New York

Robert Ryman, Classico 6, 1968, acrylic on six sheets of handmade watermarked Classico paper mounted on foamcore, each sheet approx. 30 x 22 1/2". From “50 Years: An Anniversary.”

Robert Ryman, Classico 6, 1968, acrylic on six sheets of handmade watermarked Classico paper mounted on foamcore, each sheet approx. 30 x 22 1/2". From “50 Years: An Anniversary.”

“50 Years: An Anniversary”

Paula Cooper Gallery | 524 W 26th Street

Robert Ryman, Classico 6, 1968, acrylic on six sheets of handmade watermarked Classico paper mounted on foamcore, each sheet approx. 30 x 22 1/2". From “50 Years: An Anniversary.”

Summarizing the activities of a major art gallery in a single exhibit would seem an impossible task, especially if the gallery happens to be the one opened by a young woman named Paula Cooper a cool fifty years ago. Originally the proprietor of the Paula Johnson Gallery and subsequently director of the collective Park Place Gallery during the mid-1960s, Cooper, one of SoHo’s first “settlers,” launched her eponymous space on an upper floor of a loft building on New York’s Prince Street in October 1968. (She would later move to nearby Wooster Street and ultimately to a cathedral-like space on West Twenty-First Street in Chelsea.) The program at Cooper has encompassed entire schools and generations and could easily be the subject of a museum exhibition. This anniversary show, staged at Cooper’s temporary space on West Twenty-Sixth Street, had a more precise aim; it sought to reconstruct the gallery’s inaugural exhibit half a century earlier.

Cooper opened her eponymous gallery’s doors roughly eight weeks after the notorious protest during the 1968 Democratic Convention, when Chicago mayor Richard Daley sicced his police on antiwar protesters gathered at the downtown Hilton; the images of that conflagration are among the most violent of the era. Curated by Robert Huot, Lucy Lippard, and Ron Wolin, the Cooper exhibit was a benefit for the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and included such established artists as Carl Andre, Jo Baer, and Donald Judd. Political in name and aspiration, the show was staged just prior to the New York art world’s overt embrace of antiwar, feminist, and antiracist politics (the Art Workers’ Coalition, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, and Women Artists in Revolution were founded in 1969). Tellingly, none of the works selected espoused an antiwar stance. Unapologetically abstract, the paintings and sculptures displayed in the Prince Street gallery represented a classic “minimalist” politics of negation—a refusal of narrative and subjectivity, of the symbolic and signified. Whatever politics these objects could be said to embody was embedded in their facture, their formal orchestration, and their sheer physical presence. That only one of the original fourteen participants, Baer, was a woman, is indicative of the sexism of an art world prior to the feminist awakening of the early ’70s in which Lippard herself would play a seminal role.

The anniversary show was a more or less faithful reproduction of the original, minus one of the participants (the artist and writer David Lee could not be located). Efforts were made to present the very object that Cooper initially showed or one quite similar. A Judd aluminum floor box painted in brown enamel substituted for a similar box executed in brass. A corner sculpture by Dan Flavin, comprised of two eight-foot, cool-white fluorescent lamps, clumsily combined, stood in for one with lamps of different lengths. A handsome sextet of works on paper by Robert Ryman, Classico 6, 1968, replaced Classico 5 (of the same year), which was originally made up of twelve paper pieces. The most famous work in the show—Sol LeWitt’s very first wall drawing, Wall Drawing #1: Drawing Series II, 14 (A & B), 1968, a composition of lines drawn in four directions in two parts—was meticulously reproduced. 

Remakes of historical shows afford perceptions of the reigning taste of their moments, and explain why certain artists came to the fore as others slid into obscurity. Compared to Robert Murray’s Surf, 1967, an agreeable floor sculpture of interlocking zigzag aluminum units painted yellow, Andre’s arrangement of twenty-right red bricks laid on their sides in a straight line still looks radical half a century after the artist made it. Ryman’s serial Classico 6 and Baer’s large, bold diptych Untitled (Vertical Flanking Diptych—Green), 1966–74, are more impactful than Doug Ohlson’s quadriptych Slip, 1967, in which three pink squares appear to sit uncertainly on their brown supports. Other works—such as Robert Huot’s Sulphur Bottom, 1967, an elegant, odd horizontal canvas with a rounded lower edge, and Bill Bollinger’s Rope Piece, 1968, a powerful arrangement of ropes and clamps stretching from floor to ceiling—provided a glimpse of these artists’ intriguing practices. Together, the works in the exhibition marked the opening chapter in the rich history of one of the most important galleries of its time—a history that awaits its proper telling.