The 100-plus artists in Walker Art Center’s new show, “Art Expanded, 1958-1978,” came of age in turbulent times. Their youthful decades were marked by wars, protests, assassinations, civil unrest, miniskirts, sexual revolution, psychedelia and general nose-thumbing-at-authority. Caught up in the ferment, the artists shaped — and were shaped by — the freewheeling, anti-establishment attitudes of the moment.
Many were affiliated with the Fluxus movement, an international cadre of artists, musicians and intellectuals including stars like Yoko Ono and a galaxy of less familiar names. Intent on democratizing art, they tried to merge it with everyday life and liberate it from the “marketplace,” meaning collectors and museums. Iconoclasts at heart, they aimed to jettison a High Culture that revered framed paintings, pedestaled sculpture, symphonic music and dancing en pointe.
Their assault on the status quo was full frontal, exhibitionistic, sometimes violent, often noisy, frequently comic and generally anti-expertise. As seen here, they smashed violins (Ben Vautier, 1966) or painted them green (Joseph Beuys, 1974), shot paintings (Niki de Saint Phalle, 1964), danced flat-footed (Yvonne Rainer, 1978) and made steel-floor-tile sculpture that was meant to be walked on (Carl Andre, 1968). For a London “Festival of Misfits” in 1962, Vautier folded his life into his art — the Fluxus ideal — by living for 15 days in a gallery display window.
All that carrying on generated a lot of ephemera that the Walker scooped up for its collection. The show fills about a third of the center’s galleries and includes more than 350 paintings, sculptures, broadsides, videos, sound pieces, installations and memorabilia that curator Eric Crosby deftly researched and arranged.
Most of the stuff is rarely displayed because it’s too fragile, light-sensitive (newspapers, letters) or technologically problematic. Many of the light and sound pieces require bulbs, colored gels, amplifiers, tubes and wiring that must be sourced from specialty shops — or junk stores — when they need replacing.
To preserve the originals, the Walker’s tech crew typically digitizes old films, videos and audio recordings for exhibition purposes, as they have here. Still, the vintage equipment must be displayed, and that’s part of what makes “Art Expanded” such an odd exhibition, important and fascinating to historians of art and culture but likely to puzzle or bore the uninitiated.
Much of this stuff was never meant to be preserved. While the events were doubtless provocative at the time, the ephemera often seems mundane, musty, mystifying or quaint now.
Even Vautier’s legendary display window is here — not the real thing but a 1992-93 re-creation that he fabricated for the Walker as an avant-garde period room. It is cluttered with mid-20th-century relics (alarm clock, radio, crocheted bedspread) but without Vautier living there the room is as inert as an empty stage set or a shrine to a cult deity. Beuys’ nearby sled is even more cultish. Fitted out with a blanket, flashlight and glob of dried fat, it symbolically references the German artist’s much mythologized exploits as a World War II pilot who claimed to have survived a crash in Crimea. Even embellished with that dubious back story, the 1969 “Schlitten (Sled)” remains an art world “Rosebud” over which enlightened cognoscenti nod reverently while the rest pass by unmoved.
As a deep dive into the Walker’s archives, the show does have its moments.
Take the “Happening,” a 1962 event in a St. Paul mushroom cave during which about 400 Walker fans watched product demonstrations (vacuum cleaner, power saw), rolled tires and oil drums through a wall of cardboard boxes and encountered chickens in wire baskets that an actor/chef stuffed into bags and hauled away. A chiffon-clad brunette ate mushrooms in bed atop a pile of tires, and eventually everyone went home “looking puzzled,” as a news account put it.
Staged by New York artist Allan Kaprow, the Happening is a Walker legend amusingly evoked in a mural-sized photo surrounded by power tools and other detritus along with a case of amusing letters and news clips that opens a fascinating window into a time when bourgeois Twin Citians were game for such high jinks. Still, reading about it isn’t the same as being there, a problem that bedevils the show. Like residents of Plato’s proverbial cave, viewers see a lot of simulacra in the cases and flickering images on the walls but not much real art.
Artists also glued and tacked stuff to canvases back then to shatter the notion that a painting must be a “picture” or illusion. Jasper Johns’ painting “Fool’s House” doesn’t depict bungalows or McMansions, it depicts brush strokes and has a broom dangling across its front. Likewise, Dieter Roth’s 1975-89 “Sound Picture” is a messy, paint-splashed collage of broken tape recorders, radios, motors, toys, lights and a wine glass that nearly obliterate a smeary Willem de Kooning-style painting.
Though cutting-edge once, the technology seems primitive today. Nam June Paik’s 1971 “TV Cello” is now a Dumpster-worthy stack of old boxes, electronics, wiring and television tubes with a cello-like neck and bridge attached. Performer Charlotte Moorman used to play the thing, topless, or would sometimes play a real cello while wearing Paik’s “TV Bra” consisting of two miniature televisions appropriately placed. In the grainy videos shown here she seems a jolly sort, amused by the absurdity of the endeavor and intent on knocking the stuffiness out of classical music.
Even the orgy, that cliché of the sexually liberated 1960s, is simultaneously appalling and hilarious as filmed by Carolee Schneemann. Her 10-minute vignette, “Meat Joy,” is a bacchanal with raw hamburger, fish and chicken carcasses rubbed and clutched by the nudies as they slip and slide in bloody juices.
Encountering much of this stuff is a bit like stumbling over Woodstock memorabilia in your grandparents’ garage; you know something BIG happened, but the mildewed tent and broken guitar don’t quite transport you there.