New York 13: A Critical Review
This article appeared in the April, 1969 edition of artscanada magazine.
New York 13
Vancouver Art Gallery January-February, 1969
(Art Gallery of Ontario, May, 8-21)
by Kurt von Meier
For some of us who do "love mankind"' the time has clearly come to look long and hard at ourselves and at the work of our artists. Artistic activity, if taken in one of its broader senses, is deeply allied with the forces of revolution. The figurative uses of "avant-garde" to characterize radical movements in both art and politics have been traced to a common source in some of the last writings of the French utopian socialist Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825).
There is a great deal of art that is not of the avant-garde: this may be valid and even very good art, possibly even great art. But for those of us who are beginning to focus on an imminent many-faceted apocalypse, aesthetic decisions are coming, more and more, to be conditioned by underlying ethical considerations. In other words, as good as that art is, does it work for human freedom and for the preservation (salvation?) of the world — or does it side with the forces of authoritarian repression, power and control? For any art of substance these are subtle and complex issues. Perhaps we can never understand how art really works even on our own brain pans; and failing such an understanding how can we ever hope to come to a final recognition of art that is an instrument of totalitarian control as distinct from art that helps to set us free? This is a question, ultimately, of life and death. And in our blindness we still must choose.
A case study for such considerations was offered by the Vancouver Art Gallery recently with their exhibition New York 13. The selection of painting, sculpture and graphics by thirteen leading New York artists opened in Vancouver early in the year (January 21-February 16, 1969). Its subsequent dates are Regina, the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery (March 10-April 21) and Montreal, Musée d'art contemporain (June 3-July 5). In Vancouver it is the last of a series of three shows designed to present "a representative cross-section of the most important work current in the three major capitals of the world of art today: Los Angeles, London and New York City."
We have already implied. a critical frame of reference for this exhibition. But before we begin to follow some of the implications of this critique to wherever they may lead us, a few preliminary remarks about the content of the show are in order. The first question is "why 13?" or "why not twelve?" or "why not twenty?" Well, the idea was to exhibit those artists who were active in New York over the period of the last eight or nine years (the 1960s) and who are still producing major, relevant works. Thus Ad Reinhardt and Morris Louis are excluded because they are no longer living and also those other deceased giants of the "New York School," Jackson Pollock, Arshille Gorky and Franz Kline. Robert Motherwell has apparently stopped painting. Of those artists included, for instance, in the exhibition, New York School: The First Generation — Paintings of the 1940s and 1910s, there are four Old Masters who were still working up to the beginning of 1939 yet who were excluded from the Vancouver Art Gallery's selection: William. de Kooning, Phliip Guston, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. That is, other Old Masters are still working, but these four tend to raise the most serious problems in terms of their omission from the exhibition.
What this suggests is that the desiderata of a) intrinsic aesthetic quality of given works or b) the critical validity of the work of a given artist, were not the primary considerations for inclusion. Instead there operated very strong historical, geographic and affective biases. This is art which people were really talking about at a certain place and time (New York in the 1960s) — and also art which has profoundly conditioned the Canadian (and especially British Columbian) aesthetic sensibilities of the present.
Moreover, there is the progressive concern with art that is still alive and influential now; and this is also presumably art which will be most relevant for grasping cultural developments in the immediate future. Hence with some fairly consistent reasoning, Barnett Newman is the only artist who was shown with the New York School: The First Generation, and who was also included in Vancouver's New York 13.
At this point perhaps we should list the other twelve New York artists with summary comments on their representation. Jasper Johns: Two very lovely series of lithographs of numerals, but disappointingly no paintings.
Donald Judd: A large stainless steel and Plexiglas untitled sculpture from 1968 was impressive; the cerebral excitement and audacity of his perforated steel wedge-shaped piece from 1955 seems to have diminished markedly.
Ellsworth Kelly: An elegant enamelled steel sculpture; but his most challenging piece is a three-panel painting from 1966, each panel a separate, solid color field, Red Yellow Blue.
Roy Lichtenstein: I would rather have seen some Lichtenstein sculpture than Kelly's, but there was none. One of the superior pieces in the entire exhibition is Rouen Cathedrals I on three panels, with intricate comments on Monet, Lichtenstein's own art, the popular arts and the idea of the "Fine Arts."
Robert Morris: There is an anti-formal untitled floor piece; but there may be more to say about the sculpture composed of sixteen units, each a three feet cube of lacquered, cold rolled steel. This ties in sculpture with dance and architecture as we pass between the units, or even step inside one Of the open-topped cubes (ideas of prohibited, sacred spaces).
Barnett Newman: A single painting — I am told that it is the only one he has produced and allowed to be shown during the last year or so. This is a fascinating trigger for questions about the preciousness, scarcity-commodity concepts of art.
Kenneth Noland: Most weakly represented artist (though not necessarily the weakest) — one long painting (18'4"), quite narrow (21 3/8") with horizontal stripes entitled To Continue. There are, of course, many things to say about stripe painting as a genre; but this isn't the best example. However, due regard must be paid to- the difficulties Vancouver encountered in borrowing specific works.
Claes Oldenburg: Perhaps the strongest representation, by one of the greatest artists of the 1950s--New York, Stockholm, Vancouver, Regina.. . . anywhere. A major piece was Oldenburg's Hard Saw constructed in Vancouver especially for this exhibition, about which a separate note or article -would be welcome, developing the artist's catalog comments.
Robert Rauschenberg: A large and important painting, Axle from 1964, reminding us that this protean artist, despite his manifold achievements in other media and mixed media, is still a superbly beautiful painter; a renewed revelation.
James Rosenquist: His space sculpture Aurora Borealis didn't come off, perhaps for technical reasons. Ultra-Violet Cars exemplified his statements and the comments of critics quoted in the catalog, but not with the power of F-111.
George Segal: I again find- the ideas associated with Segal's sculpture generally more interesting than the sculpture itself. I am also willing to admit that this may be as much my fault as it is Segal's. The best piece is Execution, but both Goya and Manet did it better — with different means and talent.
Frank Stella: Two large recent paintings with forms somewhere between shapes and stripes: Highly finished and for me, distant.
Andy Warhol: Brillo Boxes, Jackie (25 images) and:Race Riot (2 panels) — all of them major statements; .but then, what from Warhol isn't a major statement. Too bad no movies.
To explore the question: "Which examples of this art serve to set us free or work for the salvation of the earth, and which examples play into the hands of repression, control, authoritarianism, pollution, destruction and death?" would require a closely-reasoned and more lengthy discussion than is appropriate here. But sooner or later it should be attempted if art criticism is to retain at least as much relevance as the art all around us.
For the present, let me offer just a few concluding general propositions. I really like a lot of this art and would not like to see it burned or anything like that. To be sure, I have considered the virtues of blowing up every art gallery and museum in the United States and Canada — for starters; but such thoughts serve primarily to articulate the radical and demanding issues we are so adept at concealing from ourselves with layers of ideology, good taste and wishful thoughts. It may just be, however, that all of the art in New York 13 is old fashioned and in some ways quite beside the point. Consider that it may lull us into symbolic, artificial realms of apparent comfort (similar to the escapism charges levelled against drugs) thereby diverting our attentions from the all-too-real evils that we all know about. Our civilization seems to be paralyzed by some ultimate psychotic cataclysm, the image of its own annihilation. What then of art and revolution, aesthetics and ethics?
Not that we should ask artists to lead demonstrations, to organize clandestine movements designed to subvert authoritarian bureaucracies, or to perform assassinations. But some people are doing this. Therefore we must ask if these are not the true artists of our time, in the only media still relevant to the question of survival as such, life against death. Che Guevarra, Tim Leary or Muhammad Ali just may have done more than any of the New York 13 to set us free; the case can be made, you know, both in terms of real action and symbolically, in the realm of art. How about an art that begins to come to terms with such portentous realities as the suicide that is being committed for all of us, but without our knowledge and permission?