New York

“New York ca. 1975”

All bad art, Oscar Wilde once observed, is sincere. Yet it's hard to imagine a more sincere or necessary statement than Wilde's own De Profundis. When it comes to art's directly addressing life's dire exigencies—war, social inequity, prejudice, human misery in general—sincerity, like that others word, happens. How long such art can be of anything more than historical interest is another question. Judging from this show of work made in New York in the '70s, it's got at least another fifteen minutes.

Dan Graham's tentatively expressive Performance Audience Mirror, 1977, encapsulates one's overall response to the varied installations spread through three rooms of the gallery. In the video, the artist rambles in the manner of a polite neurotic asking directions, extemporaneously narrating his own actions as well as the reactions of his audience. The effect wavers between grating and amusing. It's a public glimpse of a person regarding himself, and one ultimately feels tender toward this average-seeming guy who can keep up such an amiably inquisitive, observant if tediously objective front. The work is an exercise in self-referentiality from a time when such a stance was risky, and Graham's audience seems to have been genuinely moved by the experience—perhaps because they hadn't been primed for it by decades of French critical hyperspeak.

In the most pointedly political or ideological works—Martha Rosler's 1967–72 “Bringing the War Home” series; Lynda Benglis's bronze dildo Smile, 1974, and nude centerfold-cum-statement that caused considerable scandal when it ran in these pages that year; Ana Mendieta's Rape/Murder, 1973-some of the passions of the period have been set in art-historical stone. As unlike as their work can be, Rosler, Benglis, and Mendieta posed a powerful counterpoint to the fatally cool Warholian '70s, whose patina of glamour was underlaid by violence and despair. Rosler's collages of troops occupying the same visual space as pristine middle-class living rooms and kitchens lifted from magazine ads make a point that is perhaps more relevant now than ever before: We purchase our cloistered dreamland, with its artificial sense of security, at the expense of lives that we are compelled by our collective sense of economics to ignore. Like Larry Miller's Knives, 1973, these works are provocations that confront the viewer with the realities of social inequity, violence, and poverty. The critique they advance is hardly outdated; what might be is a general sense that artists should have any particular purchase on such problems. But topical work is not for everyone: Even artists find it hard to look our corporate Johns in the face, as Hans Haacke's plastic sculpture The Chase Advantage, 1976, would have us do.

The photographs and videos in the middle gallery documenting Trisha Brown's Roof Piece, 1973, in which dancers perform on various Greenwich Village roofs; Yvonne Rainer's Group Hoist (Continuous Project—Altered Daily), 1970, in which people walk with seeming casualness down or across the walls of buildings; and various performances captured by Peter Moore—offer an airy, light, and movement filled antidote to the more ideologically driven works, a balletic alternative vision to the dystopia critiqued in the main gallery.

Compared to this slice of the '70s, the contemporary New York scene seems coy and garish, unreflective and unashamedly market-driven. And from this vantage, the '70s look fiery if naive, somehow only newly self-aware, at least as self-critical as narcissistic in a time of social. political, and economic unrest. As we leave behind the scrubbed if fatalistically canny moment we were milling about in before September 11, such vintage sincerity looks increasingly fresh.

Tom Breidenbach