I started out as an apprentice art dealer in New York in 1964, so perhaps can be forgiven for remembering the sixties as fundamentally more inventive and progressive than any decade since.
What is now largely referred to as the art market we then called the art scene, the only market art dealers knew in those days was Gristede’s. If you were an artist, collector, curator, critic, or a dealer (that odd word gallerist was not coined until 2004) you were in or on the art scene, suggesting, perhaps theatrically, a panorama such as Howard Kanovitz conjured with his magnum opus The Opening (1967), placing himself in conversation with Barnett Newman and MoMA’s Dorothy Miller alongside the collectors, dealers, and critics of the day such as Sam Wasserman, Frank Lloyd, and Irving Sandler.
This scene was relatively small and Manhattan-centric, spiced with visitors from out-of-town (Los Angeles and Chicago) as well as overseas (London and Paris). It was also collegial—Dorothy Miller visited every gallery exhibition every month—despite the critical battles waged by wordsmiths Hilton Kramer, Rosalind Krauss, Max Kozloff, Lucy Lippard, Tom Hess, and of course, the Grand Panjandrum himself, Clement Greenberg. We all harkened to what they had to say about the multiplicity of approaches that threatened the hegemony of abstract expressionism. In SoHo lofts, not all legal for living, a new generation of artists were embraced by labels they mostly eschewed: pop, photorealism, lyrical abstraction, hard-edge abstraction, and conceptual; as well as a few making objects that in the pages of The New York Times Hilton Kramer described, citing antecedents Naum Gabo, Max Bill, and David Smith, as “a species of abstract painting aspiring to the condition of sculpture.”
On the extreme right of Kanovitz’s 1967 chef d’oeuvre is the partially cropped image of thirty-two-year-old Kynaston McShine (who forever grumbled that the artist had segregated him). In 1966, McShine curated the now landmark Primary Structures exhibition at The Jewish Museum. He went on to fulfill this early promise with a career at the Museum of Modern Art curating groundbreaking exhibitions including Information (1970), which heralded conceptual art. At the time of Primary Structures, subtitled Younger American and British Sculptors, I was working at Richard Feigen Gallery representing four of these British sculptors: Phillip King, Gerald Laing, William Tucker, and Derrick Woodham. As McShine worked on the exhibition, I had an insider’s vantage point which included the well-remembered bibulous opening party.
For many of the artists this was their first museum exposure and for some, as yet without gallery representation (like Sol LeWitt), it was their first public appearance. Even so, most of the work was familiar to the hard-core band of contemporary art aficionados who spent Saturdays tramping around the galleries on Fifty-Seventh Street and the Upper East Side. The excitement was more around the fact that the young artists we represented were in a museum exhibition than that a movement was being launched. I saw the trees, but not the wood.
Interestingly the only time “minimal” is mentioned in the catalogue for Primary Structures is in disparagement by McShine: “these works contain irony, paradox, mystery, ambiguity, even wit, as well as formal beauty … Recent characterizations such as ‘minimal’ or ‘cool’ are inadequate; they are not descriptive of the experience and only partially of the means.”
In 2008, James Rosenquist painted The Divergent Paths of Artists’ Lives to Infinity, the Identity Changes I, explaining to me: “In the sixties we were called pop artists but over time we all went in different directions.” This applies to many of the artists in this exhibition. The sculptures representing both Judy Chicago and Robert Morris appear to hew closely to a canon of Bauhaus-inspired pure form but in fact contain the seeds of the provocatively performative works for which both artists came to be known. The transmutation from Chicago’s 1968 Three Domes on a Dark Base to her watershed 1974–1979 work, The Dinner Party, is not a stretch, while the first “exhibition” of Morris’s Column was when he pushed it over as he stood inside it (yes, he hit his head), in a performance at The Living Theatre in New York in 1962.
Unlike Morris, Judd’s lifelong process was faithful to his early formal principles even as he experimented with scale and medium. That he invited non-minimalist friends like Claes Oldenburg and John Wesley to install works in his sprawling open studio in Marfa, Texas (now The Chinati Foundation), speaks to the fact that, unlike the dogma squabbles among the abstract expressionists in the previous decade, these young artists maintained personal relationships independent of their diverse practices. Hospitality for this camaraderie was furnished by Max’s Kansas City, where the burly hard-edge painter Neil Williams propped up the bar amicably rubbing shoulders with Pop artists Bob Stanley and Al Hansen. I did, however see one of the sculptors in this exhibition take an unlanded swing at a photorealist painter although the dispute had more to do with a bedroom partner than a studio practice.
Sadly our present-day auction-record, investment-hungry art world awards gold stars to only a few of the artists who made the scene in the sixties, the contributions of others, major at the time, rarely make the “top ten” lists that have replaced Clement Greenberg et al. What I hope to do with this exhibition is introduce the viewer to the vision of these artists that I encountered well before they had significant critical or commercial status. They indeed made history but the shared goal was to make things that were new and exciting. The bracing shock of those encounters, in galleries and at the Primary Structures exhibition, has never left me.
This exhibition would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support of my colleagues in the trade; some have been friends for decades, others are, happily, new acquaintances. The bedrock of an artist’s reputation is the devotion and dedication of their gallery and my casting call for less was met enthusiastically by dealers who provided stellar works from their artists’ estates, their clients’ private collections, their inventories, and their own personal collections. My deepest thanks to Barbara Castelli at Castelli Gallery, Paula Cooper and Steven Henry at Paula Cooper Gallery, Mary-Grace Reeder at Hauser & Wirth, Sandy Heller of Sanford Heller Art Advisory, Loretta Howard at Loretta Howard Gallery, Matthew Marks and Jacqueline Tran at Matthew Marks Gallery, Marc Glimcher at Pace Gallery, Jessica Silverman and Kathryn Wade at Jessica Silverman Gallery, and Kristine Bell at David Zwirner Gallery.
My colleagues Nick, Eleanor, and Alexander Acquavella made valuable contributions to less as did Acquavella team members John Andrew, Jean Edmonson, Hannah Honan, Kathleen Krall, Grace Sanford, Eric Theriault, Alyssa Valove, and Devon Vogt, and it would have not been possible without the skills of show runner Emily Crowley and Allison Carey, my acting assistant.