The shiny chrome tail-finned '50s have taken on a fuzzy pastel penumbra of nostalgic affection. People too young or too forgetful to remember regard the era as a time of innocent and energetic optimism when America basked in the hoopla-hoop gadgetry of post-war materialism.
Some of us hanging around at the time--skinny sophomores aping European bohemians in junior colleges on Vermont Avenues--cast grudging fondness in other molds. Shiny Fords and azure-eyed pony-tailed princesses retreated forever to the future. Unattainable, they became symbols of conformity to be rejected in favor of more profound superficialities--espresso coffee in the lobby between Bergman and Kenneth Anger films, high-minded arty ads by Container Corp., a comic strip called Peanuts with religious and Proustian depths, another called Pogo that dared to make fun of the terrifying Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Nobody laughed if you read Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre or the Beats but it was still all right to think that "West Side Story" was radical.
Naturally this baggage included admiration for Adlai Stevenson and wary respect for Jackson Pollock. The social demand that everyone fit in was so pervasive that anything really subversive was held suspect even by cautious young Turks.
Abstract art was really subversive. Embracing it meant a plunge into deep water for people who always wanted to keep one hand on the dinghy. In the '50s art students skulked down the hall to take advertising classes and quietly earned teaching credentials--just in case.
It was an immense relief when certain serious artists who clearly knew about Abstract Expressionism and had even practiced it put recognizable figures back into their art. It was the same kind of relief you felt when Miles Davis or Charlie Parker or Shorty Rogers wove a familiar tune into a maelstrom of improvisation. Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you. Whew! You bet I will.
Drawing was to art as tunes were to music--a road map to make the territory known, a touchstone for the frightened philistine that lurked in every prisoner of the '50s, leading him gently to the the most urgent demand of the time: compromise.
To history's credit it finally sorted itself out and decided that the Abstract Expressionism was the premier art of the epoch--not because its was the most radical but because its leading innovators were just plain better.
Now we have a brave exhibition at the Newport Harbor Art Museum until Sept. 18 that addresses 13 of those painters of the era who introduced or reintroduced the figure to their art.
It's an odd exercise but one typical of museum curator Paul Schimmel, who likes to exhume contemporary art that has fallen between the cracks, presumably to see if we have missed anything of great quality or at least to find out what might be learned from work relegated to the second or third tier.
Here, Schimmel--in collaboration with Judith E. Stein of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts--has assembled about 80 paintings that incite at least a provocative muddle. The ensemble has so many edges and rushes off in such diverse directions one cannot be certain in the end whether any impressions drawn are implicit in the mix or a pure free-standing creative act on one's own part.
The show is called "The Figurative Fifties" and subtitled "New York Figurative Expressionism" to set it off from the brushy figurative art done in the same period in the San Francisco Bay area by Richard Diebenkorn, David Park and others.
One thing accomplished here is a demonstration of the dangers of putting the finale at the beginning of the play. The first works encountered are Pollocks' black-and-white 1952 "Number 5" plus some 15 superb works on paper by Willem de Kooning. This is thematically correct because these two contemporary titans led the way back to using the figure--De Kooning with his legendary "Woman" series and Pollock by rediscovering agonized specters in late work.
At the outset we are reminded that nobody with their head screwed on straight believes there is any real difference between figurative and non-figurative art. We seem to view the remnants of some old Punic war whose conflict has become quaint and pointless. The exhibition thus immediately calls its own premise into question. Worse yet is the fact that Jackson and De Kooning display such energy, control and originality as to doom everybody else in the exhibition to looking a trifle second-rate.
Old timers see themselves mirrored in a typical '50s conservative compromise.