Performance Art, Pop Art, and Minimalism

The period spanning the late 1950s to the end of the 1970s gave rise to many an art movement, most of which were either a direct response to or a continuation of the work of the Abstract Expressionists. Some of these movements included Pop, Assemblage, “Happenings” and other forms of Performance Art, Minimalism, and Process Art. Three such categories will be discussed herein.

Performance Art took many forms during this period, evolving out of the theories of John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg in the 1950s into the Happenings and Performance Art centered in New York at the end of that decade and into the early 1960s, to Fluxus and the Nouveaux Realistes in Europe throughout the 1960s, and the work of Body Artists in California towards the 1970s. From Cage’s “event” at the Black Mountain College in 1952 sprung Allan Kaprow’s early Happenings in 1958 and 1959 and on.

Kaprow saw his work as stemming directly from that of Jackson Pollock, as a continuation of Abstract Expressionism, moving from the purely visual to include the remaining four senses. For most of these performance artists, there was a deep appreciation of the accidental, as there had been for the action painters.

The performances of Kaprow as well as those of Claes Oldenburg’s Ray Gun Theatre, Jim Dine, Red Grooms, and the Judson Dance Theatre were a way of calling attention to aspects of everyday life, as well as making the occasional radical proclamation. With Oldenburg’s work especially, it was a kind of precursor to his later works, and Pop Art’s use of mass media and culture as subject.

In Europe, Fluxus and the Nouveaux Realistes were born as a reaction against the expressionistic quality of Happenings. Key players of these loosely connected movements were Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, Jean Tinguely, and Nam June Paik. The exception to this reaction was Tinguely, whose amalgamations of machine parts and comical mechanized choreography “painted abstract expressionist pictures” with their raucous motions, as in Homage to New York of 1960 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, tying his work definitively to Abstract Expressionism and therefore still to Kaprow’s Happenings. Otherwise, Fluxus performances were relatively minimal and generally apolitical with the exception of the occasional criticism of the art world. For example, Beuys’ performance of 1965, entitled How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare was pointing out the futility of trying to explain art.

In California towards the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s another type of Performance Art had taken hold – that of Body Art, inspired by the work of Viennese Actionists such as Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwartzkogler, and involving the “intense bodily involvement” of the artist. In California there was Dennis Oppenheim, who “painted” his body by laying an object on himself and getting a sun burn around the object. There was also Chris Burden, known for exhibiting only the “artifacts” of a particular action, such as bloodied nails from Trans-fixed of 1974, claiming to have used those nails to affix his palms to the roof of a Volkswagen as though crucified on the car.

The idea of using mass media and culture moved from its more subtle manifestations in Performance Art to a movement of its own in Pop Art. As mentioned earlier, Oldenburg’s use of mass media objects as art would lead into his work as a Pop Artist and he was not the only one or the first to do so. For all of the Pop Artists, though, the focus had shifted from existentialism, or a concern with identity and philosophy, to semiotics, or a concern with the language of the medium.

In Europe in the early 1950s the term “pop art” was coined by the Independent Group, a breakaway from the Institute for Contemporary Art. Artists such as Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Peter Blake were appropriating images from American advertising, as well as British art and mass media, and creating art with the goal of making European art less elitist and more egalitarian. They focused on the accessibility of British “high art” and were fascinated by American pop culture.

In the United States, Pop Artists weren’t as interested in the political side of the work – with the exception of Rosenquist in his later works – but more in the emergence of this newly consumerist culture they lived in. They called attention to the alienation of mass media by presenting images from everyday life in a cool dispassionate manner. Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist dominated the scene in New York, culling images from advertisement and film and magazines to play upon the shallow quality of the media itself. Warhol exemplified the recent development of the celebrity art scene, becoming as famous and seemingly shallow as the images he used.

With various exhibitions opening at the Castelli Gallery or the Janis Gallery in New York, and at Ferus in Los Angeles, Pop was becoming a popular interest across the nation. The art world, however, didn’t welcome the movement so readily. The Abstract Expressionists and established critics alike were furious with the inclusion of mass media and mechanized production as “art” but the media and fashion industries were quickly sold with the emergence of the aforementioned celebrity scene.

With the work of the Pop Artists in New York, there was a tendency toward a very mechanical handling of the materials. Warhol used photo silk-screening methods. Lichtenstein’s half-tone color fields were straight out of popular comic books and printing press techniques. For the most part, these artists all had a cool, crisp handling of materials that left no room for expressionistic tendencies.

In California, the influence of Zen and Taoism came through in the Pop movement, as well as the influence of the Beat culture and the Assemblage aesthetic. On the West Coast artists escaped the alienation inherent in mass culture by retreating into their own consciousness, similar to the Abstract Expressionists, but without the abandonment of figuration. Funk Artists such as Joan Brown and Manuel Neri used expressionist paint handling that showed of the influence of Willem DeKooning and Francis Bacon. Jess Collins and Bruce Conner, as well as Brown and many other West Coast Pop Artists assembled collages from various materials, but with a surrealist quality not present in the work of the New York artists. These works were an analysis of mass culture but also of the wonder of everyday objects. The Beatnik scene and the antiwar movement also figured heavily into the California Pop Art in the 1960s.

Minimalism was prominent at the end of the 1950s and through the 1960s, starkly contrasting Abstract Expressionism’s romanticism with its mechanical polished physicality. The work was about the object and the object alone as art. Its manifestation was a cold, crisp, generally geometric regularity, with little or no evidence of the artists’ touch. Indeed, minimalists such as Don Judd, Frank Stella, Carl Andre, and Dan Flavin were more concerned with being literal than with reflecting any aspect of the culture. It was a movement that took Greenbergian formalism to an extreme. To paraphrase Judd, art history was a progression and it could be reasoned that Abstract Expressionism had become outmoded.

Ironically, Greenberg discounted the movement as contrived and deduced, rather than “felt or discovered.” It was seen by some as aggressively authoritarian in nature. Lucy Lippard championed the minimalists, however, praising their attack on the notion of boredom and repetition in art. The work was highly theoretical, with very simple pieces requiring grand explanations as to the reasoning of the artist – with the focus on physicality and not content, and therefore not culture or politics or any of the other issues raised by the other movements discussed earlier.

All three of these movements form a quasi-linear progression from Abstract Expressionism, and all three – as well as the remaining movements of the time period – came out of or in reaction to Abstract Expressionism. In addition, all three managed to redefine what was accepted as “art.” For Pop it was the incorporation of mass media images and everyday materials, following in Jasper Johns’ and Robert Rauschenberg’s footsteps. For the various forms of Performance Art it was a matter of redefining the line between art and theatre, or blurring that line altogether, a la John Cage. For Minimalism it was art as object as object. It was the formal reduction of the medium into the most basic and repetitive of shapes – taking Greenbergian formalism to its extreme.

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