BY David Batchelor in Frieze | 05 MAR 93
Featured in
Issue 9

The Wonder Years

Sixties art

BY David Batchelor in Frieze | 05 MAR 93

'Cut a football supporter in half', suggests Nick Hornby, the sports writer, and you will nd 'rings, very similar to those visible on tree trunks'. Each of these, he explains, 'represents a season spent watching football. These are usually indistinguishable but those of us in our mid-thirties are botanical freaks because right at our centre, at our youngest, most tender spot, there is a ring markedly different from all the others'. It represents the year which culminated in Manchester United's European Cup win over Benca, 'football's version of Woodstock'. Now cut up your nearest senior lecturer in Fine Art, or equivalent in middle management arts administration. You will probably nd something similar inside. The art teacher/administrator will be a little older - in his forties and nearing fty perhaps - and the rings will represent seasons in the art world. The majority of these will show only microscopic growth, but the chances are, close to the centre, there is a ring similar to that in the football supporter. It might represent exactly the same year - 1968 - or one very close to it. For many of this generation, the artistic achievements of the 60s are high enough still to cast their shadow over the 90s. Though closer in time to the end of World War II, the decade of Hanoi, Prague and Paris opens out onto our modernity. The ground-plan of our cultural arena was marked out in the sand by the radical experiments which have been passed down to us as Pop, Minimalism, High Modernism, Conceptual art, Arte Povera, Anti-Form, Earthworks, Performance, and more. Together with its equivalents in literature and music this was taken as the cultural analogue of a generation of political opposition and dissent. Or some of it was, anyway. It is not accidental that 'the 60s' is now to be found represented in museums and galleries as history: many of the generation which has that growth ring at its centre now have fairly solid trunks and some well established roots, especially within English cultural management. The rst few months of 1993 will see ve large scale exhibitions devoted to the art of that period; they may also see Manchester United pick up their rst League Championship since 1967. Gravity and Grace, subtitled 'the changing condition of sculpture 1965-1975' and curated by Jon Thompson is the first of three large group shows. Second is Out of Sight, Out of Mind, an exhibition of work by over 50 artists from more or less the same period, at the Lisson Gallery. And then there is The Sixties: Art Scene in London at the Barbican. Fine titles one and all, but more interesting is the scope of these different exhibitions. At the time of writing, only Gravity and Grace has opened. It's an ambitious and generally impressive show accompanied by an argument which seeks to redraw some of the art historical map of the period. Exhibition and argument deserve detailed consideration. The Lisson Gallery exhibition will include most of the 20 artists from Thompson's show together with many others. But there is clearly a marked difference in emphasis between the two shows -while Thompson's takes as its focus art which went under the labels of Arte Povera and Postminimalism, the emphasis of the Lisson's list is, (in line with the gallery's history), more towards Conceptual art. The Barbican show will have no overlap with any of this and will focus instead on Pop-oriented work, Caro, Riley and aspects of popular culture. (Correction: one artist will be represented at both the Barbican and the Lisson: Stephen Willats.) In addition there are two further exhibitions which have an important bearing on this period. Both are one-person retrospectives of major American artists: Sol LeWitt (drawings and structures) at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, and Robert Ryman at the Tate Gallery. In their way, each of the three group exhibitions stake a particular claim as to what was really important in the period. The fact that each makes a quite different claim and is able to muster such a body of 'evidence' in support of its argument, while a whole range of other work - from High Modernist abstraction to Earthworks, Performance and Video - is left untouched by all three, must itself be testimony to the extraordinary productivity of the period. Gravity and Grace is founded on an interesting idea. It is that Arte Povera and Postminimalism (terms invented by Germano Celant around 1968 and Robert Pincus-Witten in 1977 respectively), which have come to be regarded as largely separate national artistic moments - Italian and American -were originally more closely related, forming in effect a single international avant-garde. It was Celant, Thompson argues, who sought to make and promote a specifically national grouping of contemporary Italian artists and thus misrepresent the real character of the time. Thompson aims to rectify the account by reuniting the Italian and American work (eight and six artists respectively) together with a few English, German and Belgian works (two artists from each country). This basic idea is developed in two related but distinct forms. First there is the exhibition, then there is the catalogue. They turn out to be very different creatures, and need to be dealt with separately. The exhibition is in turn spectacular, intriguing, idiosyncratic, instructive and, in places, disappointing. The viewer is to some extent led through a series of staged collisions between American and European work - Serra and Anselmo being the most obvious, but also Morris and Beuys, Smithson and Ruthenbeck, Long and Penone. However, these pairings are deflected in most rooms by the presence of a number of works by other artists, so the viewer is often left to stumble across them rather than have each one pointed out too obviously. The effect of bringing together a number of formally diverse works in the large galleries is quite striking, Thompson is clearly looking to reproduce the look of the open-plan installations in which much of the work was shown during the late 60s and early 70s. This is far more successful for the most part than the Hayward Gallery's last attempt at installing a large scale group show, Doubletake, in which each artist was given his or her own little Wendy House to decorate. Some have argued that Gravity and Grace is still too clean and tidy - and it's true you can't get much cleaner and tidier than the architecture of Claudio Silvestrin who redesigned the galleries for this show - but then the Hayward's interiors don't leave a lot of room for subtle re-tuning. The sculpture itself must take some of the credit for breathing a little life into the space, and much of it does look remarkably fresh. Thompson also seems to have had a clear sense of the particular works he wanted, rather than just a list of artists to be included, and the result is a high proportion of good examples from the period. This is where Thompson's practical knowledge of the time really pays off, and it gives the show a kind of intensity which is often absent from more art historical surveys. As for the conjunctions themselves, some come off better than others. The first room is devoted to works by Richard Serra and Giovanni Anselmo. The connection is that both exploit the physical weight of their chosen materials in producing a series of apparently precarious balances and tensions. The contest is uneven. Serra's weighty Five Plates, Two Poles (1971) is faced by an untitled, knee-high, granite, sawdust and lettuce leaf contraption by Anselmo. It's like a toy poodle yapping at a big deaf bear. It's meant to be witty but it looks coy. Conversely the placing of a felt-clad cello by Joseph Beuys against a low pile of felt strips by Robert Morris is surprisingly successful. Given that Beuys' work is habitually presented to the world as a species of holy relic, it's genuinely refreshing to see it having to find its own level amongst the competition. It's none the worse for being made to look less precious. On the other hand the same artist's Earth Telephone (1968) sits in beatified isolation and positively trembles in the presence of its own profundity. Pistoletto's supremely absurd Orchestra of Rags - Trio (1968) is also set apart from other work, but demonstrates that it is possible to rise above the gravitas of the setting. Even so it would have been better to see this work in amongst everything else: this type of informal sculpture needs as much help as it can get if it is going to hang on to something of its maverick spirit in the face of its inevitable decline into the museum. The wide diversity of materials spread through the spaces doesn't look at all strange these days: paper and rocks, parrots and neon, rags and wreaths, steel and string - these are the standard materials of contemporary sculpture. If anything, the show has a rather traditional look. It's not just that all the work is quite physical and palpable, at least when compared to the more ethereal production associated with Conceptual art, but there is also a hand-made feel about most of it. The scale and materials and techniques are generally more domestic than industrial. The only obvious exceptions to this are the two large metal sculptures by Serra and (to a lesser extent) Smithson's elegiac aluminium and stone Non-Site (1968). This in turn raises the question, not of whether the US/Europe play-offs look good, which they often do, but of whether there are really substantive areas of common interest between different locales. It certainly seems right to emphasise the international aspirations - which I assume were as much political and social as specifically artistic - of the artists of this period, but this doesn't, nor should it, negate local differences. That would be to falsify history in the other direction. The evidence of the exhibition is that artists from different countries were working under the weight of different art histories. Much of the American work looks to have been shaped by concerns with process, materials and a one-to-one, semi-industrial scale, shaped, that is to say, by the legacy of abstract expressionism. Much of the European work, on the other hand, has a higher level of interior narrative - different materials jostling with each other within a single work - which is more suggestive of the Duchampian readymade and the surrealist object. This is by no means a hard and fast division, of course. Eva Hesse and Richard Long both stand out as obvious counter-examples to this tendency. But the main effect of putting Anselmo next to Serra, and Beuys alongside Morris is to emphasise different uses that were made of occasionally similar materials and devices. It is at about this point that you turn to the catalogue, in the hope that it might flesh out some of the themes raised in the exhibition. The bulk of the volume is made up of a long essay by Jon Thompson. It gets off to an inauspicious start: in the first sentence Baudelaire is credited with having said that sculpture was something you fell over when you stepped back to look at a painting. No, it was Ad Reinhardt, and they weren't the words he used. It is also stated that Greenberg wrote a book called Modernist Painting, which he didn't, and that Fried's Art and Objecthood was published in his book Absorption and Theatricality which it wasn't because an essay on Minimalism and Modernist abstraction would have looked a little out of place in a book on David and Diderot. Etcetera. Errors such as these may seem like minor points, but they suggest that Thompson hasn't read much of the material he dismisses so authoritatively in the course of his essay. His curious account of Fried's concept of theatricality, to take a single example, confirms this. It looks like he was reading a book on Wagner at the same time and got the two mixed up. In a nutshell, 'theatricality' for Fried has nothing in principle to do with joining up art with dance, music, literature, etc, as Thompson suggests. It has to do with whether a work of art is organised in such a way as to imply or to deny the presence of a beholder. Fried was certainly hostile to the idea of a synthesis of the arts, à la Wagner, Gropius, et al, and such a synthesis may lead to a kind of theatre, but this would be an example rather than the cause of 'theatricality'. Paradoxically, though, in spite of his antipathy towards (a caricature of) Modernism, there is something rather Friedbergian in Thompson's version of art history. Thompson argues against Modernist painting, but his is also an argument against painting in general. At least the implication is that painting and sculpture are, if not exactly opposed to each other, nevertheless quite distinct and unrelated. The idea that painting and sculpture develop separately is of course one of the main tenets of Modernist Painting and Art and Objecthood, essays which were written exactly during times (1961 and 1967 respectively) when the security of these divisions were most under threat. One of the most fascinating aspects of the earlier 60s in particular was that the relationship between painting and sculpture became a subject in much important work and led to a breakdown of sorts between the two categories. Rauschenberg's Combines, Johns' paintings with objects or compartments, and the shaped canvases of Stella and Noland, each in different ways suggest a creative uncertainty about the literal and metaphorical boundaries of the two disciplines. More to the point, Robert Morris argued exactly in connection with the kind of work through which he is represented in Thompson's show, that its origins were in the painting processes of Pollock and Morris Louis. Then there is Judd in 1965: 'half or more of the best new work of the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture' but 'three dimensional work' - i.e. something which drew from both but satisfied neither; most of the structures and drawings of LeWitt; the flat and almost painterly sculptures of Andre; and even perhaps the 'engineered' canvases of Ryman. But for Thompson, sculpture seems to exist in spite of painting. And insofar as he regards the history of art before World War II as the history of painting, modern sculpture appears to begin around 1950 with David Smith: 'For the first time, the viewer...was not a passive receiver of the traditional sculptural verities'. Uh? So what were Picasso's constructions from around 1913? Or Tatlin's corner reliefs? Or the welded linear steel work of Gonzalez? Except for a long discussion of the terms of Adrian Stokes' criticism, there is no discussion in Thompson's essay of any pre-1945 art, painting or sculpture. This needn't be a problem, only the essay purports to deal with the circumstances under which the work in the exhibition came to be made. It is a problem, simply because so much of the European work represented implies some kind of relationship with Surrealism, or Dada, or Duchamp. Marcel Broodthaers positively advertises this connection. Is the silence here something to with Duchamp's association with cubism, and thus with a tradition of painting? A glance at Celant's essay Arte Povera also shows, in its rhetoric of vitalism and its appeals to directness and Nature, its heavy dependency on a cocktail of pre-war Expressionism and Dada. Given Thompson's own, albeit critical, dependency on Celant's manoeuvrings, it would have been useful to have had this essay reproduced in the catalogue as a document - certainly more useful than William Tucker's irrelevant The Condition of Sculpture which is printed. And what about the many texts by Beuys, Morris, Smithson and others - all of which are as much a part of the 'changing condition of sculpture' as the artworks themselves? To suppress this side of their production is in itself a significant form of misrepresentation. In place of this, we get Umberto Eco. And, for good measure, Satre, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Jacobson, Piaget, Lacan, phenomenology, psychoanalysis and information theory. And all in the space of a couple of sentences. Why? If the dozen-odd names flaunted in Thompson's essay were replaced with a dozen others would it make that much difference? What is the relationship between these names and this body of work? What is the function of this type of text? As far as I can see, it is the same as the little steel poles and bits of rope which separate off many of the works in the exhibition from each other and from the viewer. It is an institutional requirement. Its function is to make the exhibition safe. (This is the function of all catalogue writing, not just Thompson's.) But Thompson's theoretical stir-fry is also a little ironic, given the author's own claim towards the end of the essay (echoing Celant) that this work 'addresses the viewer on its own terms, without the obfuscations and mediations of existing interpretive structures'. It isn't difficult to see why the organisers might have felt the need to shore up the exhibition with a bit of theoretical bulk given the typically smug, self-righteous, and simply philistine cat-calls issued in the national newspapers in the name of art criticism. And perhaps it is a testament of sorts to the range of work in the exhibition that it attracts - that it still attracts after a quarter of a century - such a barrage of hostility. Unfortunately the mendacious populism filtered through the daily press isn't dealt with by building neo-rococo barricades. A far more direct approach is needed.