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“NO!art” AND THE AESTHETICS OF DOOM
By ESTERA MILMAN (2001)
A second non-Pop vein, which specializes in social protest, should also be mentioned, if only to dispel confusion by placing it properly outside Pop Art... these Assemblage, or 'Doom' artists are the political satirists that Pop artists are not. They are all that Pop is not, and proclaimed themselves 'anti-Pop' in February 1964. They are anguished, angry and ot where Pop is cool, detached and assured. They omit nothing from their conglomerations of trash, paint, collage and objects, whereas the Pop artists omit almost everything from their direct presentation, and they are essentially pessimistic where Pop is optimistic. Belligerently romantic, as a group they come as close to Neo-Dada as is possible today. Lucy Lippard, “New York Pop”
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 the concentration camps have meant really, when atrocities in the Korean War went on and on. And on to Vietnam. ►Dore Ashton, "Merde Alors !"
Lucy Lippard's attempted delineation among the activities of the socio-politically engaged "Doom," or NO!artists, and their Pop flirt contemporaries was published in one of the earliest anthologies on Pop flirt. Edited by Lippard prior to the venerated feminist scholar's self-professed politicization, the book first appeared in print in 1966 and has since become a standard text for undergraduate art history students. Activist critic and art historian Dore Ashton's far more supportive aposteori recollections of NO!art's March Gallery manifestations were published a scant three years later. Lippard had illustrated her reference to these "anguished, angry, and hot" assemblage artists with a full page reproduction of Sam Goodman's circa 1960/61 The Cross. Goodman's "conglomeration of trash, paint, collage and objects" is flanked by a half-page panel in which Jim Dine's cool and assured Shovel of 1962 is juxtaposed with Marcel Duchamp's iconic early twentieth-century prototype, a "ready-made" snow shovel entitled In Advance of the Broken Arm. Lippard's reference to NO!art encapsulates the mainstream art-world's then in-place, predominantly anti-political agenda, Ashton, who in the early 1960s had herself been a player in the institution of art's construction of a depoliticized successor to abstract Expressionism, acknowledges, from a 1969 perspective, that "the proto-theories" of the March group were subsequently refined in the work of socio-politically engaged contemporary "artists who renounced easel painting and sculpture in favor of actions, events and ephemera.” She further recollects that when first she encountered the work of Boris Lurie and the March group, she had recognized an emergent "subculture of dissent.” "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).”
Members of the NO!art co-operative aggressively responded to the aftermath of Buchenwald and Nagasaki, the ensuing atomic terrors of the Cold War, and the period's Janus-faced obsession with conflicting representations of women as suburban homemakers, on the one hand, and mass media icons and/or sex workers on the other. They did so at a point in time when such overtly politicized production was an anathema to the art world. As a result, for the last forty years, their actions and cultural interventions have been relegated to the margins of art historical discourse in the United States. "NO!art" and the Aesthetics of Doom is the first North American retrospective exhibition devoted to the investigation of this pivotal, yet subsequently marginalized, mid-century collective of artists and poets. This exhibition also attempts to redescribe New York City's Tenth Street Galleries of the late 1950s and early 1960s as more than a comfortable proving ground for the descendants of Abstract Expressionism. By concentrating on the 1959 through 1964 iconoclastic activities of the "NO!art" co-operative or "Doom" artists of Tenth Street's March Gallery (and soon thereafter of the uptown Gallery Gertrude Stein), the project hopes instead to provide an introduction to a radical subculture of dissent, which despite its absence from the art historical canon, historically served as an authentic link among Action Painting, a politicized (yet little acknowledged) manifestation of Beat culture, Assemblage, Environments, Happenings, and that particular subset of neo-Dada that has come to be canonized under the rubric "[North American] Pop Art".
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About ESTERA MILMAN: Founding Director, Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts (ATCA), 1982 through 2004. Composed of artifacts, performance relics and archival material of the post-World War II avant-garde, ATCA attained an international reputation as both a groundbreaking repository for contemporary artworks and a research program. Funded, in part, by a series of grants from Federal and State agencies, the project successfully generated a host of acclaimed topical workshops, exhibitions, publications and interdisciplinary symposia. Charter Member Conceptual and Intermedia Arts Online (CIAO) and Project Leader, CIAO Fund-raising Subcommittee, 1997-2000. Participants in the CIAO consortium included Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts/The University of Iowa, Berkeley Art Museum/The University of California, The Hood Museum of Art/Dartmouth College, the Getty Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, Franklin Furnace (New York), the National Gallery of Canada, the Tate Gallery (London), and the Walker Art Center. She curated in 2000/1 the first North American retrospective of early works by the NO!art cooperative of artists active in New York since the early 60s at Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art in Evanston. ►more