Saturday, February 17, 2007

High Times, Hard Times

Today I saw "High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975" at the National Academy Museum here in New York. The show was curated by Katy Siegel with help from David Reed. It's been traveling, and this is its third and final stop.

I was going to write a review saying that I liked the show quite a bit even though this or that painter was not included, that the National Academy Museum was not a great venue, that I especially enjoyed the Dan Christensen and Lawrence Stoppard, and so on. But Roberta Smith already said many of these things, and I want to talk about something else.

What I hope is that this show is an acknowledgment, contrary to most of the canonical literature since the late 60's, that painting never really went away. Most people already know this, but when someone of rising stature like Katy Siegel says it, it goes a long way toward making it so.

When I was in grad school in the late 90's, the painting-is-dead crowd was still largely in charge. My crits often devolved into me making a case not for my own work, but for the relevance of abstract painting. How dull.

Painting seems, of late, to be "back" (although people have declared this almost as many times as they declared it dead). Obviously, painting never really died - there were always painters painting. But the supporting literature continually eulogized it; it became a primary talking point in the academic setting. This particular attitude about painting, which gained momentum in the late 60's and really started to harden in 70's, roughly coincides with time that artists with Master's degrees started hitting the scene. Do with that piece of info what you will.

But I've already gotten off track. Painting didn't perish, but what had largely died by the 70's was the "ism," which in any given period acted as a kind of glue to help point out the common traits in what was often varied artistic production. The death of the "ism" is not an altogether bad thing, because "isms" can quickly become tyrannical, exclusive, and ultimately academic. But this development left painters largely atomized, with the intellectual community droning on in the background about their obsolescence.

David Reed has always insisted there there was a much greater continuity, and refers to this academically imposed break in the history of painting as a kind of wound. "High Times" presents his case quietly; Siegel and Reed group the works in such a way as to point out their often subtle but undeniable commonalities. And the forward-looking aspects were hard to miss: Jack Whitten's smearing device precedes Richter's blurry abstractions by quite a few years.

The show's main problem was a very big theme and a relatively small size (about 40 pieces). In a recent interview in the Brooklyn Rail, Siegel says a lot of great work had to be left out because of space limitations.

So I have a question, and a subsequent request. Katy Siegel is a professor at Hunter. Ralph Humphrey and Ron Gorchov (both in the show) were professors at Hunter. While I was working on my MFA at Hunter, Elizabeth Murray (in the show) was considering joining the faculty. And I'm sure there are many other connections, as there have always been between the Hunter program and New York painters.

Where am I going with this? Hunter college has an 8500 square-foot gallery space on 41st St. Why on earth wasn't an expanded version of the show hung there?

And my request: Why can't this still happen at some point in the near future?