BY Jill Glessing in Reviews | 17 NOV 13

‘± 1961: Founding the Expanded Arts’ is another installment in the Reina Sofía’s increasingly refined process of mapping the art-historical genealogy of the latter part of the 20th century. The sophisticated research and curatorial work of Julia Robinson and Christian Xatrec takes us back to the primordial stirrings of contemporary art, when form became secondary to idea, when art integrated with the everyday, when singular media expanded into ‘intermedia’. While Stéphane Mallarmé and Marcel Duchamp are often cited as precursors to the postwar avant-garde, ‘± 1961’ offers a more finely demarcated origin myth in the figure of John Cage, who radically reinvented musical composition as the organization of sound and, by doing so, opened it up to other spatial and sculptural dimensions and media.

Central to this process was La Monte Young, who introduced these innovations into his own scores and disseminated Cage’s ideas – ‘seedable to anyone’ – through a network of poets, musicians, choreographers and visual artists, several of whom were Cage’s students at the New School. Young’s concert series became an important venue for these artists, some of whose projects were compiled in his An Anthology of Chance Operations (1963). All this occurred around 1961 (as the title, ‘±’, qualifies) – the explosive centre around which this survey circulates. Roughly 700 pieces of documentary materials and art works are amassed into an exhibition that illustrates the intense experimentation of the period.

An introductory room explored Young’s role in spreading Cage’s influence. A 1961 score by the poet Jackson Mac Low exemplified the extra-musical application of the Cagean compositional model, and the importance of chance and indeterminacy: ‘The text on the opposite page may be used in any way as a score for solo or group readings, musical or dramatic performances, looking, smelling, anything else &/or nothing at all.’ Elsewhere, George Brecht’s event score Motor Vehicle Sundown (Event) (1960) exemplifies the displacement of traditional musical instruments by everyday sounds and events. Described by the composer as a ‘verbal instruction piece scored for any number of motor vehicles arranged outdoors’, it instructs performers to arrive at sundown, start their engines and enact randomly assigned auditory and visual events such as sounding horns.

Another gallery focused on Young’s ‘Chambers Street Series’ (1961). Held at Yoko Ono’s studio, these events became an incubation chamber for young artists, including George Maciunas, and helped to animate the Fluxus movement. Simone Forti’s ‘Dance Constructions’ (1961) were presented at Ono’s loft, works that were reproduced throughout the exhibition by performers trained by Forti herself. Several examples of Robert Morris’s prolific and varied output and his transitions in and out of Minimalism were also presented. His installation Passageway (1961), for instance, exemplifies the integration of audience engagement in performance: a mechanical heartbeat sounds within a curved hallway that embraces participants as it becomes increasingly narrow. Also presented were better-known works, such as Box with the Sound of its Own Making (1961), a self-reflexive meditation on media and making.

Though these radical experiments resisted art traditions and cultural authorities, they were not explicitly political. Henry Flynt, who coined the term ‘concept art’ in his 1961 essay of the same name, models later political and activist art. Various photographs document his protests in the early 1960s outside of high art establishments such as Lincoln Center, where he critiqued eurocentrism and racism, even castigating fellow avant-gardist Karlheinz Stockhausen for his dismissal of jazz.

A final room fittingly indicated art’s ‘intermedia’ future. Dick Higgins’ Fluxus work, St. Joan at Beaurevoir (1960), combined overlapping projections of altered slides and a film of collaged popular media imagery with commercial radio sound from a transistor radio. At the original happening, the imagery was projected onto moving participants. But the return to the exuberant 1961 that Robinson and Xantac have re-created provides some faint hope today, when these art forms and strategies feel so worn-out and commodified. That immersive, now-historic project of changing art and the world is now all but absent, suggesting that a revitalization of the avant-garde is required.

Jill Glessing is a writer and lecturer in Art History at York University and Ryerson University, Ontario.