Pop, op, concept, kineticism, and more at the Albright-Knox
Revisit an era when being hip meant something
Andy Warhol, 100 Cans, 1962; Marisol, Tea for Three, 1960
Images courtesy of the Albright-Knox, the artists, the artists’ estates, and the Artists Rights Society
Perfectly timed for holiday visits, Giant Steps presents popular, iconic works embedded in that most absorbing of historic contexts: the 1960s.
The name of the show is also the name of jazz master John Coltrane’s fifth album, considered one of the two or three greatest and most influential albums in jazz history, a gateway to jazz improvisation as we know it. The artists in this show, as its name suggests, are also taking big strides—beyond the innovations of their painterly predecessors. These are all works from the museum’s collection, but, as with all such shows, much of the art has very rarely (or never?) been on public view.
Of course, it’s generally a mistake to use a broad “always onward” brush when telling the story of twentieth-century art. But there is a certain forward-looking optimism about these works; it must be part of what makes them so enjoyable. There is art that moves, art that makes you dizzy, and even art you can touch. There are some of the most important works of the Pop, hard-edge, and minimalist art movements, including Andy Warhol’s 100 Cans, James Rosenquist’s Nomad, Roy Lichtenstein’s Head – Red and Yellow, and Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue, Yellow, and Red. There is the newly acquired Marisol’s Tea for Three, created in 1960, but part of a 2016 bequest to the museum, which inherited the artist’s estate. It is exciting to come upon this sculpture, which participates in the obsession with primary colors seen throughout this show, as well as features three clown-like heads and a whimsically placed cup of tea.
Naum Gabo, Linear No. 2, Variation, 1962-1965
Some might see the Pop works that transform mass-produced and commercial imagery—as the Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist paintings do—as cynical interpretations of a throw-away civilization, but every encounter with these works affirms their core positivity. These artists exploit the possibilities of “lower” imagery, be it industrial, mass market, or graphic design, valorizing its aesthetic power and symbolic payload.
Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton, Computer Nude (Studies in Perception I), 1967
An exuberant spirit also infuses the works that utilize simple technologies to explore how art can change over time. These works are mostly found in smaller galleries and include Len Lye’s kinetic sculpture of gracefully waving wires, Jean Tinguely’s clock-like work, where six jagged shapes revolve in front of a black background, and Nicolas Schöffer’s Lux 9, a stainless steel motorized sculpture that manages to be impressive despite the fact that, due to conservation requirements, it’s not always revolving. A Computer Nude, by Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton, is the first artwork using a computer printer; its digitized vagueness looks archaic to 2018 eyes, but it’s still a powerful image. (Be sure to step back a bit.)
Other galleries contain groups of assemblage works, including a seldom-seen Keinholz and the museum’s superb Romare Beardon collage, and works by the Zero group, which insert notes of silent, solemn purity into the otherwise lively, even forceful exhibition.
Nicolas Schöffer, Lux 9, 1964
Getting back to John Coltrane: the museum’s chief curator emeritus, Douglas Dreishpoon, would likely be the best choice to explain exactly how these works relate to 1960s-era jazz, if indeed they do, but the precise connection is not important. This was a critical time for all art disciplines; barriers were disintegrating, conventions were being discarded, and the term Pop was appropriate: a parochial cultural establishment was realizing that art could be popular. Not only that, exciting art could be found where it was least expected.
At the entrance of the show is documentation of Buffalo’s first Festival of the Arts Today, held in 1965, and co-organized by the Albright-Knox. This event was called “the most all-encompassing, hip, with-it, avant-garde presentation in the US to date,” by Time magazine, and was attended by nearly 200,000 people. With Giant Steps, the Albright-Knox recaptures some of that questing spirit, when the art world felt like it was teetering on the edge of something absolutely amazing.
Giant Steps is on view at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Avenue, through January 6. Visit albrightknox.org for more informatio