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Art that broke all the rules
By Lisa Taggart
Everything was up for grabs when Los Angeles-born artist Bruce Beasley was contemplating how to create sculpture out of light in the mid-1960s. An artistic prodigy, Beasley was at a defining moment in his career, turning his attention from the welded and cast metal structures that had brought him unprecedented acclaim before he’d even finished his bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley. He was in a place and time that was transformative for the country as well. Right then, sit-ins, marches, riots, protest music, civil disobedience, and anarchy enthusiasts were fueling a messy national overhaul. Berkeley’s campus—the birthplace of the free speech movement—was the epicenter. And the art world was embroiled in the turmoil. Artists, critics, and audiences were re-evaluating what topics art could cover, what elements could be used to make art, who could be an artist: essentially, what was art—and whether it had any rules at all.
The new show at the de Saisset Museum presents a fabulous portrait of this period, with 79 works made from 1958 through 1972. Here are sculptures, paintings, drawings, and prints showcasing the era’s multiple creative directions. Eye on the Sixties: Vision, Body, and Soul is a blockbuster, with works by, among others, Roy Lichtenstein, Wayne Thiebaud, Jasper Johns, Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Rauschenberg, William T. Wiley, Ed Ruscha, Robert Arneson, and Robert Indiana. Artists from all over the country are represented, though there is a particularly strong showing of Californians.
Pop art is a major feature here, with geometric, brightly colored pieces in what’s now represented as the signature style of the era. Robert Indiana’s prints of oversized numerals; Roy Lichtenstein’s pointillist cathedral prints; Wayne Thiebaud’s goopy painting of pies are familiar in tone and delightful to see in such an intimate gallery space. But there is much more too, including lesser known styles: assemblage collections of mixed media and found objects; abstract prints by Sam Francis and Helen Frankenthaler from what’s called the post-painterly abstraction movement; a minimalist cube by John McCracken and a multicolored wheel from Ron Davis, who’s been called an abstract illusionist; kinetic sculpture from Fletcher Benton and Claes Oldenburg; and patterned geometric images resembling mazes by Anni Albers and Frank Stella.
Curated by Santa Clara University Art History Associate Professor Andrea Pappas, the show comes from the monumental collection of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson, who are well known in the art world. Since the 1960s, the Bay Area couple has amassed one of the most significant private groupings of contemporary works on this side of the country. The pair, known as Hunk (that’s Harry) and Moo (Mary Margaret), prefer to remain out of the limelight even as their 800-piece collection (many pieces have been donated to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) makes art scholars dizzy with glee.
I can see clearly now
Beasley’s career offers a good illustration of the independent, innovative spirit of the 1960s. He’d become the youngest artist included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, after making abstract metal sculptures with a post-apocalyptic look. Then, in his mid-20s, he had a new creative vision: clear sculptures. “I started imagining sculptures where the eye would not know where to stop,” he told art critic Peter Frank in 2004. “The idea was of the eye being drawn into, through, and past the sculpture so you would see things that are behind the sculpture, in the sculpture.”
Beasley wanted something large that could really play with space and light. He started experimenting with cast acrylic. But he was told by the era’s plastic manufacturers that his idea was impossible. Clear plastic simply couldn’t be cast much bigger than four inches thick. “They said there just wasn’t any material that would do what I wanted,” he recalled when we spoke recently. But Beasley set to work in his studio. And, using material donated from DuPont, after more than a year of experimenting, he ended up inventing a plastic polymerization process to create just what he wanted; the procedures he developed led to the material used today for large aquariums and deep ocean probes. (Those probes have in turn assisted with the discovery of more than 1,000 species of fish.) He built a clear structure of cast acrylic that is 13 feet wide and four feet thick, weighing 13,000 pounds: Apolymon, installed near the state Capitol in Sacramento. His smaller clear acrylic work in Eye on the Sixties, Killyboffin, was created in the lead-up to this massive achievement. Shaped like some kind of clear tropical fish caught aswirl, Killyboffin has the dynamic transparency Beasley sought. “It’s incredibly gorgeous, like a chunk of frozen waterfall,” says Pappas.
In true artistic fashion, today Beasley wants to downplay the science of the story: “People like to talk about the fact that I figured out something that the plastics companies couldn’t do,” he said. “That’s really a side issue. For me, the primary issue is that I wanted to use light as the subject of the sculptures.”
Beasley’s idealism is quintessentially 1960s. Exhibit coordinator Karen Kienzle, who is the de Saisset’s assistant director for exhibitions, education, and community outreach, says that the enthusiasm of the works impress her. “Much of the work being produced today is ironic, or sometimes even jaded in its outlook. The optimism here is refreshing,” she says. Beasley says that kind of energy fueled the artistic community at the time: “There was a feeling that we could do anything. I don’t mean get rich and famous of course. But there was a sense we could make anything that we could conceive of...I don’t think that’s the case today. I don’t feel that when I look at the work.”
Playfulness is part of so many works in this show. Sweden-born Claes Oldenburg has a sculpture of an ice bag, Ice Bag–Scale B, those headache-soothing, domestic objects of sitcoms and housewives. But this mustard-colored motorized version shakes and twists on its own. Robert Rauschenberg’s Cardbird Door appears to be assembled from scraps of various cardboard boxes, a collage of discards. But Rauschenberg actually used new cardboard to make it look old—a meta play on old and new, cast-offs and recycling (at a time when recycling was just beginning to get the public’s attention). Ed Ruscha’s Juice is a gray drawing with ribbonlike letters spelling out the work’s title; the muted shades contrast with the swirling lettering and bright word (think orange). But the whimsy takes a new direction when you know that the image was created not out of graphite or another familiar drawing material, but out of gunpowder.
Though many of these pieces directly or indirectly address the Vietnam War, alienation, and growing awareness of ecological problems, it’s clear that the artists were delighting in breaking new artistic ground. The Vision and Body references to the show’s title are easy to find: All of the artists present an individual creative vision, and many pieces play on aspects of the physical. You could build a couple meals out of Thiebaud’s portraits of edibles: Bacon and Eggs, Olives, Double Deckers, Cake Window, and, finally, sweet Pies. Marisol Escobar uses hand prints and prints of other body parts to construct a self portrait in Diptych, one that Pappas deconstructs in the exhibition’s catalog as a feminist challenge to the Playboy Bunny stereotype. Sam Francis’ colorful abstract, with a Jackson Pollock–like look, takes its name from the body: Spleen (Red). But the spiritual aspect of the show, the Soul, is a bit more nuanced.
Searching for light
Dennis Beall, Genesis, Seventh Day, 1962
Many pieces address mystical elements or seem to ask spiritual questions. This generation was rejecting most established institutions, including organized religion. (Even Time magazine was led to ask, on a cover in April 1966, “Is God dead?”) Religious Studies Professor Paul Crowley, S.J., observes that, “To speak of the spiritual, much less of ‘spirituality’ and art, might seem odd in this context. But, by and large, both art and spirituality are reflecting something much larger going on in Western societies at the time: a dissolution of the old orders.”
The counterculture was exploring religious ideas in new areas, looking to mystic traditions and individualized spiritual paths. Artists were turning to common everyday objects as worthy subject matter of art, just as religious thinkers were turning to the secular as worthy places for spirituality. “There was a celebration of the ‘secular’ in the 1960s,” Crowley says, “even within theology itself.”
Some pieces do directly reference religious questions: This seems clear in Helen Frankenthaler’s colorful and abstract Connected by Joy. In his collage AM/FM, Wallace Berman used an early version of the photocopier to insert repeated images of a radio; he also uses images of a cross, Hebrew letters, a bishop’s miter, and a mandala. The complex collection (here too are a missile, a jet fighter, and the U.S. Capitol) presents so many of the conflicting impulses and questions of artists of the time. It expresses, as Crowley sums up well, the artist’s “spiritual longing in the midst of a world that presents fierce obstacles to it.” And Dennis Beall’s Genesis series offers a daily vision of Creation with etchings that take light as a subject, in a nice parallel to the Beasley sculpture addressed to light.
Many commentators, in politics but in the arts as well, draw parallels between the 1960s and now, pointing to today’s shifting political power structures, war overseas, spiritual questioning, and the festering environmental crisis. Eye on the Sixties offers a startling snapshot of the time that makes these connections as well. Yet it also illustrates the changes wrought from the experimentation, innovation, and independence of the Beat generation and the hippies that followed. “Artists now are working mainly without rules, regarding what art addresses, what art is made out of,” says Pappas. “It was in the 1960s that those rules were broken.”
Lisa Taggart is a writer/editor in the Office of Marketing and Communications. She used the advance from her book, Women Who Win: Female Athletes on Being the Best, to buy her first piece of modern art. She’s also the co-editor of the best-selling humor anthology The Bigger the Better, the Tighter the Sweater: Beauty, Body Image, and other Hazards of Being Female.
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