Reimagining Space: The Park Place Gallery Group in 1960s New York
This trippy exhibit revisits New Frontier artists engaged in their own space race
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Jan. 2, 2009
'Reimagining Space: The Park Place Gallery Group in 1960s New York'
Blanton Museum of Art
Through Jan. 18
"Take the 'A' Train" was sound advice when Billy Strayhorn penned his jazz hit for Duke Ellington, and believe it or not, it proves apt for the Blanton Museum's fond look back at the Sixties artists' cooperative based in New York's Park Place Gallery. The "A" Train here is not the quickest way to Harlem, as in Strayhorn's lyric, but Mark di Suvero's wood and steel sculpture (which was inspired by the song) may be the quickest way inside the mind-expanding mindset of this pleasurably trippy exhibition.
In the upper half of di Suvero's work, a three-step section of a wooden stairway is suspended in midair at an impossible angle for walking on. But something in the way it hangs there encourages you to envision that bit of stairway extending in both directions, with someone climbing it in defiance of all laws of physics, like the faceless amblers in those Escher landscapes, ascending and descending stairs that cut across space at unnatural inclines. And as you picture that, your preconceptions of how space should work drop away, and you're slip-sliding into another dimension, where new possibilities of what space is or can be are wide open.
The five sculptors and five painters who made up the Park Place Gallery cooperative all shared an interest in this kind of dimensional exploration, and in their brief time together – mostly concentrated in a five-year span – they sought to crack open those old doors of perception via abstract paintings and sculptures. With geometric forms and juxtapositions of color, they played with ways to push and pull the eye through the space in or around an artwork, thus nudging the brain to reinterpret the information firing into it from the visual receptacles. They made two-dimensional surfaces look three-dimensional, as in Dean Fleming's large three-panel painting 2VDwan2, with its white rectangle pinned among blocks of black, blue, and red appearing as the lighted side of a cube projecting from the canvas or even an open passageway into it. They made a single line turn on itself to establish form and volume, as in Forrest Myers' Lazers Daze, where one shiny aluminum beam constructs a cube through a Möbius strip-like contortion. You look at these works and look again, trying to wrap your brain around the shifting forms and how the devil they do that, and the result is a distinctly pleasant tickle in your frontal lobe.
What makes the exhibit more than just a nostalgic revisitation of op art, however, is the context provided by curator Linda Dalrymple Henderson of the UT Department of Art and Art History. In panels of text posted around the gallery, she highlights the Park Place Gallery artists' fascination with science and science fiction, presenting them as major sources of inspiration for the art. The juxtaposition of the artwork with those references to Einstein's theory of relativity and Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes works almost like the blocks of unusual hues abutting one another, opening up a new way of looking at these works. In this light, the geometric precision and careful calibration of color seem like the experiments of scientists on the verge of some monumental discovery. At the same time American scientists were working feverishly to rocket men beyond Earth's atmosphere, the Park Place Gallery artists were engaged in their own space race. Indeed, the presence of Peter Forakis' JFK Chair – a curved piece of aluminum with a section sliced out and pulled up, suggesting both the tall back of a chair and a rocket pointed skyward – adds to the New Frontier vibe. We leave with a sense of this work not being generated as art for art's sake but as part of a culture that was experimenting and exploring on all fronts, for whom space was another realm to be conquered.