Jan Avgikos on “New York: 1962–1964”

The Jewish Museum’s boisterous exhibition “New York: 1962–1964” is stuffed full of energy, focusing on a three-year period in New York City when sundry creative realms coalesced in a delirious apogee of full-blown American vanguardism. In addition to the “new art” of the era on display here, there is an abundance of contextualizing material drawn from advertising, media, music, dance, film, magazines, fashion, poetry, and interior design, ostensibly documenting a so-called common cultural pulse that fomented in Gotham and spread across the land.

The presentation’s time frame, aligned with the tenure of Alan Solomon, the influential director of the Jewish Museum, is bracketed chronologically by the “International Exhibition of the New Realists”—which took place at Sidney Janis Gallery in 1962 and examined the various stripes of Pop across North America and Europe—and Robert Rauschenberg’s showing at the 1964 Venice Biennale. Solomon also organized important surveys at the Jewish Museum himself, including “Toward a New Abstraction” (1963) and “Recent American Sculpture” (1964). Artworks for “New York 1962–1964” were selected from these and other key exhibitions, including Lawrence Alloway’s “Six Painters and the Object,” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Dorothy C. Miller’s “Americans 1963,” (both 1963) at the Museum of Modern Art. Also included were works from the New York School of Poets and the Harlem-based photographic collective Kamoinge Workshop. Yet, despite its exacting purview, the show gives the impression that everyone across the United States was reading the same publications, listening to the same radio stations, and watching the same kinds of television—and, by extension, relating to the same art. Alas, this was not the case.

It is the prerogative of the observer whose homeland is elsewhere to imagine a continuous American identity, but in many respects New York City has very little to do with the rest of the United States. In the 1960s especially, it was practically a different country in its politics, attitudes, and socioeconomic structure. The show’s organizer, Germano Celant (1940–2020), was a legendary Italian curator and critic who loved to shape history by bringing unlikely groups of artists together. Celant was not alone in his advocacy for an expanded understanding of this period in American art as a flowering of unparalleled creativity and diversity. Yet the overwhelming surfeit of materials contextualizing all the work—from a fanciful re-creation of a tricked-out 1960s kitchen to a stylish rendition of a living room whose TV plays era-appropriate snippets of sitcoms, ads, and news stories—undermines a lot of the important art. An unfortunate unbalancing occurs, in which the production by a range of major cultural innovators and transgressors from a pivotal time in history becomes psychically and conceptually equivalent to the considerably less interesting pop detritus that fueled its making.

Of course, it’s difficult to account for the plenitude and experimentation of those select years. While that might be a problem for historians, it’s also a formidable curatorial challenge. Kudos to Celant for his Eurocentric vision of US overzealousness and excess. But with its attempt to be everywhere all at once, the show produces a trapped-in-rush-hour type of feeling. For instance, Jack Smith’s queer erotic fantasia Flaming Creatures, 1963—so beautiful that it purportedly inspired Fellini—has been relegated to a corner and practically disappears. North, 1963, a solemn wall-like structure by Anne Truitt, is placed beside the jazzy parlor set, becoming nothing more than a room divider. And a wooden polyhedron painted gray by Robert Morris, Untitled, 1963, appears stranded and insignificant compared to the bells and whistles animating many of the objects surrounding it. (A lot of the Minimalist art here is treated as an afterthought and gets overshadowed by all the Pop.) While there are many incredible moments—including the sensational pairing of Chryssa’s metal grid with a letter-F pattern, Projection Letter F, 1958–60, and Sally Hazelet Drummond’s radiantly monochromatic painting of finely wrought dots Drone, 1962—the exhibition blows right past the vintage aesthetics of display that originally favored the “new art” and gave it considerable room to breathe. Here, the priority is on a circuslike atmosphere, in the so-called spirit of midcentury American garishness, glamour, and genius. Unfortunately, the noisy orchestration works against much of the output, which is tuned to a more reflective and intellectual key.

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