New Jersey: It’s the turnpike, it’s an industrial wasteland. It has cities, once glorious, that have fallen on hard times, covered with grime and graffiti. There are bodies of water, bright blue-green, filled with toxic substances. The words bland and derelict, marginal and displaced have been used to describe the state we call home.
Yet all this combined to create fertile ground for avant-garde artists in the 1950s through 1970s. From New Jersey’s elevated highways to its pastoral ruins, artists found inspiration for and produced some of the most important work of their careers. Consider Allan Kaprow’s Happenings (a term coined in New Jersey), Robert Watts’ and George Brecht’s Fluxus-inspired Yam Festival (lectures, picnics, tournaments, screenings, poetry readings, and more, planned at Howard Johnsons New Brunswick), sculptor George Segal’s experiments, and Robert Smithson’s first “non-sites” — a term that has given inspiration to the title “New Jersey as Non-Site,” a groundbreaking exhibition four years in the making on view at the Princeton University Art Museum from Saturday, October 5, through Saturday, January 5, 2014.
The Garden State was the site for important breakthroughs in pop, conceptual, performance, land, and black art throughout the post-World War II era. With more than 100 works of experimental art in media from photography and collage to sculpture, audio, and found art, “New Jersey as Non-Site” assembles for the first time many of the pioneering projects that helped put the American avant-garde on the map: works by Amiri Baraka, Gordon Matta-Clark, Geoffrey Hendricks, and others whose work is considered in relationship to the economic and social landscape of the era.
When New York was the center of the art world, New Jersey was considered New York’s “other,” a provincial state on the margins. “New Jersey was associated with waste and pollution,” says Kelly Baum, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “Its cultural identity was overshadowed by New York and Philadelphia. Artists came to New Jersey because it was a little off-kilter. Artists visited all those places tourists avoided. They appreciated the parts of New Jersey the rest of us might detest or were embarrassed by. They found value in what was devalued.”
The goal of “New Jersey as Non-Site” is not to erase New York or Los Angeles, but to add New Jersey to the mix, says Baum. “We want to show how important the state was as a muse.”
Rutgers and Douglass Colleges attracted experimental artists to its faculty — Watts, Hendricks, Kaprow — who helped to create a dynamic environment for artists in the New Brunswick area. Amiri Baraka helped forge a community in Newark’s Central Ward between artists, playwrights, musicians, and members of the Black Power movement.
Baum now has a personal understanding of the allure of New Jersey. Born in Virginia, she went to graduate school in Delaware (she earned a master’s degree at the University of Delaware in 2005) and lived in Austin, Texas, while working as curator at the Blanton Museum, and as curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. “Part of the joy of researching this was getting to know the state, boning up on its history, politics, and geography,” says Baum. “The state had been a mystery for me, so I visited the places these artists had seen.”
Baum went to see the Pine Barrens, explored in Nancy Holt’s 1975 16 mm film, and to the site of the active zinc mine and museum in Franklin, where Smithson collected the rocks for his “non-sites.” Smithson, well known for his 1970 pioneering earthwork in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, “Spiral Jetty,” grew up in Passaic, where his pediatrician, William Carlos Williams, was better known as a poet.
“Smithson’s non-sites reference work somewhere else,” says Baum. “The works are meant to establish a relationship outside a gallery or museum.” In using “non-site” in the exhibition title, “it is deliberately irreverent, undermining the stereotypes we associated with New Jersey. The negative perception of the state fascinated these artists who sought the typical cultural wasteland as a destination.”
Smithson’s non-sites were maps, or “landmarkers” constructed from natural materials he chose from remote, unpopulated areas, or the ruins of collapsed buildings. The materials could be brought into the gallery, placed in constructed bins with maps, or situated within mirror formations.
“I began in a very primitive way … taking trips in 1965; certain sites would appeal to me more — sites that had been in some way disrupted … pulverized,” he wrote. “I was really looking for a denaturalization rather than built up scenic beauty.”
In some ways Baum’s trips throughout the state echo Smithson’s. Baum was fascinated by the metamorphosis of the state from industrial and manufacturing hub to suburban utopias, and how it helped to redefine art. While she recounts her explorations as “enjoyable,” they helped to demystify her research subject. “It’s how you get from a checklist to an exhibition with more than 100 objects,” says Baum. “The Pine Barrens has such a rich history, from its industry and iron production to becoming a site for biologists and archaeologists and now a pastoral place for hiking and boating. And Franklin, deforested in its hey day, now reads as countryside, and it’s hard to imagine it as a center of the zinc industry.”
The 1960s was a time of social and political foment, driven by the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, the fight for women’s rights, and the Black Power movement. This kind of unrest has always fed artists to respond, including the avant-garde who embraced collage, assemblage, found objects, artists, and John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, whose work was fueled by Dadaism, to pop culture and performance art. “It is a desire to make a work of art at peace with one’s historical moment,” says Baum.
New Jersey gets a bad rap, and its contribution to the art world has been underappreciated. “The work of these artists is known, but no one has collected, synthesized, and presented it at the same time,” says Baum. “Individual artists have been recognized, but they haven’t been understood in a larger context.”
Many of these artists were influenced by Cage. Kaprow, Brecht, Watts, and Segal took his composition class at the New School, in which they were taught to look at art in the broadest way — art didn’t have to be a physical object but could be an immaterial event or experience happening in real time.
In an essay on Jackson Pollock, Kaprow wrote about his all-over compositions, extending beyond the canvas to the everyday world. “Pollock’s field paintings allowed us to think about art unframed, existing in everyday life,” says Baum. “Some found Pollock led to pure painting, but Kaprow found the opposite. Kaprow began as an expressionist painter, then moved toward assemblages and environments constructed in his New Jersey garage.” Think Kurt Schwitters collages in three dimensions made from old tires and chairs. Many of these were ephemeral, now documented in the Getty Archives.
Baraka is very important to this show, says Baum. He founded Spirit House Theater, where he staged plays, adding a printing press and recording studio for jazz and R&B as well as spoken-word poetry. “He is one of the fathers of the black arts movement, a seminal figure in the creation of black art, a music critic, and one of the original Beat poets,” says Baum. “In the ’60s, when blacks suffered disproportionately from unemployment, disease, and police brutality, and were underrepresented in government, Baraka tried to create a language to give voice to African-American anger and frustration.”
The exhibition came about as a result of a gift to the university of the archives of sculptor, painter, and photographer George Segal. Segal lived on a chicken farm in South Brunswick from the 1950s until his death in 2000 — his family still maintains the studio there. Segal hosted friends from the New York art world on his farm, introduced Rutgers art faculty to Cage, and took part in his experimental composition classes. Kaprow came up with the term “Happening” to describe the performance art that took place on Segal’s farm in spring, 1957.
Included in the exhibition are photographs documenting the 1963 and 1965 Happenings and original scores. These works were participatory — Kaprow was strict that there be no audience, only participants.
When Baum first arrived at Princeton one of her first tasks was to help finalize the gift from the Helen and George Segal Foundation of artist papers, letters, and never before exhibited photographs to Firestone Library, and of sculpture to the Art Museum. Some of the letters described Segal’s farm as a stage — and indeed it was, for the Happenings Kaprow staged there.
“Segal’s farm was a laboratory, a lab within a lab,” says Baum. “Robert Frank shot a film there. It was a hospitable place for experimental artists to work. But when Segal’s career took off in the 1960s, he said no (to further requests to use the farm). He was tired of the influx, the madness, and the mess left to be cleaned up.” Segal reclaimed his chicken coop as his studio.
“New Jersey” as Non-Site includes Segal’s photographs of highways. “It’s the U.S. 1 we love to hate, the New Jersey Turnpike, the Elizabeth Marine Terminal,” says Baum. There’s an image of the rear end of a semi truck, filling the frame. “It’s a scene we know so well driving the highway; it fills your vision. Segal was interested in highways and visual clutter — signage, pollution. His view of New Jersey is framed through bridges and fences. It is seen not once but twice, by the camera but also through the bridge.”
The impetus for “New Jersey as Non-Site” is to acknowledge the gift from the Segal Foundation, but to contextualize it by showing the artists working alongside him.
“New Jersey as Non-Site” documents an era that was fairly recent, and several of the artists are still among us. “Some of them didn’t know each other, and they never formed a coherent movement but formed temporary communities,” says Baum. “It began in the ’50s and tapered off in the late ’70s. Then they discovered places more strange than New Jersey. They drove over the Hudson River, explored New Jersey, and then headed west. Those still alive can see the seeds of their work in New Jersey, and the lessons they learned here continue to fill their work.”
Through “New Jersey as Non-Site,” Baum continues, “we hope to show that New Jersey really is a site, a center for art.”
New Jersey as a Non-Site, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton. Saturday, October 5, through Saturday, January 5. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m.
Exhibition Opening and Keynote Lecture, McCosh 50. Saturday, October 5, 5 p.m. Land artist and sculptor Nancy Holt, whose work is included in the exhibition, speaks, followed by a reception in the Art Museum.
The Sky Is the Limit: A Happening, Art Museum. Thursday, October 10, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Created by Fluxus artist and Rutgers professor Geoffrey Hendricks in 1969, the event will be choreographed anew by Hendricks and participating students. The Happening will channel the legacy of early performance art, incorporating movement, sound, image, everyday objects, and audience participation into a new piece for the Princeton campus.
Amiri Baraka Lecture, McCosh 50. Tuesday, October 15, 7 p.m. The revolutionary dramatist, novelist, and poet will discuss his work with the Spirit House Players and civil rights activism. A reception in the Art Museum will follow.
Insider’s View: New Jersey as Non-Site, McCormick 101. Thursday, November 7, 5:30 p.m. Kelly Baum speaks followed by a reception in the Art Museum.
Free. www.princetonartmuseum.org or 609-258-3788.