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This article was prepared by Elaine Strauss for the March 13, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
The Beginning of Avant-Garde
The grayed photograph on the cover of the catalog for the exhibition
"Artists on the Edge," running through June 6 at Douglass College,
might be called "Memory." Dating from about 1960, its details are
uneven. A tall Geoffrey Hendricks, wearing a suit and tie, his
features shrouded, rests his hand on a small sculpture as three
smiling young women look on. We glimpse the scene through the bold
geometry of a large conceptual piece of art. The image suggests that
the show looks back.
The non-pictorial information on the cover, however, suggests that the
show looks forward. It is subtitled "Douglass College and the Rutgers
MFA." In 1958 Douglass, the women’s college of Rutgers University, was
the home of the artistic avant-garde. Faculty member Hendricks, who
died in 1995, was an advocate of the movement known as Fluxus. This
movement promoted performance art in the quest for personal artistic
expression over the idea that artists should create art with the
expectation that it will be shown in a museum.
Allan Kaprow, the inventor of the "happening," joined Hendricks in his
zeal for live performances. Kaprow, now a retired University of
California, San Diego, professor, early on began referring to himself
as an "un-artist."
Kaprow and Hendricks were among a remarkable group of colleagues in
the Douglass art department who, between 1957 and 1963, fostered the
shattering of tradition in art. They advocated blurring the lines
between art and life. The group included Robert Watts, who, along with
Hendricks, was active in the Fluxus movement; sculptors Gary Kuehn and
George Segal; ceramicist Ka Kwong Hui; and pop artist Roy
Lichtenstein. One of their heroes was composer John Cage, who
attracted them because of his anti-masterpiece, anti-establishment
"Artists on the Edge" honors that coterie of innovators by displaying
the work of their first students. Although the Douglass art faculty
was male, their students were overwhelmingly female, as the catalog
cover suggests. Twenty-four pieces by 11 artists, 10 of them women,
make up the show. Items on display include paintings, ceramics,
clothing, video, installations, and photography. Both early and recent
work is included. The variety within the show demonstrates the
prevalence of a philosophy that art could be anything, and that
anything could be art.
Curators for the exhibition are Joseph Consoli, humanities
bibliographer at Rutgers’ Alexander Library; Sarah Harrington,
Rutgers’ art librarian; and Ferris Olin, curator of the Mary H. Dana
Women Artists Series at the Douglass College Library since 1994. The
exhibition is part of the Dana Women Artists Series. Established in
1971, the Dana Series is the oldest continuing series of exhibitions
devoted to the visibility of emerging and established contemporary
women artists in the United States.
Joan Marter, professor of art history at Rutgers, initiated the
exhibition and worked closely with Olin in making the show a reality.
Commenting by phone from her home in New York, Marter notes the
diversity of pieces on display: "In the exhibit everybody was doing
their own thing. That’s what people were encouraged to do. The
philosophy of the art program, especially in those early years, was to
explore individual directions. Students were never stopped or
discouraged, or told that there was something they shouldn’t do.
Nothing was out of the question."
Marter traces the genesis of "Artists on the Edge" to "Off Limits:
Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957-1963," which she
organized for the Newark Museum in 1999. The exhibition won the
International Association of Art Critics award for "Best Exhibition in
a Museum Outside New York City." Explaining her motives for organizing
the 1999 show, Marter says, "I wanted to write Rutgers into the
history of the 1960s by creating the Newark exhibit." The new show in
New Brunswick is an extension of that desire. It attempts to correct
the gender emphasis of the earlier one. "I was disappointed when I was
organizing the Newark show," Marter says, "that no women were
included, but a decision had been made for the show to be about the
Marter discovered that her preparation of the catalog for "Off Limits"
had brought together material fundamental for "Artists on the Edge."
In an effort to go beyond merely focusing on the pieces on display in
Newark, she tried to flesh out their background. "To find out
something about the teaching of people in the Newark show," she says,
"I interviewed their students. Many of them are artists in the current
The catalog for "Artists on the Edge" pushes forward the investigation
of relationships between students and teachers – it was written by
students in a Marter graduate seminar that met in spring 2004 as part
of the certificate program in curatorial studies, which she directs.
"The students in the class were curators in training," she says. "They
were learning to organize exhibitions."
Following a procedure worked out in advance, each student had the task
of selecting work for the show and writing an essay for the catalog
that would include comments about the artist’s student days. "I didn’t
want just straight biography," she says. "I wanted to focus on being a
student in the MFA program. Each artist was asked to comment on the
teachers and tell stories. Therefore, the catalog is unique, mainly
because nobody asked those questions before."
"I wanted to have one artist per student," Marter says. The numbers
worked out almost perfectly; for the single class member for whom no
artist was available, she devised another project.
"I wanted to have the students get to know the artist, go to the
studio, and have a working relationship with the artist," Marter says.
"I wanted them not only to find out about the artist, but to work with
the artist in selecting appropriate items. We were aiming at finding
both early works and something recent. The assignment for each student
was to find four possible works." Marter and Dana director Ferris Olin
made the final decisions about what to include. "Ferris had the final
decision about getting stuff up on the walls," Marter says, and also
edited the catalog.
What hangs on the walls pays tribute not only to the original training
of the artists included, but to their development after their student
days. A photograph shows Alice Aycock’s 1972 "Maze" in New Kingston,
Pennsylvania, an early work. Now destroyed, the 12-sided wooden
structure, about 32 feet in diameter, invited viewers to enter it and
move within. Aycock’s late work, the 1998 "Star Sifter," is installed
in Terminal One at JFK International Airport in New York and is shown
photographically in "Artists on the Edge." A non-functioning machine
that measures more than 40 feet in each direction, its irrationality
might be traced back to her student period at Douglass.
Photographer Linda Lindroth’s 1978 "Family Portrait on My 32nd
Birthday," an early work, shows the artist, her face expressionless,
looking into the camera. She holds photographic images of the parents
to whom she no longer speaks, one in each hand. The image is the
resigned acceptance of a dysfunctional family. Her mixed media
"Redshift" of 2002 is only partly photography. It combines color
images of domesticated birds with a color video made at London’s Tate
Modern museum. A soundtrack records a composition by Joe Mordecai,
student at Quinnipiac University, where Lindroth now teaches.
The whiteness of ceramicist Ann Tsubota’s neatly-stacked "Rice Balls"
(1971) contrasts with the subtle colors of the stoneware "Toaster"
(2000) and the raku piece "Sunset" (2002) where she uses a
rapid-firing 16th century Japanese technique to achieve visual
So wide was the tent created by the Douglass colleagues of the 1960s
that there was room not only for clearly avant-garde works, but also
for realism. Two realistic self-portraits by Frances Kuehn flank the
staircase that descends from the Douglass College Library rotunda.
Both are metaphors. The drapery of the white dress she wears in the
early "Formal Self-Portrait as the White Rose" (1980) mimics the folds
of the flower and offers the balm of hope for her distressed self. In
"Turning the Stone," (2003) Kuehn plays visually on the expression "no
stone unturned" when she depicts herself straining to lift a rock that
clearly is too enormous to be moved. The success of her insurmountable
task is the creation of a viscerally direct picture. It doesn’t matter
that she can’t budge the rock; she’s made the picture.
Perhaps the most remarkable change from early work to late work is
that of Rita Myers. Her straightforward 1968 image is a color
photograph of artificial flowers inserted into dried out real grass.
In her complex performance art work "Resurrection Body" (1993) Myers
again contrasts the natural and the artificial. The later piece also
skirts the boundaries between life and death. A live male performer
lies on a large bed with a no longer living tree suspended above his
body. Cardiac and biofeedback sensors attached to his body are
connected to 15 video monitors suspended in tree formation over a
smaller bed. The installation was designed so that the performer’s
heart rate would determine what appeared on the monitors. When he was
at rest, his echocardiogram would appear on the monitors. When his
heart rate increased beyond a certain level, photographs of Myers’
family, which were stored on disc, would appear. A DVD of the piece is
included in the show.
"Artists on the Edge" documents the paths taken by Douglass art
students of almost 50 years ago, starting from the models of their
teachers. Some of the original inspirations cannot be similarly
well-documented. When Allan Kaprow staged an event of arresting
randomness at the Douglass College chapel in pre-video April, 1958,
movie technology was capable of recording the proceeding, but no one
thought to shoot such a film. Eyewitness accounts tell about people
navigating the aisle of the chapel trailing tin cans, of the mirrors
deployed in the chapel, the matches lit and blown out, and the
recorded speeches by Kaprow played simultaneously on loudspeakers.
Only in retrospect did it register that this first "happening" was the
start of an art form that opened the way to a myriad of
freedom-seeking new works.
Mabel Smith Douglass Library, Rutgers campus, 8 Chapel Drive, New
Brunswick. Parking: Lot 70 behind the Douglass College Center.
732-932-9407. Through June 6.
Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-8777. 17th
annual exhibit "Small Works" featuring works not exceeding 15 inches
in any direction. The show continues through March 25. Gallery hours
are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday, 11 a.m. to
Dynasty Arts, 20 Nassau Street, Unit F, 609-688-9388. The recently
opened Chinese antique and art gallery features a silk-screen series,
"Last Dynasty," oil and watercolor, and limited edition prints. Artist
and owner, Lu Zuogeng, combines Chinese brushwork with Western
watercolor. Also, Chinese antique furniture of Ming and Qing
dynasties. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to
6:30 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Princeton Jewish Center, 435 Nassau Street, 609-921-0100. "The Jewish
Shtetl Today," an exhibit of photographs by Dmitry Peysakhov. The
black and white photographs, all for sale, look like illustrations
from history books. On view through April 3. Gallery is open Tuesday
to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday until 3 p.m.; and Sunday from 9
a.m. to 1 p.m. Closed Saturdays.
Coryell Gallery, 8 Coryell Street, Lambertville, 609-397-0804.
Lambertville Historical Society’s 25th annual juried art exhibition,
"Lambertville and the Surrounding Area," and selected by juror Frank
Rivera. Among the nine artists awarded cash prizes are Ed Adams, James
A. Hamilton III, Judith Sutton, Beatrice Bork, Joanne Augustine,
Barbara Watts, Vincent Ceglia, and Michael Budden. To March 20.
Gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Gold Medal Impressions, 43 Princeton Hightstown Road, West Windsor,
609-606-9001. Newly-expanded gallery of photographer Richard Druckman,
a freelance photographer for Associated Press. Six rooms and over 250
photographs of professional football, basketball, hockey, tennis, and
Olympic events. Photographs for sale are matted and framed and in a
variety of sizes and prices. Gallery is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Hopewell Frame Shop Gallery, 24 West Broad Street, 609-466-0817. Group
show featuring watercolor paintings by Gail Bracegirdle, wildlife
watercolor by Beatrice Bork, and oil paintings by Janet Purcell.
Through April 2. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to
5 p.m.; and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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