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When New York Ruled the World

This is where I came in. A spectacular historical show of art and documentation, “New York: 1962-1964,” at the Jewish Museum, addresses the exact years of my tatterdemalion arrival, from the Midwest, as an ambitious poet, a jobber in journalism, and a tyro art nut. I gravitated through the time’s impecunious Lower East Side poetry scene into the booming though not yet oligarchic art world. Artists, writers, dealers, patrons, and assorted intellectuals, alert to momentous changes in the world at large, rubbed shoulders at parties that were a lot more stimulating than those attended by my second-generation New York School coterie.

It was an era of season-to-season—at times almost monthly or weekly—advances in painting, sculpture, photography, dance, music, design, fashion, and such hybrid high jinks as “happenings.” The exhibition honors poetry, too, by displaying some of the scrappy, mostly mimeographed little magazines that agitated for vernacular language in verse, anchored by a copy of Frank O’Hara’s definitive book, “Lunch Poems” (1964), and by piping in recorded readings. My favorites were and remain Ron Padgett and the late, exquisitely laconic artist-poet Joe Brainard, both from Oklahoma.

With Pop art and nascent Minimalism, New York artists were turning no end of tables on solemnly histrionic Abstract Expressionism, which had established our town as the new wheelhouse of creative origination worldwide. Instrumental to the moment was a brilliant critic and curator, Alan Solomon, who died too soon, at the age of forty-nine, in 1970. As the director of the Jewish Museum during the years bracketed in the present show, he consolidated what he called “The New Art,” mounting the first museum retrospectives of the trailblazers Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and elevating such newbie Pop phenoms as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist in tandem with aggressively large-scale, radically formalist abstract painters like Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland. Solomon organized the U.S. exhibition at the 1964 Venice Biennale, where Rauschenberg was awarded the Grand Prize for painting, a coup that cemented New York’s ascendance. If you weren’t here, you all of a sudden risked seeming provincial.

Poor Paris, where I spent most of a disillusioning year, spanning 1964 and 1965, was slow to recover from a tantrum of (to apply the appropriate phrase for it) lèse-majesté. As late as 1983, a prominent book by the French-born art historian Serge Guilbaut, “How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art,” elided the truth that, following the Second World War, “the idea” had been up for grabs. (Finders keepers.) Guilbaut attributed the transatlantic larceny to conspiratorial interventions by the U.S. government, some agencies of which did, to be sure, view American expressive liberty as a soft weapon in the Cold War and supported its exposure overseas, at times covertly. That’s accurate enough as far as it goes, but it was only one among many converging circumstances.

In truth, New York rainmakers like Solomon, the quick-witted dealer Sidney Janis, and the European-émigré power couple of Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend—whose split, in 1959, resulted in separate galleries (one in Manhattan, one in Paris) that amplified the sway of their bold and exacting, complementary tastes—needed no cloaks or daggers to broker art that made every decisive case by and for itself. Open-minded young Germans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, Latin Americans, Asians, and even certain French artists were electrified. An influx to New York of foreign talents which had started by happenstance in wartime swelled to an invasion. Some, such as the Bulgarian-born Christo and his French wife, Jeanne-Claude, became stars. Others encountered tough sledding. In 1973, after fifteen eventful but lean years, the sensual, often environmental Japanese sculptor Yayoi Kusama retreated to her homeland and began a rise to international eminence that is still under way.

“New York: 1962-1964” was conceived by the globe-trotting Italian critical macher Germano Celant, before his death, in 2020, as a sampler of exemplary works surrounded by pictorial and written evidence of coincident political and social contingencies. A curatorial team at the Jewish Museum, along with Celant’s studio, has seen his eclectic scheme through. Civil-rights campaigns, the sexual revolution, emergent second-wave feminism, the Cuban missile crisis, the J.F.K. assassination, forebodings of disaster in Vietnam, and much else, torn from the period’s headlines, make their pressures felt. (I might have thought that I was done with shedding tears at Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, but a wall-size projection of it in the show proved otherwise.) The global contexts rhyme in energy if not in direct relevance with an insurgent avant-gardism in New York which, while rarely polemical (art for art’s sake remained a persistent ideal), rejected modernist detachment in order to engage lived realities. As Solomon observed, “television commercials, comic strips, hot dog stands, billboards, junk yards, hamburger joints, used car lots, jukeboxes, slot machines, and supermarkets,” channelling “probably most of the aesthetic experience for 99 percent of Americans,” became regnant almost overnight.

Emblematic of this, in the show, are items from “The Store” (December, 1961), by the recently late, and lamented, Claes Oldenburg: a pop-up storefront emporium, on East Second Street, of consumer goods represented in lumpy plaster and slapdash paint. Poeticized by uselessness, the work bridges gee-whiz delight and sardonic irony, seeming at once to brag of and to complain about the virulently commercialized culture that was both crowning and roughing up America’s peak power, prosperity, and—face it—hubris. I must admit to a false memory, now that I reflect on it, of having seen “The Store” and a number of Solomon’s rousing exhibitions in person. I was way too disorganized even as I was absorbing the period’s torrential excitements—soundtracked by Bob Dylan and Motown—at first vicariously and then by way of a nascent career that I had never imagined for myself.

The eruptive early sixties launched many folks on all sorts of trajectories. After intriguing for a trice, some quickly flamed out or stalled, suggesting to me a theory, which I kept to myself, of Temporary Meaning in Art: get it while it’s hot or miss it forever, at a cost to your sophistication. Others, at the margins of fame, hung fire for unjustly belated recognition, as demonstrated in this show by the achievements of the Spiral Group, a cadre of Black artists who banded together in 1963 and were led along different but likewise terrific stylistic tracks by the populist collage specialist Romare Bearden and the surpassingly versatile abstractionist Norman Lewis. The group attained some art-world renown, but it was fleeting. Meanwhile, few women at the time were given their due, which should accrue to them in retrospect. New to me is a garish relief painting, from 1963, by the underknown Marjorie Strider, of a glamour girl chomping on a huge red radish, that could serve as an icon of Pop glee and sexual impertinence crossed with proto-feminist vexation.

Strengths of the show include recorded performances of the dance revolutionary Merce Cunningham; photographs of the irrepressible live-action provocateur Carolee Schneemann, who liked cavorting naked to oddly ennobling effect; and the orgiastic, often officially censored film “Flaming Creatures” (1963), by Jack Smith. The last signalled a seething gay underground that Susan Sontag touched on, the following year, in her depth-charge essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’ ” Apart from such highlights, I was annoyed at first blush by the surrounding profusion of non-art-historical matter that I knew very well already. Of course, I had been on hand for the precipitating events, consuming newspapers (there were at least seven dailies in Manhattan back then) and television (in black-and-white, suitable to the avuncular charisma, which I sorely miss, of Walter Cronkite).

I imagine, and quite hope, that numerous teen-age school groups will visit the show and be introduced to a time line that undergirds worldly and creative developments, enthralling or distressing or both at once, across the subsequent six decades. Personally, recalling the chaos of my early-twenties existence checkers my nostalgia for much of that. But I urge you who are young (most everybody these days, relative to me) to explore the exhibition and to imagine what experiencing the rampant stormy weather that it invokes would have been like for you. ♦