When I was a kid in the early 1960s, my Eisenhower Republican physician and father always kept the latest copies of his favorite subscription publications on his home desk: Time, Life, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and Mad Magazine.
To me, Time and Life thought he was a committed citizen; JAMA, as a conscientious professional. But crazy? With his mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, and his anarchic, holy cow-goring humor? It signaled a very different kind of reader, one with a taste for cultural weirdness similar to the one I was developing.
This taste carried through the manic era of the early ’60s, a turning point between Cold War and Vietnam, civil rights and black power, oppression and liberation; beatnik and hippie; Ab-Ex and Pop. It is the era that is documented in the elegant two-level show New York: 1962-1964 at the Jewish Museum, an institution that we learn played a significant role in the cultural changes.
This overview of nearly 300 artworks and ephemera in a polite design by Selldorf Architects first places us in the heart of downtown Manhattan with a wall-sized photo of pedestrian traffic on West 8th Street in Greenwich Village. With a neon liquor store sign overhead and a soundtrack of urban noise, you’ve got a classic New York scene anytime.
In the first gallery, things get epoch-specific with a selection of shots of early 1960s street thugs: Diane Arbus on the city waterfront, Lou Bernstein on the Bowery, Leonard Freed in Harlem, Frederick Kelly on the subway and Garry Winogrand on the Central – Park Zoo. There’s a soundtrack here too, taken from an old jukebox with a selection of historical cuts, and what a rising moment in pop music that was: Bob Dylan, Chubby Checker, John Coltrane, the Shangri-Las.
Here, too, begins a new abnormality in art. Just a few years earlier, new art in New York still meant abstract expressionism: brushing, dripping, splashing painting, epic in scale, operatic in tone. But that’s not what it is all about here.
In the middle of the gallery we see a scrawny, toppling scarecrow from a construction waste sculpture by an artist in his twenties called Mark di Suvero. On the wall behind hangs a hyper-realistic close-up painting by Harold Stevenson of a single staring eye. A nearby shrine-like niche frames a roughly hand-sculpted plaster and paint relief of female underwear by a young Claes Oldenburg.
All three artists worked outside of the Ab-Ex world. Stevenson (1929-2018) was a friend of another young realist, Andy Warhol, and an early factory habitué. Oldenburg, who died this month at the age of 93, took his pictures – shoes, sandwiches, street signs – of things in his East Village neighborhood. Part of a new generation of lofts, Di Suvero lived far downtown in the Wall Street neighborhood, scouring the streets for materials at night.
And not far from his studio on South Street Seaport, in Coenties Slip, lived a small community of artists who, out of economic necessity and self-definition, had distanced themselves from the art world. These outliers included Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, and Lenore Tawney, as well as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who formed their own community nearby. All are represented on the show, Johns and Rauschenberg extensively. And all were as different from each other as they were from the dominant styles of their time.
It wasn’t long before Uptown came knocking, with the Jewish Museum leading the institutional field. A new director, Alan Solomon, came on board in 1962, determined to make the museum a vanguard in introducing what he called “the new art,” and he wasted not a minute.
In 1963 he gave Rauschenberg his first retrospective. The following year he did the same for Jasper Johns. Also in 1964, he participated in a major group exhibition of young American artists at the Venice Biennale, commissioned by the United States government, and achieved a success that shifted the balance of power in the art world from Europe to New York.
The Jewish Museum could easily have packaged New York: 1962-1964 as a small, tight institutional story. Instead, it makes the story part of a much larger one, with a far-reaching view that credit to its original organizer, Italian curator Germano Celant, who died of complications from Covid in 2020. (The exhibition is billed as a collaboration between his studio and a team from the Jewish Museum that includes Claudia Gould, director, Darsie Alexander, chief curator, Sam Sackeroff, assistant curator, and Kristina Parsons, assistant curator.)
The larger story, multidisciplinary and largely grassroots, unfolds chronologically on the second floor of the exhibition. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the suicide of Marilyn Monroe shook the nation in different ways and to different degrees. The 1963 Washington March for Jobs and Freedom was an uplifting moment, and the exhibition pays close attention to it and to the civil rights movement itself, inspired by archival materials and work produced by artists and collectives—the Spiral group, the Kamoinge workshop from the movement.
Then, just months later, the country experienced a head-on mental collapse with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And here the pre-digital popular press becomes the main expressive voice in newspaper gallery shows, magazine covers, and a video clip of Walter Cronkite’s swallowed on-air announcement of the president’s death.
Through it all, much of Solomon’s “new art” was on the job, coupled with the manic national mood. The exhibition ends with a lengthy salute to the curator through documentation of the triumph of the 1964 Venice Biennale, when Rauschenberg became the first American to win the grand prize, the Golden Lion, in painting. In fact, in the context of New York: 1962-1964, the Venice event feels disappointing. It’s the boldness of much of the art that preceded it and the political issues this work brings to the fore that make you watch and think.
Solomon’s group show in Venice – intended, he said, “to impress Europeans with the diversity of American art” – had no women, but Celants includes several. Material-rich assemblages by Nancy Grossman and Carolee Schneemann featured here are more interesting to look at and ponder than almost anything around them. (Schneemann had to wait decades for her own Venice moment; in 2017 she won the Biennale’s Golden Lion for lifetime achievement.)
And in what could be viewed as, among other things, a mini-review of the rise of pop art, the most dynamic pop image is Marjorie Strider’s big, bold Girl with a Radish. The relief originally appeared in a 1964 Pace Gallery exhibition entitled The First International Girlie Show, which, in keeping with the distorted irony that has always characterized the market, featured only two women among the ten artists, Strider and Rosalyn Drexler, had . (Clearly keen to restore this balance, Celant also included the Drexler piece, an antique self-portrait, and in other sections of the exhibition works by Lee Bontecou, Chryssa, Sally Hazelet Drummond, Martha Edelheit, May Stevens and Marisol Escobar up.)
Finally, it’s worth noting—the museum hardly does—that in a pre-Stonewall era, when non-straight sex could beat you up, arrest you, or kill you, the world of “new art” had a dense gay population. Evidence of that is here, in the Coenties Slip-Crowd, in Johns and Rauschenberg, in Stevenson, and of course Warhol. John Cage and Merce Cunningham, in a section of the show devoted to experimental dance, can be counted, as can John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, whose voices emerge from recordings of avant-garde poetry.
And then there’s the great Jack Smith and his film Flaming Creatures (1963), in which a bevy of non-binary bodies, some clothed, some nude, tumble and twirl orgiastic to the music of Top 40 radio hits. It’s pure stupid poetry. And it led filmmaker-critic Jonas Mekas to be charged with obscenity when he screened it in March 1964, at a time when the city was desperate to clean up its act in the run-up to a World’s Fair taking place alongside other uplifting entertainments would, Michelangelo’s revered “Pietà”, imported from the Vatican.
Michelangelo. JackSmith. Queer Bodies. “Pieta.” Art in New York in the early 1960s made for a heady mix. Culturally we were sitting on the edge of something and leaning forward. And a quick look through the show’s catalog, an illustrated three-year timeline edited by Celant and designed by Michael Rock, gives a sense of a larger — national, global — fluctuating state.
Here is a shot of Jacqueline Kennedy leading her televised tour of the White House and one of the segregationists, George Wallace, blocking the entrance to the University of Alabama. Martin Luther King Jr. discusses civil rights with Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office; and there is the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolating himself in Saigon to protest American intervention in South Vietnam. Here’s a studio recording of the Leave It To Beaver family of television; Here’s a blurry clip of two guys kissing in a Warhol film.
Most of these images eventually appeared in popular magazines. I don’t know what my father might have thought when he met them in Time or Life. But his devotion to Mad makes perfect sense.
New York: 1962-1964
July 22 to January 8, 2023 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Ave, 92nd Street, Manhattan; 212-423-3200, jewishmuseum.org.