1969: Spiritual hair shirts were in fashion


In 1969, we were very free. I turned twenty-seven—too old to be a hippie, after having been too young to pull off being a beatnik—and was so free as to be practically useless, writing just enough to finance days abed in a tiny Sullivan Street apartment, where I convalesced from many drugs, a broken marriage, and other ills of frenetic years on the downtown poetry and art scenes. I almost roused myself to attend Woodstock. Nixon became President. Vietnam churned on. Tidings of the Manson family and the Weathermen intensified a sense of concatenating disaster. Black Power, nascent feminism, and Stonewall discomfited straight white guys like me. (Being on the side of the angels is hard when the angels are mad at you.) In the art world, “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970,” which opened in 1969, at the Metropolitan Museum, and was curated by the owlish hipster Henry Geldzahler, summarized swiftly receding glories. Philip Guston, whose hypersensitive abstractions I had revered, was painting R. Crumb-like goofball imagery, for which it would take me more than a decade to forgive him. After a psychedelic efflorescence, color died. This I’ve confirmed on visits to “1969,” a huge show of works from the Museum of Modern Art’s collections, at P.S. 1, the museum’s affiliate in Long Island City. A grayer affair, in mood as in hue, cannot be imagined. It vivifies a reign of asceticism that followed upon our surfeit of freedom. Spiritual hair shirts were in fashion.

more from Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker here.