Blast from the Past: Art of the 1960s

January 9 - March 19, 2006

Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell (American, 1915-1991)
Automatism B, 1966
Lithograph, 28 x 21 inches
MSU purchase, funded by the Kathleen D. and Milton E. Muelder Endowment, 2005.18

The 1960s was a tumultuous decade. It saw the Vietnam war and the Peace movement; man on the moon and the Manson murders; flower power, The Beatles, and Woodstock; JFK and Nixon; sit-ins and love-ins. Its art rarely spoke of the times, it spoke to them. It was bold and brash, challenging the norms of 1950s complacency. It questioned values, moral codes, political “truths” on the left and the right, artistic verities (like the brushstroke so central to Abstract Expressionism), tradition, and even the high seriousness of art itself. Pop artist Andy Warhol painted with machines, not brushes, and his subjects were soup cans instead of still lifes, celebrities instead of kings. Roy Lichtenstein painted phony brushstrokes as if through screens of Ben-day dots. Like the turn-of-the last century Ashcan painters, Pop artists focused on the middle class. Blast from the Past gives a bigger picture of the 1960s than is usual. This exhibition of 55 works from the Kresge Art Museum collection proves that much more than Pop Art was new in the 1960s. Geometric abstraction appealed through large planes of solid, high energy color. Op Art’s sizzling lines separated colors or let them vibrate against each other. Color Field Abstraction melted pools of luscious color or formed hue rainbows, and in the hands of Morris Louis or Kenneth Noland, did so on a very large scale.

Much more was happening and changing. For those who preferred painterly style and technique, emotion, sophistication and a nod to tradition, there was still a great deal of important Abstract Expressionist painting being produced by well known artists like Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner, and Barnett Newman. Plus, earlier traditions were being continued. Beginning in the later 1950s and flourishing in the next decade, a “return to the figure” movement emerged in which artists like Lester Johnson and Grace Hartigan who loved everything about painting the Abstract Expressionist way except having to be abstract, painted the figure as it had never been painted before. Amid downpours of drips, swirling brushwork of no specificity, imagery found by the artist in the process of painting seemed to emerge in the process of viewing it. The figure was reborn, as was geometric and painterly abstraction, and so many aspects of life during that wild ride known as the Sixties.

Kresge Art Museum | Michigan State University