That Seventies Sensibility

A wave of exhibitions shows how the open-ended, experimental, hardscrabble, less cynical esthetic of the ’70s is appealing to artists and curators

End of the Bucket of Tar with Speaker Trail No. 2, 1974, by Ed Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, in a palazzo in Venice.


It can be seen and felt in New York galleries, on the walls of major art institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the New Museum, watching a Trisha Brown performance on Chelsea’s High Line, and even viewed on TV—take the HBO production Cinema Verite, about the world’s first reality show, An American Family. There’s a notable nostalgia in the air for ’70s art.

From Jennifer Bartlett’s multiplate, 153-foot-long Rhapsody (1976), shown at MoMA this past summer, to a traveling Lynda Benglis retrospective to the increasing pervasiveness of performance art (the term itself came of age in the ’70s), the pluralist decade is having a major moment. New York’s Forum Gallery even mounted a summer exhibition called “That Seventies Show,” with works by artists ranging from Richard Anuszkiewicz to Robert Cottingham, Tom Wesselmann, and Robert Motherwell. And at Dia Beacon, “Circa 1971,” a collection of 20 moving-image pieces made in the ’70s, is being presented through 2012.

The ’70s fest extends well beyond New York. In Los Angeles, the Getty Foundation has launched “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980,” which runs through April. It’s a massive West Coast cultural program involving museums, educational institutions, and galleries that examines the L.A. art scene, including work from the ’70s, in all its permutations. At the same time the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver is focusing on the countercultural movement in “West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965–1977,” opening November 10.

What is it about the era that seems so appealing to contemporary curators and their audiences? After all, New York was in the middle of a major recession—who can forget the Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead”? The urban landscape was not only pregentrified but was also downright dangerous. And the explosion of unruly art virtually defied categorization.

Think of Vito Acconci’s 1971 Seedbed, performed at the Sonnabend Gallery, then in SoHo, where the artist masturbated under a wooden platform, or West Coast artist Chris Burden’s arrangement to have himself shot in the arm; Benglis’s 1974 advertisement in Artforum, in which she is naked except for a giant, strategically placed dildo, or her dramatic, vibrantly pigmented urethane pours on gallery floors; Martha Rosler’s famous performance video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975); and Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974–79).

It is exactly that exuberance and gravitas-defying diversity that still resonates and inspires. Pace Gallery in New York recently showed “Elizabeth Murray: Painting in the ’70s”; Bartlett’s newly wrought throwback to her ’70s work, Recitative (2009–10); the sculpture of Joel Shapiro; and a group exhibition, “Soft Machines,” that perfectly illustrated the pluralist point. Says Douglas Baxter, a president of Pace, “I think people are very nostalgic for the lack of cynicism in ’70s art, not that it didn’t deal in strategies. There weren’t even art movements—or it was so open-ended it didn’t look like movements. I think younger artists are admiring and even jealous of that generation.”

It was a generation that thumbed its nose at the art establishment, from the materials the artists utilized to the parameters they pushed. “Painting was still the bête noire and Minimalism the dying behemoth,” as Dave Hickey puts it in a catalogue essay for the traveling Benglis retrospective, which originated at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Minimalism had their day. It was time for something new. Something conceptual, something post-minimalist, something fearlessly feminist—or all of the above, as long as it couldn’t be easily labeled or commodified. If anything unified this crucible of multimedia multitasking, it seemed to be an overarching idea, as Roberta Smith put it in her New York Times review of the Benglis show, of “making art that didn’t look like art.” Or at least like any of the art that had preceded it.

Artists from all over the country flocked to New York in the ’70s to live in its cheap lofts and to show in its new breed of art spaces—from the Kitchen to the Clocktower Gallery to Artists Space to A.I.R., the first feminist art gallery. In 1977, Marcia Tucker even founded a new museum—appropriately enough called the New Museum—whose mission, as idealistic as the time itself, was to show the kind of work excluded from the rest of the art world.

Recalls Bartlett, “I think that time was sort of like the music in the ’60s and ’50s, where there was just a huge personal aspect and singular vision of what art was on the part of each artist. You had Barry Le Va and Dennis Oppenheim and Vito Acconci. There was just absolutely a huge number of people doing incredibly mad things that were very unbusinesslike. Nothing was about art business, because there wasn’t much,” Bartlett continues. “It was the era of what I call push-pin art, where you made work on graph paper and then pinned it up with push pins. So many people blended all different things together. I think of Joan Jonas in that light, and certainly Bob Wilson. I think it was a very heady time. There were so many alternatives.”

Whether it’s the work of Keith Sonnier and Joe Zucker (both of whom had shows in 2010 at Mary Boone Gallery in New York) or the prototypes of “Rowing Needles” (1970) by Buckminster Fuller, on view at Meulensteen in a recent show that paired Fuller’s streamlined pieces with the lumpy “Floor Cushions” of the 33-year-old artist-designer Eli Levenstein, or the new crop of alternative spaces (like the intimate and racy Honey Space for site-specific art, on 11th Avenue), a ’70s esthetic rules. Crowds gathered to take in Trisha Brown’s pioneering Roof Piece (1971), a chain of improvised movements that spreads from one dancer—and rooftop—to another, when it was performed this past June at the southern end of the High Line, the reclaimed railroad track turned park in Chelsea.

“The ’70s was a big bang,” says RoseLee Goldberg, the performance-art visionary and former Kitchen curator who in 2005 launched the highly successful performance-art biennial Performa, now beginning its fourth iteration. “Everything went flying. I think there is an enormous interest among the younger generation today in conceptual art—and its tangible flip side, performance. I think it’s intriguing because it’s a kind of conceptual art without the moral imperatives of the conceptual artists—the whole anti-commodity idea. Younger artists are interested in the intellectual poetry of conceptualism,” she explains. “It’s more about the elegance of ideas; it doesn’t have the political or confrontational edge.”

Not surprisingly, the classic figures of the ’70s are enjoying a kind of renaissance. At Paula Cooper Gallery, this past summer, there was an installation of Sol LeWitt’s meticulously rendered Wall Drawing #122 (1972). The piece looks a bit like a Minimalist blueprint run amok and consists of 150 permutations of two lines crossing. According to the wall text (which is part of the full title) the work contains “all combinations of lines placed at random, using arcs from corners and sides, straight, not straight and broken lines.” Meanwhile, down at City Hall Park, through December 2, there’s a retrospective of LeWitt’s sculptural work from 1965 to 2006.

At MoMA, visitors wandered through the recent exhibition “Contemporary Art from the Collections,” which included works from 1970 to the 2000s. Its two and a half rooms devoted to the ’70s were startling for their range, beginning with Robert Rauschenberg’s prescient Currents (1970), which consists of 60 feet of press clippings, including headlines about corruption, war, gay rights, and other issues. Gilbert & George’s To Be With Art is All We Ask . . . (1970) provided a wall-size, handwritten manifesto of the artists’ love affair with beauty, while Gordon Matta-Clark’s deconstructed building, Bingo (1974), and George Maciunas’s cabinet full of consumer packaging represented another part of the spectrum. There was also Acconci’s Seedbed video, and some photographic self-portraits made by a young Robert Mapplethorpe. MoMA lately added to its conceptual-art holdings works from the Daled Collection of American and European Conceptual Art and the Seth Siegelaub Collection, including pieces by Acconci and Daniel Buren.

At the Venice Biennale the exhibition “Venice in Venice,” curated by Tim Nye and Jacqueline Miro of the Nyehaus gallery in New York, included 71 objects from the ’60s to the present. They were installed on two floors of a palazzo and included, in the chapel, a 1974 coffin-inspired mixed-media piece by West Coast artists Ed Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz.

Last year the Whitney mounted “Off the Wall,” a series that included 30 performative actions—works by Acconci, Carl Andre, John Baldessari, and Yoko Ono—and a second installment, “Seven Works by Trisha Brown.” For Donna De Salvo, the museum’s chief curator, the ’70s was a time of “the city as a stage: Trisha Brown doing rooftops, Richard Serra doing pieces in the street, Joan Jonas filming in the streets. The city was on the verge of collapse and bankruptcy. People were making a lot of work that had no market value. There was a kind of freedom because there was nothing to lose. I think it continues to exert a fascination amongst younger artists. You could see it when we did our Dan Graham and Robert Smithson shows. And the classical figures of importance are finally in many ways being recognized.”

As Judy Chicago, whose work has received much recent attention, sees it, “I think perhaps there is currently a looking back, because art has been taken over by commodification. So much contemporary work is a rehash of earlier work—without either the substance or the content. Maybe people are looking back to a time when art had more substance. In the intervening years,” she adds, “disillusionment, irony, and money have crept in. And that was not there in the ’70s. It wasn’t about making money; it wasn’t about careerism. It was about making art that mattered. We believed we could actually impact the world.”

There is also the natural cycle of art history, as MoMA curator Laura Hoptman (who co-organized the Benglis retrospective at the New Museum) points out. “Every generation looks back on the generation that is approximately 30 years their senior. It’s the generation that they can’t remember. Joan Semmel is now being understood in reference to the feminist movement. The Alice Neel estate is at the same gallery [David Zwirner in New York] as Chris Ofili. The contemporary collectors who cut their teeth on younger artists are going back to wonderful figurative painters like Neel. And then there’s Benglis. If you look at the work of these artists, the resonance for today comes alive and catches fire. It becomes a living, breathing, relevant thing, because we have the tools to understand it.” Adds John Cheim, whose gallery, Cheim & Read, represents Benglis, “When something becomes solid history it becomes desirable to both the market and the museum.”

With her retrospective at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art recently ended, Benglis reflects, “You know, the reason things are coming back is that they never left. The ’70s was a kind of rich time, where individuals seemed to come forth and develop ideas that were not only personal to themselves, but they were always also considering some aspect of what was the classic mainstream, which was basically abstraction. So there were many kinds of comments on various ideas that occurred in the ’70s. Now people are kind of looking back at the last century at things that were handmade, but also looking toward something that is totally digital, looking at a different form of communication. What we have today,” she concludes, “is also this same type of multiplicity.”

Phoebe Hoban is a New York­–based writer who covers art and culture for a variety of publications. Her biography: Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty was published by St. Martin’s Press last December.

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