Museum  August 22, 2022  Howard Halle

“New York: 1962-1964” Captures More than a Time and Place

Photo © Frederick Charles, fcharles.com.

Installation view of New York: 1962-1964 at the Jewish Museum, NY. July 22, 2022-January 8, 2023.

New York: 1962-1964 is an exhibit about a time and place, yes, but also a celebration of the institution hosting it. The Jewish Museum has been a venerable fixture in New York’s cultural firmament for what seems like forever, but six decades ago, under the directorship of Alan Solomon, it was the premier incubator for cutting-edge art when NYC was its undisputed center.

Under Solomon’s tenure, The Jewish Museum mounted the first-ever retrospectives of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, as well as group exhibitions such as Toward a New Abstraction, which featured Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, Miriam Schapiro, and Frank Stella; and Recent American Sculpture, which included Lee Bontecou, John Chamberlain, Mark di Suvero, George Segal, and Richard Stankiewicz. These artists appear in the show represented by works which, in many cases, are on loan from major institutions whose prestige speaks to the now-canonical status enjoyed by some of these figures—and to The Jewish Museum’s role in getting them there.

Originally conceived in 2017, New York: 1962-1964 was the last project planned by the legendary art historian, critic, and curator, Germano Celant before his death in 2020. Offering an abundance of painting and sculpture, the show also employs ephemera, video, and even fashion to place them within the larger political, social, and economic contexts shaping the city and the nation during that period. Sections are devoted to the Civil Rights Movement (which contains works by African American artists such as painter Norman Lewis and sculptor Melvin Edwards), Kennedy’s assassination, and the enormous impact of a recently developed medium: Television. 

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY © Estate of George Maciunas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

George Maciunas, Photographic Ballet, performed during Fully Guaranteed 12 Fluxus Concerts, Fluxhall, 359 Canal Street, New York, March-May 1964. Made 1964, printed 1993. Nine silver gelatin prints. Image (each): 7 1/2 × 7 1/2" (19 × 19 cm); Sheet (each): 9 15/16 x 7 15/16 in. (25.3 x 20.2 cm).

The exhibition evokes midcentury Gotham itself. Visitors are greeted at the entrance by a photomural of a liquor store on the Bowery. Just beyond that, an arrangement of images by masters of street photography such as Diane Arbus, Roy Decarava, and Garry Winogrand, provide glimpses of the Mad Men era metropolis, while nearby, shelves display contemporaneous art periodicals, and published writings by leading authors such as Amiri Baraka and Frank O’Hara.

At this point, those who knew New York before it became a playground for the one percent may experience pangs of heartache. Though the Big Apple was far from perfect back then, it hadn’t yet slipped to its hollowed-out, 1970s nadir, and it still possessed a humming manufacturing base, a bustling commercial waterfront, and a significant middle class that included a large constituency of museumgoers. These conditions shaped the “new art” as Solomon called it.

According to Solomon, what made it new was the “relish” with which artists tackled “the visual environment and…aesthetic experience for 99 percent of Americans.” In other words, the postwar culture of mass consumption conditioned by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, a trend that marked a decisive break with Abstract Expressionism’s psychosexual dramatics. 

Just as the Abstract Expressionists looked inward for their work, the artists encouraged by Solomon (and coevals such as gallerist Sidney Janis and curator Lawrence Alloway) gazed outward to a city where materials could be harvested from the sidewalks, and inspiration could come from the ceaseless stimulation of billboards, newsstand magazines, theater marquees, TVs playing from appliance shops, and department store windows.

Although we’d call this aesthetic Pop Art today, the label hadn’t quite stuck yet, and Solomon’s definition of “new” extended to assemblage as well as to image appropriation. Both are evident in the cracked-glass panel attached to James Rosenquist’s Sightseeing (1962), and in the paint-spattered trio of the eponymous bottles in Robert Rauschenberg’s Coca-Cola Plan (1958).

Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection, New York, NY. Gift of William S. Rubin (1964.20). © The Kenneth Noland Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Kenneth Noland, Spread, 1958. Oil on canvas. 117 x 117 in. (297.2 x 297.2 cm).

As noted above, Solomon also championed abstraction, albeit in a cerebral form exemplified here by Noland’s Spread (1958), a pulsating yellow-and-green target, and by Anne Truitt’s North (1963), a large, black, rectangular block that presages the work of Richard Serra.

Truitt is one of several women artists present who were often exhibited originally as lone female participants in otherwise male-dominated shows. Seeing them in force, however, makes it abundantly clear just how vital their contributions were. In this respect, two works stand out: A funky, wood-carved self-portrait by Marisol Escobar, whose hydra-like array of heads depicts different facets of the artist’s personality; and Marjorie Strider’s comic book-style rendering of a woman’s face holding a three-dimensional relief of a radish between her teeth.

The final room of New York: 1962-1964 revisits the 1964 Venice Biennale, organized by Solomon, in which Rauschenberg won the first Grand Prize awarded to an American artist. Indubitably, the honor belonged to Rauschenberg, but it was less directly a tribute not only to Solomon and The Jewish Museum, but also to a New York that, like the art produced there, had reached its twentieth-century zenith. 

40.7853894137, -73.9574944

"New York: 1962-1964" at The Jewish Museum
Start Date:
July 22, 2022
End Date:
January 8, 2023
Venue:
The Jewish Museum
About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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