It seems to me that it was not by accident that the post-war years were hung over with the sulphureous title of Sartre's fiction: Nausea. Creeping into the fifties were the demons of doubt and disgust that fostered such phenomena that occurred at the March Gallery.
Even now, with ten years' perspective on the grotesqueries presented (ironically I hope) in the name of art. it seems to me worthy of serious discussion. The nausea has not subsided. It appears in many guises, not the least of which is the determined route of challenge to art itself. Such slogans as "art is the artist", and such recent vogues as "anti-form" arts have their sources in the kind of feelings generated in the 1950's.
I think of the environment of Tenth Street in those days; the attraction the March Gallery had for social dissidents of varying stripes; the obvious political pressures. Betrayals everywhere. What could the lessons of a concentration camp have meant, really, when atrocities in the Korean War went on and on. And on and on to Vietnam. And haven't stopped yet. And become more common and more easily accepted every day. And Algerie Francaise was present.
Many of the artists alerted to the political negativism of the March people were well aware of events elsewhere. The postwar period was adding up quickly in the 1950's to a perpetual war period, not even the optimistic perpetual revolution that peered through in some of Sartre's articles then. Just perpetual carnage.
Artists who could no longer tolerate inertia, or individuals who saw in the umbrella-shade of "art" a living space no other activity in this society could provide, converged in mutual disgust.
Significantly perhaps, the March Gallery was not at street level, but four steps down into a kind of cellar. As I recall, it began as just another cooperative, with a heterogeneous shifting population of participants. Little by little, it became the focal point for all manner of social dissidents, many of whom had watched the political events of the 1950's with increasing discouragement. One betrayal had followed another, and what had once been zestfully suggested - that art was a perpetual revolution - seemed to them a paltry idea in the face of Korea, Algeria, McCarthy and the struggle in the South. Out of this ever more penetrating nausea grew the March group which was associated, in those days, with the idea of social protest and political indignation. Its target was not only art itself, but the society which could calmly contemplate it while crimes of unspeakable dimensions were being executed every day. This was a time when to joke about Park Avenue really meant something. It was a time when many "collectors" had installed real museum lighting in their Park Avenue apartments (which to this day look exactly alike) and had proceeded to acquire artists. It was a time when even Alien Ginsberg could be found swilling fine Scotch in those uptown havens. It was a time when the artist had uncomfortable charisma which drew the rich to his lair, and placed his convictions into jeopardy.
By 1960. when Boris Lurie had his one-man show, "Adieu Amerique" and when some friends and I were sufficiently alarmed to form the "Night Letter Committee", the great excitements about the new American painting was just over. Also, just about over was the perennial American habit of optimism. We were all in trouble, and by that time most of us had understood that the poisonous legacy had permanently contaminated our territory.
In 1960, then, I saw Boris Lurie's collages, with their frequent allusions to the concentration camp he had once inhabited, and their open indictment of popular American culture. I also saw other members of the March group in the "Vulgar Show" and recognized the themes (atom bombs, concentration camps, contaminated milk, lynchings in the South, commercial sex, professional mass-killers). I wasn't much worried about whether they were art or not. At that time, and since, I had recognized that a sub-culture of dissent was emerging in which every mode available would be used to formulate the new, politicized values. Lurie's and Goodman's messages found their marks in the disaffected youth that flocked to see them, and eventually those messages, even though scorned, even appeared in the uptown press. Art had nothing to do with it.
Meanwhile, at the March Gallery, Boris Lurie was welcoming people to the Involvement Show by telling that "in times of war and extermination, aesthetic exercise and decorative patterns are not enough." And ominously: "Remember, Eichmann is h you, too!" The next year he was back with the "Doom Show", together with Sam Goodman and Stanley Fisher and others, reminding us again that all was not well with the art establishment. It was a mess, that show. I remember it well. But I must reiterate that while the terms in which these makers of collages and things dictated their messages were not witty, brilliant, or even scathing in the great tradition of political art, they were the only terms in which an increasing number of dissidents could see their predicament! Nauseating to the seat of the soul.
I couldn't help but be attracted by the 1963 "NOIshow. By that time, what with Vietnam and the coming-of-age of what Eisenhower immortally called the military-industrial complex, I was all for "NO!", no matter what it meant. It was certainly not a show as art shows go, but it did broadcast the marvelous possibility of saying NO
The final statement of the March group, it seems to me, was Sam Goodman's collaboration with Boris Lurie shown at the Gertrude Stein Gallery, in which excrement was the sole agent, modeled to look like sculpture. This was a statement of the nihilistic, anarchic values that the subculture had long been generating. As is always the case with the morally indignant, the potential for pathos is strong, and so is the potential for annulment. Many converged in a pact of mutual disgust in the mid 1960's, and it was this mutuality that exhausted itself, as once dada had exhausted itself, making way for revised values. Merde alors! A final, incontrovertible statement which cuts off any further discourse.
For all that, the nausea and restlessness that motivated March Gallery events is already a tradition which the sub-culture can build upon. A diffuse but voluble clamor amongst urban artists points to the abiding value of "NO!" as a creative force. Whatever might be said about the quality of thought that brought about the foundation of the Art Workers' Coalition not long ago, the fact remains that a genuine crise de conscience has assailed larger segments in the art world. Important questions such as the role of the "pure" artist in social revolution have not been raised so fervently since the mid 1930's when the Popular Front posed the great challenge to the modern artist. The nihilism which underlay NO!art is altered here. The depression that assailed the young in the late 1950's and early 1960's, is modified by the bracing action which suggests the possibility of vital change. The political crisis in the United States altered not only the attitudes of younger artists, but also the way in which they approached in the works which justified their calling themselves artists, and it is in this alteration that the first note of optimism in many years is made possible (at least in the view of those artists who renounced easel painting and sculpture in favor of actions, events and ephemera).
The proto-theories of the March group have been refined, made viable, but the original sources remain: frantic disaffection, dismay and the paucity of spiritual lebensraum. Under the shelter of "art", many Americans can pursue certain activities and find a living space that no other category of American life can provide. The value forging activities of the anti-form artists finally have little to do with art which remains impervious to mere mortals, but are - ever since those early 10th Street days - increasingly important to a society which knows no ethic any more and which is perpetually hungry.
Dore Ashton has had a varied experience as art critic, author, and teacher. She is the author of many books: Noguchi East and West, About Rothko, American Art Since 1945, Rosa Bonheur in Her Time (with Denise Browne Hare), A Fable of Modern Art, Yes, But: A Critical Biography of Philip Guston, A Joseph Cornell Album, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, Picasso on Art, The Sculpture of Pol Bury, Richard Lindner, A Reading of Modern Art, Modern American Sculpture, Rauschenberg’s Dante, The Unknown Shore, Redon, Moreau, Bresdin, Philip Guston, Poets and the Past, Abstract Art Before Columbus, Teshigahara, The Walls of the Heart, The Black Rainbow: The Work of Fernando de Szyzslo.