San Francisco

“Americans 1963”

San Francisco Museum of Art

This is another in a con­tinuing series of group exhibits begun in 1929 which, in the ensuing years, the modern art public had come to look upon as esthetic guideposts in the confusing and contradictory Land of Oz of contemporary painting and sculpture. The assumption has been that if an artist is invited to exhibit in one of these shows he must certainly be, in relation to his peers, of primary significance. These assumptions are not baseless; in fact, the Modern had circulated, between the years 1951 and 1956, three exhibits that for all prac­tical purposes documented the pio­neers of the Abstract Expressionist era concisely and thoroughly. It should be noted that the catalogs for these shows have been of the highest quality, no­ticeably lacking in dialectic apologia written by ambitious curators, and fur­nishing the reader with good, factual material on the artists exhibited.

Given these meritorious services ren­dered, the sympathetic viewer tends to feel, with some justification, that the Museum officialdom is presenting him with securely placed names, ready to be entrenched in the contemporary art histories. What he, the viewer, tends to forget as he glimpses a tasteful and intellectually restrained catalog, and then refocuses on the actual works, is that it is only a history of sorts, history without the benefit of time, last year’s history. He, the imaginary viewer, slips easily into a determinative frame of mind because the exhibition forces him to do so. It is perhaps absurd to say our viewer shapes his outlook on what 1963 was artistically by just one ex­hibit, but give him three like exhibits set up along similar lines, exhibits that 1963 was artistically by just one ex­hibit, but give him three like exhibits set up along similar lines, exhibits that make last year’s history look as if twenty-five years hindsight had deter­mined the ultimate selection of works, and he will be well-nigh convinced.

The speed with which developments in art have taken place since Abstract Expressionism has forced museums everywhere to confuse Modern Art with Recent Art, and even the best of them have, on occasion, abandoned the im­portant role of judgment and evalua­tion for the more glossy pleasures of “keeping up” with what the dealers are showing. What used to be “13 Americans,” or “12 Americans,” now becomes “Americans 1963.” The first, and most distressing result of giving recent art the museum stature of mod­ern art is that inferior art by inferior artists is exhibited, circulated, and, not so indirectly, promoted. Given the speed involved, it is an easy mistake to make, easier in fact than finding and selecting art of excellence, when time normally spent in judgment and evalu­ation has been telescoped into non­existence. A second simple reason for not showing last season’s work in a museum is that it can usually be seen better and in greater depth in galleries. The overlapping seems wasteful and certainly redundant. The redundancy is sometimes carried to such lengths that the museum-goer must feel he is being subjected to an organized adver­tising campaign. A third reason, es­pecially evident in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Americans 1963” ex­hibit, and other large group exhibits having no substantial reason for ex­istence, is that they tend to be reposi­tories for what, in the world of Madison Avenue, are called “due bills,” which means, favors to be paid off in kind, or like, favors. It must be clear to everyone concerned that the logical place for a due bill is not the Museum of Modern Art, especially when the show is destined to circulate through­out the United States for an extended period of time.

Begin with Richard Anuszkiewicz. His problems are not art problems, but optical problems, dealing, as he has stated, with “. . . an investigation into the effects of complementary colors of full intensity, when juxtaposed, and the optical changes that occur as a result.” The changes occurring in the works are physically painful to witness because the colors pulsate with such violence in the viewer’s retina. The artist has be­come an intermediary, engaged in pseudo-scientific experiments on can­vas, which are presented to the public in an artful manner in order to rock their eyeballs.

On a much less banal level, the sculptures of Lee Bontecou, Edward Higgins, Marisol, and Gabe Kohn en­gage the viewer on a multiplicity of emotional and intellectual levels. Mari­sol, through a bewilderingly obsessive system of visual puns, spiraling. out from a central symbol system, usually centered around her own image. Her work is elegant, chic, witty, and yet embroidered in a cloak of doom. Lee Bontecou, unlike Marisol, makes no emotional cover for her obsessional steel, wire and canvas wall construc­tions, hanging dumb, like secret, un­fulfilled wishes, having burned before fruition. Higgins and Kohn both use a high formalism in their work, demand­ing technical finesse and strictness of concept. Of the two, Kahn’s laminated hardwoods, sawed and doweled into bulky arcs, rhomboids and tangential rectangles, are perhaps more com­pletely classic in their asymmetry. Hig­gins’ sculpture, though pure in. surface and execution, digresses from piece to piece conceptually, with accordingly various levels of success or failure. What characterizes these four artists and sets them apart from the remain­der of the exhibit is their vast degree of visual prowess.

In the face of two rooms of medioc­rity, Richard Lindner’s works are the brilliant exceptions. His late paintings, and the 1953 The Meeting are really latter-day surrealist masterpieces. The increasingly imaginative treatment of the shallow, flat space presumably be­hind the figures, and yet locked into, around and behind the three-dimen­sionally handled people themselves, is a tour de force.

From Anuszkiewicz’ retinal rockers to Ad Reinhardt’s reposeful crosses is a long trip, and equally frustrating at both stations. Reinhardt one wants to believe in, but quite literally can’t see to do so, and Anuszkiewicz’ pictures simply can’t be gazed at for more than fifteen seconds at one time.

Of the three signwriters in the show Chryssa’s are the most satisfying state­ments, which is not saying much at all. Robert Indiana and James Rosenquist’s efforts are banal and repulsive, respec­tively, without any redeeming features in sight.

Jason Seley, Sally Hazlett Drum­mond, David Simpson, Claes Olden­burg and Michael Lekakis showed themselves to be artists of minor talent whose technical abilities are on a pro­fessional level, and whose perceivable goals are such that they shouldn’t be dismissed, and yet one wonders why they were chosen over scores of other artists.

––James Monte