“New Realisms”

THE TITLE OF THIS EXTRAORDINARY EXHIBITION at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía—“New Realisms: 1957–1962”—is one of its several provocative maneuvers. The French movement known as Nouveau Réalisme first came to New York City—thanks in no small part to Pierre Restany’s egomaniacal, chauvinistic rhetoric and superlative networking abilities—with William Seitz’s “The Art of Assemblage” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961 and Sidney Janis’s gallery show “The New Realists” the following year. If the former dug into history (Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Picasso) in order to legitimate the complete abandonment of a painterly lexicon, the latter stressed the transatlantic nature of the conversation taking place. In the gap between those exhibitions, we can perceive many of the shifts that curator Julia Robinson underscores with her own title. “The Art of Assemblage” had borne witness to the breakdown of medium-specific ambitions. In his catalogue essay, Seitz described assemblage as “the language for impatient, hypercritical, and anarchistic young artists” but also stressed the quality of its works as “fearfully dark, evoking horror or nausea: the anguish of the scrap heap.” By contrast, “The New Realists”—which featured both Restany’s group and the American Pop artists and might have been the first sign of the latter’s uninterruptible climb to worldwide preeminence––alerted critic Dore Ashton to “a host of younger artists stepp[ing] out into the world of show business” (as Ágnes Berecz notes in her catalogue essay for the current exhibition). This contradiction, between an art that would be a testament to the horrors of late capitalism and an art that participates in the spectacle of self-promotion, is borne out in the variety of work from both European and American vanguards that has been assembled in Madrid. Adamantly plural, cruelly short in its chronological span, and perfectly aware of the unseemly union between a publicity construct and any truly new “realism” today, “New Realisms” reminds us that beyond the hackneyed spiritualism, kitsch, and spectacle that preoccupied some of Restany’s original group, real discoveries abound.

For example, Yayoi Kusama’s Phallus Dress, 1961, made of small, filled sacs attached to a muddy-bronze “dress” on a hanger, predates both Joseph Beuys’s Felt Suit, 1970, and the three shirts in Marcel Broodthaers’s Exposition littéraire autour de Mallarmé, 1969, by almost a decade. Those later works translate performance into relic (or make a travesty of that practice) and by extension rethink both the art object’s ontology and the figure of the artist. By contrast, Phallus Dress, in emphasizing how the symbolic penetrates the real, carries the conversation with a kind of excited finality away from issues of what defines art ontologically, institutionally, and aesthetically. It also complicates the gender spectrum it sets up—those sacs (many of them quite mangled) are more egglike than phallic—and in so doing makes room for its author’s weird and complex take on femininity. Though Kusama is one of only two female artists in the show (reasonably, since the original groupings were almost exclusively male), Robinson sensitizes her viewers to issues of gender by underscoring the collaborative role played by dealers such as Iris Clert, Martha Jackson, and Anita Reuben. In addition, the transnational nature of the artistic conversations taking place emerges as a crystalline fact; the long process of rewriting a history once monopolized by Restany’s Franco-Italian alliance, forged with the signing of the 1960 manifesto of the Nouveaux Réalistes, is at last complete. Above all, however, several key issues emerge from the exhibition, which presses for a new analytic look at the complex takes on spectacle, identity, authorship, and materiality that emerged between 1957 and 1962 and suggests ways in which these issues fold into the contemporary moment with remarkable fluidity.

First is an unanticipated insistence on film. While some turned original “documents” of art into new artworks in their own right (most famously, the two films from 1960 documenting Jean Tinguely’s “self-constructing/self-destructing machine” at MoMA: D. A. Pennebaker’s Breaking It Up at the Museum, and Robert Breer’s Homage to Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York, shown here in alternation with each other, the exhibition also unveils a few remarkable films that leave Pennebaker’s modernist montage for entirely uncharted terrain. Among them is Ben Vautier’s Actions des rues, ca. 1958, which shows him struggling across the street inside a sack, a kind of crossing of Man Ray’s 1920 Enigma of Isidore Ducasse with William Pope.L’s 1991 Tompkins Square Crawl. Consistently, films recording the production of artworks—such as the footage of Yves Klein making his “Fire Paintings” in 1961, and Niki de Saint Phalle and Billy Klüver’s Tir of the same year, in which the protagonists wander about shooting paintballs while a toddler and other onlookers pay moderate attention—demonstrated how artists’ bodies, aggression, and capacity for self-mortification became integral components of their practice. At the same time, we witness film becoming not a mere vehicle on which to register performance but a medium whose acuity was sharpened through its evocation of mass-cultural cross-references. Jerry Lewis’s perpetually overplayed gags and lack of bodily control echo Vautier’s lumpen body crawl, while endless film-noir and B-movie shoot-outs remind us why we can’t look away from Saint Phalle and Klüver’s extended, sometimes desultory “shoot-out.” If such performances took aim at the utterly spectacular resurrection of painting (embodied in Georges Mathieu’s “public painting-spectacles,” as Berecz calls them), the question of our place as spectators would remain open: After all, what is more spectacular than a gun being fired? But as reminders from the wider cultural spectrum force the issue of our participation in these artistic events—we are already cued to laugh at Vautier’s gag and to be disbelievingly mesmerized by Saint Phalle’s pseudo target practice—the debate shifts from moralizing judgments to the nature of the libidinal engines revved up by such displays. Coming from artists better known for their megalomania and self-branding, Actions des rues and Tir are revelatory.

A second issue that the show treats with particular care is the use of “poor materials,” which can easily turn into a tired and tiring form of aesthetic assault. (Or a kind of spectacular revisionism, as one could sometimes feel at the 2009 Piero Manzoni exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York; the reinstatement, by the monarchs of the art market, of works made of eggshells or deflated balloons has a certain unironic ponderousness.) In works by Arman, Gérard Deschamps, François Dufrêne, Raymond Hains, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Martial Raysse, Mimmo Rotella, Daniel Spoerri, Jacques de la Villeglé, and Robert Whitman––in fact, a majority of the artists in the show––we confront flaking, peeling, tattering, fading, discoloring: the underside of the bygone industrial era as it was transformed into the mass-produced polish of the 1950s and ’60s. Yet it is not the materials but rather their registration of use and abuse that assaults the viewer and differentiates “New Realism” from the movement proposed as its (overlapping) successor, Pop. Whereas the mass media’s actual systems of production come into play in the silk screens and paintings of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist, the ripped surfaces and torn fabrics in this show testify to processes that are neither production nor consumption but merely the wear and tear taking place throughout cities and domestic households, the material transformation breaching capital’s systems.

This view is idealistic, of course, and as scholars have pointed out, the décollagistes worked first and foremost with the impression of ripped readymade posters. But that is the point: The “surfaces” of everyday life are not thin physical membranes, nor even what would come to be known as the “interface” between individuals and the environment, but rather rhythms of experience, collectively inscribed in the materials of everyday life. Take, for instance, the role played by the interruptive quality of the radio (Öyvind Fahlström’s Birds in Sweden, 1962, a sound collage first broadcast by Swedish radio that featured engines and ringing phones as well as human voices and birds in extraordinary onomatopoeic play, is here beautifully installed in a wood-paneled sitting room), the tactility of a dirty poster (or its clawed-at undersides, as in Dufrêne’s La rose jaune II [The Yellow Rose II], 1961), or the ponderous weight of a big hunk of meat (Oldenburg’s Roast, 1961). New connections arise between, for example, Whitman’s Untitled drawing (checkerboard) works of 1957 and Deschamp’s Tôle irisée de réacteur d’avion (Iridescent Metal Sheet from Plane Engine), 1962, both of which play off the properties of thin or permeable sheets of metal. By creating grids through board-game-like collaged tinfoil squares that reflect different amounts of light according to the patterns inscribed on them, Whitman brings a Picasso-esque meditation on collage, representation, and convention into the atomic age. But such everyday materials are inevitably linked in our imaginations with associations that are utterly functionalized in another sphere, as Deschamps’s military tarpaulins and bullet-riddled armor plating emphasize. Thus, physical properties of foil, fabric, and other materials––even color––are played across different registers. At the same time, the role of our imagination in making those associations is as powerful as the cold war demanded.

Indeed, the exhibition forcefully lays bare that the third concern of some of the “urban folk artists” (to use Janis’s phrase) was the centrality of war. Of course, for every work by Hains such as OAS fusillez les plastiquers! (OAS Shoot the Bombers!), 1961, there are works by Klein such as Cosmogonie sans titre (Untitled Cosmogony), 1961, that undermine any connection between art and the social world. American Happenings—such as Jim Dine’s 1960 Car Crash, which re-created the crashing noise and intermittent visions associated with automobile accidents from the collective paranoid imagination, and Oldenburg’s 1960 Snapshots from the City, which associated the same disruptive effects with the basic patterns of living in a city—resonated with the brutality of contemporary urban life. But for an acutely political framework one has to seek out works like Hains’s 1958 Alleg Alger, which connects the embattled Algerian capital to the journalist Henri Alleg, whose account of his torture at the hands of French paratroopers, La Question (1958), sold thousands of copies in France before the government banned it. Even if explicit political references in the exhibition are mostly limited to efforts by the décollagistes and fellow travelers such as Deschamps, they leave an indelible impression that some “new realisms” relate to a reality less driven by commodity culture than we have let ourselves assume. The years between 1957 and 1962 were, after all, those in which Guy Debord was working out how to read Marx in an age of “post-production.”

The exhibition’s subtitle—“Object Strategies Between Readymade and Spectacle”—emphasizes that the notion of spectacle hangs over this show, its importance corroborated by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s epoch-defining 1976 essay “Formalism and Historicity,” republished in the catalogue with a thoughtful new preface. The ubiquity of spectacle may be most apparent in the remarkable plays on space in Stan VanDerBeek’s 1962 film of Oldenburg’s Snapshots from the City and a re-creation of Whitman’s American Moon, 1960. Nevertheless, as Hannah Feldman argues forcefully in her catalogue essay and elsewhere, activist opposition to the French colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria threads through even the most ambivalent works by Hains, Villeglé, and others. Forcing us to think past the remarkable blind spots in Debord’s canonical Society of the Spectacle, such innovative looks at new realisms now four decades old are not only worthwhile—they seem altogether crucial to understanding art’s tenuous relations to, as Buchloh puts it, “the actually governing conditions of social reality” today.

“New Realisms: 1957–1962” is on view at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, through October 4.

Rachel Haidu’s The Absence of Work: Marcel Broodthaers, 1964–1976 is published this month by the MIT Press.