The history of art depends upon small circles of friends. They provide the first essential audience for many young artists. They toughen up the puppyish, encourage the taking of awkward new steps, and provide a refuge from indifference. In the late fifties, a group of this kind jelled around Rutgers University. A number of friends began challenging one another to make art that did not simply copy the Abstract Expressionism that was then the rage in New York City. The exhibition “Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant Garde, 1957-1963,” now at the Newark Museum, presents the achievement of this circle – a significant story in its own right that also has an important bearing on American culture. This mischievous work, part of a larger sea change that occurred in art during the late fifties, remains controversial. It is still tricky to think about and judge.
Organized by Joseph Jacobs of the Newark Museum, in collaboration with Joan M. Marter and Julia Robinson, the exhibit includes more than 70 works by a group of eight artists (Allan Kaprow, Robert Watts, George Segal, Geoffrey Hendricks, Robert Whitman, Lucas Samaras, George Brecht, and Roy Lichtenstein). Naturally, the museum makes much of the New Jersey connection, suggesting that Rutgers was an “incubator” for the art that has evolved during the past 40 years, including Happenings, performance art, Fluxus, Pop, and conceptual art. This Jersey patriotism is colorful but misleading. These were New York-directed artists, inspired by other New York artists like John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, who happened to uncork some of their youthful work in the neighborhood of the sculptor George Segal’s farm in South Brunswick.
“Off Limits” captures the mood of a moment rather than the nature of a place. Like the Beats, this particular circle of friends hoped to fling open every closed door. They preferred the cacophonous street to the contemplative museum with its cult of the masterpiece, and they sought to celebrate the here and now rather than some putative “posterity.” They raised their eyes from the easel and refused to turn their backs on the booming pop culture of America in the fifties: They would make use, in short, of both life and Life magazine. For most of the group, who were in their twenties and thirties, Allan Kaprow was the main impresario of the new freedoms. According to Samaras, Kaprow gave him “permission: ‘You can do it, why not?’ ” Roy Lichtenstein, who began leaving Abstract Expressionism behind to paint Pop imagery, said much the same thing. Kaprow taught him, he said, that “art doesn’t have to look like art.”
Kaprow himself created room-size environments and Happenings – precursors, respectively, of the installation and performance art of today. The Newark exhibit includes several examples of Kaprow’s early work, such as Beauty Parlor IV, in which viewers could create their own identities through the use of masks and costumes and then document those creations in a photo booth. Other artists worked in similar ways, concocting, for example, absurdist “games” without beginning or end; in Robert Watts’s Checkers (Floating Checkers With Fish), several goldfish float aimlessly about a checkerboard. In the early sixties, Watts and George Brecht founded the “Yam Festival” – the un-Spoleto – for which they devised numerous lectures, events, and artful goings-on.
Most work in this tradition did not live long. You had to be at a Happening when it happened, or, alas, nothing much would happen. What was once a witty celebration of flux soon became, for subsequent viewers, a yellowing collection of documents in a museum case. (With scholars tending the relics.) Does that make the work a failure? Only if you think art must exist to fill museums and please the future. Many other cultures have believed that art can also play a part in the actual practice of life. Why shouldn’t ours? In the late fifties, for example, making art designed to live only in the present could embody a radical faith in fleetingness. Some artists in the group have refused to re-create early installations.
Other work from this circle of friends now looks very much like traditional art – with a few loose threads. Lichtenstein’s earliest Pop paintings, such as Look Mickey or Washing Machine, are by far the most radical pictures he ever made. They are still rough and difficult on the eye. (Later, he polished up his Pop style.) George Segal’s earliest plaster-cast figures look more ragged than his subsequent ones, which would become part of a blue-chip style represented in every museum of contemporary art. Lucas Samaras, then and now, has never made any concessions. The Newark exhibit contains a fascinating survey of his disturbing early work, including a grid of whisperlike delicacy constructed of toilet paper and razor blades.
Although these friends announced a new world, they were actually part of an old tradition in Western art. Again and again, from Giotto to Duchamp, artists have tried to close the gap between art and life, hoping to bring the restorative vitality of the world to an art that always threatens to grow too precious and narrow-minded. Much of the work on display in Newark is immature and forgettable yet reflects this classical tension. A few pieces are utterly startling. In Robert Whitman’s Shower, for example, viewers walking through the museum happen upon a real shower stall with running water. A woman is washing herself under the shower head. Although her figure is a filmed projection, she appears shockingly alive and present through the rivulets of actual water. The museum suddenly seems to change character; a living, naked woman has stepped into the dressy and marbled role of “the nude.” At times, she appears to be rinsing paint off her body, as if to cleanse herself of both the traditional artiness of the museum nude and, perhaps, the avant-garde artiness of Yves Klein, who was celebrated for covering his living models in blue paint and using them as “brushes.” Inevitably, too, the bloody shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho comes to mind. Here, you become a Peeping Tom, transfixed by the voyeurism that helps focus high art, the movies – and life itself.