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Get Me a Brush, Stat!

The National Academy’s splendid show catches a moment when the New York art world thought painting was dead—and took heroic measures to revive it.

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Dan Christensen's Pavo (1968), at the National Academy.   

‘High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975” is a saber-waving, opinion-altering show, for the simple if thrilling reason that it posits an art-historical missing link, and you should see it before it closes on April 22. It’s composed entirely of abstract work made by painters who were born too late to be Pop artists or hard-core minimalists, and who then tried to take the medium to less structured and splashy, more intuitive and experimental shores. On the sober side, “High Times” suggests that the best if only shot many people will ever have at recognition is if some diligent curator pieces together these missing links and presents the result. “High Times” does just that, focusing on a generation of erstwhile artists, most born in the thirties and forties, who altered art, however slightly, and who were then mostly forgotten. It offers a tantalizing glimpse at that up-for-grabs period beginning in 1967 when painting passed through what has been called “the eye of the post-minimal-conceptual needle” and 1975, when it was declared dead.

Even in these last days of the show, you can spot curious art students mooning over these eccentric abstractions. With good reason. The exhibition, which looks fresh and almost funny amid the beautifully preserved Beaux-Arts froufrou of the National Academy, is a storehouse of forgotten genres and dormant tropes. It is so informative and intrepid that it should shame other American institutions with more space, money, and loan-procuring clout into mounting similarly exploratory and chancy shows.

Here, curator Katy Siegel teams up with well-known painter David Reed in a show (circulated by Independent Curators International) that is alluring even as you acknowledge its problems. As is often the case with Siegel, her ideas can be stronger than her eye—questionable inclusions and exclusions arise, oddball juxtapositions distract. Yet the thing that raises this exhibition above these shortcomings and makes it a combination morality play and Dickens novel is that “High Times” also contains its evil twin, “Hard Times.” If you set aside conspiracy theories, and ignore the fact that sociological, sexual, and racial factors often do stack the art-world deck against certain artists, this show allows you to understand why some moments are more doomed to the dustbin of history than others.

First the “high” part. Set the Wayback Machine for 1971, the midpoint of the show, and the place to downtown New York. The fast action and grand movements of the sixties are over. Art is living on its own, out of the limelight; artists are occupying cheap lofts and hustling odd jobs. Almost no one is making money from art, and anyone who does is considered a sellout or a critical failure. Video, sculpture, and performance are flowering, but painting is in trouble. Many say it’s through.

This causes a sizable segment of the New York art world to transform itself into a kind of ER unit and set to work on reviving the dying body. Art is turned into a problem, something to solve and move along incrementally, one issue, surface, color, and compositional tic at a time. Artists crinkle, cut, and shred canvas. They coat it with sand, spray it with oil, rip it apart, and sew it back together. Many dispense with stretchers entirely, painting on walls or providing only written instructions for others to follow. At the National Academy you can see how Lynda Benglis became a female Pollock by simply pouring latex paint on the floor to make psychedelic pancakes, Ron Gorchov made painting almost primitive in his curved shield-shapes, and Harmony Hammond returned the medium to its medicinal roots with circular floor mandalas made of fabric. Dan Christensen’s wobbly spray-painted ovals suggest drug-induced space, and Carolee Schneemann’s video of herself writhing around the floor pasting her naked body with paper shows how she wanted to be a high priestess, a star, and a living painting.

Within a few years, everyone was in agreement about what had to be done. As P.J. O’Rourke recently said about “boomer humor,” this was “probably the one generation on Earth with the most points of reference in common.” Those reference points allowed artists to band together into a kind of creative commune. Yet this hive-mindedness spawned academicism and tautology as painting’s emergency room devolved into an isolation unit, then a prison. Enter “Hard Times.”

For all the utopianism and experimentalism, painting was subjected to rules. Strict ones. It had to be abstract and be about itself. It couldn’t be expressionistic or figurative; the grid was God and monochrome was king; narrative was out; ambition was frowned on. Thus painting was fetishized and turned into an ideology. The artists of “High Times” pumped juice into painting but ended up embalming it and themselves. Eventually, artistic moves became predictable, the scene turned in on itself, and New York painting mutated into something only other New York painters made or cared about. “Hard Times” ends in 1975, when hope was still in the air. By 1978, however, the scene was stultifying. By 1980, many of these artists were fading into the background as painting retook the stage as a kind of global, if mostly male, Goliath.


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