Reimagining Space: The Park Place Gallery Group in 1960s New York

The Blanton Museum, Austin

Through January 18, 2009
by Lauren O'Neill-Butler

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      Reimagining Space at The Blanton Museum of Art (Installation view)
      September 28, 2008 - January 18, 2009
      Curated by Linda Dalrymple Henderson

      View Gallery

      The impulse to reassess vital, yet vastly overlooked art and artists from the 1960s is alive and well in Austin, thanks in large part to professor and curator Linda Dalrymple Henderson and Reimagining Space: The Park Place Gallery Group in 1960s New York. Evocative of the vision and intellectual scope of recent museum survey exhibitions, such as WACK! Art at the Feminist Revolution and High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975, this group show equally succeeds in providing a sharp interdisciplinary and thematic overview grounded in thorough research. Similar to the aforementioned shows, the galleries teem with experimental painting and sculpture, including works that resist tidy art historical classifications––Geometric Abstraction, Minimalism, post-Minimalism––through an emphasis on personal experience, biography, metaphor and narrative.

      Unlike the previous exhibitions, however, Reimagining Space examines a slightly earlier and shorter period of artistic production—roughly 1963 to 1967—and offers a tightly focused selection of five American painters (Dean Fleming, Tamara Melcher, David Novros, Edwin Ruda, and Leo Valledor) and five sculptors (Mark di Suvero, Peter Forakis, Robert Grosvenor, Anthony Magar and Forrest Myers). In 1963, these artists collectively formed the first large-scale cooperative gallery in New York at 79 Park Place under the directorship of John Gibson and later, Paula Cooper. The gallery moved in 1965 to larger space at 542 West Broadway, which may have created a precedent for the kind of large, loft-like spaces that later blossomed in SoHo and are now ubiquitous in Chelsea. Clearly a labor of love that has its roots in an essay Henderson began in 2002, the exhibition encompasses an intriguing collection of ephemera, films, photographs and excellent exhibition catalog.

      References to the fourth dimension, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Buckminster Fuller, space-warps and cosmic consciousness abound in the show, although the specific attitudes and preferences of each artist are also evident. For example, Fleming’s paintings appear most interested in mysticism; Forakis’ work mainly examines geometry; di Suvero’s sculptures appear nearly weightless in their investigations of space and time; and Myers took the space age and new technologies as his primary interest. Although several of the artists were included in groundbreaking exhibitions of Minimal art—including Systemic Painting at the Guggenheim and Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum (both 1966)—most of the works in Reimagining Space have fallen through the cracks of art history and have not been seen simultaneously, or at all, in over forty years—until now.

      While lofty themes are pervasive here, the show also casts a critical look at formal qualities, including color and materials. Prominent art critics, such as Lucy Lippard and Donald Judd, were interested in the latter subject, as evidenced in their exhibition reviews of the Park Place sculptors. In her appraisal of the first Park Place invitational in 1964 for Artforum, Lippard notes, “The Park Place Gallery . . . is becoming a center of polychrome sculpture, and their invitational show includes examples in plaster, wood and metal as well as commercial plastics,” and Judd writes in Arts Magazine that the, “bright colors and new materials are pregnant.” Indeed, nearly all of the sculptures and paintings in Reimagining Space offer a robust palette. Tamara Melcher’s three canvases, for example, explore a range of colors in their perceptual abstraction. Her Untitled (1965), which is installed between Dean Fleming’s Lime Line (1965) and Peter Forakis’s JFK Chair (1963), depicts bulging and folding triangles in a dazzling palette of light blue, brown, grey and chartreuse. Installed on the same wall, Melcher’s Untitled (1967) appears invested in the harmonic timbres of red, blue and purple, but takes the shape of four interconnected triangular shaped canvases. With these works almost bookending the back gallery wall, one gains a sense of Melcher’s (and others’) playfulness with color, shape and space, as well as a general movement away from standard four-sided canvases to shaped, multidimensional canvases, as if the bright, symbolic forms are trying to be released from their supports.

      In a section of the show dedicated to exhibition announcements, press and other ephemeral objects regarding the Park Place Gallery group, viewers can watch North Star (1977) a film by Barbara Rose and Francoise Menil. In one scene, Mark di Suvero sits on his New York City rooftop and notes that, “this place says more about my life than any other place in the world.” Indeed, his massive sculptures of discarded building materials, such as The “A” Train (1965-67) and Stuyvensanteye (1965) make clear links to the urban environment, as do paintings by Edwin Ruda and Dan Fleming. Ruda’s Redball (1965) recalls the geometric forms of Russian Constructivist art, but also references the slang for an express train. Looking at the work recalls the frenzied spirit of riding a crowded subway car during an early morning or late night commute. Stuyvensanteye offers a more direct reference to New York and its Stuyvesant Town, an urban renewal project that uprooted thousands of residents in the 1940s. This is just one of a few works in the show that directly suggest social history and politics, themes that are not as strongly considered here as other more scientific ideas such as perception.

      For instance, David Novros’s and Leo Valledor’s paintings evoke the most fascinating and heightened experience of space, the underlying theme of the show. Novros’s 2:16 and 4:32 are installed near di Suvero’s "A" Train, as they were once positioned in the artists’ two-person exhibition at the gallery in 1966. One gains a sense of the materiality and heft of Novros’s large vertical canvases while traversing around them. Conversely, across the gallery a friction between surface and illusion occurs in Valledor’s revelatory Serena (1964). For many years, this work resided in di Suvero’s studio on Front Street and in a fleeting moment in North Star, one can catch a glimpse of it. Seeing the canvas in the context of the studio provides a conceptual underpinning to the show that emphasizes community and friendships, as well as a moment when art was really just about art (and not money, fame, or success), at least for this small group.

      One wonders, of course, what would and could have happened if this gallery had remained active after 1967. While several of the artists moved away (notably, Fleming formed the Libre community in Colorado), others gained international recognition, particularly di Suvero and Grosvenor. Nevertheless, this exhibition proves that while art history may favor sharply defined movements and moments, such breaks are not always the most important elements to consider. Perhaps more valuable are the little known and vastly underrated pockets of time—moments in which uninhibited experimentation emerges that, once discovered, might radically change the way we think about history, all things considered.

      Lauren O'Neill-Butler is the managing editor of Artforum.com and teaches art history at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

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