New York

“High Times, Hard Times”

National Academy Museum & School

“I LOOKED ASKANCE at the culture of painting,” admits artist Mary Heilmann in the catalogue accompanying “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975.” “I chose it as a practice in order to have arguments with people like Robert Smithson.” Heilmann’s feisty, equivocal endorsement of her medium—specifically, of advanced anti-Greenbergian abstraction—epitomizes the era considered in curator Katy Siegel’s show, organized for Independent Curators International with David Reed as adviser. (The exhibition opened at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, Greensboro, North Carolina, and then traveled to the Katzen Arts Center, Washington, DC.) Highs abounded in the then-emergent SoHo scene, with cheap lofts, cooperative galleries, and all-night talkfests at Max’s Kansas City. Painters, though, were working through hard times in an idiom that had been declared dead. Dismissal of post-Minimal painting as sculpture’s retardataire shadow (exceptions being, say, Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella) has since congealed into a commonplace of art historiography. New narratives are overdue.

This is not to say that certain of the show’s participants don’t enjoy robust—in some cases resuscitated—careers. Elizabeth Murray, Carolee Schneemann, and Richard Tuttle, for example, have all had important recent shows. And surveys like “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, are examining related segments of the past. Siegel and Reed, however, seek not to revise individual reputations, nor to review a movement across media. They want to make visible a zeitgeist that, for those who didn’t experience it, constitutes a missing link in abstraction’s lineage. Partisans of the decade’s debates will see this reconsideration somewhat differently. But anyone thinking now about painting—or about sculpture, installation, video, the market, and getting into history books—would do well to think again about this moment, in which urgent demolition of medium specificity coexisted with passionate defense of the medium.

The exhibition’s thesis is that, just as Smithson and his buddies were repudiating colored daubs on rectilinear surfaces, another downtown cohort was torquing and hybridizing the practice from within. Many were women (Jo Baer, Louise Fishman, Harriet Korman, Ree Morton, Joan Snyder, Pat Steir) and people of color (David Diao, Yayoi Kusama, Al Loving, Joe Overstreet, Howardena Pindell, Jack Whitten). They broke rules, locating painting’s raison d’être in energies congruent with, but realized in another dimension from, preoccupations in sculpture and performance. These included “low” materials (as in Dorothea Rockburne’s Intersection, 1971, comprising chipboard, crude oil, and plastic sheeting); women’s work and manual labor; filmic flicker and broadcast static; task-based and aleatory composition. The central project, however, was to deconstruct the picture plane. Thus, in forty-two pieces by thirty-eight artists, “High Times, Hard Times” tracks AbEx in the expanded field.

Poured on the floor, hung from the ceiling, shaped, pierced, and dematerialized into video, this work eschews transcendent gestalt, engaging the viewer’s body and exploiting movement, diachrony, and three-dimensionality; and yet it cleaves contradictorily to flatness. But such painterliness is no optically pure bearer of the gesture. It is more like a membrane wrapped around a space admitting traces of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, Carl Andre and Donald Judd, Joan Jonas, Miles Davis, Richard Nixon, television. (No wonder these paintings were hard to manage critically.) Against this backdrop, artists as diverse as Louis Cameron and Gedi Sibony, Mark Grotjahn and the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, appear subtly reaffiliated.

The exhibition’s layout is loosely thematic, with works grouped in four sections: traditional stretched canvases; works deconstructed or moved off the wall; installation and performance; and paintings influenced by film and video (in addition to some actual films and videos). The most interesting room—containing the “off the wall” works—presented painting as environment. Referencing folk art, domesticity, and civic unfreedom, these pieces nevertheless remain committed to the basic problem of color as an overlay resting on—or as a fundamental property of—the painting’s support. Thus, Alan Shields’s Put a Name on It Please, 1972, shreds the canvas into a net of pigmented strips and beaded strings. Dividing the space with an openwork harlequin, it calls to mind a festive chain-link fence. A grid of stuffed silver segments, Pindell’s Untitled, 1968–70, bulges off the wall, flopping onto the floor as if that same entrapping fence were melting. Lee Lozano’s Punch, Peek, Feel, 1967–70, is a canvas with a sweep of beige paint that signifies “brushstroke”; but a row of cutout circles “destroys” the image, revealing the functional stretchers and throwing indexical shadows on the wall. Sewing, piecework, and real-world tactility also appear in Loving’s untitled, torn-canvas assemblage from the 1970s, hung high like a banner. Lynda Benglis’s Blatt, 1969, a latex pour, spreads a funky clown carpet; Harmony Hammond’s pair of braided rugs stand in for target paintings. Kusama—in a hippie-shamanic film—paints on water in Central Park. Her dissolving polka dots might seem playful, but the piece is called Self-Obliteration; dated 1967, it evokes comparison of leafy, red-spattered New York to Vietnam.

No single exhibition can entirely renovate received wisdom, and there has been grumbling from both critics and artists about who was missed or what was picked. And then there’s the installation. The paintings hit the Beaux-Arts mansion of the National Academy Museum in New York like a fleet of spaceships. Canvases dangle over wainscoting; floral moldings compete with spray-gun op effects; oval salons compromise big works. Yet the setting also helps foreground Siegel’s point about historical neglect. Doubtless a white cube would invest this art with greater power, but “having greater power” could come perilously close to “looking familiar.” In what other venue would Overstreet’s unstretched, kite-shaped Purple Flight, 1971, tether its ropes to a wrought-iron balustrade, rhyming perversely with Henry Peters Gray’s The Birth of Our Flag, 1874, an academic nude in the permanent collection? Overstreet and his peers sought to undo their inheritance without destroying it. Here, then, is their thought in action.

“High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975” remains on view at the National Academy Museum through Apr. 22, and travels to Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, May 25–Sept. 9.

Frances Richard is a Brooklyn, New York-based writer.