What is Rhino Horn?

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“Our art is involved with life; it is concerned with humanity, with emotion. We will not listen to explanations from or about the technically minded artist of yesterday. Just as abstract expressionism – the art of the fifties – was superseded by pop, op, hard edge, minimal and color field the art of the sixties – so now a new art, a humanistic art, will characterize the seventies.”

In 1969, Rhino Horn was founded in New York City by a group of artists who were bound together by their dedication to figurative art and by their collective notion that artistic practice should have both a critical and a social function. The seven founding members were Peter Passuntino (b. 1936), Benny Andrews (1930-2006), Jay Milder (b. 1934), Peter Dean (1934-1993), Ken Bowman (b. 1937), Michael Fauerbach (1942-2011), and Nicholas Sperakis (b. 1943). Between 1969 and 1978, active members of the rotating roster also included Bill Barrell (b. 1932), June Leaf (b. 1929), Leonel Góngora (1932-1999), Isser Aronovici (1932-1994), and Joseph Kurhajec (b. 1938). In addition, Rhino Horn counted a coterie of exhibiting guest artists, which included Christopher Lane (b. 1937), Red Grooms (b. 1937), and Lester Johnson (1919-2010).

As the epigraph for this introduction—a passage from the first paragraph of the group’s inaugural manifesto—implies, Rhino Horn consisted of an alliance of nonconformist figurative artists whose members refused to adhere to the art-as-business ideology that transformed fine art into an object of consumer culture in the United States during the 1960s. The members were optimistic that a form of art focused around themes such as social justice, civil rights, overcrowding and poverty in urban environments, the horrors of war, and imperialistic exploitation would raise awareness of these poignant contemporary socio-political issues. Indeed, although each of the artists in the group had a unique style and imagery, there was a collective emphasis on depicting the human condition as subject matter, criticizing social ills and cultural myopia, and encouraging a range of emotional responses. As cultural activists, moreover, the Rhino Horn artists had something in common with their contemporaries in the anti-Vietnam War movement. They promoted a non-violent approach to social commentary, and they envisioned that by interjecting their artwork into American culture they could help prompt the power of individual expressionism.

At present, there is little public or scholarly awareness of the work or impact of this ideologically high-minded yet artistically unpretentious coterie. No one has authored an extensive account of the group, or a predominant biography. Rhino Horn published three catalogs in the early 1970s using their personal funds or trading artwork for printing and publishing.[1] The first, an accompaniment to their inaugural exhibition aptly titled by the artists The White Catalog (1970), featured the group’s manifesto and an essay by art historian D. Stephen Pepper. The second publication called The Black Catalog, (1974) featured an introduction by Peter Fingesten, an art historian from Pace University in New York and an essay by critic and former editor of ArtNews Lawrence Campbell. The third publication of the Rhino Horn group was called Rhino Horn: Personal Interiors (1974), and contained interviews and artist statements from Rhino Horn artists; Jay Milder, Nicholas Sperakis, Peter Dean, Leonel Gongora, Peter Passuntino, and Peter Dean.

More recently, on March 25, 2010, I moderated a panel that included Bill Barrell, Jay Milder, and Peter Passuntino. The event was produced by the New York based non-profit organization Artists Talk on Art and was entitled “Figurative Expressionism: Then and Now.”[2] The panel discussion was well attended, and afterwards many of the audience members expressed an interest in learning more about the Rhino Horn group. This led me to explore Rhino Horn’s origins and to begin the construction of an account of the group based on the recollections of the surviving members regarding how their experiences in Rhino Horn affected their artistic careers. This account grew into a broader art-historical and critical examination of the work of the members and of the role of the group, which became the present thesis. This thesis is a history of Rhino Horn based on articles, catalog texts, & interviews by others and myself. The acknowledgment of the importance of Rhino Horn’s history presents an alternative art historical account of the period following Abstract Expressionism (the end of Modernism) and the era, which is often labeled as Postmodernism. Furthermore, the existence of Rhino Horn (throughout the 60’s and 70’s) contradicts the narrative in many art historical texts that Neo-Expressionism was a return to mythological, audacious and boldly charged figurative painting.[3]

As existing literature on Rhino Horn remains sparse, it is hoped that this work will provide much-needed documentation of matters pertaining to the group’s origins and history, while also presenting Rhino Horn as a serious artists’ collective that deserves a place in the history of American art. This thesis is concerned with American art of the mid to late twentieth century that has been overshadowed by work within other, sometimes contrasting schools whose work received more contemporary critical attention and more subsequent popular acclaim.

 

[1] Rhino Horn “White Catalog”(New York: Norman Shaifer, Custombook, Inc., 1970). Rhino Horn “Black Catalog”(New Jersey: Norman Shaifer, Custombook, Inc., 1970). Printer Norman Shaifer agreed to accepting an original work of art from each artist as a payment for the Catalogs in an agreement dated Feburary 22nd 1970, from the personal correspondences of Benny Andrews in the Smithsonian’s Archive of American Art (accessed on 6 June 2011); Rhino Horn “Personal Interiors”  (1974), was a self published catalog that featured interviews of then Rhino Horn artists conducted by Dr. Jusep Torres Campanals Jr, critic for the International Art Communications System.

[2] See Artists Talk on Art Spring 2010 schedule, http://www.atoa.org/Spring2010/March.htm.

[3] Irving Sandler, Art of the Postmodern Era, (Colorado, Westview Press. 1996). 222

 

-Adam Zucker (Curator and Art Historian)

 

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