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New Realisms

New Realisms: 1957-1962: Object Strategies Between Readymade and Spectacle

By Julia Robinson, Editor
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010
300 pp., illus. 50 b/w., 250 col. Trade, $44.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-51522-1.

Reviewed by Stephen Petersen


This catalogue for a major exhibition (at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid) makes a strong case for rethinking, repositioning, and ultimately redeeming the fraught term “New Realism” in postwar art history. It argues as well for the inclusion into the art historical canon of works, falling chronologically somewhere between the emergence of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol—and far messier than either’s—that have received scant scholarly attention relative to their historical import. Strategies developed by an international array of artists in a few short years set the stage for everything from pop to performance, conceptualism to land art, institutional critique to installation and new media. The 200+ works in the show, by some 30 artists, among them Jean Tinguely, Robert Whitman, and George Brecht, are diverse, provocative, frequently difficult to categorize and, in their ephemerality, oftentimes hard to collect and preserve.

As the book’s introduction by the exhibition’s organizer Julia Robinson makes clear, the idea of new realism, although almost self-evident as a counter-trend to abstract expressionism, has long been a problematic one. As a translation of the French term “Nouveau Réalisme,” it shares that movement’s lack of programmatic coherence. And if the 1962 exhibit at Sidney Janis Gallery, “New Realism,” marked the triumphal emergence of American pop art (Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc.), it also, as Robinson shows, led to the shunting aside of the European variants and precedents, featured in the show but critically dismissed and even mocked in the American press.

Still, “new realism” may be a most apt term to describe the freewheeling proliferation of object-based artistic interventions at the dawn of the 1960s, not only Nouveau Réalisme but also happenings and proto-Fluxus events. Robinson uses the plural, “new realisms,” broadly to refer to this international range of performative practices that recast the Duchampian readymade as commodity, display, and spectacle. This was, she argues, a critical moment in history, when one dominant mode of artistic production and dissemination (abstract paintings, supported by an increasingly official modern art establishment) gave way both to a new aesthetic (assemblage, happenings, installations) and to alternative exhibition venues, notably the upstart galleries of Iris Clert in Paris and Anita Reuben and Martha Jackson in New York—significantly, all three run by women. With a subtle understanding of the emerging international art world, Robinson traces a common thread linking Yves Klein’s Void of 1958 and Claes Oldenburg’s Store of a few years later. Eschewing national bias and a monographic approach, her larger project is an important contribution to a field often characterized by one or both.

A set of three scholarly essays offers new insights into the presentational strategies and theoretical underpinnings of the Nouveau Réalistes, an occasional group of artists, mostly French, assembled and promoted by critic Pierre Restany. Critically maligned but commercially successful, Nouveau Réalisme has lately begun to get the serious treatment in Anglo-American scholarship that it deserves (see Meredith Malone’s excellent 2006 dissertation, “Nouveau Réalisme: Performative Exhibition Strategies and the Everyday in Post-WWII France,” University of Pennsylvania). In this volume, Hannah Feldman, Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen, and Ágnes Berecz each focus on a little-known aspect of the group. Especially welcome is Berecz’s nuanced deconstruction of the critic-impresario Restany’s rhetoric, its aims in France and abroad, and its problematic reception in a transatlantic context.

Also, reprinted here is a large portion of Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s 1971 essay, “Formalism and Historicity,” that essentially launched the field and defined the terms of postwar European art history in the United States. In a new introduction Buchloh acknowledges that the dichotomy he originally proposed between American formalism and European “historicity” or dialectical materialism, as well as the oppositional status he accorded certain Europeans in contrast to their history-blind counterparts, may no longer hold in a global art market that readily absorbs every opposition. The essay as edited here to focus on late 1950s and early 1960s work, however, remains prescient in its bold departure from linear narratives of postwar art. (One exception: Buchloh’s offhand dismissal of Yves Klein’s importance for future artists, which the catalogue’s editor tries diplomatically to qualify, appears increasingly to have been proved wrong.)

Despite their fresh inclusions, the book’s texts have notable lacunae. Christo is well represented in the expansive exhibit but not discussed in the rather narrowly targeted essays. Ditto Yayoi Kusama, Piero Manzoni, Daniel Spoerri, and others. More to the point, the innovative 1962 exhibit “Dylaby” (Dynamic Labyrinth) at the Stedelijk Museum in 1962 was a watershed event not only in the short saga of New Realism but in the larger and still unfolding history of interactive installation art. While appearing in the catalogue illustrations (and one of its seven individually-designed galleries, Martial Raysse’s Beach, covered in depth in Butterfield-Rosen’s essay), “Dylaby” merited its own chapter, or at least greater attention.

Clearly, the essays tended to go for depth of analysis while the exhibit tried also to make a case for breadth, attempting to recover something of the era’s “international diversity still too often reduced,” as Robinson rightly puts it. At the back of the catalogue, a chronology compiled by Billy Klüver, Julie Martin, and Hedi Sorger features numerous artists and activities beyond those appearing in the show, such as those of the German group Zero. But other figures to whom the term “new realisms” surely applies, including the entire West-coast contingent of American assemblage artists or any number of contemporaries active in Asia and South America, do not come into play here. To point this out is not so much to criticize (with its 30 artists, the show offers an abundance of revelations) but merely to observe the extent of the phenomenon, something that confirms Robinson’s basic thesis. Rarely if ever have five years seen the nature of art so completely transformed, and in so many places. Pluralism and post-modernism followed.

Last Updated 1 April 2011

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