New York


P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

It wasn’t too long ago that the fortieth anniversary of the Summer of Love held boomers and civilians alike in its onanistic thrall. Yet in a chastened—even anodyne—return, the 1960s now invoked more frequently come at the decade’s end. This exhibition, for one, means to recover the heterodox production of 1969 through a full-floor survey of works made that year. Perhaps it is unsurprising that we find our times reflected in this earlier postdiluvian climate, but that is not really the point. Indeed, in spite of originating in “a period marked with revolution and socio-political tumult,” as the P.S. 1 press materials synopsize, “1969” comes off as surprisingly bloodless. Politics here are mostly local, which is to say self-referentially institutional. Culled from all of the Museum of Modern Art’s departments, including its estimable archives, the exhibited works bespeak patterns of collecting then and financial constraints now; they also chronicle the museum’s engagement with its critics (the Art Workers’ Coalition features prominently, at least in the vitrines). Plus there is the restaged exhibition within the exhibition, “Five Recent Acquisitions,” organized by MoMA curator Kynaston McShine in, yes, 1969, boasting a California posse (Larry Bell, Ron Davis, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, and John McCracken).

That attention is paid above all to MoMA’s own record suggests that even the date is blinkered—1969 is the median of the museum’s eighty years. Setting aside such concerns, however, the premise of the exhibition still prompts questions, not least of which is what story the curatorial team (Neville Wakefield, with Michelle Elligott and Eva Respini) means to tell. Certainly—and despite the patent self-reflexivity—they do not seem to have combed the permanent collection for lost gems; nor do they argue for an alternative post-’60s trajectory. Helen Frankenthaler stands in for the waning of formalist modernism with a Color Field gone dimly, darkly monochromatic; Pop’s afterlife is registered in a Richard Avedon photo of Andy Warhol’s scarred torso, and in Warhol’s own cult film Blue Movie; Minimalism shades into process in a Richard Serra scatter; Conceptualism encroaches in works by Robert Barry and Douglas Huebler; and so on. There are few women to speak of—the Frankenthaler, a Lee Lozano, a Martha Rosler—though there are several Bruce Naumans. Painting is deemed irrelevant, with just a handful of traditional canvases on display.

One still might well ask why this year and not the one before or after—or what rounding up these relatively arbitrary objects might tell us about them or their period. A pedantic Wikipedia time line hugging the interior hallway doesn’t help in this regard. It does, however, raise the issue of the show’s own context; this list of events downloaded from the Internet would have been just as remedial in the building when it was a functioning school. This broaches the matter of P.S. 1’s position as a MoMA affiliate, and whether that relationship has here yielded anything more than a collection show absent works unfit for a building lacking climate control.

In the spirit of critique, the curators invited five contemporary artists, including the Bruce High Quality Foundation and Hank Willis Thomas, to produce “interventions.” Most successfully, Stephanie Syjuco’s Temporal Aggregate/Social Configuration (Borrowed Beuys), 2009, and Custom Transitional Utility Object (Morris Mover), 2009, take on P.S. 1’s stepchildlike status explicitly. The former is a Joseph Beuys re-created with felt, wax, and wood sourced from Syjuco’s friends and the latter a fabric sculpture that could be used to transport works between MoMA and its satellite—works that could not be shown in the present grouping. As Syjuco’s Morris Mover wall panel lays bare: “The original Morris could not be shown at P.S. 1 due to the felt’s tendency to attract dirt, dust, and moths. . . . In addition prolonged exhibition of the work at P.S. 1 would preclude it from being presented in the immediate future at MoMA.” Thus she admitted the exhibited works’ insistent materiality, inscribing a history elsewhere rendered abstract.

Suzanne Hudson