I found everything to love about the Grey Art Gallery’s current exhibition Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City 1952-1965. It’s not the world’s most exciting title for an exhibition, but on the other hand, it doesn’t lie. A moment’s contemplation will conjure the excitement: those were years of enormous ferment in New York, artistic, political and social. This exhibition curated by Melissa Rachleff, clinical associate professor in NYU’s Steinhardt School, samples work from 14 different artist-run galleries, including works by Robert Rauschenberg, Red Grooms, Romare Bearden, Aldo Tambellini, et al.
For me the show is just as engaging as history as it is art. It’s a period in time I’ve always envied, when the ice was beginning to melt, and some refreshing anarchy was being unleashed across all disciplines. Abstract Expressionism was still ascendant; Pop Art had yet to explode. A political consciousness was emerging. The struggle for civil rights and third world liberation are alluded to here and there; and my over-arching takeaway from the show was a feeling of Cold War terror, although my own heightened anxiety level at the moment might have made me especially sensitive to the jitters informing a lot of the work. A feeling of “Fuck it, we’re all going to die.” But it’s also interesting because it is not yet “the Sixties”. The escalation of the Vietnam War and the youth-driven opposition to it were in the future. The Black Panthers had yet to come into existence. Be bop and Lou Reed are overlapping. That’s the New York I always wanted to move to. Dark and cold and gritty and cynical but bursting with creativity and still working toward building a future of some kind. I bet they were hoping for a better one than this.
A poster for Sam Goodman’s Doom Show evoked that energy. My favorite work in the show is probably Stanley Fisher’s “Untitled (Help)”, 1959-1964. A collage with cut-out advertising photos, pin-up girls and swimsuit models, covered with paint and graffiti, spelling the words “peace” and love” and — most prominently — “HELP”. Hints at Pop Art, commercialism, being overwhelmed by darkness and fear. Any wonder it spoke to me this week?
It’s open through April 1. More info is here.