This is where you come in. An astonishing historical display of art and documentation, “New York: 1962-1964,” at the Jewish Museum, examines the exact years I arrived in the wretched land, of the Midwest, as an aspiring poet, businessman in journalism, and art nut. I was drawn by the poetic landscape of the Lower East Side of time to the burgeoning art world though oligarchs. Artists, writers, merchants, patrons, and various thinkers, alert to the drastic changes of the whole world, rubbed shoulders at parties which were far more exciting than those attended by my second-generation New York school clique.
It was a season-to-season era—sometimes monthly or almost weekly—in painting, sculpture, photography, dance, music, design, fashion, and hybrid gin like “events”. The exhibition also honors poetry, by displaying a few scattered, mostly copycat magazines, which evoked vernacular in poetry, based on a copy of Frank O’Hara’s final book, Lunch Poems (1964), and through recorded readings. My favorite was and still is Ron Padgett and the late poet Joe Brainard, both from Oklahoma.
With Pop Art and nascent Minimalism, New York artists have been endlessly turning the tables on formal theatrical abstract expressionism, which established our city as a new commanding room for creative creativity around the world. Brilliant critic and moderator Alan Solomon, who died very early, at the age of forty-nine, in 1970, was the highlight of the moment. Called The New Art, the museum is the first retrospective of the pioneers Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and elevated neo-pop phenomena such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist along with radically more formal abstract painters such as Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland. Solomon organized the American Exhibition at the 1964 Venice Biennale, where Rauschenberg was awarded the Grand Prize for Painting, a coup that underpinned the rise of New York. If you’re not here, you suddenly run the risk of seeming regional.
Poor Paris, where I spent most of my disappointing year, between 1964 and 1965, was slow to recover from a tantrum (to apply the appropriate phrase) lèse-majesté. In late 1983, a notable book by French-born art historian Serge Gilboat, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, dismissed the fact that after World War II the “idea” was moot. (Keepers of the Finders). Gilboat attributed the transatlantic theft to conspiratorial interventions by the United States government, and it is certain that some agencies viewed American freedom of expression as a soft weapon in the Cold War and supported its exposure abroad, sometimes covertly. That’s accurate enough as far as it goes, but it was only one of many converging circumstances.
Indeed, New York rainmakers such as Solomon, masterful merchant Sidney Janis, and a pair of European immigrants Leo Castelli and Eliana Sonnabend—whose split in 1959 into separate galleries (one in Manhattan and one in Paris) compounded the effect of their bold, austere and complementary tastes. She did not need cloaks or daggers to mediate the art that made each case decisive on its own and for her. Extroverted young Germans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Latin Americans, Asians, and even some French artists were excited. The influx of foreign talent into New York that coincidentally began in wartime swelled into an invasion. And some, like Bulgarian-born Christo and his French wife Jeanne-Claude, became superstars. Others faced difficult skating. In 1973, after fifteen eventful but meager years, the sensual, and often environmentalist Japanese sculptor Yayoi Kusama receded into her homeland and set out to rise to international prominence that is still underway.
Created, before his death, in 2020, “New York: 1962-1964” by feline Italian critic Germano Celant, as a sample of exemplary works surrounded by illustrated and written evidence of simultaneous political and social emergencies. The Jewish Museum’s team of curators, along with Celant Studio, have seen their eclectic scheme through. Civil rights campaigns, the sexual revolution, the rise of second wave feminism, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the JFK assassination, prophecies of disaster in Vietnam, and many other things, ripped from the headlines of that period, make their stress felt. (I might have thought I ended up shedding tears in Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, but his wall-size rendering in the show proved otherwise.) Global contexts rhyme in energy if not directly related to the avant-garde rebellion in New York that , although rarely polemical (art for art’s sake has remained a consistent example), he rejected modernist detachment in order to engage in living realities. As Solomon notes, “TV advertisements, comics, sausage stalls, billboards, trash yards, hamburger joints, second-hand parking lots, music boxes, slot machines, and supermarkets ‘guide’ probably the most aesthetic experience for 99 percent of Americans.” He became ruler almost overnight.
Symbol of this, on display, are elements of “The Shop” (December, 1961), by the recently late, distressed Claes Oldenburg: a pop-up storefront, on East Second Street, for consumer goods represented in the lumpy stucco-and-lacquer lump. Portrayed in poetry of futility, the work pairs glamor with ironic irony, it at once seems to brag and grumble about the malicious commercial culture that was the culmination and curtailment of America’s peak of power, prosperity, and — face it — arrogance. I must confess with a false memory that, having meditated on it, I personally saw “The Store” and a number of Solomon’s erotic exhibitions. I was so disorganized even as I absorbed the exuberant thrills of the period – portrayed by Bob Dylan and Motown – at first indirectly and then by way of a nascent career that I hadn’t imagined for myself.
The volcanic early 1960s launched many people on all kinds of trails. Curious for a glimpse, some quickly faded or stopped, suggesting to me a theory, which I kept to myself, of temporary meaning in art: get it while it’s hot or miss it forever, at the cost of your development. Others, on the fringes of fame, have hanged fire for unfairly belated recognition, as evidenced in this show by the accomplishments of the Spiral Group, a cadre of black artists who banded together in 1963 and led along different stylistic paths along different but equally remarkable stylistic paths as populist collage specialist Romer Bearden and Norman Lewis’s versatile abstractionist. The group gained some notoriety in the art world, but it was fleeting. Meanwhile, few women at that time had their right, which should come back to them at a later time. New to me is a flashy relief painting, from 1963, by little-known Marjorie Strider, of a charming girl chomping on a massive red radish, that could serve as a symbol of the pop of sexual glamor and rudeness that intersects with primal feminist rage.
The show’s strengths include taped performances of the revolutionary dancer Merce Cunningham; irrepressibly vivid provocative pictures of Carole Schneemann, who loved to ride naked to her bizarre effect; and the often-officially censored Arabic film “Burning Creatures” (1963) by Jack Smith. She last referred to an underground anomaly that Susan Sontag touched on, the following year, in her in-depth article Notes on ‘Camp.’ Apart from these highlights, I was initially disturbed by the plethora of non-technical and historical material I already knew well. Of course, I was in the rushing events, consuming newspapers (there were no fewer than seven dailies in Manhattan at the time) and television (in black and white, befitting the casual charisma, which I sorely miss, of Walter Cronkite).
I imagine, and quite hopefully, many school teenage groups visiting the gallery and being introduced to a timeline that supports mundane and creative developments, captivating or agonizing or both simultaneously, over the subsequent six decades. Personally, remembering the chaos of my existence in my early twenties limits my nostalgia for a lot of it. But I urge you guys (mostly these days, for me) to explore the gallery and imagine what it would be like to experience the rampant inclement weather that calls for it for you. ♦