For smug New Yorkers, the name New Jersey conjures up visions of urban blight, industrial wastelands, and placid suburbs. Who knew that, 40 years ago, New Brunswick was a hotbed of radical artistic activity? A show now at the Newark Museum resurrects the spirit of creation that once hovered over Rutgers University, where, in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, a cluster of artists taught, studied, and sowed the seeds of Pop, performance, installation, and conceptual art.
Allan Kaprow waved the banner of an art "that didn't look like art" with his installations, assemblages, and happenings. Other teachers followed: Roy Lichtenstein, whose Pop paintings were born in New Jersey; Robert Watts, with his samizdat postage stamps; George Segal, of plaster-cast fame; George Brecht, a mathematician whose art was based on chance; and Geoffrey Hendricks, who still teaches at the university. Students included Robert Whitman, who made film installations decades before the genre became ubiquitous, and a talented youngster named Lucas Samaras. Smearing the boundaries between art and life, they used everyday objects as materials, orchestrated "events" on streets and chicken farms, and mimicked mail-order catalogues.
Their art, designed for the here and now, can seem mummified within the museum. Still, picking among the remains of their utopian energy is fascinating. Early works by Samarasassemblages incorporating pins and razor bladessuggest a rare emotional intensity. Lichtenstein's first Mickey seems painted yesterday. And then there's Whitman's Shower a film of a bathing beauty projected in a real-life shower stall behind running water, washing off the sludge of tradition in the baptism of a new artistic practice.
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