In contemporary art, it’s not hard to summon nostalgia for the late ’60s and early ’70s, a time when so much of what artists were producing seemed authentically new and authentically cool (at least given today’s perceptions about “authentic,” “new,” or “cool”). The art world was smaller and more manageable in many ways, not least because the practice of discovering “alternative modernisms” had yet to be discovered. In New York, which was still regarded as its capital, artists were still colonizing the neglected downtown Manhattan lofts that would later become coveted real estate; more to the point, they were making art in these spaces that had no place in typical white-cube galleries and museums.
That’s what made the 1971 exhibition Works for New Spaces such a critical moment in the Walker’s history and, arguably, in the broader art world. Curated by then-director Martin Friedman, the show inaugurated the Walker’s new building designed by Edward Larabee Barnes, whose seven white-cube galleries were, in fact, designed specifically with these new kinds of artworks in mind. As the title indicates, 21 of its 22 works were special commissions, with artists making the work partly or wholly on site. That practice is commonplace now, but this was the first time it had been done, at least on such a wide scale.
By 1971, Friedman had been leading the Walker for a decade, establishing his reputation as “a vigorous champion of everything that is farthest out on the current art scene,” as Hilton Kramer noted in the New York Times, reviewing both Works for New Spaces and the new Barnes building. But the commissioning of new art, which has become integral to the Walker’s mission, didn’t really get underway until the late 60s, while the Barnes building was under construction.
As Friedman recalled in the Walker’s Bits & Pieces collections catalogue, those commissions included Red Grooms’ The Discount Store, installed in the State Theatre building a few blocks away on Hennepin Avenue; and outdoor works around the city by William Wegman, Richard Treiber, Barry LeVa and others for 9 Artists/9 Spaces. Regarding that show, Friedman said that “practically everything was destroyed in one way or another by the public” during what he called “tense anarchic days, with protests, riots, and bombings all over the country. … We certainly never thought of what we were doing as confrontational, but those were difficult times.” (More on 9 Artists/9 Spaces here and here.)
The art in Works for New Spaces, however, was presented in and around a new, pretty much universally lauded building (the one exception being a strobe-light piece by the artist group Pulsa in Loring Park), so the Walker director could be as far-out as he wished without worrying about people attacking the art. As he put it, “the artists we invited could hardly wait to attack the building, and they did, in the most amazing ways.”
Looking back 40 years from another era of “difficult times,” Friedman’s references to artists and the public on the attack, not to mention the destruction of artworks, are notable. Even if riots and bombings are still mostly taking place outside the U.S., there’s no question about the domestic factor in Time’s naming “the protester” as its “Person of the Year” with a cover story penned by Kurt Andersen.
It’s also easier to see how 1971 and Works for New Spaces were not so much the advent of the ’70s but rather a culmination of the ’60s—a decade “of relentless and discombobulating avant-gardism, when everything looked and sounded perpetually new new new,” as Andersen observes in another piece in the current issue of Vanity Fair. Incidentally, his characterization of the ’60s in that article is part of a broader and fascinating complaint about how current culture seems stuck rewinding the past 20 years. Perhaps that phenomenon explains a craving for new-new-new alternatives to the same-old same-old—or maybe just a fondness for old art that was once bracingly new.
Above, Minneapolis Tribune coverage of the opening festivities for the new building and the show, which “has completely dominated the local art scene lately and continues to be a source of discussion and debate,” wrote critic Mike Steele in a later piece.
The forms in Lynda Benglis’ Adhesive Products “assume the character of spectral, primordial creatures.” One of the “products” was remounted for the 2010 Walker exhibition Abstract Resistance; and in 2009, Friedman wrote a comprehensive story about the Benglis commission in Art in America. (This quote and those following are from the exhibition catalog.)
In Siah Armajani’s Fifth Element, “a folded gold plane floats in space with no visible means of support and rotates mysteriously on its vertical axis. The supporting device, an electromagnet developed by University of Minnesota physicists, is concealed within the white ceiling box. Armajani’s use of sophisticated technology is that of a mystic.”
Created with “gauze-like fabric tautly stretched across a space,” Robert Irwin’s No Title was remounted in 2009, appropriately enough, in the Walker’s Friedman Gallery, part of the 2005 expansion to Barnes’ 1971 building. A blog post about the reinstallation shows some great archival images of Irwin and an assistant at work.
Sam Gilliam, “once associated with the Washington School of Color-field painting,” had by 1971 “abaondoned the use of the stretched canvas” to make works like Carousel Merge, above. Gilliam intended the canvas to be “hung in a variety of configurations in any given space.”
Larry Bell used “a huge vacuum chamber to adhere vaporous layers of a silver alloy on glass plates, which then assume an elusive reflectivity” in Garst’s Mind No. 2.
In James Seawright’s Network III, a “suspended light grid receives its impulses from a programmed computer,” but the viewer is also “a participant whose movements direct the patterned activity overhead.”