New York

“Masters Of The Sixties: From New Realism To Pop Art”

Marisa Del Re Gallery

What is of interest in a group exhibition is not the separate artists but the idea that permits them to be grouped together. Implicitly arguing for a common quality among divergent individuals, the group exhibition undermines the notion of individual genius. It need not go to the other extreme and replace that notion with the equally vague one of the zeitgeist (another blind alley), but it should attempt to reveal the subtle, hitherto unrecognizable One that shapes the vulgarly obvious Many. In a group exhibition, heroic individualists are displaced by the generic factor that made their individuality possible in the first place. The assumption that all validity rests in the general idea offers an intellectual opportunity which the group exhibition should take, for if it does not, it becomes boutique entertainment. If it takes the opportunity yet fails to convince, we still have a purposeful experiment.

The premise of “Masters of the Sixties,” curated and with a catalogue essay by Sam Hunter, was an old, boring, textbook one: that in “the late fifties and early sixties . . . a new kind of subject matter, invariably topical, rooted in ordinary life and mass media, and intentionally banal in imagery and surface, invaded painting and sculpture.” It sounds like an invasion from Mars. Was “the elitist posture of the Abstract Expressionists” forsaken for a new populism? Was there such headlong “flight from the heroic commitment to abstraction”? Not only is it not so simple—and never can be—but Hunter’s choices don’t imply that it is. One sees nothing topical in Yves Klein’s Venus Bleue; the shape is popularly memorable, which hardly makes it topical—it explores a new way of being timeless, a new everyday form for the eternal. Robert Rauschenberg’s Nettle, 1960, Jasper Johns’ Good Time Charley, 1961, and Larry Rivers’ French Money, 1962, reveal a still heroic if newly perverse commitment to abstraction; Abstract Expressionism remains the better part of their valor. The everyday in the form of found objects and images spices the abstraction, but hardly undermines it. Jim Dines’ Car Crash, 1959–60, Claes Oldenburg’s Vinyl Medicine Cabinet, 1966, Christo’s Package on Luggage Rack, 1962, and Arman’s Planned Obsolescence, 1961, are really abstract gestures, abstract contexts in which the banal elements from ordinary life dissolve as if in acid, rather than emerging like saucy, irreverent Aphrodites from a gestural sea. Without the Abstract Expressionist matrix, the everyday reality looks like the sewage it is. It is that matrix that survives—even more haughtily gestural, I contend (in Rivers as well as in Johns, in Oldenburg as well as in Rauschenberg), than anything in Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. All the animus, the power, of these works comes from their more-than-residual Abstract Expressionism. The grossness and even grotesqueness of the gesture may be a sign of its disintegration, but I would argue that these qualities also show its true grit, its ability to sustain itself in the face of the debris of dailiness. And that debris is carefully calculated to “fit in” with the abstract flux.

As for George Segal’s The Dentist, 1966–70, Andy Warhol’s Rauschenberg, 1962, Marisol’s Mi Mama y Yo, 1968, Tom Wesselman’s Great American Nude, No. 87, 1966–67, Robert lndiana’s Mother and Father, 1963–67, and James Rosenquist’s The Balcony, 1961, the topicality in these works has long since faded and was probably dead on arrival. What remains is what was primary from the start, the subversive articulation of two great American preoccupations: sexuality and identity. The question is that of their nature in ordinary life, their secretive survival despite the simulated life they are given by mass media distortion. Marisol’s work is in the same vein as Arshile Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother, and Segal’s melancholy figures have to be compared with those of Thomas Eakins. Ed Ruscha’s Smash, 1963, is related to works by William Harnett and John Peto, the word becoming an object signifying identity. The methods differ, not the goals—not even, I would venture to say, the mentality, for the work here still shows the old American sense of identity and even sexuality being isolated, for all their shared character and the shared communication about them.

It is time the simplistic notion of Pop art was laid to rest. Hunter’s reiteration of all the clichés about it does it no service; it needs new ground to stand on, a new intellectual validation—to which I think it would be quite equal. This art will live not because of nostalgia for old, once-jazzy notions of it, but because it makes sense in terms of a larger historical picture. Hunter’s ideas repeat the banalities of short-term history, banalities whose function is only to get the art out of the trenches and across the no-man’s-land of nonrecognition. Now that we recognize it, we must cross-examine it.

Donald Kuspit