How New York’s Jewish Museum Anticipated the Avant-Garde

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The show for which McShine is best remembered — and which is one of the most celebrated exhibitions of the late 20th century — is “Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors,” from 1966. McShine assembled works by East Coast, California and British sculptors, early in their careers, who shared what we now call a Minimalist aesthetic. Here for the first time together were artists like Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Larry Bell, Anne Truitt, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Morris and Ronald Bladen, who used various materials (painted steel or aluminum, colored plastic, coated glass) in different ways (structured repetition of prefabricated units, heroically scaled steel) but shared an interest in machine-made objects, smooth planes of vibrant color and the removal of the sculpture from a pedestal. “It had tremendous impact because it was really the first show including those artists,” says the dealer Paula Cooper, who went on to represent many of the show’s contributors at the eponymous New York gallery that she founded in 1968. “I think it was the beginning.”

“Primary Structures” had its eye trained so thoroughly on the future that it would take years for its importance to be recognized. Judy Chicago, then known as Judy Gerowitz, exhibited “Rainbow Pickett,” a sequence of six brightly painted wooden beams that leaned against the wall. “I got nowhere with a lot of that big sculpture,” she says. “My male peers would get picked up and be on the choo-choo train, and I had to constantly start over again. After a decade and a half of that, I changed direction.” Robert Grosvenor, who installed “Transoxiana,” a 31-foot-high V-shaped sculpture of painted wood and steel that was destroyed after the exhibition, says the show “had no impact whatsoever” on his career. For Hunter, too, “Primary Structures” did little to help his standing at the museum. He was forced to resign in October 1967.

Hunter’s replacement, Karl Katz, who had been a curator at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, had a reputation as being “open to pretty much anything,” says the curator Susan Tumarkin Goodman, who in 1970 organized “Using Walls,” with a group of artists — the roster included Richard Artschwager, Lawrence Weiner, Richard Tuttle, Sol LeWitt and Bochner — who drew and painted directly onto the museum’s walls. But Katz’s daredevil spirit would also indirectly end the museum’s improbable run as the primary promoter of the avant-garde. His 1970 exhibition “Software: Information Technology and Its New Meaning for Art” was a flawed but visionary look at the impact of computer science on art. Everything in the show — the exhibitions, the performing artists — ran on programmed instructions or were issued from a prescribed system. Those artists included Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Allan Kaprow, Joseph Kosuth and Nam June Paik, most of whom were still largely unknown to the general public. The day before “Software” opened, Katz gave a tour to the seminary chancellor, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, and a representative of the Smithsonian, which wanted to stage the show and therefore defray some of its costs. The three men viewed Nicholas Negroponte’s installation, “Seek,” in which a computer-controlled claw moved 2,000 metal-coated plastic cubes of a maze navigated by gerbils. Then they advanced to a video recording by Les Levine. As Katz recalls in his memoir, all was fine until they got to the footage that depicted the artist stark naked in the company of two equally unclad women. The rabbi sputtered in furious disbelief.

“I think, Mr. Katz, that this is the end,” he said.

And it was. A fire at the Smithsonian, coupled with technical failures in the challenging show, led to the cancellation of the Smithsonian showing, and “Software” finished at least $50,000 over budget. The combination of salaciousness and shortfall was insurmountable, and the seminary declared it would no longer subsidize a program that was not “basically Jewish.” Katz submitted his resignation the next day.



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