Contemporary Began When? Times Sets Date at 1970

Dear Reader: Have you ever wondered when, exactly, what we call “contemporary art” began? Forgive me if this sounds like

Dear Reader: Have you ever wondered when, exactly, what we call “contemporary art” began? Forgive me if this sounds like a foolish question. Like myself, you have probably not given much thought to assigning a specific date to what is generally said to be new art, or to art that was recently new and, for good reasons and bad, may still be enjoying a certain currency or controversy in the museums and the media. To attempt to assign a specific date to such a fluid historical phenomenon would seem to be about as wise as assigning a birth date to air pollution or traffic congestion. These are, after all, phenomena that have been with us for as long as anyone can remember, and, indeed, in the case of “contemporary art,” have long preceded our own existence.

Yet, however foolish the question may be, when a writer in The New York Times confidently announces that today’s “contemporary art” dates precisely from the year 1970, attention must be paid. You or I may not be taken in by such obvious nonsense, but we both know that there are still a great many people around–some of them quite grown-up–who tend to believe what they read in The Times , especially on subjects they know nothing about.

The dubious distinction of having made this pronouncement about the year 1970 belongs to Deborah Solomon, who, in the course of an interview with Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Sunday Times of Jan. 9, boldly declared that contemporary art began in 1970–in the period, she avowed, “that follows modern art.” I have to confess that when I read this astonishing statement the other day, the first thing I thought of was that wonderful first stanza in Philip Larkin’s poem, “Annus Mirabilis,” that goes:

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(Which was rather late for me)–

Between the end of the

Chatterley ban

And the Beatles’ first LP.

For just as there are a great many grown-up people today who believe that nobody had a good sex life before the 1960’s, there are apparently a lot of deluded folks on the art scene who believe that “contemporary art” didn’t really get going in this country until–well, whatever year it was that they began to pay attention to it. For people of this myopic persuasion, the beginning of contemporary art and–who knows?–maybe all of art history dates from the day they arrived in Manhattan and saw their first exhibitions at Leo Castelli’s or Mary Boone’s.

But this, of course, is to confuse personal experience with the history of the world–a not uncommon problem with certain critics and museum curators of Ms. Solomon’s generation. Yet Ms. Solomon herself can scarcely be said to belong to the ranks of these esthetic innocents. She has written biographies of Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell, who were once themselves–need we be reminded?–contemporary artists of some notoriety in the period that she has now consigned to pre-1970 antiquity. Add to this the fact that Ms. Solomon’s parents are art dealers who specialize in the kind of blue-chip modern art that was once itself in the forefront of the contemporary art scene, as even I can remember. So how are we to account for an assertion of such stunning–what shall we call it?–simplicity. Sheer ignorance, though never to be wholly discounted, is not a sufficient


My own guess is that Ms. Solomon’s assignment in conducting the Times interview was to expose Mr. de Montebello as some sort of reactionary or hypocrite in art matters because of his public criticism of both the Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Kiki Smith sculpture of a defecating nude female figure in the Whitney Museum’s American Century show. It is in the very nature of high-profile media interviews today to aim for embarrassing or befuddling their subjects and thereby exposing the institutions they represent to public ridicule. Ms. Solomon’s specific target in the interview was the Met’s record in the field of–what else?–”contemporary art.”

If that was indeed the point of the interview, then it must be said to have conspicuously failed in its purpose. For Mr. De Montebello responded to Ms. Solomon’s ill-formulated questions with an engaging combination of firm conviction and intellectual courtesy. In regard to her amazing claim that modern art had ended in 1970, Mr. de Montebello reminded Ms. Solomon, “In this department, we’re dealing with a period of just 100 years, so we don’t need to break it up into modern and contemporary.” And implicit in that statement is an assumption, or so it seemed to me anyway, that works of contemporary art are still expected to meet the same standards of quality that apply to the acquisition of works of art from earlier periods.

That, in any case, is what I take to be the policy or theory governing the acquisition of new art at the Met. In actual practice, however, the museum is rarely in a position to abide by such rigorous standards of quality, for there is very little new art on the scene today that can meet standards of that sort. As a consequence, the new art–or the recently new–that we see in the Met’s galleries tends for the most part to be the usual hodgepodge of overpublicized contemporary reputations. I frankly do not see how it could be otherwise. Time is always a factor in the codification of esthetic standards, and neither record-breaking auction prices nor well-oiled publicity machines are adequate substitutes for the perspective of history.

It is worth recalling, in this regard, that many of the modern masterpieces we admire in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art today weren’t all that new when Alfred Barr was acquiring them for MoMA in the 1930’s. Most of them dated from the earlier decades of the century, and some from the last years of the 19th century. The first work of art that MoMA acquired for its permanent collection, moreover, wasn’t a Fauvist painting by Matisse or a Cubist painting by Picasso but a Realist painting by Edward Hopper. We may have a high regard for Hopper–I do myself–but he could hardly be said to represent the highest achievement of modernism in the 1930’s. Time was an important factor in judging art then, and it remains an important factor today.

In the absence of historical perspective, we are all to some degree hostage to the winds of fashion and publicity. Take the case of the Irish-born American painter Sean Scully, whose works on paper are currently the subject of a small exhibition in the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing at the Met. Hardly a week seems to pass without some announcement of a Sean Scully exhibition or publication arriving in the mail, either at home or at my office. Mr. Scully is clearly an energetic traveler, and so these announcements come from various points of the globe, yet the look of the work that is reproduced on these announcements remains the same. It is the work of a highly accomplished pictorial technician whose signature style of painterly stripes and rectangles is yet another example of what is best described as tasteful modernism.

In the current show at the Met, Sean Scully on Paper , there are pastels, watercolors, etchings and photographs, and in an adjoining gallery there are two oil paintings, Red on Cream (1976) and Molloy (1984). A preliminary watercolor study for Molloy , based of course on the novel by Samuel Beckett, is included in the show itself, which also features suites of etchings said to be inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and James Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach . I must confess to a certain skepticism about the relation, if any, which these paintings and etchings bear to their ostensible literary subject. Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are writers who deal with very different realms of experience, yet in Mr. Scully’s work they are both reduced to the tasteful modernism of the artist’s abstract repertory of stripes and rectangles.

What saves Mr. Scully’s work from being utterly contemptible is his technical mastery of the various media he employs. Yet by associating this technical virtuosity with writers who had something profound to tell us about the nature of modern experience, he inevitably reminds us that his own art is conspicuously lacking in depth. The more one sees of the work, the more it looks like a certain mode of modernist abstraction at the end of its tether.

Alas, the Met has not yet solved the problem of encompassing new art in ways that meet high artistic standards. But then, none of our other museums has, either. Perhaps it is not a problem susceptible to a solution in a period as creatively fallow as our own.

Sean Scully on Paper remains on view at the Met though March 12. Contemporary Began When? Times Sets Date at 1970