The National Academy Museum will present “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975,” bringing together more than 40 significant works by 37 artists living and working in New York between 1967 and 1975. Opening on February 15, the works in this exhibition were created by painters who crossed disciplines to take a nontraditional approach to the medium.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s the New York art world was an exciting place to be. “Painting is dead!” was a popular slogan. New mediums such as performance and video art were developing, and sculpture was quickly expanding in many different directions. Experimental abstract painting was, however, actually thriving, energized by a diverse group of New York artists. Influenced by new artistic freedoms and the tumultuous political and social changes of the time, these pioneering artists created paintings of great joy, fury and intellect.
“High Times, Hard Times” also reflects the impact on the art world of the civil rights struggle, student and antiwar activism, and the beginning of feminism. The works included in this exhibition represent some of the most experimental art of the time. These artists’ reexamination of art through new approaches to the medium of painting was very much in keeping with the era’s radical aesthetics and politics.
Half of the artists in the exhibition are women, several are African American and some are artists from other countries who lived temporarily in New York, many of whom were not recognized at the time or, conversely, were excluded from paintings’ canonical history. These artists’ identities are not incidental but essential to grasping the possibilities of the period. (Perhaps part of the reason painting at this time has been left out of the history books; subsequent painting revivals have been adamantly male — as National Academician Joan Snyder complained about macho neo-expressionism’s sudden revival of painting, “It wasn’t ‘neo’ to us.”)
The works in “High Times, Hard Times” are divided into groups that are at once formal and chronological. The works in the first group, dating from the late 1960s are large, rectangular, stretched canvases hung on the wall, a format based on conventions challenged later in this exhibition, to elicit the mood of euphoria and optimism so prevalent in the late 60s.
In the second group, artists begin to take painting apart. These paintings are often superthin or made of soft unsupported cloth and some come off the wall into the room, sit on the floor, or are suspended from the ceiling. The wild array of structures and formats take liberties with the medium of painting in ways that challenge its history and expand its future.
Installation and performance are emphasized in the third selection of works, stretching the elastic definition of painting even further, as painters experience the pressure and possibility of new mediums such as installation and performance
Film and video exerted their own pull in the early 70s; many if not most avant-garde artists experimented with these new mediums. The fourth group of works includes paintings that reflect this influence.
No artistic culture could indefinitely sustain either the total possibility or the intense doubt of the early 1970s. By the mid 70s, painters had returned to more traditional stretched-canvas formats, but many brought the innovations of deconstruction, performance and installation with them.
While the exhibition’s ending represents a “return” to more traditional forms of painting, it captures not only the discoveries of earlier experiments, but also the tremendous opening-up of painting in the 1970s.
A 176-page publication accompanies the exhibition and features scholarly essays by curator Katy Siegel and advisor David Reed on the artistic and political context of the work.
“High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975” is a traveling exhibition organized and circulated by Independent Curators International (iCI). The guest curator is Katy Siegel, with David Reed as advisor.
The museum is at 1083 Fifth Avenue. For information, www.nationalacademy.org or 212-369-4880.