Postminimalist Sculpture

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, May 14, 1990 | Go to article overview
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Postminimalist Sculpture


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


In a recent issue of Daedalus, the Indian artist Gieve Patel contrasts the tradition within which he perceives himself as working with that of the West. He remarks particularly upon "the absence here of successive schools, movements, and manifestos, each attempting to progress beyond the last one in its understanding and portrayal of pictorial space." Patel is cynical, or at least skeptical, about the history of constant self-revolutions in art: "We attribute this quick turnover ... largely to the demands of an aggressive market:' Yet it would be difficult to find a moment in which artists' progressive efforts to understand the processes and defining truths of art were pursued with greater intensity, or with a higher degree of disinterested idealism, than in the period surveyed by the current exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, "The New Sculpture 1965-1975: Between Geometry and Gesture." In 1984, the Whitney mounted a brilliant show called "Blam! " after a famous painting by Roy Lichtenstein. "Blam!" undertook to define the movement in American art from Abstract Expressionism to Pop in the years 1958 to 1964, when art had moved from downtown to uptown and from an innocent poverty to a certain mercantile glamour. The museum seems to be constructing an exhibitional narrative of American, and in particular of New York, art history. The movement from the end of the Blam! era into the middle 1970s, inadequately designated Postminimalism or, by the curator and critic Lucy Lippard, Eccentric Abstraction, saw a shift of creative gravity back downtown, in what would soon be known as SoHo, though some of the early exhibitions took place in certain adventurous galleries on 57th Street.

Pop, in its raucous effort to erase or explode-the boundaries between high art and low art, answered to a deep distrust in the American psyche of an elite culture, even if Pop's practitioners, with their wit, strategic brilliance and intellectual dazzle, embodied the virtues of the culture they sought publicly to negate: Only someone literate in high artistic culture could get the jokes. The Post minimalists reverted to a certain puritan devotion to the highest values of high artistic culture and shunned whatever might ingratiate them with a wider public. But this too answered to something deep in the American spirit-the quest for rectitude, for a private but exacting morality and a utopian mode of social being. Both dimensions of the American ethic were in the ascendant in those years of visionary political upheaval, and the exhibition's reduced and demanding Post minimalist sculptures reflect and enact their times at the level of aesthetic experimentation. The work on display is tentative, inelegant, almost squalid in its materials and awkward in its forms, but by its means the sculptors themselves were endeavoring to drive back the conceptual boundaries of artistic practice, albeit with little support from the market. They were fortunate in having worked during the last period in our history that one could be a poor urban artist, for the downtown loft had not yet become prized and pricey real estate. There were a few galleries, pre-eminently Marilyn Fischbach's in midtown and Paula Cooper's in SoHo. There were sympathetic and supportive critics such as Lucy Lippard and Robert Pincus-Witten. The magazine Artforum was particularly receptive to reflections on this difficult art, which usually were at least as opaque as the art itself. The Whitney played its own role in the history it now memorializes: In 1969, Marcia Tucker and James Monte put on an exhibition there called "Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials" in which several of the artists and even some of the works featured in the current exhibition were first brought to the attention of a puzzled public. In 1973, the Guggenheim Museum gave a memorial showing to the work of Eva Hesse, one of the most original artists of this (or any) movement, who died tragically young in 1970.

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