From the Archives: Counter Currents

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Click on the image above for a look inside the exhibition catalog.

A few months before the 1974 publication of his seminal text New Humanism: Art in a Time of Change, the social psychologist Barry Schwartz curated an exhibition titled Counter Currents: The New Humanism at the Center for Humanist Art at the Aida Hernandez Gallery at 99 Spring Street in SoHo.

The exhibition consisted of thirteen artists: Miriam Beerman, Jacob Landau, Arnold Belkin, Anthony Conger, Peter Dean, Michael Faurbach, Leonel Gongora, Cliff Joseph, Richard Karwoski, Jay Milder, Alice Neel, Philip Sherrod, and Nicholas Sperakis.  Each of these thirteen were also included among a great spectrum of artists in Schwartz’s book. While some of Schwartz’s theses and statements in his book unabashedly walk the line between agitprop and objective criticism, Schwartz is one of the few that have deeply analyzed contemporary Humanist art.

The “New Humanists” that Schwartz writes about are relatively under-known. During their heyday, the art market and society at large during the 1950s and 60s was fixated on mass media imagery and trendy phenomena. Renowned art historian and proponent of post-WWII Action Painting, Harold Rosenberg wrote that “Pop (art) glad-handed Madison Avenue as if it were looking for campaign funds.” (from “Bull by the Horns” published in 1974). Like the direct election, where the most popular, richest, and mainstream political candidates typically win, so did the artists who conformed to the hipness and attitudes of the times.

Schwartz’s analysis describes the way the “New Humanists” revoked this hipness to represent a connection between art and morality. The Humanists of the post-WWII era sought to create and impure and revolutionary form of art that speaks to their time of crisis. Parallel to an attack on the devaluation of human condition, these artists take on the art world. Art is very much a product of our collective and individual epoch and when society faces its darker moments so too does art and culture.

Indeed, these artists were swimming against the current. Their defiance to conform to a critical or institutional mold ultimately alienated them from achieving the fame and inflated prices of their more monetary and technological minded peers. Despite Schwartz’s frequent sensationalist commentary – “Today’s Humanist is without Dogma, without an encompassing ideology” – he was clearly onto something profound when he turned his attention to this diverse group of socially engaged artists. Taking a direct approach and avoiding influence from galleries and museums, Schwartz relied mainly on social interactions with like-minded artists to inform his survey of Humanist art. Some of these artists included the Rhino Horn Group members Jay Milder, Nicholas Sperakis, June Leaf, Benny Andrews, Ken Bowman, Peter Passuntino, Peter Dean, Michael Fauerbach, and Leonel Gongora. They were all featured prominently in Schwartz’s book, and Milder, Dean, Fauerbach, and Sperakis were four out of the thirteen artists that Schwartz selected for his exhibition.

Schwartz’s survey greatly benefits from diversity, especially by 1970s standpoints. His inclusion of female and minority artists -especially African American and Latino- is a refreshing alternative to opening an art history book to that same period and finding many pages dominated by white, male artists.

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