American Sculpture of the Sixties
ART INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE
LOS ANGELES LETTER - KURT VON MEIER
An ambitious attempt to survey American sculpture in the 1960s, as organized by Curator of Modern Art Maurice Tuchman, is the year's major exhibition to be presented by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is a large exhibition in terms of numbers, with eighty artists and over twice as many individual works. Some of the objects take up lots of space by themselves: the biggest are by Mark di Suvero, David, von Schlegell, Kenneth Snelson, and Peter Voulkos. Large areas are also consumed by the tableaux of Edward Kienholz and George Segal, and by the rooms of Harold Paris and Lucas Samaras. The problem of scale, connected with the problem of mere size, is an important one to start with as it relates both to specific pieces to the concept of the exhibition, and to its installation. Out West, in California, and especially in LA, it is seductive to think in terms of the bigger the better. At the County Museum one is tempted to go along with the scope of the show, and to go Tuchman one better: the, by and large mediocre, collection of Fine Art objects in the Ahmanson Gallery might have been cleared out, at least on the bottom two floors, and the space given over to making this exhibition much more successful even in its own frame of reference. Without adding another piece, there would be some relief for the sense of stuffy overcrowding, valiantly enough contended with by Tuchman's installation against hopeless odds.
One of the major local implications of this exhibition will surely be to point up the pompous inadequacy of the Museum's architecture. The anti-human, neo-authoritarian flavor of the exterior intimidates even the largest of works. Maybe the only way to get even would have been to install a Boeing 727 in place of the silly little fountain out front, and one of those gigantic bright yellow earth movers in the Simon Sculpture Plaza. There is a positive rationale for such a gesture, not just expedience in confronting the problem of scale. Construction equipment and the airplane represent two examples of contemporary commercial sculpture that achieve successful presence in large scale. It is easy to imagine nice arguments about why commercial sculpture should not have been included, why it does not qualify as "Art", etc. But there are more and stronger counter-arguments, a convincing one being that no major museum or gallery has yet made such a statement and what better place to make it than in LA, future city of the world? Or are we still to be served up Romantic, 19th-century hang-ups about individual creative spirits as the unique source and definition of art ?
Tuchman's sculpture show probably will be the most important project of its kind in the country because of the number and scope of problems it raises. Some of these problems are confronted honestly and intelligently, which must be admitted even when one disagrees or prefers to reserve judgment about their suggested resolution. Here the impressive catalogue, with its virtually successful attempt to illustrate every work in the show, is a valuable document. A more resolute and complete bibliography would have made it an indispensable contribution to the history of contemporary art—although the policy decisions (involving time, staff, and budget for such an undertaking) may well have been outside Tuchman's control. His own introduction is disappointingly cursory, however well it does the minimal job of an introduction in presenting the conception and approach of the exhibition. It is precisely because Tuchman is a very good writer, with important ideas, and with a superb occasion for presenting them, that he should have been encouraged to produce a really major statement about the sculpture of our current decade. This might have happened had there been clearer and stronger criticism of an exhibition he directed in 1965, "New York School, The First Generation, Paintings of the 1940s and 1950s". There he provided a foreword of one paragraph, with two columns of acknowledgments, instead of a fresh, tough statement about the subject at hand, by Tuchman himself, who did in fact have something vital and intelligent to say. One begins to imagine darkly some of the (real or not) forces that led him to defer to other writers, by including segments of their criticism as the-text of the catalogue along with statements by the artists. The same pattern is followed with "American Sculpture". Ten short essays are included as text. Most of them are relevant; tighter coordinating could only have eliminated incidentally over lapping discussion, whereas further editing might have eliminated one or two essays, but could only lead eventually to problems of style (in this context anyway, unimportant). In a sense, all the groundwork had been accomplished: it only remained to crown these efforts with his own principle statement. It would be unfair to force this as an issue of either courage or modesty; the impending violence of the social and political scene in California is more than enough to augur against any clear and strong statement by any public person. It is perhaps beside the point to seek causes and explanations in the controversy of a year ago surrounding the Edward Kienholz retrospective exhibition at the LA County Museum organized by Tuchman. One would like to believe that censorship lost, and that the cause of freedom and reason won an effective if not total victory. But the fact is that there was still effective censorship of Kienholz's Back Seat Dodge'38, with the door closed and an attendant standing by to open it for those over 18; this in itself constituting the only really obscene and intellectually offensive gesture in the entire show. Unfortunately, if victories for freedom and reason are not total in fact, they are merely qualified defeats.
Given any survey as vast as that attempted by "American Sculpture of the Sixties", we should probably be prepared to give or take about ten percent. With a total of eighty artists, probably the least relevant to what really has happened so far in the development of sculpture in the sixties are: Calder, de Rivera, Kiesler, Liberman, Marisol, Nakian, Nevelson and Noguchi. This is not a comment about the quality of their work as sculpture, although such could be made in some cases also; but apart from the critical references to sources and influences, one really wants to read a cohesive argument for their inclusion, which is not to say that it couldn't be written. And since we are taking and leaving, another ten per cent I would leave, beginning from A, would. be: Acton, Agostini, Benton, Berlant, Doyle, Kipp, Liberman and Light. This is despite the fact that Arlo Acton and Tony Berlant have good pieces, and that I have written about their work and that of Fletcher Benton with genuine enthusiasm in other contexts. Sometimes it is a tough game to play. And it could get tougher if we had to pick another ten per cent from the bottom half of the alphabet. Even if we don't have to take this ten percent away, or offer specific substitutions, let's give eight more artists: Robert Arneson, Richard Artschwager, Robert Breer, Frank Gallo, Joe Goode, John Goodyear, Robert Graham, Steve Kaltenbach; and just to go on down the list, eight more: Craig Kauffman, Jean Lindner, James Melchert, Pat O'Neill, Ralph Ortiz, Don Potts, John Townsend and Gerald Walburg. These are off the top of the head; they are Americans, and they are not all from the West Coast by any means.
A more sophisticated way to play this game is to proceed by topics, or by sculptural "problems". For example, the only really Pop sculptors included are Oldenburg and Marisol. Oldenburg is fine and fecund artist, but to include Marisol without Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Watts, or Jim Dine necessarily raises serious critical objections. Lichtenstein, in his explosions, his seascapes, and his ceramics, has made fresh and significant statements as a sculptor. The concurrent Pasadena Art Museum retrospective exhibition of Lichtenstein organized by John Coplans emphatically establishes his importance as one of the major artists of the decade on an international scale (despite the Byzantine politics of the art world at the last Venice Biennale, at which this recognition might otherwise have been confirmed).
But it is the omission of Warhol that is truly perplexing. His Brillo boxes and the signed Campbell's soup cans offer the most direct and challenging confrontations for the medium of sculpture since Marcel Duchamp's Ready-mades, only this time around for the right reasons (not just to give Art a kick in the pants). The floating silver pillows are even referred to in the text; and well they might be, as the extreme statement of a major direction manifested by sculpture in the sixties, incorporating kinesis. We can go further with the problem of kinetic sculpture and ask why at least two of the greatest Southern California "sculptors", Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and George Barris, were not included. They are fine artists in everything except intent, and acceptance by the Establishment. The objects they create (kustom kars), are as beautiful, as impressive, and as powerfully original aesthetic statements as well over half the sculpture at the LA County Museum—and they also work: incorporating sound and smell together with motion and the more conventionally sculptural qualities.
There have been great exhibitions of work by these artists and their car-building and bike-building colleagues; but so far they have been held at Motoramas instead of at museums. "Happenings" at drag-strip eliminations are heavy, charged experiences that make the most wild and vicious gallery openings seem sterile and timid by comparison. Consideration of the cars, or road-building equipment, cranes, derricks, heavy machinery, or aircraft as sculpture raises some questions about the continued viability of sonic concept like the so-called Fine Arts. It is precisely within the realm of sculpture that several dramatic confrontations between Art and Life have occurred during the 1960s. Art historically, anyway, a substantial contribution could have been made in this respect within the scope of any such large survey. In fact one of the major elements in American sculpture of the sixties, if not the key to its development, is the multi-directional challenge to conventional limitations of the medium. Basically there seems to be a growth of sculpture out of commitment to the object-making situation. There are prototypes before the sixties, and parallels in other media, and the history of such a development would be complex; but the direction was clearly enough indicated or suggested by several pieces, even if the issue was not faced squarely enough. In a way this is good, for there is plenty of room for disagreement about what you or I or anyone else may understand as a major line of development.
Quite wisely, Maurice Tuchman avoided the obvious pitfalls of presenting an exhibition compartmentalized into 'movements". There probably never will be movements again in the sense there was before- and including Abstract Expressionism. With the second generation of AE, the style was as international, it being virtually impossible to tell, on the basis of style, and without external information, the difference between Japanese, South American, European or American Abstract Expressionist canvases Similarly, around the middle of the 1950s, distinctions between the fine and the popular arts were consistently challenged, sculpture began to emerge into its own leaving the vestiges of figural expression behind. Also television simultaneously began to radically change our vision of the world—at least in America; and rock and roll became the first truly integrated international art form. Instead of succeeding each other lineally, styles came to coexist (although suspiciously enough at first).
The so-called movements of Pop and Op art were international from the start, and transcended the bounds of the fine arts almost instantaneously, and by their very natures. The real historical changes, it became apparent, concerned not so much which particular style or manner was in vogue, but rather the various attempts on several, simultaneous fronts, to expand (and eventually to erase) the conventional distinctions between separate media in the arts, and to bridge the social cultural gap between the fine and the popular arts. For example the intermedium between painting and sculpture was deliberately explored (taking a concept of Dick Higgins), by artists such as Frank Stella, Ron Davis, David Novros, Clark Murray, Charles Hinman, Tom Wesselman, the young Canadians lain Baxter and Gary Lee-Nova, and J. Michael Egan together with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in their work of the later fifties. Of course this historical problem provides more than enough basis for an exhibition itself; but it is just the sort of problem that could have been investigated or at least cited in a more thorough way by a really substantial text. Another, less fundamental but no less interesting issue involves the box-makers. Joseph Cornell was generously represented despite the recent important retrospective exhibition at Pasadena. Some of his space, as beautifully consistently as his work fills it, might have been given over to Wallace Berman, George Herms, and George Brecht. In some ways more peripheral issues, although of potential historical seriousness, concern the legacy of Marcel Duchamp which came to inspire a considerable portion of all of the art of the sixties up to the present.
Another principal source of inspiration has developed from Duchamp's lead, coming into the world of art from the worlds of non-art and anti-art. Ed Roth's recreation of the Nazi Iron Cross as a "Surfie" emblem will have a far wider and more profound aesthetic and cultural influence than the striking of Duchamp's recent limited-edition medallion—to say nothing of "Big Daddy's" plastic Panzer helmets, or the "Weirdo" art that has deeply conditioned the aesthetic perceptions of many millions of American artists, non-artists, or anti-artists, as the case may be. In a more conventional realm, the key retrospective of Yves Klein this year at the Jewish Museum in New York almost forces one to examine his influence on the sculpture of the sixties. Similarly, if perhaps less pressingly, the influences of Tinguely, Spoerri, Arman, several Germans, some Japanese, Paolozzi and a few of the younger British sculptors warrant careful attention. Just how all of this, or for example, the work of a fine artist such as Jesus Soto, is so distinguishable from that work done in America is not at all obvious. With this question relatively unexamined, one must reluctantly conclude that the limitations of geography and nationalism are more conveniences than imperatives. In the end, however, the most serious reservations about this important exhibition bear on the title's claim to cover the decade. The sixties were barely two-thirds past when the show was assembled.
The clear implication is that whatever is going to happen in this decade has already presented itself in some significant manifestation or another; and on this point others may care to join me in being somewhat less than confident. Actually, a little reflection makes one downright disbelieving. I have suggested above the basis for changing notions of what the medium of sculpture is all about that are certainly radical. If it is followed, the turn away from conceiving sculpture as primarily an object-making function may well prove to be revolutionary, and those who persist in applying the conventional semantic, logical categories will simply become increasingly irrelevant, whether they are critics or artists. It may be embarrassing if the rich field of commercial and non-art sculpture is discovered by the Los Angeles County Museum before 1970.
Often superior work, both aesthetically and in terms of craftsmanship, is being created today by professional sign-makers. This is, of course, an older discovery by artists such as Duchamp (in his "Tum"' 1918), or more generally by Robert Indiana or even Stuart Davis. But I mean that the circular Orange Julius signs, the red neon Mobil Oil Pegasus, and the variety of flashing multi-globed arrows are superior as pieces of sculpture themselves. Something also has to be said for the scale of the huge Union 76 orange-lighted ball, or the gigantic fiber-glass figures that help sell everything from tires to root beer. This suggests, in turn, another quite different direction in which sculpture may well evolve within two or three years: toward the greater and more sophisticated use of light.
Implications of the Segal and Kienholz tableaux have already long been realized in the expansion of sculpture to become environments, or what might be thought of as an intermedium between sculpture and architecture. Dine, Oldenburg, Whitman, Kaprow, Grooms and others began this direction in the 1950s. and it has been of tremendous significance for sculpture, both as feedback and as direct inspiration, ever since. Given all these caveats and criticisms, there remains an awful lot of good sculpture to be experienced in Maurice Tuchman's "American Sculpture of the Sixties". Taking them off the top, the best work, the most intelligently selected and sensitively displayed, or most effective despite the installation, are the following: Andre, Antonakos, Bladen, Bell, de Lap, Flavin, Gerowitz, Grosvenor, Judd, Kuehn, McCracken, Morris, Nauman, Paris, Tony Smith, and Valentine.
Carl Andre's Lock is composed of blue painted chipboard panels arranged to form a sixteen-foot square laid out casually on the outdoor deck of the plaza —an extreme and demanding concept piece all the way, by a first-rate artistic intellect. The Antonakos neon (one of the few not illustrated in the catalogue, by circumstance) has extraordinary presence. The huge three-part piece by Ronald Bladen manages to command the interior space, where the possibly superior pieces by de Lap, Judd, Morris, and Flavin manage to survive.
The huge yellow suspended piece Still No Title by Robert Grosvenor commands exterior space as effectively as does the extraordinary fifteen foot untitled fiberglass pillar by John McCracken. The cantilevered piece by Kenneth Snelson, as fine and clever as it is, does not realize the fullest potential of the artist's capabilities; perhaps it should have been augmented by a really large-scale commissioned piece in order to better demonstrate the brilliant implications of his talent and his newly developed technical means. The ponderous steel cube by Tony Smith entitled Die is a sort of spiritual counterpart to Larry Bell's almost mystical, coated glass boxes, as each set up and automatically control their respective environments by diametrical means. I just happen to like the clean wit of Gary Kuehn, and the deceptive casualness of De Wain Valentine, one of the finest young American sculptors. Other artists could have been better represented. For example, Chryssa's ampersands, or one of the immense constructions shown at the Pace Gallery last season would be preferable to the good but not terribly impressive piece included, Fragments for the Gates to Times Square II. As good as is the Oldenburg room, it is hard to imagine why drawings for the monuments were not somehow worked in--for these are consequential sculptural ideas, even if the pieces may never actually come into being. There are probably better works by both Charles Mattox and Robert Murray that were available and which deserved exhibition. The mirrored room with table and chair shown recently at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo is probably a more critical piece in Lucas Samaras' art, despite its problems (such as the necessity for the open door, which might have been solved by small-lens lighting, or by strip lighting between mirrored panels); but these are only tentative comments, and are not meant to tell Samaras how to do his pieces, nor to minimize the success of Corridor. One also wants to see some of the earlier smaller pieces, just as the gutsy earlier sculpture of Robert Rauschenberg is noticeable by its absence. On the other hand, Rauschenberg's Image Wheels which is included, should perhaps best be shown together with the extraordinary series of prints connected with the Booster project executed at the Gemini Press, in Los Angeles this spring. Clearly then, in sum, Maurice Tuchman's exhibition "American Sculpture of the Sixties" establishes a major point of reference for anyone writing about this field today; both he and the Museum deserve credit for this effort, rather as-much because of the wealth of critical problems raised by the exhibition as despite them.
Another major exhibition in the Los Angeles area was the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum. Brought together by John Coplans, this first comprehensive showing of Lichtenstein 's work must be considered at length in a later letter. Here it is worth remarking on the significance of these two exhibitions for Los Angeles, especially in view of the rather constricted gallery activity of late. This may be some indication of a changing pattern for the West Coast art scene, with activities focused on large public institutions, instead of occurring at the smaller commercial galleries. If this proves to be true, it probably means a general slackening in artistic vitality—or at least of that activity in the arts that can be related to the production of aesthetic commodities. Nevertheless, some of the galleries do go on, with the all-too-well known precariousness frequently if temporarily forgotten in the brighter moments. A good example of this was provided recently by the McKenzie Gallery in their exhibition of paintings by Jae Son Yu. Born in Shanghai and now living in Hong Kong, Yu's personal iconic imagery is best represented by works such as those taking for their titles quotations from the Zen masters. One of the simplest and most powerful of these is "Splitting the void in half / Making smithereens of earth. / I watch inching toward / The river, the cloud-drawn moon", from Nanei-Zen. Emphasizing the new non-nationalism of our McLuhanesque instantaneous electric world, Yu's sources come from many cultures and literatures. Closely related to the Zen painting, for instance, is "Blessed are ye that hunger now, for you shall be filled".
Kurt von Meier
This is the cover of the Summer, 1967 edition of Art International, in which this article appeared. Art International discontinued publication in 1984. Kurt was a regular contributor during the years 1966-68.