Ambitious and fine, ‘Invisible City’ illuminates, recovers Philadelphia’s experimental art of 1950-80
Andrea Kirsh reviews "Invisible City; Philadelphia and the Vernacular Avant-Garde" a multi-venue exhibition that educates and illuminates the radical, experimental, and non-traditional art scene in Philadelphia during 1956-1976. You can see "Invisible City" at four venues across Philadelphia through April 4, 2020. Kirsh calls it a "major act of historical recovery."

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Venturi and Rauch with Murphy Levy Wurman, "Schuylkill River Corridor Study" 1973-74, Collage (PMA). The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania by the gift of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown
Venturi and Rauch with Murphy Levy Wurman, “Schuylkill River Corridor Study” 1973-74, Collage (PMA). The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania by the gift of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown

“Invisible City; Philadelphia and the Vernacular Avant-Garde,” an exhibition at multiple venues at University of the Arts (UArts) and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) through April 4, 2020 is a major act of historical recovery. It proposes that significant developments in the history of artistic experimentation in American literature, music, architecture and the visual arts from 1956-1976 occurred in Philadelphia. This was a period when artists were challenging all prior assumptions about the arts and traditional boundaries between them, and part of the Philadelphia story concerns experimental collaboration and important intermedia work.

The Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery contains a roomful of artworks that would have been particularly puzzling to their first viewers: a black and white photograph of a young man wearing eighteenth-century dress, a stack of 90 sand and silica bricks, a square panel covered with numbers arranged to imply computer coding, a colorful, circular map. The works propose a series of questions that viewers can tease out: How can performative work be captured? Can art question historical events rather than celebrate them? What is the minimum requirement for sculpture? Can music be represented visually? What would it mean for European and North American priorities to be overturned? The historical significance of the works will only be apparent if you know what was happening around them and how they upset the traditional narrative of the period. For that you’ll have to turn to the labels.

The costumed young man is Bill Beckley and the photograph documents a series of actions he undertook in 1969 as part a conceptional re-enactment of George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River in 1776 – an event memorably portrayed in Emmanuel Leutze’s eponymous painting. That was before Eleanor Antin created her persona as the King in 1972 or the Ballerina in 1973 and Cindy Sherman began her Film Stills (1977-80). William Anasazi’s pile of bricks, “En Route” (1964) was created two years before Carl Andre’s well-known “Lever” was exhibited in “Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum. Rafael Ferrer’s “South Pole,” (1973) employs tropical colors to raise the question of what might happen if we looked at the world from South to North — a question only widely addressed by the art world in the 1990s.

Sam Maitin, "Poster for Art 1963/A New Vocabulary," 1962. offset lithograph.
Sam Maitin, “Poster for Art 1963/A New Vocabulary,” 1962. offset lithograph.

The work on display at Gershman Hall, one block South (formerly the YM/YWHA, where many of the important arts activities occurred under the auspices of its Arts Council,) includes posters, printed ephemera and small-press publications that document the range of performances and other activities that took place in the city. These included Alan Kaprow’s happening, “Chicken” (1962) – which will be re-created on March 5 by Alex da Corte; performances by Merce Cunningham’s dance company, Charlotte Moorman playing music by Nam June Paik, films by Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol and a performance by the Velvet Underground and Nico with Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable light/sound installation. Fortunately, Samuel Maitland was the house designer, so the posters that ring the gallery are visually stunning.

The section of “Invisible City” at PAFA is a first rate, stand-alone testament to the beginnings of feminist art. The very first printed statement of the movement was Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ “Maintenance Manifesto,” (1969), shown in typewritten form, which includes the memorable line “The sourball of every revolution: after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” The gallery exhibits documentation and an artifact of her 1973 performance addressed to Marcel Duchamp, patron saint of Conceptualism and Philadelphia’s own, in which she connected and then cut a string between Duchamp’s work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the artists who were his artistic heirs at Moore College of Art.

The personal is political – a tenet of second wave feminism – pervades the work on view at PAFA. Hannah Wilke insists that women reclaim their anatomy with a terracotta box, “That Fills Earth” (1965) whose lid is covered with vulval forms, and takes personal aim at Duchamp with her filmed striptease, “Through the Large Glass” (1976). Catherine Jansen’s installation, “The Blue Room” (1970-73) is the visual stand-out in the gallery: a life-size representation of a bedroom created from stuffed cotton that has been printed via cyanotype — a photographic process. The shadows of a couple lie in bed and beside them, on the floor, is the New York Times with headlines referring to the Pentagon Papers. A wall shelf beneath a mirror holds a bottle of eau de toilette, a lipstick, comb, brush and a dispenser of birth control pills. The personal is still political.

Catherine Jansen, "The Blue Room," 1970-73. photosensitized cloth, photographic dyes, embroidery. Collection of the James A. Michener Museum, Doylestown, PA Museum purchase and partial gift from artist Courtesy of the artist and the James A. Michener Museum
Catherine Jansen, “The Blue Room,” 1970-73. photosensitized cloth, photographic dyes, embroidery. Collection of the James A. Michener Museum, Doylestown, PA. Museum purchase and partial gift from artist. Courtesy of the artist and the James A. Michener Museum

And then there is Judith Bernstein’s “Sketch for Large Horizontal” (1973), the piece that was censored and removed from a juried exhibition held at the Philadelphia Civic Center in 1974. It is hard to imagine anyone upset by the sexual aspect of Bernstein’s fairly abstracted, phallic form today – but its obvious political comment on male aggression and anti-Vietnam War implications are still biting.

The works assembled at the Philadelphia Art Alliance (now part of UArts) cover a broad swath, including conceptual work, craft, photography in various forms and architecture. The last is the one area where Philadelphia is generally given its due, largely thanks to the extraordinary influence of writing by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Louis Kahn’s work is well known by now and the exhibition includes realized and unrealized work by Kahn as well as well as models by Robert Le Ricolais and Ann Tyng and proposals by Mitchell /Giurgola.

The experimental photography is represented with work by Ray K. Metzger, William Larson, Will Brown and Paul Cava, a very early example (1969) of work employing sequential slide projections by Dave Heath, and mounted, cut-out photographic images by Marcia Kocot and Thomas Hatton. The paintings on view display an unconventional approach to monochromes by Quentin Morris, Warren Rhorer, Brice Marden and James Havard.

This exhibition should have been organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has the resources, staff and facilities to support such a significant project, but the museum generally lacks the self-confidence to position art produced in the region a part of the larger picture. The fact that it was organized by Sid Sachs, Director of Exhibitions at U Arts working with Jennie Hirsch, an art historian at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and a single, additional staff member is testament to their vision, doggedness, labor and Sid’s unique position as someone who witnessed and remembered what occurred in Philadelphia, a history which so far has not been recorded (note: a catalog is forthcoming).

An extensive program of free events has been organized in connection with the exhibition. Some of them, including Alex da Corte’s March 5 performance and a day-long symposium on March 6 on Regionalism in mid-20th century North-American Art, Architecture and Culture, require pre-registration.

Invisible City: Philadelphia and the Vernacular Avant-garde,” January 21- April 4, 2020. On view across four venues (Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, Gershman Hall, Art Alliance, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)

Rafael Ferrer, Fuegian House with Harpy Eagle, 1971-72. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © 2019 Rafael Ferrer / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Rafael Ferrer, Fuegian House with Harpy Eagle, 1971-72. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © 2019 Rafael Ferrer / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
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_xST, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, Alan Kaprow, alex da corte, andy warhol, Ann Tyng, anti-Vietnam War, Avant-garde, brice marden, carl andre, Catherine Jansen, charlotte moorman, Chicken, cindy sherman, Delaware River, doylestown, duchamp, eleanor antin, Emmanuel Leutze, Exploding Plastic Inevitable, feminist art, George Washington, Gershman Hall, Giurgola, hannah wilke, Invisible City, James Havard, jewish museum, judith bernstein, love, M/YWHA, maryland institute college of art, merce cunningham, mierle laderman ukeles, Mitchell, Nico, pafa, painting, paul cava, Pentagon Papers, performance, performance art, philadelphia art alliance, Philadelphia Civic Center, philadelphia museum of art, photography, political, pop art, quentin morris, rafael ferrer, Ray K. Metzger, robert indiana, Robert Le Ricolais, Sam Maitin, Samuel Maitland, sculpture, sid sachs, Sketch for Large Horizontal, uarts, Velvet Underground, vernacular, warhol, Warren Rhorer, will brown, William Anasazi, william larson

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