By: John Dorfman
As 2009 comes to a close (and not a moment too soon, for many in the art world), we are being asked, from several quarters, to cast our minds back 50 years to 1959. That’s not for nostalgic reasons, but in order to understand where we are today. According to author Fred Kaplan, 1959 was “the year everything changed.” In his recently published book, 1959 (Wiley, $27.95), Kaplan argues that the seismic changes in American culture that we commonly associate with the Sixties actually originated in the Fifties, and that during the last year of that much-maligned decade, it all came to a head. The book, which is a must-read, isn’t just about art—Kaplan also brings in technology, jazz, politics and literature—but it has a lot to do with art.
In the spring of ’59 Leo Castelli gave Robert Rauschenberg a one-man show, where the artist’s now-iconic stuffed goat with a tire around its neck seemed to bleat the end of high modernism. In the fall the Museum of Modern Art let the barbarians through the gates with its exhibition Sixteen Americans, which included Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Other key art events of the year include the publication of Robert Frank’s seminal photography book The Americans (see photo above) and the opening of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral-shaped building for the Guggenheim Museum.
Currently, the Metropolitan Museum is commemorating The Americans with a special exhibition. As Jean Dykstra writes in this issue (see page 74), Frank’s photo essay tapped a new vein in the documentation of our national life, with results that many at the time found unpleasant and hard to take. Today, however, Frank’s book seems less a scathing critique than a prophecy of the sensibility to come.
As for the Guggenheim, it is observing its 50th with a major retrospective of Vasily Kandinsky (see page 90), the founding spirit of what was first called “The Museum of Non-Objective Painting.” As Kaplan points out, Wright’s design for the museum was intended to upstage the art within, and the critics hated it. But having had 50 years to get used to the design, we now view the art undisturbed by Wright’s Babel-like ambition. The Kandinsky show, as writer Richard Covington observes, is the most comprehensive in over 30 years.
This month one of this magazine’s favorite events comes to New York—the IFPDA Print Fair (see page 32). The printmaking media are given short shrift in the art press, perhaps because prints are seen as less desirable than unique works like paintings. But the democratic aspect of prints, which were intended to disseminate art as widely as possible, remains part of their appeal. Sheila Gibson Stoodley writes about
mezzotint (see page 56), a technique that was first used to create inexpensive reproductions of paintings and has been taken up as a medium for original works by contemporary artists looking for a challenge.
Having looked back 50 years, let’s peer into the future a bit. Coming attractions in the December issue will include an article on a little-known chapter in American cabinetmaking known as “Centennial furniture,” a look at the market for Pre-Raphaelite painting and an investigation of the field of map collecting.