In 1969, the artist Bruce Nauman made Pacing Upside Down, a 56-minute single-frame film of the artist crazily astride his California studio: a portrait of the artist as a convict in his cage. It was an extreme act of art that became foundational—inaugurating a shift in style from American abstract painting and Pop to post-Minimalism, conceptual and performance art—without ever losing its extremeness. Pacing Upside Down makes its appearance in “1969,” a sprawling and argumentative survey of one of the last Big Bang years in modern art, now at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens.
Organized by senior curator Neville Wakefield, MoMA photography curator Eva Respini, and MoMA archivist Michelle Elligott, “1969″ is drawn entirely from the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, of which P.S. 1 is an affiliate. The show recasts the convulsions, scene-making and palace revolts that probably weren’t nearly as vivid in their own time. (This critic admittedly wasn’t there.) But that’s the way history works. Could the curators have picked 1968, the worst year in modern American politics, and gotten the same or similar results? Probably. Mr. Nauman actually had his New York debut that year, at Leo Castelli, before he rolled tape for Pacing Upside Down and other endurance tests.
Forty years later, Mr. Nauman, regarded by many as the most influential artist of his generation, is as much a part of modern art culture as a Rodin sculpture. So what the hell happened? Without going into too much detail—apart from a day-by-day timeline, the show is wanting of solid wall-texts—”1969″ comes across as the trashing of several precious tastes. One of the first galleries in the show includes a Color Field painting by Helen Frankenthaler. Titled Commune, it’s one of the big, lyrical stain paintings that were championed by some critics, most prominently Clement Greenberg, as the future of painting. Today, we know better. We also no longer have anything resembling a “movement.” Styles change with the leaves in New York, if not more regularly.
Antiwar politics plays a big role in the show. One piece, titled Q. And Babies? A. And Babies (1970), consists of posters of the My Lai massacre, distributed by the Art Workers’ Coalition. The radical and troublemaking group—was there any other kind back then?—protested other things, too, like museum trustees who helped underwrite them. History is unclear on this point, but the Art Workers’ Coalition may be the only group to actually spill blood, albeit of the animal kind, at MoMA. To the barricades. Fluxus, too, makes an appearance, in a series of ironic kits. The civil rights movement is given less attention. One exception is the work of Emory Douglas, the official artist and minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, and a maker of agitprop par excellence. Feminism and gay rights appear barely at all in the show, although feminist art would exert an enormous influence on the next decade of art. “1969″ is mostly white and male. So, depressingly, was the art world back then.
Other works summon the era’s stoned, sullen mood, like East Coast, West Coast, a filmed conversation between the artists Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson. Or Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie, an engrossing account of the courtship between Factory regular Louis Waldron and Viva.
Spend an hour or two at P.S. 1, and one becomes aware of a general tilt in the direction of avant-garde toward the obscure. Advanced art requires an advanced degree. It’s taken for granted that a work by the great Nam June Paik appeals more to the inner cerebral track than the eye, unless you a have a Lou Reed–like thing for metal machine music. An artist like Robert Barry makes even fewer concessions to, say, the casual museum visitor or gallery-goer.
Forty years later, contemporary artists still have to come to terms with this stuff. The Bruce High Quality Foundation art collective has installed five noisy, attention-grabbing installations, called “portable museums,” to critique the way museums work. The question they raise is indeed fatal, although not the way their creators might think. How much history can you fit onto the cutting edge before you have to start calling the cutting edge something else?