New York

New York

Various Venues

With the waning interest in gesture, deep space, complex form and impasto, and with the increasing extension of possible media, art is becoming more extrovert. There is a growing tendency, even in “straight painting” exhibitions, to surround the spectator, whose increased physical participation, or immediate sensorial reactions to the work of art, often operate at the expense of the more profound emotional involvements demanded by New York School painting in the fifties. In the broadest sense, the five exhibitions discussed below could all be called “environmental.”

There are two basic categories of “environmental” work. The first, found in the Janis and Cordier-Ekstrom shows, involves a direct defiance of traditional format and materials; the work physically invades the exhibition space and often the audience actively participates in the resulting game or spectacle. The second type, which applies to the Judd, Stella and Mangold shows, retains traditional formats, but the pictorial domain is more subtly enlarged by means of formal, optical or coloristic simplifications, which serve to intensify the bonds between one man’s works as exhibited in a group and provide a general ambient. Between these two categorical extremes falls a large part of today’s most inventive art.

Even the so-called environment show at Sidney Janis includes only two works to which the word can be applied in its strictest sense, and Claes Oldenburg was the only one to go all out and “do a room.” Even so, it is seen as through a show window, the customer is roped off from the monumentally monstrous bedroom in slick grey, black, white and vile marbleized turquoise. All the furniture is rhomboidal, and the whole is highlighted by white vinyl sheets, zebra upholstery, leopard raincoat and identically patterned “all over” pictures. This dazzling nightmare of expensive futility is far removed from the artist’s usually expressionist digs at commercialism and is far more chilling. Straight out of the “modernistic” twenties, untouched by human hands, it evokes the kind of love or dreams that would be made between plastic sheets.

George Segal’s life-size man reaches across a glass wall of light to put the first letter on a red, neon-lit CINEMA marquee. The piece is alone in a black-papered room, suggesting night, and before the brilliant light of the marquee, the white plaster figure becomes a shadow. Segal is the 20th-century genre artist. His quick frozen happenings are both familiar and, presented as they are, out of context, strangely eerie and evocative. His works are always environments. Each one creates an explicit mood, acted out by the detached white figures who are unaware of our presence. The spectator’s participation is that of a casual witness, all but invisible, yet an integral part of the scene.

It is difficult to see what is environmental about Jim Dine’s parody of Abstract Expressionism—three pictures, from one of which a shiny new stove pipe emerges. They in no way transform either space or experience. James Rosenquist’s three works are not particularly environmental either, though they have a certain ambient imposed by the skillful and varied use of light. The most interesting—Capillary Action—is a real eight-foot sapling tree, into which is inserted a stretched plastic drop-sheet, vertically dripped with paint. This becomes a sort of middle background, hovering as it does both behind and in front of the tree. The spectator’s space is varied by three square panels and a wiggly red neon-bordered square, all set at different distances from the surface. The whole thing becomes a study in depth outward, and is an extension of an earlier painting, not in the show, which also explores the nature of the natural and the artificial. The two other pieces are a ceiling panel (paradoxically the floor plan of a house) from which hang several light bulbs, and a luridly multicolored bridge, or ramp, set on a sheet of brightly painted plexiglass with colored light flashing beneath it. The spectator is supposed to walk over it, and looking down through the boards into the dizzying array of lights is something like seeing a carnival from the top of a ferris wheel, or crossing a 42nd Street River Styx.

For Eyes and Ears invites more audience participation. Intended as a “sound” exhibition, its most interesting aspects are kinetic. This is one of two group shows (the other being On the Move at Howard Wise) which will explore the possibilities of movement this month, on the heels of last year’s kinetic exhibitions in Europe, which touched off much interest here. While the majority of kinetic and sound art is constructivist in character, this show is primarily expressionist and surrealist in character, made up of veteran assemblagists, among them Duchamp, Johns, Conner, Rauschenberg, Stankiewicz and Calder. Tinguely is the only real pioneer of sound and movement included, and his own plexiglass sputtering radio was imitated by other exhibitors. The whole place sounds like a pet shop or a boiler factory, and subtle experiments are hopelessly lost in the mélée. Too often the sound is completely unnecessary. A handsome optical sculpture by Herbert Gesner does not need its buzzing for effect. Dine’s Two Palettes and a Hatchet, which invites the spectator to take a swipe at a large piece of wood, is fun to hack at if not much to look at, and had already been done in 1920 by the Dadas. George Brecht’s rearrange-able still lifes are always satisfying. His subtle choice of objects insures a certain success by the most dilettante arranger. Ossorio’s extravaganza is a barbarically Christian fetish, with antlers, mirrors, baubles and beads as well as a skull, a bell and a live orange bird in a forest of plastic icicles. George Ortman reproduced (in different colors, with a few adjustments and not in the Lichtenstein manner) the Museum of Modern Art’s Piano Lesson by Matisse, and added a quiet, steady heartbeat.

The most attractive and successful piece in the show is not by an artist, but a composer—Joe Jones. His circular ceiling assemblage of drums and a viola, played electronically by dancing sticks and scrapers and lit by flickering iridescence, is not only exotically beautiful, but rhythmically interesting; the beats and movements are just accidental enough to be unpredictable, just regulated enough to provide some coherence. Nicolas Calas’ persuasive catalog introduction promises synesthesia as environment, but only Jones acted upon the great possibilities in that direction, unless you count the less illuminating experience of leaning into the large blue concave Reactor by Paul Brach and Morton Feldman, and being “surrounded” by bland color and electronic sound therein. In fact, despite the profusion of “environments” offered in the last few years—from Happenings to this type of a group show—the idea is still an iceberg. Either the playful or the pedantic aspects always seem to be overemphasized and little has been done to combine the theatrical and the visual possibilities. Neither the Janis nor the Cordier-Ekstrom show has accepted the challenge.

Don Judd was probably not planning an environment, yet his exhibition casts a definite collective spell which to some extent overshadows the individual pieces, leaving one to wonder how well they stand up on their own. All of the very simplified geometrical wooden constructions or reliefs are cadmium red light, occasionally alleviated by a dark blue or aluminum detail. The effect is that of the scattered units of a stage set. Some of the pieces resemble the kind of podium upon which Greek drama is often enacted in the modern theatre. Deadpan, even mute, these box-like forms in a white room are an odd combination of the clinical and the dramatic. The only piece with a textured surface—a nubbly irregularity reminiscent of Dubuffet—is the least impressive. In general the strong pattern of variations on the stripe is more suited to Judd’s anti-sculptural planar quality. The most successful piece, and the one least derived from the mainstream of geometrical abstraction, is a stepped jungle-jim object, which retains the rather menacing anonymity of the room as a whole. This quality, strange in such a “purist” art, is due to the tensions set up by the bright, hot red and the contradictorily cold, hard form. Red is the color of danger. Like the late Yves “le monochrome” Klein, Judd has appropriated a single color for his own.

Another one-color show that provides its own atmosphere is Frank Stella’s. All six paintings are a metallic violet, stretched in geometrical shapes (hexagon, decagon, pentagon, rhomboid, trapezoid, triangle) with the centers cut out, and all “pin striped.” Each one is made up of nine equal concentric stripes, except for the triangle, which has only seven. The open space left in the center is small compared to the painted area, and, as in Stella’s 1961–62 letter-shaped copper paintings, the cutout area is psychologically completed by the hypnotic concentricity of the stripes, which continue into the unpainted area, or vice versa. Stella knows just what to do with a stripe. Its negative delineation, the fact that it is not drawn, but outlined on raw cotton duck by the solid color, is a subtle and decisive formal factor. This free-hand demarcation, with its trace of deliberate hesitancy, suggests the path of the brush the line has never felt.

These paintings are real objects. They are about three inches deep, which gives them a great weight and solidity, accented by the cut-out center, but at the same time romanticized and dematerialized by the tinselly, theatrically lurid color. Since they are all one color and one technique, attention is shifted to the individual nature of the geometrical shapes themselves. The simpler forms are more powerful and forthright; the decagon, the most decorative of the group (it looks like a flower), is the least forceful; the octagon looks more taut than the others; the pentagon is a beauty, with an implacable presence deriving from the non-static equilibrium of an asymmetrical form. This exhibition is Stella’s best so far.

One of the most exciting new painters in the tough, cool vein is Robert Mangold. His first one-man show at the Thibaut Gallery consists of single, bulletheaded images surging across flat, solid grounds with complete confidence and control. Mangold refers to current industrial iconography in his white-based color and heavily outlined forms, which might be fragments of a huge sign or letter. But he does so without sacrificing the totally non-objective tensions set up by a curvilinear movement and a static declaration of the painting as object. He is not a hard-edge painter; he is not interested in figure-ground ambiguity nor in continuity of the image into surrounding space; his paint is relatively thick, the brushstrokes show, and so do the wavelike relief patterns formed by earlier, rejected images, now over-painted, but still visible as subtle counterpoints to the delineated forms, as well as painterly reminders of the surface plane. Orange Side is painted on two sheets of tin, and the inevitable dents and separations do not bother the artist. On the contrary, these purposeful imperfections endow his paintings with a kind of “industrial naturalism,” confirmed by such titles as Side, Section, Part. The suggestion of trucks or planes is encouraged by the occasional addition along a seam of metal or wooden molding or of an angle iron with heavy bolts. These crudities force the colors into equilibrium on the surface. Mangold, too, provides an environment, in the sense that his wall-like scale gives the spectator the impression that he is standing right next to a huge area, only part of which is visible in such close quarters.

L. R. Lippard