PRINT May 1988


ON A DOZEN PAGES of this issue of Artforum we have reproduced black and white photographs of artworks from the epochal year 1968. These images, these slices of time and history, inspire a poignancy oddly double-edged. Like the year 1848 so often mentioned in connection with it, 1968 has cast a long shadow of intense expectations and painful disappointments.

It was a year of endings and beginnings. The generation that was coming of age was born after World War II. These young men and women, whether invigorated by the relative comforts of the ’50s and ’60s, covetous of them, or suspicious of them, found their sense of identity in overturning proprieties and moral codes, in attacking the perceived contradictions of capitalist society, in seeking an antiauthoritarian culture. In 1968, scattered sparks of revolutionary expectations ignited in student protests around the world. On the barricades of Paris and in the universities of Europe and America, the watchword by May ’68 was: Power to the Imagination. Intellectual debate offered up a dizzying array of utopian possibilities for a culture in open struggle with the global political and economic system. There was a growing conviction that a tie between intellectuals and artists on the one hand and the (ambiguously identified) “proletarian masses” on the other could be achieved. And in France, an activist triad of workers, students, and intellectuals actually did emerge. As Premier Georges Pompidou noted that spring, “Our civilization is being questioned.”

For art, the message was to leave its inheritance of isolated esthetics behind. Clement Greenberg’s essay “Complaints of an Art Critic,” published in Artforum in 1967, had revealed, through its last-hurrah tone, that Kantian formalist theory was loosening its death grip. As Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman were making their last paintings, a new generation of artists was beginning its work. The death of Marcel Duchamp, long a presiding deity or éminence grise of new esthetic directions, seemed symbolically to rekindle investigations of the artist’s role. The desire to locate the artist’s gesture between theory and practice, between instinct and reason, between the individual and the collective came to the foreground. And so younger artists attempted to knit their work into the world. Abandoning the wall and the traditional sculptural space of the upright human figure, they created work that hugged the floor, offering itself not as a lofty object of contemplation but as a down-to-earth means of passage. With the first exhibitions of Earthworks projects, artists wielded the shovel instead of the paintbrush. Robert Smithson exhibited his first Nonsites, Walter De Maria his Earth Room. In Italy, the artists of arte povera took a guerrilla stance, combining anthropological engagement and ideological innovation. Christo exhibited his first huge outdoor work, a 2,000-cubic-foot package of air, at Documenta IV in Kassel, where the work of Joseph Beuys simultaneously raised the specter of World War II for a terrified attempt at exorcism. Artists and critics wrote, discussed, and mounted exhibitions focused on the idea of “the dematerialization of art.” Where, a decade or more before, dematerialization had been an ideal for Gaston Bachelard, Yves Klein, and others, and had affirmed a spiritual essence and culmination, now the phrase referred more concretely to dismantling the fetishism of the esthetic object. Now Conceptual art, just christened in 1967, embarked on its adventure of provocation and discovery.

The impending revolution on the stage of history was acted out symbolically by an excited culture. The Living Theater and other groups encouraged spectators to become participants, promoting osmotic communication between human beings and their world. The street itself became a site where theater and demonstration merged. Even the 1968 Venice Biennale became a kind of guerrilla theater: pavilions closed by protest, artists refusing to exhibit their works, police presiding over the city and Giardini. Exhilarating possibilities were enacted in a communal fantasy life. Not only history but evolution seemed at a turning point. As Apollo 8 carried men into moon orbit for the first time, Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey and Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes expressed the dawning awareness of that cosmic space—both real and psychological—in which the individual stood alone, afflicted with primordial fear, yet fascinated by a silent and sidereal beauty.

All these awakenings linked America and Europe in a mutual sense of purpose. The air seemed filled with a promise of imminent and profound change; things hardly dreamed of ten years before seemed unexpectedly within reach. But in fact, inside those events of ’68, the signs of turnaround or deadend had been lurking: in January the Tet offensive began in Vietnam, and later in the year the horrors of the increasing commitment of American troops to that war were underlined by the massacre in My Lai; the assassination of Martin Luther King in April was followed by that of Robert Kennedy in June; the empowered imagination, flourishing after Paris May, was struck a harsh blow in Prague August, when the implacable reasons of the Prince showed themselves once again stronger than the will of the governed. The gestures toward freedom at the summer Democratic convention in Chicago were met with violence; and in November, a conservative backlash in the United States brought Richard Nixon to the presidency. Flower children or no, the old structures of power manifested a brutal and resilient control.

If 1968 was in many ways a break with Modernism, it was also, perhaps, the last moment of our Modernist faith in the benign outcome of history. Twenty years later, much of the artwork—the American more spare and cerebral, the European more symbolic and poetic—doesn’t look now as overtly political as it felt then. Still, its radical engagement shines out in its determined and uncompromising Otherness, its passionate rejection of esthetic tradition, its euphoric denial of limits.

Ida Panicelli and Thomas McEvilley

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