It is extremely difficult to produce a kind of art that histories will pass over in silence, that the art magazines will dismiss, that will embarrass collectors and be offensive to most other artists. The Lurie-Goodman-Fisher activities in the March Gallery and later in the Gertrude Stein Gallery succeeded in achieving this large negative.
This book recovers a pocket of socio-aesthetic history between 1959 and 1964 which, without this book, would probably disappear.
At the end of the 1960s its easier to see what these artists were about.—First of all, in introducing social concerns into an "aesthetic style" (abstract expressionism) they were transgressing current rules. In introducing degraded material—the worst kind of schlock vernacular—into their collages without aesthetic transformations or manners they alienated themselves from the acceptable route artists using objects and photographs were taking.
Second, their categorical rejection of "art" in favour of protest, negation, pessimism, put them in another, then Iess-frequented area, the tradition of anti-genteel, minority protest against America itself. This kind of "red-skin" anti-Americanism is very American, but in 1959-64 it was unusual.
Third, the nature their protest took was a kind of vernacular itself. A vernacular drawing on vernacular as it were, using poster-like directness, atrocity photos, pinups (the obverse of Miss America), toys and drawing from that breviary of aberration The National Enquirer (a definite influence an many American artists in the late fifties and early sixties, just as Scientific American is now). So their art might be seen as hand-made-pre-underground press, and as an early manifestation of the radicalism of the late sixties.
Their targets were mostly general (America, the Bomb, the Gas-chamber). A few were specific (Henry Cabot Lodge, the WASP epitome of club-diplomacy). But with no way of channelling their protest into action, no way of discovering the routes that the late sixties found were open and vulnerable - the universities and mass protests in the streets. Anyway, as artists, their impetus to action was always equivocal.
The severest and most successful attack on the official art world was made in the Goodman -Lurie shit show at Gertrude Stein in 1964, where faeces was subjected to the range of formal etiquette - loose and unstructured to firm and volumnar, from realistic (with haemorrhoidal blood) to more abstract figurations. The only response to the show, when it was not ignored, was mildly sensational.
But it was a devastating attack on the smooth excitements of the current art scene, its profound pessimism - and indeed the pessimism of all the group's activities—is a familiar mood within the "redskin" American tradition.
There's a lot to write about here: This pessimist-anarchist strain; the equivocation about art (once art enters protest ends or vice versa, which makes a very painful situation for artists); the antagonism of the scene; the bridge their activity makes between the existential crisis and apathy of the fifties and the politically effective and organised protest of to day.
Source: Lurie, Boris; Krim, Seymour: NO!art, Cologne 1988
ABOUT BRIAN O'DOHERTY: Born in Ireland in 1928, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1957. Fifteen years later, events in Northern Ireland led to his formal change of identity as an artist. On a day in 1972 that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, hundreds of Irish civilians were marching in the Bogside section of Derry to protest the internment of political activists. British soldiers opened fire on the marchers. Thirteen were killed. Later that same year, at the Project Art Center in Dublin, O'Doherty pledged, before 30 witnesses and a notary, to sign his art works with the name Patrick Ireland "until such time as the British military presence is removed from Northern Ireland and all citizens are granted their civil rights." — His novels are The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. (New York, Pantheon, 1992); and The Deposition of Father McGreevey (New York, Turtle Press, Books & Co., Helen Marx Books, 1999/London, Arcadia Press, 2000), which was short listed for the Booker Prize, 2000. Also known as the artist Patrick Ireland, he is Professor of Fine Arts and Media at the Southampton College Campus of Long Island University. A major retrospective exhibition of O'Doherty/Ireland's work is planned for Spring 2004 at the Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin, with venues in Europe and the US also planned. As an art critic and historian, his works include Inside the White Cube (University of California Press, 1999); and American Masters: The Voice and the Myth (New York, Random House, 1998). He lives in New York City and Todi, Italy.