Themes in American Art Created Circa 1966 Remain Relevant Today

October 4, 2016


Blurred Lines between Past and Present: Zimmerli Examines Artwork Created Circa 1966,

Themes Remain Relevant Half a Century Later


New Brunswick, NJ – When the Zimmerli’s curators first devised two complementary exhibitions of American art titled Circa 1966 – one focusing on prints, the other on paintings and sculpture – the intention was to commemorate the museum’s golden anniversary by spotlighting key works created around the time of its founding. But in addition to spotlighting revolutionary movements that now have an established presence in art history, the subjects of many of the works focus on social and political discussions from the era that have prominently re-emerged across the United States. Both American Prints from the Collection and Paintings and Sculpture from the Collection, on view through January 2017, invite visitors to gain insight into the present by examining the past through the eyes of artists whose works are as relevant now as they were at the time of their genesis.


In 1966, Rutgers established the University Art Gallery – occupying a modest two-room space in Voorhees Library – as part of a major effort to integrate and promote arts at the university. It was a visionary move: only an hour from campus, New York City was the established center of the global art world after World War II and attracted artists who formed influential communities and led movements that have had lasting impact. Since then, the institution – renamed the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum after a major expansion in 1983 – has developed in size and scope to become one of the most prominent university art museums in the nation. In addition, the Zimmerli continues to develop an impressive collection of mid-century American art.


“The era generated renewed interest in printmaking in the United States: artists and printers collaboratively experimented with both traditional and innovative techniques, which invigorated the field,” notes Christine Giviskos, the museum’s Curator of Prints, Drawings, and European Art.  “As far as subject matter, many of these printmakers were influenced by social upheavals that occurred during the late 1960s and early 1970s, focusing on widespread concerns not unfamiliar today: ongoing wars abroad, contentious political contests, and violence against protestors standing up for civil and equal rights.”


The year 1968 was especially turbulent, with artists documenting historical events that resonate with today’s audiences as the 2016 election season gains momentum. Robert Rauschenberg incorporated imagery directly from newspapers and magazines to create Guardian that year. Viewers can sense the political chaos and social unrest through his multi-layered images that compound the experiences of everyday life. The New Jersey Volunteers for McCarthy took a more active role in the American democratic process. The group recruited 14 artists – all living or working in the state – to contribute to a portfolio that was sold to raise funds to support the campaign of Eugene McCarthy (against incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson) during the 1968 Democratic primaries. Lithographs by James Kearns, Jacob Landau, and Pat Pickering chronicle the discontent of the era and Senator McCarthy’s efforts to disrupt the political establishment.


Two iconic portraits reflect the impact that both well-known and anonymous figures, as well as the contributions of artists, had during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Two years after the 1963 March on Washington, Ben Shahn’s ink portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech, was on the cover of Time Magazine. In 1968, Stefan Martin translated that recognized image into a wood engraving that was published in two editions, with proceeds from the sale benefitting the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Dr. King had helped establish. Calvin Burnett, an African American artist born and raised in the Boston area, also contributed his talent to raise funds and awareness. His 1969 lithograph Freedom Fighter, portraying a young African American, was published to generate support for private funding for Operation Exodus, a school busing program in Boston. While the city’s public schools were desegregated to comply with the law, public funds to transport students from their largely segregated neighborhoods were not provided. However, through Operation Exodus, more than 2,000 African American children were able to travel out of their home districts and obtain a better education.


Reflecting the changing trends in transportation, two prints address the conflicted feelings many Americans have regarding car travel: freedom versus frustration. Richard Fiscus’s screenprint Route 1, No.1 (1969) depicts the open road of the iconic Pacific Coast Highway (Route 1) in Northern California. The influence of Pop art is present in the bold colors and simplified forms of this landscape view along the ocean, implying a laid back attitude often associated with the west coast. The three-dimensional lithograph AARRRRRRHH (1971), from the portfolio No Gas, by Red Grooms represents the other side of driving: being stuck in traffic. While the amusing title pokes fun at the chaos of New York City’s streets, the scene is now an all too familiar experience for many commuters. (Grooms also plays a role in the Zimmerli’s history. In 1973, the Rutgers University Art Gallery hosted the blockbuster exhibition The Ruckus World of Red Grooms, which was the artist’s earliest retrospective.)


“The wide range of art produced and collected in the years around 1966 also indicates the global energies of the art market and the efforts of artists to explore new materials, techniques, and ideas, pushing audiences toward new experiences,” adds Donna Gustafson, Curator of American Art and Mellon Director for Academic Programs. With the assistance of Mellon 2016 Summer Interns Kaitlin Booher and Todd Caissie, Gustafson organized Circa 1966: Paintings and Sculpture from the Collection. “Artists from around the world came to New York City not only to study with contemporary masters of these movements, but also to explore their own innovations.”


Marion Greenstone and Ray Parker were among the American artists influenced by broader cultural themes. Greenstone, a native New Yorker, combined oil and acrylic paints with newsprint and paper collage to create 1964’s Spoonk, which meanders across six canvases. This assemblage captures the spirit of the decade’s consumer culture, combining disembodied images of women with advertisements for food, cars, and sports. But she also prominently placed a white rabbit, suggesting a reference to the era’s influential counterculture. Originally from South Dakota, Parker was a trumpet player who incorporated his love of jazz improvisation into his practice. After moving to the city in 1951, he joined the circle of artists around the abstract expressionists, becoming close to Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. But his work ultimately resulted in a refined format of intense colored forms floating on a pale surface, as seen in his untitled painting from 1965 featured in the exhibition. It secured Parker’s reputation as an artist who had moved beyond abstract expressionism.


Established artists from around the world also arrived in New York City to take their careers in new directions. Friedel Dzubas had studied with Paul Klee in Berlin before escaping Nazi Germany in 1939. Though friends with abstract expressionists Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning, he also experimented with what we now term color field painting. Following the revolutionary practice of his studio-mate Helen Frankenthaler, Dzubas soaked diluted acrylic paint directly into unprimed canvas. His mastery of color and textural effects is apparent in his 1966 painting Deep Noon, which – expanding the length of a gallery wall – evokes a muted, southwestern landscape. Born and raised in Kyoto, Japan, Shingo Kusuda came to the United States in 1964 as part of the Japanese American Cultural Research program sponsored by the American collector and publishing executive John Powers. Along with three other artists from Kyoto, he spent six months working with contemporary American artists. Kusuda also developed an appreciation of unconventional materials; his mixed media Work #19 (one of four works by the artist in the Zimmerli’s collection) incorporates cement, wood, and collage, demonstrating his contributions during this dynamic era of exploring surface effects in painting.


Circa 1966: American Prints from the Collection was organized by Christina Weyl, Ph.D. (Rutgers 2015), with assistance from Nicole Simpson, Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings, and is on view September 3, 2016, to January 29, 2017. Donna Gustafson, Curator of American Art and Mellon Director for Academic Programs, with the assistance of Mellon 2016 Summer Interns Kaitlin Booher and Todd Caissie, organized Circa 1966: Paintings and Sculpture from the Collection, which is on view September 3, 2016, to January 8, 2017.



The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum houses more than 60,000 works of art, ranging from ancient to contemporary art. The permanent collection features particularly rich holdings in 19th-century French art; Russian art from icons to the avant-garde; Soviet nonconformist art from the Dodge Collection; and American art with notable holdings of prints. In addition, small groups of antiquities, old master paintings, as well as art inspired by Japan and original illustrations for children’s books, provide representative examples of the museum’s research and teaching message at Rutgers. One of the largest and most distinguished university-based art museums in the nation, the Zimmerli is located on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Established in 1766, Rutgers is America’s eighth oldest institution of higher learning and a premier public research university.



Admission is free to the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. The museum is located at 71 Hamilton Street (at George Street) on the College Avenue Campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. The Zimmerli is a short walk from the NJ Transit train station in New Brunswick, midway between New York City and Philadelphia.


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For more information, visit the museum’s website or call 848.932.7237.



The Zimmerli’s operations, exhibitions, and programs are funded in part by Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and income from the Avenir Foundation Endowment and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment, among others. Additional support comes from the New Jersey State Council of the Arts and the Estate of Victoria J. Mastrobuono; and donors, members, and friends of the museum.



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