The exhibition New Realisms: 1957-1962 illuminates a turning point in the art of the second half of the 20th century — the point of rupture in the postwar period, which created the artistic conditions for what we now know as “The Sixties.” While that decade has been codified art historically with terms such as Pop, Fluxus, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art, the relatively short period that might be said to have generated its key criteria has been resistant to such naming. And, while there have been exhibitions featuring various groupings of its artists – often framed nationalistically and spanning full careers — New Realisms: 1957-1962 radically limits the time frame to their first years of invention, while opening up the field by uniting the work of European and American artists in parallel trajectories.
This exhibition takes as its focus the transformative five-year period 1957-1962: beginning at the culmination of modernism, and ending at the cusp of postmodernism. It tracks the passage between the last moment of the reign of abstract painting and the subsequent critical narrowing of diverse activity with the consolidation of (American) Pop Art. The interest here, then, is neither painting nor Pop, but the developments that could be witnessed each year in between, with all the terms in flux. Writing regular reviews in this period, Donald Judd saw the change afoot, and became frustrated with the generalizations that were already being made.
It is half a century since the strongest statements of this moment (however ephemeral they might have seemed at the time) were formulated. Over fifty years have passed since Yves Klein performed the definition of his monochrome blue, and Allan Kaprow presented his first “Happening.” It is fifty years since the founding in Paris of the fragile critical construct known as Nouveau Réalisme, and almost as long since the influential New York art dealer Sidney Janis tried to convert that term to American currency with his “New Realists” show, which is said to have announced and established American Pop Art in one and the same moment. But the present exhibition has little use for terms asserted by galleries or canonized by critics. It seeks to re-open the story of this period before it was distilled into names and categories; it asks the visitor to explore the work of this finite period, year by year, and allow it to unfold and change, as if considering its place in history for the first time. With it, we are indeed able to witness the new forms and new media (as one 1960 exhibition titled it) as well as the new artistic strategies, actions, and performances, which make these years of protean experimentation still among the richest of the 20th century.
In Europe, the abstract painting celebrated in the 1950s was variously dubbed Taschisme, Art Informel, and Art Autre. In the US it was called Abstract Expressionism or Action Painting. This approach so dominated the international art world that almost every artist in the present exhibition — artists who were only emerging at the moment of the late 1950s — started out painting in this manner. It is their range of moves to get “out of abstraction,” which constitutes the first chapter of the exhibition.
In 1957, Marcel Duchamp gave a lecture called “The Creative Act” at the American Federation of the Arts in Houston, Texas. In that influential statement Duchamp argued that the meaning the work of art would accrue in the course of its existence (immediately, and in the future), would not be determined by the initial creative gesture but in the realm of the spectator, and the work’s historical reception. Delivered just months after the dramatic death of Jackson Pollock, Duchamp’s statement suggested new artistic criteria. Pollock’s painting was far from a straightforward example by 1957. It had already been rendered as a kind of spectacular performance through the film and photography of Hans Namuth – and figures like Georges Mathieu in France had taken this literally, making painting into a public act.
In France that same year, Yves Klein sought to fracture the legacy of abstract painting into a spectrum of definitions that used the performative force of all painting’s meanings to date. Over the course of five exhibitions in the first half of 1957 Klein defined his project dramatically as the “specialization” of something like pure artistic energy, which he dubbed the “immaterial.” At the time, the Americans Allan Kaprow and George Brecht were at work on texts that likewise re-theorized the painterly act in relation to current concerns with real space and real time. They developed their own senses of Pollock’s “legacy” through Duchamp’s concept of the creative act and Cage’s emergent model of indeterminacy – whose development they witnessed in his classes at New York’s New School for Social Research. Both Duchamp and Cage de-emphasized the expressive initiative of the artist to focus on the function of the “receiver.” Building on these sources Kaprow charted a “logical” path from painting-to-Environment-to-Happening, while Brecht extended chance procedures and the logic of the readymade temporally, by scoring objects he redefined as “Events.”
By 1958 Jean Tinguely was extending painting into a mode of performance that relinquished authorship. His “Méta-matic” machines – devices for making works of art — allowed spectators to complete the work themselves. Although this was but a short step from Duchamp, Tinguely soon made an impressive shift in scale and spectacular impact. Towering over the artist, his Méta-matic Nº 17 was presented at the first Paris Biennial of 1959, manned by “mechanics” sporting white t-shirts stamped with the work’s title. Notwith standing this unique “mascot,” which stood outside the exhibition space, that Paris Biennal actually revealed the extent to which painting still very much dominated the French scene. The torn poster works of Tinguely’s soon-to-be colleagues in Nouveau Réalisme — the décollagistes Raymond Hains, Jacques Villeglé and François Dufrêne — appeared there crammed into a room of abstract painting, the radicalism of their “anonymous lacerations” committed on street advertising completely ignored. Meanwhile, in the same context, the press roundly criticized the American Robert Rauschenberg for the everyday elements he had included in his “combine” paintings. Soon after, Tinguely left Paris for New York, where, in March 1960 he staged his largest machine to date, the self-destructive Homage to New York, which “happened” for 30 minutes in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art.
Major events such as this aside, it was actually the small galleries on both sides of the Atlantic that were providing the most progressive platforms for advanced art at the turn of 1960. In New York, the Martha Jackson Gallery presented New Forms, New Media, which would serve as the model for the Museum of Modern Art’s Art of Assemblage one year later, while the Reuben Gallery was hosting an extensive roster of new time-based works under the umbrella of Happenings. Following Kaprow’s Happenings and Brecht’s Events were theatrical works by Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, and Robert Whitman. For the 1959-60 season Dine and Oldenburg pioneered “The House” and “The Street (respectively) – as well as hosting the performances of their peers – in the basement of a local church on Washington Square (The Judson Gallery). A few months later at the Reuben Gallery Whitman pioneered the use of film as an integral part of his “theater piece” American Moon (whose performance and set appear as part of the present exhibition). One year later, in 1961, Oldenburg moved out of the gallery altogether defining his own space, performance, and work as “The Store,” on East 2nd Street.
In the crucial years of 1957-60, Iris Clert in Paris made one landmark gesture after another in shows of Klein, Tinguely, and Arman (including the famous statements of Le Vide and Le Plein). During 1959-60 in Milan, Piero Manzoni launched his Azimut Gallery (along with the publication Azimuth), incorporating it into his own burgeoning conception of the work of art. That Manzoni published Jasper Johns’ works in Azimuth and showed Klein at his gallery Azimut, offers just two indications of his extraordinary grasp of the forces transforming the art object at an early moment. Meanwhile, Galerie Addi Køpcke in Copenhagen would bring Manzoni into contact with Daniel Spoerri and other peers who were redefining art in ways that related to his own moves. There Spoerri presented his trash baked in the form of rows of bread rolls mounted on board in 1961 —just months before Manzoni would test that food item as an achrome. In another singular event that could not have been lost on his Italian peer Spoerri made an exhibition of grocery items with the label “attention, work of art.”
Along with Guido Le Noci’s Galleria Apollinaire – which presented the landmark 1957 show of Klein and the earliest Nouveau Réalisme exhibitions, and others such as Galleria Naviglio, Galleria Arturo Schwarz drew a great deal of new creative energy to Milan. Having assumed an important role in the 1950s by representing the historical avant-garde, Schwarz also recognized the advantage in 1960-61 of opening up his space to younger artists. Breaking into the forefront of the new generation, he presented an entire show of the tableaux pièges of Spoerri, and a dual exhibition of Arman’s accumulations along with the multi-colored plastic sculptures of Martial Raysse. 1961 also saw Spoerri’s introduction in Cologne of the work of his Nouveau Réaliste peers in his enactment of Der Koffer, a work which seemed to extend the legacy of Duchamp’s Boîte en valise into the realm of performance. Finally, perhaps Spoerri’s largest-scale statement of 1961 was his collaboration with the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam on the exhibition Art in Motion (or Moving Movement), which show-cased the most experimental moving and participatory works by artists from Paris, and all over Europe, to New York.
By 1962 the international circuits were very much in place, and the extensive experimentation seemed to be settling into more iconic statements. And at that same moment, other founding figures began to fall away. Rauschenberg is a pivotal case here. Having made indispensible statements about the status of the index and the fate of painting between 1949 and 1953, and having teamed up with Cage to extend these premises, he was the first figure to chart a viable pathway out of Pollock, and thus crucial for artists like Kaprow. In the 1950s and early 1960s he played a key role not only with his own shows, but with singular gestures in unexpected contexts like his contribution of the “money-thrower” to Tinguely’s Homage to New York in 1960 and the grand historical fact of his having lent Duchamp’s Bottle Rack to MoMA’s The Art of Assemblage in 1961. Then there was the extraordinary Rauschenbergian contribution to Dylaby, the collaboration on a dynamic labyrinth with his European peers, which followed in 1962. But after that, those connections, and that integral involvement seemed to dissipate. Figures who had not been part of any group much less any programmatic definition of “new realism” emerged strongly toward the end of the most radical years of development. Yayoi Kusama’s “accumulations” of phalluses in the form of soft studded objects emerged – as strong a statement as any other of that decade. And while figures like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein had seemed quite separate in developing cogent contemporary statements, it is clear that their works prior to 1962 had defined a “new realism” as radically as any other artist of that moment.
In October 1962, Sidney Janis took all of this into account with his exhibition The New Realists. The present exhibition – 50 years later – takes stock of that rare moment to rethink the first codification of these practices. Defining a different ground than that of French Nouveau Réalisme, the present show (and title) removes the specificity of the French and of the singular. New Realisms, in the plural, aims to question and to define freshly what it might have meant to create a “new realism” at the turn of the 1960s. Pausing just at the moment when the legacy of the readymade was ripe for recoding one more time, it asks what all those extraordinary and radical acts amounted to – those acts that resisted the spectacular objectification of Pop Art.