Circa 1958: Breaking Ground in American Art
Ackland Art Museum
Through Jan. 4, 2009

I feel kind of queasy when I hear or read blasé, reductive descriptors of the cultures of various historical decadesthe “flower power” ’60s, the “groovy” ’70s, the “yuppie” ’80s. To be honest I really don’t get what the cliché of the ’90s is supposed to be, but that doesn’t stop people from saying “That’s so ’90s.”

It’s easy to slip into that kind of thinking, and yet much is lost in doing so. Relegating art to movements and “isms” can have the same deadening effect. I know that categorization is useful, inevitableI get it. If we didn’t make use of such organizing principles we’d be buried in a morass of particularities. However, I’ve sometimes looked back at a decade in which I lived and weighed its clichés against my personal experience, and the two rarely align. Because of this, I often find myself skeptical when overly broad strokes are used to lump together confluences such as time periods or trends in art.

Circa 1958: Breaking Ground in American Art at the Ackland Art Museum manages to strike a remarkable balance between an overview of modes of art production during a specific time period and a grouping of individual artists who pursued their own trajectories. Circa 1958 was organized in connection with the Ackland’s 50-year anniversary, and what’s so cool about this is that the museum could have used the anniversary as an opportunity to shine a light on itself. Instead, they brought in curator Roni Feinstein to put together an exhibition that, to me, feels like a gift. Circa 1958 uses the 50-year anniversary idea as a springboard to inquire into the state of American Art at the time the Ackland was establishedand 1958 turns out to have been a massively transitional moment.

Circa 1958 includes more than 50 artists who emerged as part of an energized reaction against the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, under the influence of shifting currents in the political and cultural climate of the time. The roster features a mix of well-known and lesser-known artists, including names like Frank Stella, John Chamberlain, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson, Roy Lichtenstein … a long, heady list. Exhibitions with these kinds of stellar names often fall flat; the examples of artwork can be second- or third-rate, and the show runs out of steam. The thrill of Circa 1958 is that the works on view turn out to be pointed, illuminating examples of the exhibition’s core ideathat 50 years ago there were watershed breakthroughs in thinking about what art was and what art could be. Circa 1958 is an opportunity to experience what revolution feels like (and in the ’50s, no less).

For me, the most exciting aspect of the exhibition is its inclusion of “firsts,” instances in which an artist broke through the mold that theretofore had contained his or her art practice. Frank Stella’s “Blue Horizon” (1958) lays bare the young artist’s development. Stella had seen Jasper John’s flag paintings in his first show at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. For Stella, more compelling than the iconography of the flag was the idea of stripes, a predetermined formula that involved a relatively mechanical restatement of line. This thinking, in fierce contrast to the freedom of gesture of Abstract Expressionism, became the doorway Stella passed through in cultivating his signature geometric painting style. “Blue Horizon” bears the history of Stella’s process in the still-visible presence of a work he painted over to make the piece. By allowing a former painting to become the ground upon which his stripes were laid down, Stella makes a vehement statement, allowing the past to remain visible as he defines his present.

John Chamberlain‘s “Nutcracker” (1958) is one of his earliest iconic smashed-car sculptures. As with many or even most of the works on view in Circa 1958, this work can be seen in relation to Abstract Expressionismit reads as a de Kooning in 3-D, the primary colors of its chrome surfaces manifesting a painting in space. It also can be seen in connection with the Assemblage movement, which incorporated everyday objects (including trash) into works of art. The power of the work also comes from its feeling of energetic potential, referring back to the industrial force that compressed its heavy metal car bodies into contorted, sculptural forms. The intensity in this and much of Chamberlain’s work has to do with an implosive statement in which multiple forms vie to inhabit the same cross-section of space. My mantra in looking at this and much of Circa 1958 was to continually contextualize the experience of these works (“This was 1958, this was 1958 …”)kind of like hitting the “refresh” button on my perceptual screen, a reminder of how radical it must have seemed at the time it was first made. Such reframing is necessary in Circa 1958, because many of the works, including “Nutcracker,” still look radical today.

It is fascinating to view one of Andy Warhol‘s earliest fine art pieces on display here. “The Gilded Lilly” (circa 1956) is a link between Warhol as illustrator and Warhol as artist and conceptual innovator. “The Gilded Lilly” is from a series of large drawings of ornate ladies’ shoes with decorative floral imagery, in this instance replete with gold paint and found elements of metallic gold paper angels, lace and fleurs-de-lis. Each of Warhol’s shoe pieces was dedicated to a different Hollywood actress (this one to Beatrice Lillie). Within this piece are the elements of what would become Warhol’s well-known multiples, paeans to the rich and famous in a style that sustains visual parity with the packaging of consumable products (Campbell’s Soup, Brillo Soap Pads).

Other compelling “firsts” include Ed Keinholz‘s incendiary “John Doe” (1959), the artist’s maiden voyage into sculptural assemblage. Constructed with found materials, this piece takes the form of an everyman in the guise of a martyred mannequin, split in two and affixed to the wreckage of an abandoned baby stroller. Claes Oldenburg‘s “flags” are gorgeous, whimsical, crude constructions. These works are a revelation to those of us who haven’t seen such early Oldenburg workthey offer new ways of thinking about his later soft monuments to everyday objects. Another breathtaking first comes in the form of Ed Ruscha‘s earliest foray into text painting. In a work entitled “E. Ruscha” (1959), we find an abstract piece that’s been overpainted, in stunning blacks and piercing oranges, with the name of the artist. What’s so striking is that it’s the artist’s namehis signature, in effectthat signals what will become Ruscha’s signature modality, the text painting.

Circa 1958 contains a few works that carry such weight they alone mandate a trip to the Ackland. One such piece is among Robert Ryman‘s earliest white monochrome paintings, “An all white painting measuring 9 1/2″ x 10″ and signed twice on the left side in white umber” (1961), a physically small but conceptually huge piece, in which every fiber and brush stroke is activated with intention and aesthetic force.

Fluxus artists Yoko Ono and George Brecht are vital additions to Circa 1958. How often are we entreated to hammer a nail into the surface of a museum artwork, as in Ono’s “Painting to Hammer a Nail” (1961/ 1966/ 2008), or inducted into spontaneous performance, as in Brecht’s “Three Chair Events” (1961)? Robert Morris‘ “Box With the Sound of its Own Making” (1961) (recreated by the artist in 1993) is a revelation, a handcrafted wooden box with its own sublimely Cageian soundtrack. Indeed, the presence of John Cage’s influence is felt in several of the works on view, as is the mentorship of Josef Albers and what feels like the ghost of Joseph Cornell.

Circa 1958 fills four gallery spaces at the Ackland, and its breadth and quality call for multiple viewings. The exhibition offers rich insights for those already familiar with the artists, and serves as an exciting and comprehensive entry into the work for newcomers. So many of the pieces deserve mention, it is simply not possible to cover them all in the space of this review. But suffice to say, we are treated to a scintillating range of transitional artworks, in styles that include or foreshadow (yes, here we go) Hard Edge or Post-Painterly Abstraction, pre-Pop, Assemblage, Minimalism and Conceptualism.

Finally, it’s worth noting that many of the works in Circa 1958 were challenging to viewers at the time they were first shown. As another writer commented as we walked through the exhibition, these are works that the Ackland Art Museum would likely never have chosen to show in 1958. Perhaps the success of this exhibition will encourage the museum to show more new, and even difficult, works of contemporary art.