In 1959, a decade before the founding of the Rhino Horn group, art historian Peter Selz (b. 1919) curated a controversial exhibition of contemporary avant-garde humanist painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City entitled “New Images of Man”. This groundbreaking exhibition was one of the first at a major American museum to introduce a legitimate alternative mode of modernism in the wake of the celebrated Abstract Expressionist movement.
The artists represented in this exhibition employed diverse styles, but they shared a common interest in portraying the struggle of the contemporary human condition in order to foster individual freedom. Some artists depicted contemporary humanity from an existentialist point of view, while others presented glimmers of optimism, using their art as a means of cathartic release of aggression. The show was also noteworthy for its inclusion of both European and American artists as well as of both established and relatively unknown artists. Established European avant-garde artists represented in the show included Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Karel Appel (1921-2006), and Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985). Among the established Americans were Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). Two of the emerging American figurative artists represented were Jan Müller (1922-1958) and Leon Golub (1922-2004).
Paul Tillich, a theologian, contributed the main essay for the exhibition catalog. In it he aptly characterized the dilemma facing both contemporary art and contemporary life. Mankind, Tillich wrote, was losing its humanity and becoming “a thing amongst the things he produces.” This was a foreboding comment in light of Pop Art, Op Art, and Minimalism, schools that were technically centered and that focused on the work of art as material product, as well as on other material issues that had more to do with aesthetics and with the value of art than with societal issues.
Unfortunately, however, the impact of this dynamic exhibition—which hindsight, at least, can identify as a much needed corrective or counterweight to the mainstream artistic preoccupations of its day—may have been lessened by the harsh derision with which it was met by the majority of the critics who wrote about it. Because it took place during the aftermath of Abstract Expressionism, the most successful art movement that the United States (in particular, New York) had thus far seen, the exhibition was much anticipated. However, because Abstract Expressionism was the “it” movement of the day, critics found the exhibition—with its figurative imagery and its roster that included European artists and Americans who were from outside of New York or who were relatively unknown—to be of little consequence compared to the “triumph of American painting” that had so recently preceded. Moreover, Selz included lesser-known figurative works by Pollock and de Kooning rather than the Abstract Expressionist work for which they were renowned. And while the reputations of Pollock and de Kooning—as well as those of the established European modernists in the exhibition—remained intact, the negative response to “New Images of Man” had an unfortunate impact on the reputations of some of the lesser-known participants.
Barry Schwabsky, for example, an art critic for The Nation, described the impact that participation in the exhibition had on Leon Golub, an emerging American figurative artists who painted imagery that was both socially conscious and critical of Western hegemony, as follows: “The event was attacked by critics as a retrograde exercise and was a professional disaster for the emerging American painter Leon Golub, who was ferociously criticized by William Rubin, then a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and later the powerful director of the museum’s Department of Painting and Sculpture.” Rubin, who was a champion of major contemporary painters like Jasper Johns (b. 1930) and Frank Stella (b. 1936), said that Golub’s form of Figurative Expressionist artwork was “inflated, archaizing, phonily expressive, [and] badly painted.”
Similarly harsh criticisms were expressed when the Rhino Horn group was formed a decade later. In particular, Hilton Kramer, the controversial outspoken art critic of the New York Times, wrote a scathing review of Rhino Horn’s inaugural exhibition in which he dismissed the members as vulgar expressionists who lacked both style and technique. Unfortunately for the critical and commercial success of the group, the efforts of the Rhino Horn artists to produce artwork with a message that could also serve a cause did not fit well with the Kramer/Greenberg program. Like the artists represented in “New Images of Man”, the members of Rhino Horn openly manifested their resistance to the forces of technology and popular culture and sought to place their art on a par with ordinary human experience. Ignoring current aesthetic trends, the members engaged in direct criticism of the fabricated and overly sophisticated commercial world in which they lived. Their ideology centered on the notion that art should be removed from the constraints of the institution, viewed subjectively, and celebrated as a language of truth that reaches out to the viewer. They believed that as artists they were responsible for encouraging viewers to develop their emotions and to consider new modes or channels of behavior.
This attitude put the Rhino Horn artists at odds with the mainstream artists of the 1960s, many of whom had turned away from art with moral and ethical overtones in favor of new conceptual and material trends. Nonetheless, Rhino Horn artists managed to gain a public following, to attract the interest of collectors, to obtain invitations to participate in museum shows, and to have their work reviewed in the national media. Rather than wait to be invited or promoted, however, Rhino Horn employed a “do it yourself” (DIY) collaborative approach to showing its members’ work. Each member would contribute to the operation, whether it was through designing exhibition materials like catalogs and posters, arranging venues for shows, writing press releases, fundraising, shipping and transporting artwork, or facilitating sales. There were no assigned roles; the idea was for all participants to share equally in the responsibilities associated with organizing, promoting, and maintaining the exhibitions, many of which did in fact travel throughout the country to various museums, universities, and commercial galleries.