Video still from A Glimpse of Circa 1958 by Jarrard Cole, Rachel Scall and Dioni Wise. Published in The Daily Tar Heel, October 3, 2008. Painting: Morris Louis, Theta Beta (1960). Ackland Art Museum, Gift of Marcella Louis Brenner. ©1993 Marcella Louis Brenner. 

Re-making the Readymade:
American Artists Circa 1958


by Robert Stalker

Why was it that following World War II American artists were suddenly receptive to the ideas and strategies of European Dada in a way that their immediate predecessors such as Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko hadn’t been? The dramatic change in the art market following World War II offers one explanation. Post-war economic prosperity helped to fashion a rapidly growing U.S. market for contemporary American art. The famous August 1949 Life magazine photo-essay on Jackson Pollock, an artist who had struggled in anonymity for years, typifies the increasing commercialization of American art and artists in the post-war years. Arguably, post-war American artists began to see the relevance of the historical avant-garde for a critique of the rapidly expanding consumer culture in the U.S. Bringing together 62 works by 57 artists to chart two major trends in post-war American art—the development of hard-edge or post-painterly abstraction and the emergence of assemblage art— the Ackland Museum’s recent exhibit Circa 1958: Breaking Ground in American Art illustrates the various ways in which American artists on both coasts began assimilating avant-garde models of art making into a powerful critique of the increasing commercialization of American culture.

With the aesthetic and commercial triumph of Abstract Expressionism, many believed that gestural abstraction was becoming trite and mannered. Painters such as Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, and Agnes Martin, all included in this exhibit, responded to what was beginning to look like mere affectation in the work of some second generation Abstract Expressionists by avoiding altogether the gestural brushwork that Clement Greenberg would soon dismiss in his catalogue essay for Post-Painterly Abstraction, an exhibition he curated for the Los Angeles County Museum in 1964, as the “Tenth Street touch.” Focusing instead on imagery culled from what Jasper Johns called in reference to his paintings of targets, flags, and numbers, “things the mind already knows,” this younger generation of artists drew on a kind of readymade aesthetic to develop a mode of painting that was austere, impersonal, and coolly formal. 

Kenneth Noland, That (1958-9). Collection of David Mirvish, Toronto.
Art @ Kenneth Noland/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Kenneth Noland’s That (1958-1959), for example, a vibrantly colored target, retains, much like Johns’s work, only the vestiges of gestural abstraction in the dribbles of paint in the target’s outer ring. Rejecting also the “all-over” technique and painterly brushstroke of the New York School, Noland, following Helen Frankenthaler, deploys a staining technique that purges the work of almost all traces of the artist’s hand, leaving us with an image that looks almost manufactured or “readymade.” In Blue Horizon (1958), also on display, Frank Stella, directly inspired by Johns’s now-legendary 1958 show at the Leo Castelli Gallery, similarly retains hints of Action Painting in his use of drips and impasto but, in his predilection for the repeating horizontal stripe pattern, sidesteps New York School expressionism in favor a more premeditated, almost mechanical, aesthetic. Likewise, the smooth, misty gray and white rectangles of Agnes Martin’s This Rain (c.1960), another painting on exhibit, are devoid of expressionistic color and painterly technique. Like Noland and Stella (or, for that matter, Kelly, McLaughlin, and Ryman, artists all represented in Circa 1958), Martin opts for an austere, impersonal, and literalist approach to painting, challenging the increasingly popularized image of the artist as miner of a buried, and often tortured, psychic life. 

As another way of puncturing bourgeois conceptions about individual creativity and expression, artists also turned toward the Dadaist interest in collapsing the boundaries between art and the everyday. Perhaps no other figure had as much influence on this direction in post-war American art as John Cage. A major conduit of avant-garde ideas, Cage was developing by the early forties something of a “found” aesthetic by incorporating into compositions such as Credo in Us (1942) bits of pre-recorded music, speech, and other sounds. His composition for prepared piano entitled Music for Marcel Duchamp (1947) paid homage to the Dadaist roots of this direction in his music. But it was, of course, Cage’s now-canonical “silent piece” 4’33”, first performed at maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, NY, 1952, that would most directly impact post-World War II visual culture. With its abandonment of musical notation in favor of written instructions and in its incorporation of “chance operations,” the piece would prove crucial to the development of artistic movements such as Fluxus, Performance Art, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art.

Having studied with Cage at the New School for Social Research, the Fluxus artist George Brecht (who died on December 5, 2008) developed his idea of the “event score” directly from Cage. Brecht’s Three Chair Events (1961), included in the Ackland exhibit, consists not of objects created by the artist but rather of an “event score” outlining the placement of three chairs around the gallery. The re-contextualization of these commonplace, even banal, objects in the gallery space encourages the spectator’s heightened awareness of the institutions and forces that traditionally work to isolate art from the everyday. Robert Morris’s sculpture Box with the Sound of its Own Making (1961) and Yoko Ono’s Painting to Hammer a Nail (1961/1966), both also on display, engage similar ideas about the relation of art to the everyday. Morris’s sculpture, a wooden box with a tape recorder inside that plays the sounds of the box’s construction, and Ono’s “painting,” a silver board into which spectators are invited to hammer nails, both foreground the temporality of the art work and demystify the creative process, while the sounds of sawing wood on Morris’s tape or the hammering of nails into Ono’s canvas disrupt the decorum of the museum space in a way that resonates with Cage’s own idiosyncratic definition of music as “what we are hearing if we are just quiet.” Morris’s Box, however, an homage to Duchamp’s own À Bruit Secret [With a Hidden Noise] (1916), remains more enclosed and self-referential than Ono’s Painting, whose very conceptualization provokes social interaction with the viewer.

Because it includes nearly a dozen works by West Coast artists, Circa 1958 also provides a fascinating opportunity to compare these New York artists with the slightly different approach taken by their contemporaries in L.A. Of course, the Los Angeles art market in the late-fifties could hardly rival New York. But L.A. did have the Ferus Gallery. Established by Walter Hopps and assemblage artist Ed Kienholz in 1957, Ferus quickly became a hotbed of beat attitudes and advanced art, mounting important exhibits such as “Joseph Cornell--Constructions,” “Jasper Johns and Kurt Schwitters” (a brilliant pairing), and, most-famously, Andy Warhol’s first one-man show.

No doubt inspired by Hopps’s passion for the artistic vanguard—he had been visiting the Arensberg’s private Duchamp collection in their L.A. home since his teens—the artists in Ferus’s stable produced their own uniquely witty response to the commoditization of American art and culture. Painted when he was still a student at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, Edward Ruscha’s E. Ruscha (1958), for example, draws on the tradition of the Dada/Surrealist word-image to drolly literalize the idea of a signature style. The artist’s “accidental” miscalculation of space carries the joke even further by “fortuitously” leaving a comic “ha,” aimed perhaps at the much vaunted spontaneity of New York School painting. In Sophia (1960), Billy Al Bengston deploys, like Johns or Noland, readymade imagery and post-painterly technique. Like Ruscha, though, Bengston trades in the kind of jokiness or frivolity characteristic of L.A. art by humorously settling on a heart for the painting’s central image, presumably because Bengston’s upcoming show at Ferus was to take place around Valentine’s Day. The title of the piece, moreover, an apparent homage to Sophia Loren, also anticipates Pop art’s openness to the glamour and fandom endemic to America’s commodity culture. In the next few years, in works such as Buster (1962) and Tubesteak (1965), Bengston would develop a more vernacular mode of post-painterly abstraction that came to be called “finish fetish.” Inspired by the techniques and materials of California hot rod culture, Bengston gave his paintings an increasingly polished, glossy, and even more manufactured look that drew directly from the paint jobs of Southern California car customizers “Big Daddy” Roth and Von Dutch. Ed Kienholz’s John Doe (1959), on the other hand, offers a much darker response to commercial culture. Drawing on a Dadaist anti-aesthetic, the piece brings together mannequin pieces, a baby stroller, and children’s toys to sinisterly mock, as the doe/dough pun suggests, the infantile acquisitiveness of the materialistic fifties, the discontents of which had recently been voiced in Sloan Wilson’s 1955 best seller The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

As this exhibit wonderfully illustrates, American artists of the late fifties/early sixties returned to the lessons of European avant-garde in an effort to challenge the increasing commercialization of art. In so doing, they not only broke new ground but also laid the foundation for important developments to come.

The exhibition Circa 1958: Breaking Ground in American Art ran from 21 September 2008 - 4 January 2009 at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer.