BY James Meyer in Frieze | 09 SEP 96
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Issue 30

Remembering the 60s

Thomas Crow's The Rise of the Sixties

BY James Meyer in Frieze | 09 SEP 96

More than a decade ago, Hal Foster, writing on the subject of Minimal Art, anticipated our current fascination with the 60s. If the Reagan/Thatcher years vilified the cultural radicalism of those years, then the 90s, Foster prophesied, would experience a 'return of the repressed'. Surveying the field of contemporary work, one is struck by the accuracy of this prediction. In recent years artists have revisited the idioms of Pop and scatter art, identity-based feminism and modes of activism, legacies of Conceptualism and Institutional Critique. Scholarship has moved in this direction, too, as emerging art historians transform the practices of those years into the stuff of art history.

The return of the 60s in the present culture is a complex phenomenon, but suffice it to say that our investment in 'the 60s' - arguably the most influential episode of late 20th century culture, whose impact continues to be felt in a variety of spheres - is profound; how we recall those years speaks as much of present concerns as those of the past. For those who came of age then (the 'baby boomers') or those, like myself, for whom they loom as an irrecoverable moment of childhood, to remember the 60s is in essence to write our own histories. As we explore these recollections we enter a contentious debate that will, I suspect, increasingly diverge along methodological, political and generational lines. If the 60s defines who we are - or who we think we are - then we will view that period with the most intense partisanship.

Published as part of two different survey series by Abrams (US) and Weidenfeld (UK), Thomas Crow's The Rise of the Sixties is the latest attempt to recall the visual arts of those years. Beginning in the late 50s with such works as Jasper Johns' 'Flags' and Allan Kaprow's 'Happenings', it traces the emergence of Pop and Nouveau Realisme, CoBrA, Fluxus, Situationism, Op Art and Colour Field painting, Minimalism, Conceptualism and Performance, Postminimalism, Arte Povera, Earth Art and Institutional Critique. This is an ambitious narrative, and Crow, writing in perfectly legible prose, recounts its history with economy and skill. Flowing clearly from one episode to the next, The Rise of the Sixties also benefits from a truly international focus. Unlike previous histories that dwelt mainly on New York, Crow's volume focuses on such centres as London and Los Angeles, Düsseldorf and Paris. The West Coast artists Jess and Bruce Cooner are presented within a context of assemblagists that includes Rauschenberg and Johns; the London artists Roger Coleman and Robyn Denny, whose 'Place' exhibition at London's ICA in 1959 was an early example of site-specific installation, and the décollagistes Mimmo Rotella and Jacques de la Villeglé are also recovered from obscurity. The reader emerges with a sense of the truly international character of avant-garde culture during a period of expanding global markets and unprecedented tourism.

The most important aim of The Rise of the Sixties, however, is its attempt to situate these activities within their social matrix, a seemingly unsurprising move given the tumultuous political climate of the period; yet the fact is that most American accounts of 60s art have repressed this information. Now it is certainly understandable that Crow, one of the leading figures associated with the social history of art, should take this approach. His method has numerous benefits, not the least of which is its attentiveness to artists who, due to a seeming lack of formal inventiveness or social marginality have not been given their due, such as Ralph Rumney, Bettye Saar and the Watts Towers creator Simon Rodia.

Another gesture of Crow's is to reinscribe canonical practices within a narrative of social resistance, beginning with the Rauschenberg-combine Short Circuit (1955). Where previous writers have discussed the work's assemblage technique within a formal history of collage, Crow highlights the work's collective nature, noting its incorporation of projects by Susan Weil, Ray Johnson, a Johns Flag, a program of a John Cage performance and a paper bearing Judy Garland's signature. 'Whether or not its message was received,' Crow observes, 'Short Circuit presented a coded defiance of the values that then dominated advanced art in New York'. The presence of Cage, for example, was 'an example to other gay artists seeking to find a place among older painters - like the universally admired Willem de Kooning, who went out of his way to project an exuberant heterosexual appetite in his art'. Rauschenberg's allusions to camp diva Garland and his lover Johns consolidate this reading of Short Circuit as a totem of gay sensibility.

The outing of Rauschenberg and Johns has become standard fare, but what is worth noting is Crow's integration of this material in a general survey. A perfectly convincing reading on its own - but can we address all of 60s art aptly in social terms? Or do some practices fail to meet the litmus test of resistance? In truth, a valorisation of 'transgressive' activities over others, or politicisation of work whose concerns were at best tangentially political, may speak more of the protocols of contemporary social art history than of the actual historical and formal conditions of the work. In his attempt to highlight the resistant character of 60s culture, Crow constructs a highly selective narrative, judging the art of those years according to current notions of political responsibility. In short, in The Rise of the Sixties politics is essentially an attribute of multicultural and leftist identity. The activities of women, gay men, African-Americans, Hispanics, and collectives are a priori deemed transgressive; conversely, the work of heterosexual men (especially those without leftist affiliation) is tacitly viewed with suspicion (the dismissal of de Kooning above is typical). Practices that do not conform to this schema may risk omission. Within Conceptualism, for example, the Institutional Critique of Hans Haacke and Marcel Broodthaers, and the photo critiques of suburban architecture of Dan Graham and Ed Ruscha receive considerable attention, while the equally important serial Conceptualism of figures like Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner and Hanne Darboven is notably absent.

Just as one Conceptualism is preferred over another, so too the activities around Minimalism are held to political scrutiny. Reiterating the arguments of recent essays by Anna C. Chave, Crow characterises the practices of Robert Morris and Donald Judd as reprehensibly 'male' (i.e. authoritarian and authorial) in opposition to the purportedly collective practices of the Judson Church performers Carolee Schneemann, Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer. In Morris' 1964 performance Site (where Schneemann, presented as a modern day Olympia, lounged on a wooden chaise-longue whose side boards Morris removed) 'the egalitarianism of [Schneeman's] and Yvonne Rainer's choreography was reduced... to an insistent display of singular masculine physicality'. Now it is certainly the case that Schneeman, inspired by early feminism, would later reject her participation in Site, transforming her role as passive object into active player in the 1975 Interior Scroll. But Crow's account of Morris is selective. The fact is that the Judson Dance Theater had numerous male participants including Morris; and many dances choreographed by women were for solitary dancers or pairs (Rainer's famous Trio A (1966) began as a solo). Even more, Crow's reading, in its attempt to 'masculinise' Morris, conveniently omits his other performances such as Waterman Switch (1965), where a female dancer got up in male drag and a nude male/female couple interact in a destabilising play of gender relations.

The Judson/Minimalism comparison becomes increasingly unclear when Judson - where femaleness, collectivity and an aesthetic of process supposedly reigned - becomes both a countermodel to Minimal authorial machismo and the very source of Minimal style. Judd, writes Crow, 'transferred the aesthetic of task and function from Judson-style dance to the gallery'. Now, among the Minimal sculptors it was Morris alone who was an active participant at Judson, whose aesthetic of making he would explore extensively in such works as Box with the Sound of its Making (1961) and his later felts. But Judd's 'Minimalism' was altogether different. His practice of sending designs to workshops bespoke an indifference to process - an indifference for which Morris actually chided him in the 1968 postminimal manifesto 'Anti Form'. More than the process, it was the 'finished thing' that mattered, the perfectly executed object which, Judd reasoned, a practiced artisan could produce better than he. The Judson analogy is applied to still other aspects of Minimal work. The Minimalists, Crow observes, viewed their serially organised works of interchangeable parts as 'basic metaphors for altruism and egalitarianism in politics'. In fact, this was hardly the case. Even Carl Andre, a founding member of the Art Worker's Coalition, when confronted with this reading (first proposed by Barbara Rose) rejected any suggestion that his bricks or metal plates possessed any meaning beyond their material substance: 'That strikes me as the kind of idea that comes to a critic because a critic tries to impose upon an artwork linguistically intellectual propositions, but [my] works spring from physical, erotic propositions'.

This 'democratised' reading of Minimalism is in turn rejected by Crow. The Minimalists are chided for selling their works (artists must live lives of noble poverty) and even for their social habits: 'This practical dependence on the established system meant that the group life of these artists had to become more aggressive - and it certainly became more male. In place of the inclusive and egalitarian Judson workshops, by 1966 their interaction increasingly centred on the frantic atmosphere of a Manhattan night club called Max's Kansas City... It was in this competitive fish-bowl that artists had to establish and maintain a dominating personal aura, that is, if dealers were to be successfully cultivated.' The fact is that the Minimalists were never a coherent group (Morris and Judd were particularly at odds) and by all accounts their interactions were relatively few. (Morris has recalled that he rarely visited Max's). Moreover, Max's was a fluid, complex social ambience, the haven of Warhol and his entourage, as Crow observes, as well as Andre and Judd among many others. Yet only the Minimal sculptors are rebuked for 'masculine' posing/dealer courting, behaviours Crow equates: 'The flexing and controlling art-worker, as dramatised in Robert Morris's Site, was the public identity that worked'. It is worth noting that Warhol, whose pursuit of dealers and publicity was legendary, is let off the hook. (Here at least: earlier Crow criticises his transition from the socially critical 'Disasters' to the more pleasant, consumable 'Flowers'). Why is Warhol exonerated in a discussion that equates 'maleness' with personal aura? Is it because he was gay? This valorisation of the feminine and gay over the masculine and heterosexual (which I take to be one of the book's underlying biases) carries the unexpected risk of reifying traditional notions of identity. Masculinity, however shameful, remains the property of heterosexual men; gay men are (transgressively) non or anti-masculine, while women are insistently and exclusively 'female' (and by implication feminist). Crow's division of categories of gender, sexuality, and politics into binary schemata is hardly unique, and in this respect The Rise of the Sixties is very much of its time. We need only look to the Whitney Biennial of 1993 to note how the resurgence of identity politics within the multicultural dispensation of the 90s, while a welcome redress to previous disenfranchisement of marginal groups, may actually reinforce stereotypical identity formations. As Crow's discussion of Minimalism reveals, however, such alignments of gender, sexuality and politics along oppositional lines are difficult to sustain.

Having stressed the book's political commitment, I should mention that The Rise of the Sixties contains extensive passages of pure formal analysis. They are often superb. You will rarely find a more succinct account of Smithson's dialectical, entropic art, for example, or a more subtle discussion of the tension between the paradigms of Op Art and Greenbergian opticality. An entire section is devoted to monochrome painting. While these passages may strike readers as inconsistent with the book's social approach, Crow's analyses of the formal and philosophical character of these practices - practices that did not in fact prioritise a political content - are convincing in their own terms. Indeed, it is precisely when The Rise of the Sixties allows its engagement to slacken that the contradictory character of 60s culture - a culture at once conformist and resistant, modernist and avant-gardist, sexist and liberating - emerges, and the book's contemporaneous investments recede in the face of history.