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Review: New York: 1962 – 1964. Jewish Museum, 5th Avenue at 92nd Street, through January 8, 2023. https://thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/new-york-1962-1964
Never trust Wikipedia. Look up "Ouzelum" and you're told the Ouzelum (or "ouzzlum bird") is a mythical creature that "flies backwards so that it can admire its own […] tail feathers,” but in the version I know the Ouzzlum flies in ever-diminishing circles, chasing its tail until it flies up its own ass and disappears. You can’t do both at once.
Unless you’re an art critic. A couple of those have been going full Hegel of late; critics who long ago decided Art wasn’t going anywhere, it IS, you see, are trying to tell us how it got there. In the New Yorker Peter Schjeldahl overcomes himself in the Hegelian sense (also the ouzzlumian) by exposing the roots of fated artistic progress. New York 1962-1964, now showing at the Jewish Museum, we are told, illustrates “an era of near-weekly advances in all of the arts,” a presage of greatness to come.1 Art has been created expressly for art critics, that they may grasp themselves flying forward in the process of the ever-backward, the ouzzlum returning to its asshole.
On the contrary. New York 1962-1964 is a show that lets an artist “take control of a memory as it flashes in a moment of danger,” more Benjamin than Hegel: “Call into the past and beg the ancestors to come and help you. […] The ancestors won’t let you down.” That’s Joseph Cinqué, you know.2
Respect for Lawrence Alloway, the British critic. In the ‘Fifties Alloway helped develop the concept of a “popular-art-fine-art-continuum.” The term eventually boiled down to “Pop” and Pop boiled down to Warhol, but for Alloway the concept embodied more than Pop. American artists, he wrote, in 1962,
“Have not abandoned the high standards of the older American abstract painters. […] Thus, there is a continuity […] which confers a certain formal strength on what is new.”3
Alloway might have been thinking of Claes Oldenburg’s’ The Store (1961), which is evoked at the Jewish Museum. The Store consisted of a real store in the East Village selling fake plaster and paper-mâché pies and such encrusted with real abstract-expressionist gobs of color to provide “formal strength,” wink-wink. (Oldenburg would duplicate that strategy to the end of his life.) It’s fashionable today to discuss The Store as a comment on consumerism, the commodity blah blah. Except, The Store marks a form of solidarity with the consumers of these goodies: not the goodies, not the brand as with Warhol, but the consumer of the brand, the one consumed. Art as a form of revenge consumption.
Also: with Warhol and after formal strength goes out the window. So, of course, do high standards. But as Alloway noted, if American artists of the early ‘sixties were in the vanguard it was because they did not pretend to overcome demands, either of Art or of life. New York 1962-1964 is crammed with material our critic bird would like to think as “context,” marginal to the aesthetic: reels of the March on Washington, mimeographs from little magazines or tenants’ organizations, posters for shows and exhibition, all of the messy, vulgar, political parts our bird so desperately wants to overcome and that come back at him like the Negation of the Negation or the Pillsbury Doughboy.
I must have been sixteen when I first saw a reproduction of a Rauschenberg, on the record cover for an Elliot Carter string quartet. Carter was refined and hard-edged, he was going to require work. Rauschenberg, like The Store, made no such demands, he was easy, and that made me suspicious. He felt like an aside, like the jacket for an LP record: “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made (I try to act in the gap between the two).” His was an art of context, working in the gaps. At the Jewish Museum, Rauschenberg is represented at his best by a video of a dance performance he designed along with John Cage and Merce Cunningham.
Jasper Johns is present, too. In one of those comments he liked to insert in his articles like critical staffage, Harold Rosenberg ascribed to Johns "the principle of converting abstract shapes into familiar presences.”4 But Johns' way of working the gap between workshop skills and social symbols was only one of many, and far more formulaic than most. When he wrote this Rosenberg was dealing with Philip Guston’s Ku-Klux Klan paintings, which operate in the reverse direction, converting eerie presences into familiar, abstract shapes. When first shown in 1970 Guston’s paintings caused a significant amount of concern among the birds, as if he'd turned away from the predictable road of “advances in all the arts.” Guston remains the unacknowledged legislator of the Punk Generation, the stoned that the empire builders forgot. Likewise, many among the artists on display at the Jewish Museum would go on to produce works more polished and better-known today, therefore less interesting. The show includes a sculpture by Mark di Suvero made of salvaged wood; a Kenneth Noland that projects vestigial warmth, one of his earlier works; and a Donald Judd built of wood that preserves the texture. But to grasp all this you’d actually have to be there, in the Museum, in person, a drawback from the speculative point of view. Nineteen-sixty-four, it might be argued, is when Art ceased to exist for the guys walking in off 2nd Street and became “dematerialized,” not merely in the sense that it existed as an idea but that the physical object, if it existed at all, was little more than a marker for the Art History class and the auction catalog.
After Rauschenberg it was Elliott Carter all the way down. And would it be too much today, to make art again like Rauschenberg and not like Carter? The Ouzzlumbird takes flight as darkness falls.
Peter Schjeldahl, "When New York Ruled the World." The New Yorker (August 8, 2022); https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/08/08/peter-schjeldahl-art-review-new-york-1962-1964-jewish-museum.
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History; Joseph Cinqué (Sengbe Pieh) in Amistad (dir. Steven Spielberg).
Lawrence Alloway, "'Pop Art' since 1949." The Listener 68, no. 1761 (1962): 1085-87; quoted in Michael Lobel, "'Spatial Disorientation Patterns.’ Lawrence Alloway, Curating, and the Global Turn" in Lawrence Alloway, Critic and Curator, ed. Lucy Bradnock, Courtney J. Martin and Rebecca Peabody (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2015), p. 78.
Harold Rosenberg, "Liberation from Detachment." The New Yorker (November 7, 1970), reprinted in The De-definition of Art (New York: Collier Books, 1972), p. 133.