In 1968, Argentine artist Marta Minujín found her nose pressed against the window of the intimidating social web of New York City (and its even more Byzantine art world). But rather than become a mere spectator, Minujín used her outsider status to her advantage, and conceived of a genre-defining artwork that helped her make sense of a world where knowing the right social moves was they key to upward mobility. “I got a lot of fame [at a young age],” recalls the artist, “for work I did in Buenos Aires and in Paris. I was interested in fame and in media. When I arrived to New York, nobody knew me.” That soon changed, and in response to her interest in the media theory of Marshall McLuhan, as well as her intrigue with the New York cocktail party scene, she created the multimedia happening and film piece, Minucode (1968). For the piece, Minujín staged four separate cocktail parties with elite members of the worlds of politics, business, art and fashion. The work was commissioned by Stanton Catlin, the original director of the art gallery at the Rockefeller Foundation-funded Center for Inter-American Relations (now the Americas Society). 42 years later, a portion of the remaining piece is again being exhibited, through June 12, at the Americas Society.
IMAGE COURTESY THE ARTIST.
Intent on reversing the power structures inherent in social gatherings, Minujín began Minucode by placing advertisements, in the form of questionnaires, in a variety of New York City newspapers. Each questionnaire invited participants to code themselves by placing their occupation under Business, Politics, Fashion or Art. The questionnaire, to give an accurate depiction of the time the piece was written in, also asked participants to list “What type of materials turn you on?” and, as a sub-question: “do you like to play with your shadow?” Despite this playful manner of questioning, which one would think would make the political set run for the hills, the artist received roughly 1,000 mailed-in questionnaires. Dividing out the respondents to their respective professions, in the third week of May in 1968 the artist created a series of four cocktail parties (only business people would attend the “business party,” etc.). When questioned as to why she felt the piece was so thoroughly accepted by guests “It was because I did it at the place that was [affiliated with Rockefeller,” says Minujín. “I did it in the right place, at that moment. It [Center for Inter-America Relations] was a snobbish place, so that’s why the politicians, who never came to [art events], came to these. [And] for me, the social situation was the work of art.”
What occurred at these parties, claims Minujín, was a startling similarity in codes of behavior. “The only difference was the clothing,” claims the artist. “The politicians were all in black, the business people were all in brown, the fashion people were all in pink and gold (with Diana Vreeland as headmaster), and the art people (John Perrault and Al Hansen, among many others) were in red and blue.” Minujín filmed each party, and then displayed the films in the gallery space, dividing the film of each party into intervals. Of the visual experience, says Minujín “It was 10 minutes black, 10 minutes brown, 10 minutes pink and gold-like that.” Unfortunately for the films, after the artist left New York, she got caught up in another social milieu, to dire consequences: “I became a hippie and traveled all over the world-and [all the Minucode films] got lost. It’s a real miracle we found the film from one of the projectors, containing images of the four cocktails from one angle. [It] was found in LA, and someone who worked at Americas Society had it and gave it to (deceased art critic) Olivier Debroise. Then it was found by Cuauhtémoc Medina in Mexico (Tate curator at the time and friend of Debroise), who took it from [Debroise’s] room after his death and brought it to me in 2006.”
The film now showing at the Americas Society is projected oversized on four walls, and just by viewing one’s shadow implicates you as an attendee of each cocktail party. The films come with still images from the parties, mostly portraits, and an interactive slideshow that the original guests created with artist Tony Martin, the then Visual Director of The Electric Circus. A panel discussion held earlier in the month was titled “The World is So Boring,” in honor of New York Times critic Grace Glueck, who borrowed this quote—”The world is so boring, I have to think of things continually to keep myself tense”-from artist Nam June Paik, and who wrote extensively on Minujín’s work. Included on the panel was the artist Carolee Schneemann, though Minujín laughs: “Carolee isn’t even sure she came [to Minucodes]! There was a lot of drinking then. We were all drunk.” But, as this show proves, friends-in attendance or absentia-are always key to any art movement, not just the movement of “happenings” that Minujín is most often credited to. Also exhibited in the show are letters and articles related to Minujín. One particularly poignant letter came to the artist by way of critic and philosopher Pierre Restany, who awarded Minujín the 1964 Torquato Di Tella Institute prize. The note advises Minujín to keep her spirits up in the face of New York’s “whole subtle blend of social standing, art world politics, self-interested friendships and scheming.”
MINUCODES IS ON VIEW THROUGH JUNE 12. THE AMERICAS SOCIETY IS LOCATED AT 680 PARK AVENUE, NEW YORK.