“Kick Out the Jams”

“Kick Out the Jams,” the inspired title for an exhibition about Detroit’s Cass Corridor art scene in the ’60s and ’70s, calls attention both to the spirit and connections that gave rise to the art. The line, taken from a ’60s rock album by Detroit’s MC5, was musical lingo for “Go wild! The world is yours! Take it now and be one with it! Kick out the jams . . .” The organization of the show reflects something of this frenzied spirit. Intended as “the history of an art scene,” it is, in fact, more like a nostalgic class reunion organized by two latter-day enthusiasts, Mary Jane Jacob and Jay Belloli, who could not have foreseen the impossibility of preparing Cass Corridor’s first comprehensive exhibition in the space of seven months.

What they did manage to assemble in that short time is impressive—170 works introduced by an extensive collection of documentary memorabilia and supplemented with a generous catalogue of background information. But, sadly, the sum of these parts does not form a coherent picture. The rebellious spirit—stirred by those turbulent years (1963-1977) of assassination, race riots, and Viet Nam—that for the first time united Detroit artists, poets and musicians, does not come through. That community ingested Ginsberg and Burroughs with their beers, eyed Robert Morris, Mark di Suvero and Tony Smith at the nearby museum, and bounced new ideas off one another as they tentatively, then more assertively, made art that smacked of their own seamy inner-city locale.

In this gathering of 22 artists’ works there are “stars” represented by many pieces and, presumably, lesser lights. This kind of ranking system does little to clarify history. In fact, it distorts it when curators’ judgments about which artists are “particularly outstanding” are not a measure of their importance in the Cass Corridor context. Brenda Goodman’s broad representation of 21 works, for example, points up, not her interaction with other Cass Corridor artists, but the very independent manner in which she evolved her personal vocabulary of symbols. And John Egner’s allotment of only seven works is a grievous underestimation of his importance within the group. As a young painting instructor at Wayne State University and fellow artist, he introduced modernist ideas to the community, and his art was, in turn, affected by his experiences in it.

For the art, in addition to being what Jacob sees as “Detroit’s most significant contribution to contemporary American art,” is an authentic expression of a particular time and place. Cass Corridor artists discovered and embraced their city, incorporating it (often literally) into their art. Looking at their production now, one sees the origins of a “Detroit style”—an energetic handling of materials that emphasizes their physical qualities. We recognize it in the thick stripes of pigment in Nancy Mitchnick’s portraits, in the fancifully carved and gouged plywood relief, Entwined Logs, by Nancy Pletos, in the vivid dimensional patchwork collaged on Folding Screen 1, by William Antonow, in the suspended globules of polyester resin on John Egner’s latticed Bank Piece, and in the dangling strips of stained canvas wrapped around Ellen Phelan’s wood grid.

But this celebration of materials is most apparent in the art of Michael Luchs and Gordon Newton. As undisputed Cass Corridor “stars,” it seems fitting that the show begins and ends with their work. Both use violent methods (burning, gouging, puncturing, etc.) to revitalize materials, usually urban discards; but their art reveals very different sensibilities. Luchs is an urban primitive who looks upon every scrap as a potential carrier of his feelings. For Newton, art making is obviously more of a game, a playful manipulation of materials that can dramatize their wonderful essences.

If “Kick Out the Jams” is not the definitive show we had hoped for, it is, like the art it presents, an important beginning. The first generation of Cass Corridor artists, now dispersed (many are in New York), laid the groundwork for future developments, establishing Detroit as a place where serious art is being made.

Ruth Rattner