Circa 1958: Breaking Ground in American Art

September 21, 2008 - January 4, 2009

Painting of target

1958 was a remarkable year. It was a time of transition and experimentation in American art and culture, and for the United States, a time of unbridled optimism yet one of uncertainty. The country was experiencing an unprecedented rate of economic growth, prosperity, and international leadership following World War II. But at the same time, world events offered sobering reminders of the fragility of peace and the prevalence of the Cold War. Khrushchev became Premier of the Soviet Union, President Eisenhower established NASA and launched the space race. Worldwide concern for the possibility of nuclear annihilation resulted in the establishment of the international peace movement. Across the country, a growing awareness of discrimination and social unrest would bring about the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Similar contrasts were at work in American culture. This was a time of expansive thinking about the future of art in America. The prevalence of television, movies, advertising, and other media was impossible to ignore. Critics lined up on both sides to discuss high culture vs. popular culture and debate the invasion of mass media as liberating or debasing society. Individual artists were no longer content to work in the established and by now pervasive style of Abstract Expressionism. They began to experiment with new materials, styles, and subject matter. While some artists took a reductive approach, focusing entirely on the formal properties of art, others looked to absorb found objects and materials into the work.

Circa 1958: Breaking Ground in American Art explores two vastly different trends that emerged in and around 1958: Post-painterly Abstraction and Assemblage. In each case, the artists presented very new and entirely different approaches to art making. Together, these two trends laid the groundwork for much of the American art that came to define the second half of the twentieth century.

This exhibition was organized by the Ackland Art Museum with Guest Curator Roni Feinstein.

Toward a New Subject Matter: Color, Line, and Form

During the mid- to late 1950s, many American artists began to pare down their formal vocabulary to a few basic elements. Eliminating any reference to figure or landscape, they experimented with the many ways that line, color, and shape could assert the essential flatness of a canvas without the nuance of personal expression. These artists created a range of abstract art known as Post-painterly Abstraction, a term coined by the influential New York art critic, Clement Greenberg (1909-1994).

Within this framework, distinct styles and techniques emerged. Ellsworth Kelly and Karl Benjamin, for example, explored relationships between color, geometric shapes, and the edges of the canvas. Morris Louis stained raw canvases with thinned paint, so that the weave of the material and the painted surface merge. A similar technique is used in the circles interpreted by Kenneth Noland. These approaches are in sharp contrast with the circles in the painting by Alexander Liberman, whose stacked, serial composition is defined by hard edges.

Lorser Feitelson used hard-edged, vibrantly-colored canvases to communicate the energy of Post-painterly Abstraction, while Jack Youngerman, Myron Stout, and Leon Polk Smith sharply reduced their color palettes and examined more organic forms.

Several works in Circa 1958 represent transitional points in the artist’s development. Works by Al Held and Alma Thomas, retain expressionistic, densely painted surfaces and only hint at the artists’ later emphasis on geometry and flat color.

Although precedent for many of these works can be found in the art of pioneering modernists, including Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and Joseph Albers (1888-1976), the paintings and sculpture in Circa 1958 are characterized by their grand scale and bold interpretations of form and color. They continue to resonate and feel new fifty years later.

The Art of Assemblage and Collage

While some artists were moving to simplify and distill painting to its essential qualities, as seen in parts of the exhibition, a very different artistic point of view was emerging. Called Assemblage for its characteristic assembly of disparate parts, many of these works were considered vulgar when first shown because of their use of “junk.” Assemblage artists considered anything scavenged from their environment to be appropriate for making art, including cast-off pieces of wood, automobile parts, laundry bags, metal rods and chains, even a bird’s wing. By embracing mundane and discarded materials, the artists presented here subverted traditional boundaries and definitions of art. The works convey a range of emotions and perspectives on life, including the ironic, the elegiac, the mysterious, and the playful.

Robert Rauschenberg, one of the artists seen in the exhibition, once explained, “I don’t want a picture to look like something it isn’t, I want it to look like something it is. And I think a picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.”

The array of materials and approaches to construction available to artists accounts for a wide variety of styles. Louise Nevelson created elegant sculptures constructed from found pieces of wood, while Claes Oldenburg salvaged beach debris to create a scruffy and raw comment on American consumer culture. George Segal modeled plaster over chicken wire to create a figure released from the canvas behind him.

Collage – the two dimensional expression of Assemblage – is represented by Tom Wesselmann and Andy Warhol, whose works explore the relationship between high art and popular culture. Cut paper, postcards, and appropriated images are moved to center stage in these works.

From Assemblage to Happenings

… we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odors, touch. Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things which will be discovered by the present generation of artists. Not only will these bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had about us but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard of happenings and events, found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies; seen in store windows and on the streets … – Allan Kaprow, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock.” ARTnews, 1958

The idea of incorporating “objects of every sort,” as seen in Assemblage and Collage, with new elements of space, sound, time, and audience participation, was embraced by a small group of artists working in New York. Influenced by the avant-garde composer John Cage, Allan Kaprow conceived the first Happening at George Segal’s chicken farm in 1958. Happenings — elaborate, multi-part performances that typically involved everyday objects and events — often called for visitor participation. Artists also began installing galleries and other informal spaces with interrelated objects and sounds to surround the viewer, invite exploration, and create “environments.”

As Happenings and Environments evolved, other artists, including Yoko Ono and George Brecht, created art objects that forced the spectator to consider his or her relationship to the work. In the works exhibited here, visitors are asked to participate. The objects assume meaning when “activated” by a viewer who is willing to hammer, listen, or sit according to the instructions by the artist.

All of these pioneering artists laid the foundation for the contemporary performance and installation works that have defined much of the art of the past twenty years.

New Movements for a New Decade

Many works in Circa 1958 suggest the various styles and directions that emerged at the turn of the decade. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, many artists, including Romare Bearden, Wallace Berman, Bruce Connor, and Lucas Samaras, emerged from the traditions of Assemblage and Collage to create extremely personal and sometimes idiosyncratic works of art.

Movement toward Minimalism in the 1960s can be charted in the early works of other artists working at this time, including Darby Bannard, Larry Bell, George Ortman, Tony Smith, and Ronald Bladen. These artists absorbed many of the distinguishing features of paintings exhibited in the Ackland’s first floor galleries: geometry, repetition, and compositions reduced to clear, essential forms.

In contrast, artists who looked to the world of existing popular imagery or commercially-inspired techniques for inspiration opened the door to the emergence of Pop Art, represented in works by Robert Indiana, Ed Ruscha, and James Rosenquist. Richard Anuszkiewicz was among the artists who experimented with color to create the visual illusion of movement that would become known as Optical (Op) Art. A major work by Lenore Tawney demonstrates how the boundary between craft and fine art became permeable at the turn of the decade.

New approaches, ideas, and forms gave these artists a greater freedom that would lead to an even greater range of options for art making in the coming decades.

Early Pop Art

In 1958, art critic Lawrence Alloway coined the term “Pop Art” to describe the work of British artists who were independently referencing aspects of popular culture. By the early 1960s, many American artists made popular imagery central to their work, reflecting the increasing influence of commercial advertising and the mass media on American culture. They also began using commercial art techniques — screen printing and other reproductive processes — in the production of these works of art.

The works by Claes Oldenburg, Tom Wesselmann, and Andy Warhol, seen in the exhibition, are early experiments in approach, subject matter, and incorporating popular images. The works show how the techniques and ideas of Assemblage and Collage laid a substantial foundation for their later, and more mature, Pop Art.

Circa 1958 Patrons

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust
Nathan Cummings Foundation
Randleigh Foundation Trust
Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Foundation
North Carolina Arts Council, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts
Mr. James-Keith Brown and Mr. Eric G. Diefenbach
Dr. J. Kenneth and Mrs. Ellen T. Chance
Mr. C. Perry Colwell and Ms. Betty Neese
Ms. Shirley Drechsel and Mr. Wayne Vaughn
Mr. W. Howard Holsenbeck Jr.
Mr. Thomas S. Kenan III
The Estate of William O. Livingstone
Mrs. Beatrice Cummings Mayer
Dr. Charles W. Millard III
Ms. Elizabeth Kenan Morton
Ms. Paula Davis Noell
Mr. and Mrs. James Richard Patton Jr.
Ms. Josephine Ward Patton
Drs. Leena and Sheldon Peck
Ms. Katharine Lee Reid
Mr. and Mrs. Herbert F. Shatzman
Mr. Michael and Ms. Gayle Sheppard
Mr. and Mrs. John L. Townsend III
Mr. Charles Weinraub
Mr. Charles J. Wolfe and Ms. Sandra Roth
Ms. Ann Bondurant Young
Mark Day Company
North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC

Image: Kenneth Noland, American, 1924-2010; That, 1958-59; oil on canvas, 83 x 83 x 1 3/4 in. (210.82 x 210.82 x 4.45 cm); Collection of David Mirvish, Toronto, L2008.53. Art © Kenneth Noland/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY