the market was in a slump, the art world was closing galleries in droves, Soho was dead, neo-expressionism was suspect and yet it was at this same time that many younger artists were pushing the boundaries of what could be art. There was a rapid adoption of new technologies, new MFA Computer art programs were launching, Matthew Barney was breaking new ground with performance and film, identity, and queer politics were raising new questions about representation. Painters were mining graphic design, Japanese animation and a neo-graffiti street culture was beginning to assert it self. Before both of these fertile times the cannon was upheld by heroic and heady ideas about what art was and could be. For the painters in the exhibition their response to their place and time contained an appropriate disdain for the cannon amidst an anarchic counter-cultural revolution. The resulting art seemed to forge ahead tentatively, awkwardly and in spurts of subversion. This generation on the outside looked not for answers but better ways to question. Perhaps that is what we can learn most from them.
Jack Whitten questions what it meant to paint by raking paint across the canvas. The resulting mash up of color is akin to Gerhard Richter’s later abstractions. Lawrence Stafford also pushed painting forward with a peculiar process of spray painting canvas which was bound over a turning drum. The resulting effect looks like the static on television channels that have gone off air, an anachronism in itself these days.
Peter Young’s odd ball “#13” at first seems out of place in the gallery. It is a simple shaped canvas; awkward in its presence, and yet it has a disconcerting home made quality. A quality that is queer the way Robert Gober fashions a sink out of glue and paint and odd bits of unexpected materials.
The biggest challenge in this exhibition however is not the compelling story of painters pushing boundaries; the real challenge is getting past the distractions of the space itself. Much of the work feels out of place, like a bride at a funeral. The oversized paintings hung haphazardly over grandiose architectural details seems sloppy and takes away from the art works’ attempt at boldness. For example an Elizabeth Murray painting while solid on its own merits, looks clunky and awkward hung on a concave wall. And Ron Gorchov’s shaped canvas “Cock Robin” seemed to get lost in a crowded parlor gallery. There were many other examples of how the installation and the architecture competed with the overall narrative.
I left the galleries with a sense of frustration because the opportunity to open a dialogue about how these artist’s in spite of or in response to the market and the cultural climate moved contemporary art forward, was obscured by the competing visual dialogue between the art work and the stodgy architecture. In the end the art on the walls was compelling but the over all effect was a disappointment. Perhaps the curators will consider expanding upon this exhibition in a space that can accommodate more artists in a more compelling manner.
By Andrew Cornell Robinson Written for the
Gay City News
High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975February 15 – April 22, 2007The National Academy Museum1083 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 10128Tel: 212.369.4880 www.nationalacademy.org