On ViewThe Jewish Museum
New York: 1962–1964
July 22, 2022–January 8, 2023
A historical exhibition aims to show us past life, but sometimes the retrospective becomes reflective, a two-way mirror seeing through to the present. So it is with New York 1962–1964 at The Jewish Museum, certainly at the moment our fair city’s most enveloping visual and aural museum experience. With more than 150 works spanning vanguard fine art, outré fashion, cult film, political periodicals, and documentary videos of radical dance and news, the real stars of the show are its wranglers. Selldorf Architects’s contextualized installation design is thrilling. At the entry, the stage is set: we are invited to imagine ourselves within a mural photograph of office workers attired in fitted suits and dresses at the lunch counter—its rear sign announcing a bank of phone booths—then, at a lurid juke box in front of it, to punch in the number of our favorite tune of the era, no coin required. That’s entertainment!
And yet, the show may also currently be our most provocative. Mark di Suvero’s weathered wood and steel (Untitled (hungblock) , jazzed with yellow paint) meets stylized wallpaper and a stylish toaster. All evoke cultural and social emancipation from 1950s constrictions. But we must also contextualize our viewing: present social regressions sprinkle more than a speck of salt on this spectacle of exuberant promise.
Despite the period’s fracturing over civil rights—Vietnam discord would come later in the decade—continued postwar economic strength and bipartisan alliances allowed the country to power through with confidence in the future. Pop Art leavened Abstract Expressionist sobriety with a witty grasp of the commercial commonplace. Concurrently, the disaffection of LeRoi Jones’s (Amiri Baraka) The Dead Lecturer jostled with Frank O’Hara imagining himself as “an angel . . . [going] straight up into the sky” only to “look around and then come down,” a vantage that takes in both the quotidian and the marvelous (“Three Airs,” Lunch Poems). Both books are displayed, albeit behind glass. Too bad the array of small press volumes included here is not also experiential, offering a break from visual stimulation to read through replicas.
Many artists in the show are the usual suspects, titans of the most lauded decade of the twentieth century, the 1960s, whose works have become just too familiar: Lee Bontecou, John Cage, John Chamberlain, Merce Cunningham, Donald Judd, Jasper Johns, Louise Nevelson, Kenneth Noland, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol. (If he hadn’t later concealed the extent of his painting exhibitions in the early sixties, Robert Smithson would have been among them.) Others, like Melvin Edwards’s wrenching “Lynch Fragments” and Faith Ringgold’s strident early figurative paintings, have recently received substantial exposure (these both at the New Museum).
More fun is to discover atypical works that for decades have been hidden away, such as Nancy Grossman’s Black Landscape (1964), a vital collage of rough matter, like an offspring of Alberto Burri and Bontecou. Or Norman Lewis’s white-on-black conflagration Journey to an End (1964), or Jack Whitten’s Birmingham (1964), an interruption of his typical abstraction that incorporates as a barely discernible subtext a newspaper account of a Black man attacked during a Civil Rights demonstration. Miriam Schapiro’s composition of ovoids constricted between geometric bands, Dialogue (1962), could be read as commentary on Barnett Newman’s vertical “zips.” Created a couple of years after birth control pills became available, it just as well suggests ongoing dialogues about female reproduction bound by institutional control.
Some things never change. A placard on view from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom declares “We Demand an End to Police Brutality Now!” The show highlights, too, more specific collective abysses such as political assassinations. Nevertheless, the period’s economic confidence and sense of possibility—the idealism stirring Martin Luther King Jr. to his “Dream” oration—feels like not just another era, but another country. Presently, we’re distant from the demographic cohesion galvanized by just three TV networks that everyone watched, families together in the living room. It is that absence that makes this show so appealing to current audiences, a yearning to experience better days or their simulacra through nostalgic immersion in an optimistic time’s art and artifacts.
The Jewish Museum originated New York 1962–1964 in 2017 by inviting the eminent Italian curator Germano Celant to conceive of an exhibition heralding the museum’s venturesome promotion of new art, chiefly that of Robert Rauschenberg, during the two years when Alan Solomon served as director. (A short duration? In these pages, Norman Kleeblatt recounted Solomon’s ill-suited reputation for “antipathy to Jewish religion and culture,” unmentioned in the exhibition.) Actually, The Jewish Museum’s chief legacy in modern and contemporary art is curator Kynaston McShine’s influential early exposure of Minimalism, Primary Structures, in 1966. In 2014 the Museum mined that notoriety with a sequel show that proposed a global revision. The latter exhibition exemplifies the fact that the tumultuous decade of the sixties has already been thoroughly analyzed. Ironically, the current show’s approach of self-promotional retrospection seems to have prevented it from accomplishing what it acclaims Solomon for doing—that is, presenting new information.
Perhaps that is because after Celant’s death of COVID-19 in 2020, the show was curated by committee. The exhibition also demonstrates the downside of conceiving historical surveys years in advance: social milieu shift. When examined from within our current turmoil of economic, social, and climatological constraints, its evocation of an expansive sense of possibility appears tone deaf, or even trivial; the honorific inverts into the elegiac. Television news anchor Walter Cronkite—screened on a TV in the exhibition—famously concluded his evening broadcasts with, “That’s the way it is.” New York 1962–1964 highlights what we’ve lost. We no longer trust in radical innovation, in progressive possibilities, in progress-as-growth, or in the other side of the political aisle. The show’s inadvertent achievement may be, as Bob Dylan put it in 1965, “bringing it all back home.”