The 1970s is a period that seems capable of sustaining multiple rediscoveries. The spirit of liveliness, broad experimentation, and eclecticism that characterizes the art of this moment resulted in the production of works of pleasing impurity, and the recovery of this messy decade is as alluring today for those who make art as for those who make art history. From a distance of more than thirty years, the escape routes artists found by moving past creative limitations continue to surprise. The transcendence of media restrictions, combined with the ability to make art affect new areas of life, appear particularly relevant in our time. But the appeal of viewing this work now is not limited to those who, like myself, have only come to know it retrospectively. In early August, I asked Irving Sandler about his experience revisiting art from the 70s due to its overall absence within art history’s most prevalent post-war narratives. Below, he discusses what it has been like to take another look at this work as co-curator of That is Then. This is Now on view through October 30th, 2010 at CUE Art Foundation located at 511 West 25th Street, NY, NY 10001.
Caitlin Haskell: To begin, I was wondering if you could describe what you set out to do in this exhibition?
Irving Sandler: When Rob Storr and I were invited to curate, we asked ourselves which artists, whose work hasn’t been exhibited recently, we would like to see right now. And although he and I are critics of different generations, we both though of the 1970s. One of the defining features of art in the 70s was its pluralism—artists had started exploring various options and were creating memorable bodies of work. In the decade before, there was a great deal of currency given to the idea that “painting is dead.” However, all but two of the artists we selected for That is Then. This is Now. are painters. There was also a change in sensibility during the 70s that allowed painting to make a resurgence. Audiences for new painting and sculpture were ready to change their expectations—they were ready to prize the expressiveness and individuality of artists, not just to value work that was striving to “make it new.”
CH: Why do you suppose the nine artists whose work you are showing have been somewhat neglected of late?
IS: In the early 1980s, there was an upsurge of art based on new media—photography, installation, and performance art– that sort of eclipsed the work of many artists—not all, but many of the artists who worked in traditional mediums. That’s why we wanted to go back and take another look.
CH: Do you think that the difficulty of writing about this work played any role in it being overlooked? In other words, did it stand at a disadvantage because it couldn’t easily be addressed in terms of ongoing art-critical debates?
IS: The nature of criticism did change. Back in the 1960s, 50s, 40s, there generally were avant-gardes that would focus art-critical attention for or against an issue. The polemics really were very lively. What happens in the 1970s, when we enter this situation of pluralism, is that these polemics don’t exist. And critics, rather than being able to take positions for or against a movement—Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Color Field Painting, and Minimalism—tend to be, I won’t say reduced, but they seem to end up talking about what they like or don’t like, singling out artists. That’s perfectly fine. It allows criticism to be very free. But it hasn’t got the charge that it had in the decades before.
CH: Was there something about Pattern &Decoration (P&D) or New Image Painting that appealed to you particularly as a critic working in the 1970s?
IS: Personally, the artists seemed lively to me – they still do. I was very much interested in that. And I was also interested in so-called “bad painting,” because it looked fresh. It wasn’t new, but it certainly looked fresh.
We have two P&D artists in this show, two decorative artists, Cynthia Carlson and Kim MacConnel. Carlson, incidentally, represents the feminist position within that movement and MacConnel represents the beauty-for-beauty’s-sake position.
CH: When I think about P&D being exhibited today, and the interest those artists had in exploring ornament in Islamic art, I wonder if their works read differently in our contemporary political moment?
IS: It’s not only Islamic art. MacConnel at one point also looked to African tribal decoration. Feminists looked to quilts. They looked to anything “third-world,” because the third-world had more or less been written out of standard art history. And these artists were saying, “Hey, let’s look at other kinds of art.” They opened up whole new areas to consideration.
CH: It’s amazing how much more global the art world has become in the period covered by That is Then. This is Now. Cultures that were at best marginal then are now much more equal partners in the production of contemporary art.
IS: Yes, I think this is something that’s very important, because the artists involved in P&D were really right there at that moment when globalism met art.
CH: Were there any surprises for either you or Robert Storr as curators? Any deviations from how you thought the show would play out?
IS: It was really interesting to us, because we knew the work back then. Given the vast expansion of the art world—there are over 600 galleries in New York today, back in my day there were only 18!—you can’t keep track of it all. And then suddenly you’re forced to look back! And we were kind of curious and surprised and marveled by the fact that these artists were working away and that we ourselves would have a chance to see them.
CH: You’ve mentioned the emphasis on painting in this exhibition. From your perspective, is painting still involved in a struggle for legitimacy?
IS: Painting can still seem to be embattled. There are so many other competing mediums. And certainly it does seem as if museums and a considerable number of important galleries and collectors seem to focus on non-painting mediums. But I don’t think it’s embattled. And I certainly do not think there is any battle between figuration and abstraction.
CH: So what do we gain by revisiting paintings produced during a moment when the medium was embattled?
IS: What we are gaining at this moment is what we would like to see again. What is enormously important to Rob and me is that we are looking at nine artists whose work we found very interesting in the past and we think we will find the new work equally interesting. We hope that others will find it interesting as well. Another thing that was very much in our minds was the mission of CUE—to show young artists, new artists, and artists who haven’t been shown recently. We took that into consideration in our choices and selected artists we thought are somewhat neglected and shouldn’t be.
CH: Are there particular resonances that you see between the art world today and the moment you are showing us from the 70s?
IS: Between then and now? That’s a hard one because one of the things about a pluralist situation is that all of these styles can exist at the same time and more or less command serious attention in the way that you couldn’t in the 1950s. If you were in my world, the avant-garde world, you simply didn’t pay attention to work that wasn’t, say, Abstract Expressionism in the 50s, or Pop, or Minimalism, or Color Field in the 1960s. And today artists working in any style can expect to get serious consideration. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone achieves recognition. But within every tendency artists will achieve recognition.
CH: So, you would say that the 70s were a plural moment, and we’re still in a plural moment …
IS: Very much.
CH: ..but that we’ve somehow become better at keeping up with it?
IS: Not quite. Try tracking 600 galleries.