Put a Name on It Please, begs the title of one of Alan Shields’ 1972 creations. It isn’t really a painting – just a slack rectangular frame strung with coloured webbing and beads. So what do you call it? Shields’ problem was a familiar one to contemporary critics as they struggled to describe that era’s painting. Maybe, some proposed, it was ‘the new informalism’ or ‘lyrical abstraction’, but those tags never caught on. Lawrence Alloway organized a show for the Guggenheim in 1966 entitled ‘Systemic Painting’, but it wasn’t that either: painters such as Jo Baer and Ralph Humphrey were included in Alloway’s show, but they soon accompanied many in moving into a new and nameless terrain. Today that terrain is still nameless and quite outside the canon, yet with the revival of interest in figures such as Baer, Lee Lozano and Mary Heilmann, it is a period crying out for survey. Thus, with the encouragement of painter David Reed, and under the auspices of Independent Curators International, curator Katy Siegel set to work.
The show toured through Washington DC and North Carolina before it arrived in New York, and it no doubt saw happier venues there than the weary, cramped Beaux-Arts quarters of the National Academy Museum, a setting much kinder to the starchy 19th-century painting and decorative objects for which it was designed. Nevertheless, the show unfolded with a distinctive narrative that blended chronology and theme. The scene looked untroubled at first: Humphrey was dealing with the influence of Frank Stella in Untitled (1969), a creamily weaving tangle of pastel-coloured bands. And Dan Christensen grappled with Jules Olitski in Pavo (1968), using a spray-gun to create giant free-wheeling loops of colour. But this somewhat academic settlement could not hold, and in the next room we met the radicals: Lynda Benglis pouring resin on the floor to create Blatt (1969), a congealed pancake of colour, and hanging from the ceiling was Manny Farber’s Untitled (1970), an exhilarating banner, lime on one side, blue on the reverse. Other artists, meanwhile, were looking to new media to see how they might inspire new qualities of abstraction: Jack Whitten came close to Gerhard Richter’s 1990s abstracts in Siberian Salt Grinder (1974), a black foreground of colour scraped back to reveal flashes of brighter hues. And other artists explored the possibilities of performative, sculptural and sometimes feminist reconfigurations of painting: Carolee Schneemann slathered her naked body in glue and rolled on a bed of paper to create Body Collage (1967), and Yayoi Kusama’s film Self-Obliteration (1967) presented a delicious, erotic carnival in which she blended shots of city lights with footage of very painterly happenings. Siegel’s was a selection that suggested that painting – whether for its radicals or its more orthodox proponents – sheltered a vital essence, a window on a redemptive aesthetic that had to be salvaged come what may.
But did it really feel like this at the time? Following up some footnotes to Siegel’s catalogue essay, I discovered a mini-painting revival much more conservative and formalist in its concerns than her exhibition suggests. Perhaps she felt that this was just one less interesting facet of the period, yet her exclusion of figures such as Stella, Robert Ryman and Jasper Johns suggests that she believes her chosen group constituted a coherent, evolving alternative to other, generally Minimalist, directions. It’s sometimes hard to tell exactly what is being suggested when so much ground is being covered in so abbreviated an exhibition.
What is clear is that Siegel sees a lot of the period’s work as establishing a precedent for today’s ‘expanded’ painting. Whether the heedless exuberance of today’s painting really deserves comparison with the work of such a theoretically troubled time as this is arguable; at the end of this period conservatism took hold, and many painters just went back to painting old-fashioned gestures on stretched canvas. In this context Heilmann produced Ties in My Closet (1972), a comical yet mysterious semi-figurative composition in a livid red, and Joan Snyder gave us The Storm (1974), uniting multiple square sections on the same canvas to create a dark, interconnected, thunderous rumbling of light and shadow. They looked almost modest after all that had preceded them, but for my money, at least, they were two of the best works in the show. They knew what painting did well, and what it didn’t, and they chose to do the good stuff.