New York

“1969”

Daniel Newburg Gallery

Group shows are a dime a dozen and usually they do little more than showcase gallery artists; but in curated exhibitions, ambition is always on the front burner. Chemistry is the measurement of success, whether between particular works in their circumstantial union or between works and words. As title, catalogue text, thematic or theoretical proposition, the curator’s words shape perception, coax forth contents, and promise insight. Some curators are known for overkill, others barely make their presence felt; some sew a show up so tight that it suffocates, others orchestrate intriguing puzzles that pose more questions than they provide answers. Robert Nickas is decidedly in the latter camp. The salient characteristic of “1969” is that it reveals no guiding principle other than that perception is historically specific and ultimately subjective.

The exhibition included a very good selection of very good work produced in a very good year, and a glass display case of memorabilia and historical documents of the same vintage, selected from Nickas’ personal collection, that were changed weekly and grouped according to various themes. How the memorabilia and the art informed each other was left wide open; no totalizing vision, no revisionist theory, no all-encompassing explanation suggested specific correspondences, except for the date. Cutting across the boundaries of Conceptual, Minimal, Pop, and process art, Nickas threw off the yoke of art history and, with a “that was the year that was” nonchalance, pointed to shared ideas, materials, and approaches. Blinky Palermo’s Blaues Dreieck (Blue triangle; all works 1969 except where noted), Keith Sonnier’s Spray File, 1969–89, a lozenge-shaped frame with aluminum screening stretched over it, one of Olivier Mosset’s circle paintings, Eva Hesse’s Test Piece for Repetition Nineteen II, 1968–69, a latex bucket of sorts sprouting surgical tubing, Richard Artschwager’s “blps” deposited around the gallery, Robert Barry’s wallpiece that reads: “ALL THE THINGS I KNOW BUT OF WHICH I AM NOT AT THE MOMENT THINKING—1:36 PM; JUNE 15, 1969,” and Hans Haacke’s Grass Grows, a mound of earth and rye grass, appeal in their definitive status, confirmed by the 20/20 vision of hindsight. But where were the controversies? What were the connections to that troubled and volatile year? Where was our stalking “period eye” to focus?

Cut to the display case. Week One: “An Essay on Liberation.” A film still from Midnight Cowboy. The audience at Woodstock. A still from the movie In the Year of the Pig, featuring a protester with a sign that reads “Make war, not love.” Protest, rock ’n’ roll, acid, and the American flag. Armed black students at Cornell University from the U.S. news. Week Two: “The Politics of Time.” Two photos of The People’s Park in Berkeley after the National Guard moved in. Easy Rider. A handbill for a Velvet Underground concert. A New York Times issue from Monday, 21 July, featuring the headline “MEN WALK ON THE MOON.” Week Three: “The Aesthetics of Disappearance.” The exhibition catalogue from “Live in Your HEAD: When Attitudes Become Form.” Robert Barry’s “During the exhibition the gallery will be closed.” The Art Workers’ Coalition open hearing at the School of Visual Arts on museum reform. Week Four: “ONE WEEK’S DEAD.” Life magazine, 27 June, tragically filled with the faces of every American killed in Vietnam in one week. Week Five: “1968.” Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, 1968. David Shapiro occupying the president’s chair at Columbia University.

Cut back to Lawrence Weiner’s A WALL SHATTERED BY A SINGLE PISTOL SHOT; to Larry Clark’s black and white photograph of a group of young nude mud bathers at one with nature; to an austere gray Jasper Johns’ Flag in lead relief; to Douglas Huebler’s Duration Piece #15 Global, consisting of a reproduction of an FBI “Wanted” poster and an accompanying statement guaranteeing payment of the reward, by Huebler, or owner, upon the arrest and conviction of the alleged criminal, amortized to decrease over the period of one year to zero dollars; to Andy Warhol’s Trash (shot in 1969 and released in 1970).

Was Weiner’s bullet the one that killed Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy? Were Clark’s bathers Woodstock celebrants, high on love and good vibes? Was Johns’ flag the one flown by the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and the MC5? And what of Haacke’s grassy knoll, Neil Jenney’s The Edition Piece, a shelf of shattered glass with a mirror form on the right, and Bruce Nauman’s Second Poem Piece, a steel plate engraved “YOU MAY NOT WANT TO SCREW HERE . . .”? At present, revisionist historians find more social content in works of the ’60s than were ever dreamed possible decades ago. Intentionally or not, Nickas presents a veiled critique of rationalist interpretations of art that rely exclusively on social context and lead to flat-footed iconographical analysis (hmmm . . . a lesson for 1992?). Nickas seems quite intentionally to curate to the tune of “My Favorite Things” (even if The Sound of Music was made in 1965), and as he abandons viewers to their own subjective perceptions, he happily indulges in his own.

Jan Avgikos