Overview: Between the High and the Low

Minneapolis and New York

at Walker Art Center, Jewish Museum, Matthew Marks Gallery


Few institutions can rival New York’s Museum of Modern Art when it comes to producing fascinating disasters. “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture” remains one of the most notorious, 25 years after it opened. Like a lot of great MoMA flops—exhibitions that were met with cries of betrayal and calls for the curators’ resignations—“High and Low” attempted to relate modern art to other forms of 20th-century culture, variously labeled popular, vernacular, mass and profane. Though I was in elementary school in 1990, I know of the show as a kind of watershed, and the questions it raised are still being addressed and refined, as seen in a number of exhibitions on view this summer.

“High and Low” displayed comics, advertisements, graffiti and commercial illustrations alongside certified masterpieces. This simple approach proved to be an affront to cultural reactionaries, sending Hilton Kramer nearly to the fainting couch. But left-leaning critics found the juxtapositions tepid. The curators had softened the stark divide between avant-garde and kitsch, but did not, as demonstrated by the title, abandon the established hierarchy of taste. Nor did they offer a solid analysis of why or for whom such hierarchies are produced in the first place. Even when Picasso’s Cubist paintings were juxtaposed with some of the newspaper clippings he embedded within them, or when Miró’s abstractions were placed beside the mail-order-catalogue collages he made as studies for them, the modernist notion of genius emerged intact. As dealer Ivan Karp wrote in a particularly astute response in the journal American Art, the exhibition retained the belief that the “‘real significance’ of the relationship between modern art and popular culture lies in what the former does with the latter.” Further, the show’s broad temporal scope came at the price of a tight geographic focus, with Paris and New York retaining the lion’s share of MoMA’s attention, along with the usual group of white male artists.

The geographic situation was reversed in the Walker Art Center’s recent “International Pop,” an inclusive, global survey of art from the 1960s, curated by Darsie Alexander in collaboration with Bartholomew Ryan. The Pop of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rosenquist, though well represented, was cast as the North American version of a tendency that went by various names around the world, among them Nouveau Réalisme (France), Concretism and Neo-Concretism (Brazil), the Art of Things (Argentina), Anti-Art (Japan) and Capitalist Realism (Germany). What these far-flung movements had in common was, to some extent, stylistic, at least when it came to painting—the bulk of the 100 works on view. At times, the curators underscored the remarkable formal homogeneity of this international output, in which artists adopted the imagery, flashy palette and flat, graphic manner of commercial aesthetics. The show opened with Shinohara Ushio’s garishly colored depiction of a faceless figure in traditional Japanese garb hanging over—and perfectly complemented by—German artist Thomas Bayrle’s wallpaper featuring repeated images of cartoon clothing and a disrobed couple. Inside the galleries was a display containing about a dozen small sculptures and prints, most of which either incorporate Coke bottles and other cheap consumer goods or replicate them. Though created in various places on four continents, all appear to have emerged from one unified Pop mind that had gone scrounging for mid-century Americana at a yard sale.

But while the Pop consciousness that burst forth around the world in the 1960s is linked to American culture, the curators avoided framing relationships as derivative. Concise displays focused on various national scenes and highlighted Pop’s polyvalent meanings in local contexts. In Brazil, Pop got aggressively political. A visual vocabulary many artists in South America associated with nihilistic consumerism was cannibalized and turned against itself. As the exhibition’s deeply researched catalgue documents, it’s Che, not Marilyn, whose celebrity visage brands Claudio Tozzi’s paintings. Johns-like American flags appear in fragments amid mushroom clouds and zombie soldiers in Antonio Dias’s wall reliefs. And Rubens Gerchman’s series of black-and-white portraits, which look ready for tabloid reproductions, depict Brazilians disappeared by the American-backed dictatorship. In Japan, the Americanness implied by Pop visuals at times offered a means of symbolically working through the tense relationship between the U.S.—an occupier of the country from the end of World War II until 1952—and a reborn Japan. A sense of foreboding permeates Yokoo Tadanori’s bright paintings of swimmers adrift at sea, and Kojima Nobuaki’s sculpture of a figure shrouded in a white-and-red banner convey a grasping for identity.

Although positing that artists in various locations were simultaneously working with mass-media visuals, “International Pop” included none of the source materials themselves. What matters in this context, as in “High and Low,” is not popular culture per se, but what the contemporary artist does to it.

“Revolution of the Eye” at the Jewish Museum (on view through Sept. 27) takes the opposite tack, documenting how TV—one of the lowest arts of the postwar period—adapted avant-garde aesthetics. The white cube easily becomes a gleaming tomb for work designed to be consumed in a comic book, blasted from a car stereo or watched at home in the living room. “Revolution of the Eye” sidesteps this pitfall somewhat through inventive exhibition design; the space resembles a vintage network TV office, with freestanding partitions displaying giant modernist logos for CBS and other broadcasters and serving as screens for projections. Seminal modernist artworks are presented as source material for mass-media visuals, such as the opening sequence of the “Twilight Zone,” which apes Marcel Duchamp’s “Rotoreliefs” (1935) and Man Ray’s metronome Object to Be Destroyed (1923).

Examples like that, in which modernist art of the ’20s and ’30s was cycled into television of the ’60s, reinforce the idea of an avant-garde that is always ahead of a lagging general culture. But in a few instances, TV could behave cannibalistically and critically in something close to real time. References to “art” could mark a TV show as smart and sophisticated, but when art was used as a plot point in televised dramas, it was often to mock elite taste. In the late ’60s, “Batman,” a campy show that Warhol mined for imagery, featured an episode called “Pop Goes The Joker.” Batman’s rival impresses the Gotham art establishment with a blank canvas (depicting a dead bat, he said), then opens an art school that accepts only wealthy students. His idea is to identify new robbery targets, though he finds that it’s just as effective to legally fleece pretentious fools with fraudulent cultural production.

The episode suggests that high culture is an illusion created by the wealthy. But that message, however light-hearted, also assuages the sitcom audience’s fear of missing out. Sure, the TV public may be excluded from the latest art trends, but who would want to coo over blank canvases with the uptight fancy-pants set? Who would want to “go Pop” when real pop is all around, beaming into our living rooms? This flattery of the audience, however, mirrors in some ways the self-assuredness of MoMA’s own taste distinctions from a quarter century ago. It seems that whether bringing the high into the low or the low into the high, there’s going to be a power play that warps, denigrates or caricatures one of those taste positions while further cementing the related class divisions.

This is why “What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present” was such a welcome exhibition. The show premiered at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in Providence, and then was reconfigured as a smaller gallery exhibition at Matthew Marks in New York. “What Nerve!” got out of the high vs. mass culture trap by examining subcultures, groups opposed to both ends of the hierarchy—and probably the middle most of all. The New York version of the show highlighted four of these collectives, bringing together chunky ceramic sculptures by Bay Area Funk Artists of the ’60s, freaky comics published by Chicago’s Hairy Who, punkish collages and paintings by members of Ann Arbor’s Destroy All Monsters and noise-soaked videos by Providence’s Forcefield.

These groups apparently gave little thought as to how their work might be received by collectors and curators in New York or Los Angeles. Certainly they made paintings, prints and other kinds of visual art, but these practices were often inseparable from simultaneous activities in music, craft, filmmaking or theater. Members of Forcefield embodied this ethos. They lived together in a ramshackle postindustrial utopia—a warehouse they christened Fort Thunder—where they modified bicycles, made silkscreen posters for noise-rock concerts and videotaped themselves performing in neon-colored body socks.

Forcefield was included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. Members of the Hairy Who and various Funk artists have caught the attention of the mainstream art world from time to time. Destroy All Monster’s Mike Kelley, of course, moved to L.A. and ascended to global prominence. Overall, though, the art world has lagged when it comes to recognizing the work represented in this show, probably as a matter of taste. There’s a bit too much personal vitriol in the Bay Area paintings of Peter Saul, which indeed refer to comic-book aesthetics. And there’s too much gothic imagery and psychological revelation in the Victoriana paintings Niagara made as part of Destroy All Monsters.

Though it’s common to refer to underground art like this as “experimental,” I walked away from the show sensing that these artists were not experimenting but refining fully formed aesthetics. Nor were they interested in avant-garde games of cultural categorization. What they produced wasn’t high or low imagery, but publics and tastes that were wholly their own.