Class Reunion

Peter Plagens at the opening of “High Times, Hard Times”

New York

Left: Liane Thatcher with artist Mary Heilmann. Right: Curator Katy Siegel. (All photos: David Velasco)

In the aftermath of one of those nasty snowstorms in which one’s face is pummeled with what feels like ground glass and every sidewalk becomes a slippery slope to oblivion, Thursday night was bitterly cold. The dignified but cramped lobby of the National Academy Museum—right up Fifth Avenue from where a candlelight ceremony at the Guggenheim was welcoming the stolen-and-recovered Goya canvas to its Spanish painting show—was filled with a comparatively grizzled crowd trying to unbundle itself of dark and puffy coats and get up the narrow, curving stone stairs to see the New York debut of “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967–1975.”

Odd as the academy might initially seem (brown rooms, parquet floor, linen walls, yellowish light) as a venue for an exhibition of—as Annette Blaugrund, the museum’s director, put it at the dinner after the opening—work that emphatically tried to repel the first iteration of the “painting is dead” virus, the place was weirdly appropriate. After all, the show’s subject is the heyday of artists being militantly out of place: young, bell-bottomed aesthetes with masters’ degrees and Led Zeppelin hairdos living in cavernous, poorly heated former sweatshops in order to try to save painting by physically defining it as spray-gunned imagelessness, latex poured directly on the floor, dangling vertical strips of canvas, and festive tents. The nine years covered by “High Times, Hard Times” are probably the last time—before they discovered the market in the ’80s, networking in the ’90s, and self-marketing in the twenty-first century—that artists earned their chops simply by being totally into their work. The sight of all those vets of pregentrification SoHo—Lynda Benglis, Carolee Schneemann, Dorothea Rockburne, David Diao, Joan Snyder, Elizabeth Murray, Michael Venezia, Howardena Pindell, Richard Van Buren, et al.—navigating rooms decidedly not constructed for their kind of art was pure ’70s. Had the academy let people smoke and booze in the gallery, admitted a couple of dogs with paisley bandanas, and had on hand a couple of crying babies (the show’s curator, Katy Siegel, left her infant at home), the affair could have been a time trip to Broome Street back in the day.

Though the exhibition is of my time, it ain’t of my place; I was in LA and elsewhere while all this crucial stuff was going on. So, of course, I recognized the writers (Michael Brenson, Phyllis Braff, Howard Singerman, Raphael Rubinstein, et al.) more than the artists. One of them, Thomas McEvilley, spied me scribbling in a reporter’s notebook. “You’re taking notes, Peter,” he said from behind me. “Are you going to write something?” Ah—pace Janet Malcolm—journalism as betrayal! I didn’t tell anyone to his or her face that I thought the gathering had the ring of a forty-fifth high school reunion—participants checking out the condition of their confreres and wondering how many of them would be around for the fiftieth. I didn’t tell anyone there, either, that I was moved by the palpable optimism of the work—a feeling that abstract art could change the world, without the addition of political bumper stickers.

Left: Artist Joe Overstreet with writer Thomas McEvilley. Right: Artist Michael Venezia.

To catch that vibe, I think, one had to be of a certain vintage. As the now-upstate painter Frank Owen (“I’m old enough to be in this show, and I’m not. Should I be irked?”) said to me, “Notice that the people in the galleries looking at the art are geezers like us. The young painters are downstairs pounding the booze.” At the dinner afterward—no hard liquor, but the wine flowed freely—I sat at a back table with the art historian and catalogue contributor Anna Chave; Diao (who’s in the show); Christine Williams, the academy’s press person (and, incidentally, daughter of Rockburne); and, later, a few table-hoppers. I picked up what gossip I could. Rumors were afloat that lack of money dictated that some artists would be represented by misleadingly small pieces; that the show could’ve gone to Europe (which, early on, was often more simpatico to such art than America) to Mies van der Rohe’s Haus Lange in Krefeld, but the exhibition organizers (Independent Curators International) demurred because of no climate control; and that Mel Bochner (in the catalogue as a participant, but nowhere to be seen at the Academy) pulled out “because he always thought he was better than the rest of us.” That last remark prompted me to wonder where the hell was Brice Marden.

Afterward, I rode the subway home with Venezia and his wife. We got off at the same downtown stop and walked through the small icy mounds together for a couple of blocks. Then we parted company, and I went back to my loft. Which was in pretty civilized and comfy shape when I moved into it sixteen years ago—thanks, indirectly but in no small measure, to the artists in “High Times, Hard Times.”

Left: Artist Louise Fishman. Right: Artist Carolee Schneemann.

Left: Artist Guy Goodwin. Right: Artist David Diao.

Left: Artist Joan Snyder. Right: Choreographer Batya Zamir with painter and exhibition cocurator David Reed.

Left: Artist Jack Whitten. Right: Artist Richard Van Buren.

Left: Artist Harmony Hammond. Right: Artist Susan Shatter with curatorial assistant Marshall Price.