Yesterday I attended a wonderful lecture by art history professor Judeth Rodenbeck on the artist Allen Kaprow. Her points that I especially remember:
• Young artists (like Kaprow) in the early 1960s found themselves trapped in the modernist shadows of Pollock, de Kooning, Newman, etc. They needed something new to create, and viola performance art was born.
• The science fiction writer Samual R. Delany attended Kaprow’s first Happening, “18 Happenings in 6 Parts,” and declared it (paraphrasing here) the beginning of post-modernism.
• Like so much contemporary art, it all really started with Marcel Duchamp and his “Fountain”.
I was also reminded that Duchamp had anonymously submitted “Fountain” to an open show curated by Society of Independent Artists, which, it had been proclaimed, would exhibit all work submitted. Yet the “Fountain” was not exhibited. Why? Perhaps it was thought too vulgar for the audience, too different, too conceptual. After all, like Knox Martin says, people cannot see the unfamiliar. But those curators, they really blew it. It has since been called by some as the most influential artwork of the 20th century.
I think the Dada publication The Blind Man sums it up nicely:
Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.
Of course, I’d guess that Knox would also decry the lack of aesthetics and the overabundance of imagination inherent in the piece, but that’s a topic for another post.
The curatorial decision not to exhibit something on the basis of it being too vulgar or not understandable by their audience was obviously a mistake back then. Would such a mistake be repeated today? It probably happens all the time!
Enough of that – now I’m going back to a little performance piece I call, “Repetition of a Publisher Struggling In (A) Depression.”