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After Robert Rauschenberg became the first American in history to win the prestigious Grand Prize for Painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale, the American Pavilion’s curator Alan Solomon

Breaking Art History with “Just Things”

After Robert Rauschenberg became the first American in history to win the prestigious Grand Prize for Painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale, the American Pavilion’s curator Alan Solomon triumphantly exclaimed: “The fact that the world art center has shifted from Paris to New York is acknowledged on every hand.”  While some might argue that this displacement began earlier with the Abstract Expressionists, a current exhibition at the Jewish Museum makes a convincing argument that Solomon – who was the museum’s director from 1962-1964 – played a critical role in cementing this cross-Atlantic transition. It’s still surprising that an institution founded in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, housed in a French Gothic mansion on upper Fifth Avenue, became a center for avant-garde artists, but New York: 1962 – 1964 successfully lays out Solomon’s influence on the contemporary artworld during these fruitful years. Conceived and curated by Germano Celant, before his death in 2020, the exhibition covers two floors and includes over 150 artworks as well as cultural artifacts.

Alan R. Solomon, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Solomon’s victorious Venice Biennale presentation came about after his breakthrough 1963 Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at the Jewish Museum, which signaled a Teutonic shift in the artworld. The first in a series of New Art” initiatives – including Toward a New Abstraction (1963), which presented Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, Miriam Schapiro, Frank Stella, and also Jasper Johns’ first solo museum exhibition the next year – featured young, sometimes controversial, artists in a museum setting. This adventurous programming, that paved the way for the rise of Pop Art, quickly led to Solomon’s anointment as America’s 1964 Biennale curator.

New York: 1962-1964 installation. Art by Jasper Johns and George Segal

New York: 1962 – 1964 includes three examples of Rauschenberg’s “combines”  from his seminal 1963 exhibition – works that combined found sculptural elements with painting – and documentation from the 1964 Venice Biennale. The minimalist Donald Judd (although he hated the moniker) was at the time a frequent reviewer for Arts Magazine under Hilton Kramer as the editor. Judd’s review of Rauschenberg’s exhibition is subtly barbed, positioning the work as in the “European tradition”:

Rauschenberg’s work is as much conservative as it is radical. He is the most conservative of the best of his generation. He has also initiated or shared several new attitudes and techniques, some of which are central to present art. Rauschenberg is almost the only major artist using the traditional European structure in a way that both retains its quality and is credible and strong. The composition, both the basic schemes and the small parts, is a direct continuation of the rationalistic European composition. The color, and the brushwork in another way, is also traditional.

In his search for more “radical” art, Judd has greater regard for Rauschenberg’s “combines” that are freestanding or break away from the rectangular format of a traditional painting:

The attached objects are first just things, variously colored, and art subsequently very different entities, variously related through color, usually across differences in material and space. The unrectangular and unflat format, the use of found and simply existing materials and the casualness are three of Rauschenberg’s radical aspects.

Judd’s contemporaneous critique illuminates that, however revolutionary the “combines” appeared at the time to the general public, Rauschenberg was already forging a path towards an art ever more removed from its European history or widening its scope to include “just things,” not as subjects, but as the medium itself.

New York: 1962-1964 is on view at The Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Avenue at 92st Street) through January 8, 2023.

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