It’s 1966, —I knew it was over. Walking along F Street in downtown Washington, DC, glancing into the plate glass display windows of Woodward & Lothrop’s department store—I knew it was over. In that window was a living room tableau of sofa, end-tables, and lamps, arranged in the coolest mid-century mix of Bauhaus and Japanese inspired, low slung simplicity—space-age boxy. Above the sofa were twin abstract paintings, set corner to corner. Twins! Identical! What the…? Those twinned paintings were for me, the info-graphic of “Now, we have come to an end point…” The great idea of heroic abstraction, Abstract Expressionism, was to paint the existential moment, purely conceived and purely elucidated in a singular moment. A copy of an abstract painting was a blasphemy. The heroism of “never stepping into the same river twice” was usurped by decorators because there was no disturbing content to interfere with the machinations of the Board Room or the life of quiet desperation in the uptown living room.
I grew up in a small town half-way between Chicago and Champaign-Urbana (U of I). My folks were art-lovers and often invited art faculty to stop by on the journey for a meal. Their paintings hung in our home. It was explained to me that abstraction was still about seeing, only seeing the inside of things. My mom had gone to the Art Institute and extension courses were always happily attended, she was a pretty good painter herself and had a beautiful hand at drawing. AB-EX was poised to enjoy a 1000 year dynasty, and the Catechism of abstraction was the lingua franca at our household (though as a born heretic, I loved the big eye Keane paintings I saw as a 10-year-old in Sausalito on a family trip west in 1958). By 1964 I had seen the Giacometti retrospective in Chicago and was so smitten every school-boy essay I had to write, I wrote about Giacometti. His purity came from his dogged attempt to daily struggle to just make things real in a world always in motion and emotion. With Giacometti, though decidedly modern, the anchor was always set firmly in the visual world.
In DC, in 1966 I became a convert to my parent’s church of abstraction. I had stood before Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist at the National Gallery and the painting had worked it’s magic. I couldn’t stop looking at it—there was no judgment about skill and artistry, about some weirdo trying to pull a fast one. The damn thing was alive. In a book or a magazine, it was like a specimen floating in formaldehyde, but here in life at the National Gallery, I got the message, that “this thing” was from a country I wanted not only to visit, but I wanted citizenship. I was in drawing class twice a week, sculpture had my complete attention. I fell asleep every night spinning out ideas for things to make. As the mystic poet, Mirabai wrote in the 16th Century trying to describe why she was leaving her cushy life in the nobility for a life as an ascetic mystic… “I have felt the shoulders of the elephant sway between my thighs, and now you want me to get back on a jackass? Try to be serious…” Would I continue with my pre-med studies; courses in comparative anatomy and organic chemistry? Try to be serious…
But, the spiritual connection—paint as ichor, the magical blood of the gods, was flattened by decorators and Pop Artists. Ideas about the purity of art were upended. Susan Sontag had written Notes on Camp (1964). You could hear the mocking giggles of the “campers” echo down the halls, as the sacred cows of Art were sacrificed in a delicious Bar-b-cue— holy smoke rising up to Olympus. Pop was fun and funny and would fit in to smash all the hand-wringing in the burlap-covered Zen-dos in all the art schools across the country. No, Man, this was fun and funny, and guess what? Did you hear there was a revolution going on? As well as a shootin’ war with the background of race politics, queer politics, gender politics as those who could, dozed-off into the slurpy lap of flower power? Were drugs art supplies? You BETCHA!!! Well, on second thought, I came to the conclusion while developing my rather slim Drugs resumé, Drugs were an “as if…” experience. Pot was “as if” your mind was an intuitive switchboard, Cocaine was “as if” you had boundless energy, acid was “as if” enlightenment was at your fingertips, opioids “as if” you were s u p r eeeee mly supremely mellow and easy.
Judgements came in from the committee—the disdained “sellout” who would cash in, leaving the holy of holies in the drafty beatnik loft—to set up her/his money-changing tables in the soon-to-be-temple of NYC SOHO. Money and her sister power were not to be admitted to the club of art. (har dee har) Money was poison, but it became the drug of choice. The next dominant form of visual thinking coming in with Pop, was advertising on steroids, and a wink-wink (just wanted to get your attention) knowing lie came into the center of high art. Low became high, and high was suddenly old and musty. Everything lived inside of quotation marks.
I don’t think enough has been said about the influence of Mad Magazine on the post-war generation showing the knowing lie at kids all across America. Alfred E. Neuman had a lot more influence than Barnett Newman on the general population in terms of setting the stage for visual reality. But wait a minute, wasn’t the idea of Modern Art supposed to be made “with a fine disregard of the rules?” (thanks to Kirk Varnedoe curator at MOMA) Suddenly the hated banality of the Philistines of the Ad world became the most sought-after art commodity—check out the auction price for Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog 2000, polished stainless steel—$54,000,000.00—banality? A fine disregard? The highest values of the human spirit?
But even though Abstract Expressionism was “over” as one more movement of modern art, replete with manifesti, drum majors, trenches dug and then, skirmishes sparked by lingering embers and then the rebels staging reenactments—some continued the practice of “painting the ichor of the gods”. Not exactly reenactors, of the battles waged, but practitioners of the essence of what-once-was and continues with vitality. One of the best (who in fact had called a series of his paintings Ichor) Tom Lieber lives on painting away the most lovely gushes of paint which actually seem breathed into living tissue. In a peripatetic passage between marriages, I lived at Tom’s home/studio for three months while he was away for the summer at his Maine studio. The daily-ness of experiencing his work taught me an essential thing about art—that art can be a navigational pinpoint on your interior map of feeling; how you know where existence settles in the vagueries of emotional life. Can you say art can be the healing balm to something wounded? I do.
If you looked at art with any ongoing interest you were aware that modernism flowed through a series of styles—the romance of painting outdoors, into Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Dada, Surrealism, Expressionism, Abstraction. And, of course, all of that flow of styles finally dissolved into the post-modern state of “as if” realism. But back then, as an art student, you really wanted to be counted in, to be laboring in the field of “what’s happening.”
In high school, seeds were planted lining out this “Pop” thinga-majig from Notes on Camp . We’d seen Andy on Merv with his superstar Edie Sedgewick— a thrilling transgression. On Merv’s “talk” show Warhol would only answer questions through Edie, whispering in her ear. Sontag’s essay was read aloud by our HS senior English teacher, fresh from Harvard, hiding out from the draft with a teaching deferment. I barely had a clue as to what Camp meant but somehow this new fist in the face of mediocrity turned erudite aestheticism on its head. The banal became exalted. The pile of Warhol’s silk-screened Brillo boxes was all a big joke and if you “got it”, got the joke, you were “with it” and cool. Punk was born. You walked through the world knowing there were no sacred cows, nothing spiritual about the world. We’d seen it before in Duchamp’s Fountain, a urinal displayed on a plinth in a gallery.
The sophisticated Parisian at the turn of the 19th century was familiar with the idea of Blague, a joke, often a play with words—finally it was a reaction to the horror of WW I with artists shocked by the bloodbath of mechanized war, responded with DADA and Surrealism. By 1968 the joke was on all of us as we would see Abby Hoffman play out his theatre of the absurd at his show trial for conspiracy as he did handsprings entering the courtroom for his conspiracy trial The Chicago
8 7. At the march on the Pentagon in ’67 Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg chanted Om Om trying to levitate the Pentagon building. I saw it happen first hand—didn’t hear the OMs but had the very air crushed out of me in the ensuing melee. The Kerner Report investigating those “riots” at the 1968 Democratic Convention and all across the country found it was in fact, the police who had rioted and further came to the conclusion that the country was moving to a two-tier society, one black and one white. This imbalance was vibrating the whole country apart. There were 174 civil disturbances that year, one just 6 blocks from my house—you could see towering clouds from the fires, tanks rumbling and vibrating the very sidewalk out my front door. The Kerner Commission concluded the causes were, in order of intensity:
- Police practices
- Inadequate housing
- Inadequate education
- Poor recreation facilities
- Ineffective political structure
- Disrespectful white attitudes
- Discriminatory administration of justice
- Discriminatory consumer and credit practices
- Inadequate municipal services
Sound familiar? Half a Century later? One day black lives will matter; I remain ever hopeful.
With this PopArt rumbling in the wings, selling out in the face of 50’s repression sexual or otherwise, was no longer a crime against the muse, selling out became the point. Well, it was all pretty funny money—this speculating on art—but money none-the-less, and there were art dealers who would usher collectors across the threshold, putting your collection on the cover of Art in America magazine, giving you super-cool cred. Along comes Leo Castelli the Czar of the New York Art World making piles of dough with the most far-out stuff the world had ever been told was art. He was a tastemaker, a deal maker — in school we called him Leo Cash-telli. He sold twenty foot long chunks of once-molten lead thrown up against the 90° angle of wall and floor and sold it for a bundle. Uncle Leo got Richard Serra’s lined-up chunks of pure weight on the cover of every art magazine. Say what you will, he was the first and last of the great NYC impresarios of art who actually gave stipends to his artists before any work was completed.
But then, everyone needs a little dough. While studying at the Corcoran Gallery and School, I worked on the periphery of the maintenance staff. I had a job doing oddments for the custodial crew. And, I was the clay maker for the ceramics and sculpture departments working in the dungeons of pre-Civil War granite masonry. The clay machine was a 1936 “Leviathan®” a steel-riveted ten-foot tub of shuddering spring loaded scrapers and millstones. Cinematic. Monster movie chic. Picture clouds of dust lit by a single swinging bulb. Bags of the dry materials unloaded down a two-story chute open to the street where I often heard the visiting heads of state honored by 21 guns cracking out at the White House just around the corner. After filling my garbage can tub with new, wet clay to tote upstairs, I’d emerge from my dungeon looking like one of the Clay People from the Flash Gordon serial.
I was not exactly on the installation crew in the gallery, but the… “hey kid hand me that drill” guy. Every workday I walked by what looked like construction debris piled near the loading dock—felt insulation, conduit, beams—junk that had covered the floor of a room in a Robert Morris retrospective. It sat there for months pissing off the crew waiting for a decision whether to toss the stuff or decide who would pay to send it back to NYC. There were some nice 16 x 16 inch squared-off beams of fir. I asked the museum director if I could have them—get them out of the way— “Sure, just send Mr. Castelli $25,000.”
Pop Art had come in as a breather from the overwrought hand-wringing of abstraction, the Jungian cast of archetypes, full of “depth psychology’s” timeless sincerity where whiskey was A-listed for substance abuse. Pop came in with acid, pot, and speed. Wheeee. Existentialism was a tough sell and Pop was there with its psychedelic salesmanship on fast forward. Next up were the really serious guys, the aesthetes of Minimalism. It was all rigor, Emanuel Kant’s Ding an Sich. An object unmediated by projection. In a sculpture class critique, I heard— “Well…not very minimal, IS it, Lang.” I was always a fan of a good story, but Minimalism, the anti-story art movement was served up as the next “thing.” It seemed to come in a blink of the eye with the exhibit Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in NYC organized by Kynaston McShine in 1966. Anne Truitt, a proto-minimalist who lived within DC’s vital avant-garde scene wrote with great fervor about the “almost nothing” of her work. Her journal Daybook was art-student required reading. Still is. She wanted her work to be like “invisible earthworm castings, invisible and left behind to nourish the soil” — the sublime of so much with so little. While I was in school she lectured just about every semester. Although Truitt’s sculptures were arid and a bit chilly, she came across as a dedicated spirit full of real passion. (She day-jobbed as a psychiatric nurse.) The real project of Minimalism was to make a spaciousness of pure presence available for the messy, churning foam of the mind; space free of presupposition and projection. And Truitt, like her cohort Eva Hesse, marked the start of powerful women artists coming into the mainstream.
In 1879 the Corcoran Gallery re-opened in a very beaux-beaux arts style building designed by Ernest Flagg (think of buildings like Grand Central Station or the Paris Opera). It was funded by banker William Corcoran as a re-branding of himself after his dalliance as a southern sympathizer during the Civil War and subsequent exile in Paris. During reconstruction, he was stripped of his fortune by Congress. Ten years passed and Congress reinstated his Riggs Bank so Corcoran celebrated the reunion with his money by opening the museum. Albert Bierstadt’s 1877 eight foot wide Mt. Corcoran, a painted fiction to stoke his benefactor’s ego—the snow cap’s shoulders in the clouds sharp above a topaz lake—hung right next to Frederick Church’s Niagara, both brilliant depictions and the cream of American landscape painting. But in my day they were disdained as mere depiction and relegated to a back gallery to keep the Corcoran’s credibility as the avant-guard hot-house intact. The Corcoran was host to an on-going Biennial Exhibition that served as the NYC art world’s trial-run-venue much like the Boston preview openings for theatrical Broadway.
In the late fall of 1967, the ultimate art historical “Fig. A” came to the Corcoran. In a power play for the “what’s next?” exhibition, Minimalism strode in as Scale as Content. It was installed right there at my school inside the museum. Saw it every day that fall and on into the next spring. The Corcoran museum/school placed itself in the crosshairs of many of the art historical “Fig. A” moments until the Mapplethorpe retrospective in 1989 caused the then curator to chicken-out (no photos of whopping negro cocks spilling out of polyester trousers s’il vous plait) and close the show. The Corcoran had lost it’s avant/cred, shriveled and finally closed it’s doors in 2014.
But in 1967, entrance to the museum unfolded a sweeping marble and bronze stairway greeting you with twin classical two story atria right and left — columns all around and a second story arcade columnated with fluted marble. All this slather of nostalgia for an imagined classical age was the perfect foil for big minimalism. For the “Scale…” exhibit the left side atrium was filled with Tony Smith’s Smoke, looking like a giant mock-up for skyscraper girders. Dominating and bossy, it filled the space like Alice grown giant squished into the rabbit’s house. A boring thing, bombastic and all size, no core. (The last time I saw Tony Smith’s Smoke, was at the LA County Museum in 2014. It was packed into a stair-well gallery like a bad pet put into a box.) Out front, next to the school entrance, was Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, an upside-down truncated obelisk in the material of the hour, orange COR-TEN steel. Forty feet tall, it balanced on the tip of a pyramid-like a broken-off Washington Monument on its head, and just three blocks from the real thing, a block from the White House. This End of Empire stuff at the on-ramp of the
Vietnam War flaunted its presence at power. It was exemplary and it worked.
The other emblematic piece that made the show famous and has lasted as iconic of the minimal project was Ron Bladen’s X. It filled the right-hand atrium with a nullifying black X thirty feet high. A picture of it was the full-page lede for the article in TIME magazine: Scale as Content. I was there in school and to help as the go-fer on the build-it crew, to see it rise up and say NO to everything else or maybe YES, this is all there is. Jack(son Pollock) had gone up the beanstalk and the giant roared, “Look at this. Got anything better?”
Today, if you web-search for the TIME magazine article you will find the photograph of the two-story atrium of the museum. Under the colossal X, peaking out between the planted legs, you can barely make out Hiram Powers’ sculpture The Greek Slave from Mr. Corcoran’s personal addition to the museum. She’d always been there carved in luscious lick-able white marble ready to enfold you in soft tush-iness. But her body was not true to Greek-style—she looked like she’d been working out— some latent power under all that adipose. She has every bit of romance of which the Minimalists were trying to rid themselves. Her face with downcast and lidded eyes seeped longing and the parts most lovingly carved were the marble chains, themselves floating in air leading the eye to the swelling pudendum. She was a sexy feminine affront to Bladen’s ultimate all yang X. And, she tore at my aching heart being draft-bait as America was gaining unstoppable momentum, sliding down a precipitous ski jump, skyrocketing right into the mire of that diabolical war. I myself was enslaved on a crowded ship (albeit cozy and privileged with my temporary 2-S student deferment) headed toward Vietnam? Jail? Canada? Lottery number 012. With that number, I was surely headed somewhere uncomfortable.
I give a gracious bow to the “tending spirit” that funds these institutions, how we want to preserve and display what we’ve kept safe, how great!… both these things, the Slave, and the X in the same space. These two works marked some kind of milestone for me and are forever linked. To be sure, this exhibit, in this space, was in place for a brief moment—but in my mind, it is part of the permanent collection in the museum of All Things I Love. If there had been a cataclysm during that show and the room at the Corcoran had been unearthed by some future archaeologist, the tale of “The Sixties” could be told at a glance.
This story began by marking the phenomena of the great modern art movements, one being supplanted by another in a progression sensitive to the prevailing zeitgeist. But movements in art don’t die out if they are kept alive by dedicated practitioners. In 1982, fifteen years after X, the power of minimalism hit the general psyche in Maya Linn’s Viet Nam Veterans Memorial. It’s a piece of art that gives itself to everyone and everyone gives back to it. Just go visit and see your own face reflected in the mirror polish of black granite, the names of the fallen interrupting the perfect impression of your own face. A black killing slash in the earth tucked into the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial.
As Wallace Stevens reminds—Art’s Triumph Endures.
In Judith’s and my artmaking lives, we developed a practice of using the plastic debris we’ve found on 1000 yards of one beach. Narrowing the focus to talk about a global problem seems to make things a little more digestible. We took a mess of stinky line and nets, pulled apart to recreate a Jackson Pollock-like image, riffing on his painting Full Fathom Five, photographed it and printed the image on canvas.—Art’s Triumph Endures.