“Off-Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957-1963”

In 1959, when Lucas Samaras was a flamboyant, patchwork-dressed undergrad at Rutgers, his senior thesis show included a concrete poem with the word “Fuck fuck fuck fuck . . .” inscribing a neat square with a concluding “you” appended at the end. Samaras’s brilliantly jejune production resulted in a huge administrative commotion, which led to his teacher Allan Kaprow being passed over for tenure and, in 1961, leaving the school. Such incidents are entirely characteristic of the wild and crazy mood at Rutgers in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Roy Lichtenstein, perhaps under Kaprow’s influence, made his first hand-painted Pop works in 1961 while teaching at Douglass College (Rutgers’s women’s school) and living in Highland Park, New Jersey. The formative viewer-interactive games, assemblages, and subversive proto-Pop and Mail art strategies of Robert Watts and George Brecht (both Rutgers faculty) were hatched at the Howard Johnson’s restaurant in downtown New Brunswick, and their bacchanalian “Yam Festival” (“Yam” is May spelled backward) took place in 1963 at George Segal’s nearby chicken farm. Clearly the merry band at Rutgers created a nexus for performance, Pop, Fluxus, and Conceptual art a few years later.

The idea of a “New Jersey School” is a parodic misnomer; the Rutgers group that crashed New York around 1960 was less a “school” than a loose aggregate of individuals, all men, who early on audited John Cage’s class at the New School and broke into New York alternative venues like the Hansa Gallery and later the Reuben Gallery. Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Red Grooms, and Al Hansen were never New Jerseyites, yet all were closely associated with the same early performance milieu. Today, such notions of cultural infiltration are doubly attractive as we are once again in a decentered moment, when New York seems increasingly suburbanized and “beige,” while New Jersey (à la Lauryn Hill and The Sopranos) looms ever larger as a new cultural topos.

A trip to downtown Newark (the site of the exhibition) on a Sunday afternoon suggests a weird amalgam of Detroit and Montevideo. Inside the Newark Museum itself, a modest, encyclopedic place loaded with forgotten treasures, many of them in either an attached Victorian house or a successful postmodernist extension by Michael Graves, plurality reigns supreme. This extremely various show—full of paintings, sculptures, and multimedia installations, as well as video documentations and dry-looking performance notations on yellowing notebook paper—was in turn inflected by both the surrounding displays and the inner-city audience. Rowdy kids ran through Kaprow’s flashing-light and photo-booth installation Beauty Parlor IV, 1958/1999, stopping only to try on Halloween masks that were part of the piece. Overstuffed Victoriana in nearby rooms almost seemed to suggest new precedents for the ’50s art-and-life conflations of Brecht and Watts. Segal’s white plaster-cast sculptures looked oddly Neoclassical with Hiram Powers’s The Greek Slave down the hall, and Roy Lichtenstein’s Large Spool, 1963, evoked some ancient ziggurat, as primal as the colossal Chinese dragon sculptures upstairs.

Even within the show itself, artworks seemed to play a clever game of identity-switching. Two small identical male portraits from 1961 by Lichtenstein depicted Allan Kaprow and Ivan Karp. Fellow teacher? New York dealer? Which is which, and what does it matter? Kaprow’s Woman Out of Fire, 1956, a tar-covered fertility figure with ivory button eyes, could be mistaken for an early Segal: The curators imply that Kaprow was the galvanizing figure who influenced his friend to take his sculpture off the base and out into the real world.

One of the best discoveries in this show was the early work of Robert Watts. His cartoony and anarchistic “Dollar Bills” of 1962 now seem like important precedents for Warhol’s “Money” paintings. Similarly, a subliminal point was made by installing Watts’s customized, ready-made Stamp Machine of 1960 (fifty cents dispensed the artist’s own quirky W.C. Fields and “Yamflug” stamps) right in front of Lichtenstein’s Look Mickey, 1961, the world-class masterpiece in the show. Here, renegade novelty was purposely undercut in the service of art-historical priority by the wall label claiming that Watts and company were appropriating consumerist imagery well before Lichtenstein. What about Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers and Alex Katz, not to mention all the Californians, who were using Americana at the same time? Watts’s most salient claims are not so much his “firsts” as his loopy logic and quirky inventiveness: his early film G.W. and Sons, 1963, depicting George Washington in beatnik stagings of American Revolutionary battles, gives off a proto-slackerish vibe, and his sewn-fabric Yambanner, 1963, is Mike Kelley avant la lettre.

The organizers deserve kudos for the show and for the catalogue, which comes complete with full scholarly apparatus. Don’t miss the interview with Letty Lou Eisenhauer, a former art department secretary and erstwhile nude participant in Kaprow’s Happenings. A special friend and apologist of Watts’s, she nonetheless affectionately blows the whistle on the machismo of the Rutgers group. Her account of being wheedled for a week by Kaprow to take her clothes off for a performance reminds us that living theater at Rutgers circa 1960 wasn’t exactly all fun and games.

Brooks Adams is a writer and critic based in New York.