Philadelphia

“1967: At the Crossroads”

Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

“1967: At the Crossroads” was an unusual survey that offered a serious appraisal of the ’60s through a cross section of what its curator, Janet Kardon, considers a pivotal year within a revolutionary ten-year span. The works of 36 artists—all begun, first exhibited, or completed in 1967—were gathered together to evoke the zeitgeist of 20 years ago. Together, they represented Minimalism, post-Minimalism, Conceptualism, Pop, Color Field, and earthworks, all at different points of influence and development. Also included were some amusing and pertinent objects that threw the artworks into broader relief: a Betsey Johnson minidress; an issue of Aspen magazine assembled by Brian O’Doherty; and a grid of Plexiglass magazine racks containing various magazines from 1967, plus three primary-colored beanbag chairs on which to sprawl while leafing through them.

Given the complexities of its one-year focus, this exhibition was best experienced in two ways: through the actual artworks and objects, and again through its rich catalogue, which provides the fullness of context that any juxtaposition of artworks in a gallery could not easily equal. The catalogue contains essays by major art critics of the period, a list of significant art activities of 1967, photographs of major works and/or events not available or impossible to exhibit, and a running time line of sociological phenomena reminding us of the year’s general atmosphere (including an anti-Vietnam march on the Pentagon, the death of Che Guevara, Eugene McCarthy’s entrance into the presidential race, and the election of the first black mayor of a major U.S. city).

This writer was not a firsthand witness to the period’s art activities and so neither susceptible to the frissons of nostalgia nor able to comment with the authority of experience on the justness of the exhibition’s period-portrait aspect. As far as I could tell, however, it was thoughtfully inclusive and precisely, intelligently selected. From the present vantage point I found some of the works remarkably au courant (Bruce Nauman, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol); some to have already taken on the aura of “classics” (Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Agnes Martin, Frank Stella); others heroic, with and without an edge of mockery (Christo, Claes Oldenburg, Alfred Leslie, Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer); and many inevitably dated, although not always in the pejorative sense (Robert Indiana, Jules Olitski, Mel Bochner, Richard Tuttle, Ray Johnson). Aside from the rather austere appearance of late ’60s art, and, with a few exceptions, its general monochromatic, raw look, what struck me most forcibly was the seriousness of this work, its sense of purpose and absence of ennui. Surrounded as we now are by a plethora of “neo” styles, 1967 seems imbued with the significance of artistic endeavor in pursuit of the opportunity for truly radical gestures; 20 years ago it was still possible to épater le bourgeois. Distance also lends charm, and even Pop’s ironies seem optimistic and curiously innocent when contrasted with the cynicism and sense of depletion with which today’s artists must contend.

The selection of 1967 as a watershed in a decade heavy with artistic milestones invites and acknowledges challenge. Yet, considering the importance of the Minimalist/Conceptualist continuum in foreshadowing subsequent developments in the ’70s and ’80s, which is this exhibition’s prime thesis, the choice is persuasive. By freeze-framing the relevant past, “1967: At The Crossroads” has provided a useful focusing lens for analyzing the present. Given the rapidity with which history overtakes us, how will 1987’s record read 20 years from now?

Paula Marincola