When I was a child in the early 1960s, my Republican physician father Eisenhower always had the last copies of his favorite subscription publications on his home desk: Time, Life, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the magazine mad.
For me, Time and Life connect him to a committed citizen; JAMA, as a conscientious professional. But crazy? With its mascot Alfred E. Neuman and its anarchic and sacred cow-skewer humor? It signaled a whole different type of reader, a reader with a taste for cultural weirdness similar to the one I was developing.
This taste ran through the early 1960s, a manic era and pivotal moment between the Cold War and Vietnam, Civil Rights and Black Power, repression and liberation; beatnik and hippie; Ab-Ex and Pop. This is the era documented in the elegant two-level exhibit titled “New York: 1962-1964” at the Jewish Museum, an institution which, we learn, has played an important role in cultural change.
This survey of nearly 300 works of art and ephemera, in a suave design by Selldorf Architects, begins by placing us right in midtown Manhattan with a photo mural of foot traffic on West 8th Street in Greenwich Village. With a neon liquor store sign hanging overhead and a soundtrack of urban static, you have a classic New York scene, which could be anytime.
It becomes era-specific in the first gallery with a selection of snaps of the prowlers of the early 60s: Diane Arbus on the city waterfront, Lou Bernstein on the Bowery, Leonard Freed in Harlem, Frederick Kelly in the subway and Garry Winogrand at the Central Park Zoo. There’s also a soundtrack here, emanating from a vintage jukebox with a selection of vintage cuts, and what an upstart moment in pop music it was: Bob Dylan, Chubby Checker, John Coltrane, the Shangri -The ace.
A new abnormal in art begins here too. A few years earlier, New Art in New York still meant Abstract Expressionism: brushy, dripping, splattered paint, epic in scale, operatic in tonality. But that’s not what’s here.
In the center of the gallery, we see a lean, leaning scarecrow of a sculpture made from construction remains by an artist in his twenties named Mark di Suvero. On the wall behind her hangs a hyper-realistic close-up painting, by Harold Stevenson, of a single staring eye. A nearby shrine-like niche frames a roughly hand-cast relief, in plaster and paint, of women’s undergarments by a young Claes Oldenburg.
All three artists operated outside of the Ab-Ex world. Stevenson (1929-2018) was a friend of another young realist, Andy Warhol, and an early regular at the Factory. Oldenburg, who died this month at 93, took his pictures — shoes, sandwiches, street signs — of things in his East Village neighborhood. Di Suvero, part of a new generation of lofts, lived far from the city center, in the Wall Street district, where he scoured the streets for materials at night.
And not far from his South Street Seaport studio in Coenties Slip was a small community of artists who, for reasons of both economic necessity and self-definition, had distanced themselves from the art establishment. . These outliers included Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist and Lenore Tawney, and, forming their own nearby community, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. All are represented in the show, Johns and Rauschenberg extensively. And all of them were as different from each other as they were from the dominant styles of their time.
It wasn’t long before downtown was knocking on the door, with the Jewish Museum leading the institutional pack. Arrived in 1962, a new director, Alan Solomon, determined to make the museum a precursor by introducing what he called “new art”, wasted no time.
In 1963, he gave Rauschenberg his first retrospective. The following year, he did the same for Jasper Johns. Also in 1964, at the request of the United States government, he presented a major group exhibition of young American artists at the Venice Biennale and scored a success there that tipped the balance of power in the world of art. art, from Europe to New York.
The Jewish Museum could easily have presented “New York: 1962-1964” as a tight little institutional tale. Instead, it makes the story part of a much bigger story, with a broad view to credit to its original organizer, Italian curator Germano Celant, who died of Covid complications in 2020. (L (Exhibit is presented as a collaboration between his studio and a team from the Jewish Museum that includes Claudia Gould, Director; Darsie Alexander, Chief Curator; Sam Sackeroff, Associate Curator; and Kristina Parsons, Curatorial Assistant.)
The larger, multi-disciplinary, and largely grassroots political story unfolds chronologically on the second floor of the show. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the suicide of Marilyn Monroe, in different ways and to varying degrees, shook the nation. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was an exhilarating moment, and the show gives it and the civil rights movement itself great attention, through archival documents and works produced by artists and collectives – the Spiral group, the Kamoinge workshop – inspired by the movement.
Then, a few months later, the country experienced a frontal psychic shock with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And here, the popular pre-digital press becomes the main expressive voice in galleries of newspapers, magazine covers, and a music video of Walter Cronkite’s muffled on-air announcement of the President’s death.
Through it all, much of Solomon’s “new art” was at work, plugged into the manic national mood. The exhibition concludes with an extended tribute to the curator through the documentation of the Venice Biennale triumph of 1964, when Rauschenberg became the first American to win his grand prize, the Golden Lion, in painting. In fact, in the context of “New York: 1962-1964”, the Venice event seems anti-climactic. It’s the audacity of much of the art that preceded it, and the political questions that this work brings to the fore, that make you watch and think.
Solomon’s group show in Venice—designed, he said, to “impress Europeans with the diversity of American art”—had no women, but Celant’s had several. The materially rich assemblages of Nancy Grossman and Carolee Schneemann seen here are more interesting to look at and think about than almost anything around them. (Schneemann had to wait decades for her own moment in Venice; she won the Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 2017.)
And in an exposition of what could be considered, among other things, a mini-investigation into the rise of Pop Art, the most dynamic Pop image is Marjorie Strider’s big and bold “Girl with Radish.” The relief painting originally appeared in a 1964 Pace Gallery exhibition titled “The First International Girlie Show” which, in keeping with the distorted irony that has always shaped the market, featured only two women, Strider and Rosalyn Drexler, among her ten artists. . (Clearly determined to restore that balance, Celant also included Drexler’s piece, an antique self-portrait, and, in other sections of the show, works by Lee Bontecou, Chryssa, Sally Hazelet Drummond, Martha Edelheit, May Stevens, and Marisol Escobar.)
Finally, it’s worth noting – the museum barely does – that in a pre-Stonewall era when having non-heterosexual sex could get you beaten, arrested, or killed, the “new art” world had a dense gay population. . The proof is here, in the crowd of Coenties Slip, at Johns and Rauschenberg, at Stevenson and, of course, Warhol. John Cage and Merce Cunningham, in a section of the show devoted to experimental dance, can be counted, as can John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, whose voices echo from recordings of avant-garde poetry.
And then there’s the great Jack Smith and his film “Flaming Creatures” (1963), in which a multitude of non-binary bodies, some clothed, some not, tumble and whirl orgidically to the music of the 40 radio hits. . It’s pure silly poetry. And it earned filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas a charge of obscenity when he screened it in March 1964, at a time when the city was frantically trying to clean up its act ahead of a World’s Fair that would feature, among other entertainment edifying, the venerated “Pietà” by Michelangelo, imported from the Vatican.
Michelangelo. Jack Smith. Strange bodies. “pieta”. Art in New York in the early 1960s was a heady mix. Culturally, we were perched on the edge of something and leaning forward. And a quick flip through the show’s catalog, an illustrated three-year timeline edited by Celant and designed by Michael Rock, gives a sense of a larger tipping condition — national, global.
Here’s a photo of Jacqueline Kennedy leading her White House TV tour, and one of the segregationists George Wallace blocking the entrance to the University of Alabama. There’s Martin Luther King Jr. discussing civil rights with Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office; and there is the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc who cremated himself in Saigon to protest American intervention in South Vietnam. Here’s a studio shot of the “Leave It To Beaver” TV family; here is a blurry clip of two guys kissing in a Warhol movie.
Most of these images have appeared at one time or another in popular magazines. I don’t know what my father might have thought when he saw them in Time or Life. But his devotion to Mad makes sense.
New York: 1962-1964
from July 22 to January 8, 2023 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Ave at 92nd Street, Manhattan; 212-423-3200, jewishmuseum.org.