J. Hoberman at the NYRB:
“What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present,” the provocatively titled exhibit at the RISD Museum in Providence, presents a bracing counter to one prevailing way of telling the story of postwar American art. Somewhat simplified, this traditional account holds that European Surrealism led to Abstract Expressionism, which led to Pop Art and Minimalism, which were followed by Earth Art, Body Art, and Conceptual Art, the return of expressive painting, and so on up to the present, when no one city nor any single movement reigns supreme: a thousand flowers bloom.
But “What Nerve!,” organized by Dan Nadel with Judith Tannenbaum, argues that it was ever thus, and in Nadel’s words, “proposes an alternate history of figurative painting, sculpture and vernacular image-making that has been largely overlooked and undervalued relative to the canon of Modernist abstraction and Conceptual art.” There’s a healthy truculence to the premise and much of the work as well. Indeed, the show immediately engages the eye with two bumptious works of dissident splendor. The seventeen lithographs of H.C. Westermann’s corrosive, cartoony “See America First” series, stripped down travel posters for a dead land, get an additional zetz of Coney Island sensationalism from their proximity to Peter Saul’s blithely outrageous, biomorphic construction in enamel and plastic coated Styrofoam, Man in Electric Chair (1966).