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Analysis of 1960s Art: Threadwaste by Robert Morris Vs. Vagina Painting by Shigeko Kubota

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A Comparison of 1960’s Art

The 1960’s brought about a great period of change and experimentation for artist; styles like pop, happenings, and minimalism. These provoked the public’s attention and invited much grander audiences (or, in some cases, participants), than yet known. According to Thomas Crow in The Rise of the Sixties, “On the contrary, the proliferation of dissent and the fragmentation of voices propelled advanced art to new levels of desirability for wealthy individuals, corporations, and great civic museums. It will emerge that the story of art within the new politics of the 1960’s is one of considerable ambivalence, as artists attempted to reconcile their stance of opposition with increasing support for their activities in a new and aggressive global marketplace” (12). The arts during this era echoed the very unstable social and political environments: a sharp increase in America’s obsession with consumerism, and the civil rights movements just to name a few examples.

Critics like Clement Greenberg described an ideal art as abstract, optical, unemotional, present, flat, and pure; he put Jackson Pollock on a pedestal for what art is and should look like. Beginning in the late 1950’s, artists no longer felt they had to abide by the dictations of Greenberg. What was important then, was now fading and waning as art began to enter a new period of growth. Clement Greenberg detested the new styles, as seen by the 1960’s. Two key styles that defined the sixties were minimalism and happenings.

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An artistic trend took place beginning in the very late 1950’s known as happenings. This was a theatrical performance where the audience, no longer known as an audience, visited a set and participated with the art. To the participants, these were random and whimsical; but in fact, they were complex and considered occasions, “The participants (who included a number of visual artists) acted out simple, repeated actions that any spectator may have been enlisted to perform” (Crow, 125). A key figure in the happening movement was Allan Kaprow, he actually is the one who coined the term “happening”. Happenings were truly a variety of their own: they could take place anywhere; include anyone; be about anything; the opportunities were countless. These happenings can be categorized as present, playful, multisensory, endless, disorderly, witty, violent, and bodily, “Perhaps the most striking feature of the Happening is its treatment of the audience. The event seems designed to tease and abuse the audience…there is no attempt to cater to the audience’s desire to see everything” (Sontag). Further, in response to an economic environment, happenings are a rejection of capitalism. This was art that could not be purchased or bought in a time of mass consumerism. Happenings rebelled the conventional mediums of art such as painting and sculpture. It was an enormous blend of modes that became a performance art. Happenings and performance art were considered to be “pure” art because neither could be bought or exchanged; they could only be experienced.

Vagina Painting, by Shigeko Kubota, is an example of a happening. It was performed at the Fluxus Festival in New York in 1965. Kubota crouched over the floor and fastened a paintbrush to her underwear. Squatting over a bucket of red paint, she proceeded to paint abstract lines that resembled menstrual blood. This was a very early feminist statement to prove that women are more than just bodies; a movement toward an eventual end goal. This is a happening that is not really participatory, but is certainly a non-narrative performance, “Lacking a plot and a continuous rational discourse, they have no past. Happenings are always in the present tense. The same actions, too, are frequently repeated throughout a single happening – a kind of gestural stutter – or done in slow motion, to convey a sense of the arrest of time” (Sontag). Vagina Painting is the endless repetition of strokes before an audience. There is no beginning, middle, or end to the performance. Unlike a “typical” happening (if you can even call a happening typical), it does not involve the audience. They are not taking part in performance or being subjected to anything as a result of the performance. Regardless, Vagina Painting and the other happenings of the time period represent a rejection of American consumer culture and a period of new growth.

The other very significant and influential art movement of the sixties was minimalism. Minimalism reduced art to the space that it confined. These were geometric shapes, monochromatic colors, and confined to “found-objects”. These artists hoped to eliminate any emotion or self-expression from their artworks. Donald Judd and Robert Morris were some of the earliest known artist to exhibit minimalism in sculptures. Minimalism was the opposite of Clement Greenberg: he hated it. It was the polar reverse to Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionistic style; which embraced emotion and decidedly nonrepresentational images. Minimalism is to be perceived as extremely literal: no hidden meaning, no backstory, no history, and no sentiment. Ad Reinhardt describes minimalism as, “an object that is self-conscious (no unconsciousness), ideal, transcendent, aware of no thing but art (absolutely no anti-art)”. In sculpture, minimalist distinctly placed their work on the floor directly, or attached to the wall or ceiling directly. They were not placed on a pedestal or some type of foundation. Much of the early minimalist artwork was severe or sharp, geometric shapes. As the style progressed, neon tubing, ropes, cables, organic objects, latex, and other found pieces were utilized. The found materials were a rebellion to pop culture; a culture that worshipped cheap manufactured products, “Beuys had deployed found materials, with their organic origins and intimations of historical or mythical profundity, against the superficiality that he and other provoked Europeans perceived in the export success of American Pop” (Crow, 145). Just like happenings, minimalism is a rejection of consumerism.

Threadwaste, created by Robert Morris, is an example of this softer minimalism. This is a very long piece along the floor made of industrial materials, metals, and mirrors. It does not have dimensions and it occupies that space that it takes, “…consists of thick heaps of “thread waste” – as well as bits of asphalt, copper tubing, and felt – with inserted mirrors; The four installations lend synchronous weight to one another: while they are generally discussed as discrete efforts, their concurrence matters” (Weiss). Threadwaste embodies the characteristics of minimalism because it is free of references, it is spatial, it is timeless and it is pure. I would not say that Threadwaste is the poster for minimalism because it is parts. It is made of multiple pieces: glass, mirrors, industrial resources, etc. These materials are a denunciation of pop culture and yet again, a growth of new art.

Both Threadwaste and Vagina Painting are demonstrations of a new and changing art that is taking place during the sixties. Also, and probably most importantly, both artworks, and art styles, are a rejection of the American culture. During the 1960’s Americans became fixated on cheap, reproduced, kitschy products. Both happenings and minimalism rejected this obsession; Happenings created non-purchasable art. Consumerism could not play its role in happenings; they were uniquely viewable, and limited time. Minimalism rejected pop culture by using found, organic objects: nothing reproducible or manufactured. These artworks are distinctly 1960 because of their unique refusal to accept American pop culture.


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