COMMENTARY: 1962 – The Changing of the Avant-Garde

 

Andy Warhol, 1962

“As disturbing as it was, we continued with the Pop generation, which in the meantime has made its own reputation.”

-Sidney Janis, American gallerist, 1896-1989

*Update: Richard Bledsoe will be offline for an extended period due to an unexpected medical situation. I am Richard’s wife, Michele Bledsoe – and for the interim I will act as his hands and eyes. 

The following is a section from a major work-in-progress about art and culture Richard is writing. 

1962 was the end of the Modern Art era. Much like the Salon des Refusés ushered in the Modern Era in 1863, it was another art show that gave evidence of a definitive shift in the culture.

The influences had been gathering for years, before coming together in a definitive event. In this case the tipping point was an art show located in a temporarily rented store front – a pop-up gallery, we would say these days.

The International Exhibition of the New Realists opened on October 31, organized by New York City gallerist Sidney Janis. With this show, the Postmodern era had arrived.

International Exhibition of the New Realists, 1962

We’ve come to call it Pop art, the opening gambit of the generational shift in art and culture the Janis show encapsulated. It featured future superstars Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claus Oldenburg, Yves Kline, Christo, and many others.

The reigning dominant critic Clement Greenberg’s grip has slipped. His preference for abstraction had dominated the 1950s art world. After the exile of representational art, it was back with a vengeance, but also with a twist.

Pop art was easy to like. On the surface it was bright and playful; instant gratification art. It aspired not to inspire, but to be ironic. The recognizable imagery depicted was coming not directly from life, but was reproduced from the filtered and stylized presentations of industrial mass media: advertising, Hollywood, newspapers, comic books and television. From its inception, The Postmodern era was informed by the illusions, distortions, and manipulations these mediums employed.  Postmodernism is very useful for those who have something to hide.

But back in 1962, it was a scary Halloween for Janis’s existing stable of abstract expressionist studs. Some of the biggest names in Modern painting quit his gallery after the audacious show. Departing artists Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, and Adolph Gottlieb had struggled for decades in obscurity before the agendas inflicted on the art world turned in their favor. For a brief time, they were the pinnacle. But in the early 1960s a new set of ideas was rising.

The art on display in The New Realists show was not just another variation on Modernist priorities, another facet of Modernism’s typical fragmentation. The new way was basically a repudiation of everything the aging Modernists thought they stood for.

I select this Janis show as the Postmodern starting point because of its consequences. The changing of the guard was plain for all to see in the tempest in a teapot scale of the art world. The Action painters were driven to take action, but it was already too late.

Displaced: Philip Guston, Jimmy Ernst, Seymour H. Knox, Jr., Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko

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ARTICLE: Can You Get Away With It? Then It Was Probably Art This Year

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The art world is Spaced out

GIVING CON ARTISTS A BAD NAME: Article on Can You Get Away With It? Then It Was Probably Art This Year

Lots of what’s wrong with the art world is touched on in the article linked above, albeit somewhat unwittingly.

The assumption that art isn’t something worth being passionate and committed about: “Can you imagine anyone in today’s art world getting that worked up?”

The emphasis on marketing: “If there are trends, they appear to be more about the presentation of the art and how it’s consumed than about content”

Cloying elitism: “Everyone who is anyone – meaning collectors and curators – is always jetting off somewhere else to see and buy.”

Attempted accountability dodging by artists: “…new artists are sidling up to their own buzzword: provisional.”

Sycophantic emphasis on insider power games: “Koons is in a position…to demand whatever he wants from the art-world infrastructure.”

A jaded attitude towards towards the irrelevant train wreck the visual arts have become in our culture: “These days, diffidence is the default aesthetic response…”

What the author is describing is the decadent behavior of a tiny clique that has declared itself “the art world.” They presume to speak for us all, and this arrogance, weakness, hedging, brown nosing, and posing is what they have to offer?

Pathetic. We can do much better than this.

The author, James Adams, begins the article with a little anecdote about painter Willem De Kooning angrily confronting Andy Warhol about the evil banality of Pop Art. The author’s intent was to illustrate how out of touch De Kooning was.

I see in this vapid little puff piece of establishment flattery as the equivalent of De Kooning’s tirade. The cultural momentum in the 1960s was shifting from Modernism to Postmodernism, and the old guard were trying to shore up their status against the newcomers, to no avail.

The same dynamic is unfolding now, as the delusions of Postmodernism fail and fade, reduced to a mere conceptual trinket for cloistered, pretentious intellectuals. The rise of Remodernism engages art with the mass audience again, celebrating creativity as an expression of spiritual connection and communion. The empty mind games of Postmodernism don’t stand a chance in comparison to the return of art as a means joyous universal communication.

So the author, part of the contemporary old guard, does his best beta male version of an attack: a passive aggressive paean to how ironic and cool he and his cronies are.

He might sneer about De Kooning rolling over in his grave, but James Adams and Postmodern apologists of his ilk are the ones whistling past the graveyard now.