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Second Thoughts: Les Levine at Walker Art Center (1967)

In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Pavel Pyś considers the 1967 Walker exhibition Les Levine: Two Environments, focusing on the artist’s installation Slipcover through the lens of works by Levine’s peers, environmental art, and institutional critique. By the time of his exhibition at Walker Art Center […]

Installation view of Slipcover as part of Les Levine: Two Environments (1967), Walker Art Center. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Pavel Pyś considers the 1967 Walker exhibition Les Levine: Two Environments, focusing on the artist’s installation Slipcover through the lens of works by Levine’s peers, environmental art, and institutional critique.

By the time of his exhibition at Walker Art Center in 1967, Les Levine had established a firm presence in the New York art world. Dubbed “Plastic Man,”[1] he worked with materials such as fiberglass, acrylic, plastic and mylar, and championed the concept of “disposable art” that be “destroyed as soon as the owner wishes.”[2] Made of plastic and white foam, Levine’s “disposables” took the form of inexpensive, modular, machine-produced reliefs and freestanding objects that Levine encouraged buyers to arrange as they pleased. “Accumulation of any sort is a constipated activity,” the artist proclaimed, and as a result many of his works from the late 1960s were discarded and survive via photography or moving image documentation.[3]

Curated by Dean Swanson, Les Levine: Two Environments included two room-sized installations: Slipcover and Primetime Star. To realize Slipcover, Levine lined all of the gallery’s surfaces with silverized mylar, while inside the space large mylar bags inflated and deflated. In addition, multiple slide projectors showed images of recent installation views of exhibitions that took place in that exact gallery.[4] Discussing Slipcover with Swanson, Levine said: “I’ve been calling my things places … something that completely encirclates [sic] you, and you become involved in the whole experience rather than it becoming part of another experience.”[5]

Levine’s emphasis on the specificity of “place” and the totality of an aesthetic experience as opposed to the viewing of discreet individual works, speaks directly to the notion of the “environment” as conceptualized by Allan Kaprow (1927–2006) from 1958 onwards. In Assemblages, Environments and Happenings (1966), Kaprow argued that “the line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible,” with the boundaries separating the space of the spectator and the space of the artwork dissolved and shared.[6] Kaprow, and peers such as Jim Dine (b. 1935), Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929), and Geoffrey Hendricks (b. 1931), pushed this logic further through happenings—conflating not only the space of the spectator and artwork, but also pulling the activity of the viewer into the environment itself, positioning the audience as an active participant.

Gianni Colombo's 'Spazio Elastico' (1967-68), Archivio Gianni Colombo, Milan

Gianni Colombo’s Spazio Elastico (1967-68), Archivio Gianni Colombo, Milan

Levine distanced his work from happenings, dissatisfied with the notion of the script or planned action, instead arguing that Slipcover operated beyond his control, at any point offering the audience an “immediate, personal reality.”[7] For Levine, “the room is the subject,”[8] and by incorporating kinetic elements, Slipcover challenges the viewer’s very perception of space and their own place within it. Inflating and deflating, the mylar balloon bags prescribed one’s movement around the gallery space, at once obstructing and then giving way. In Italy, Gianni Colombo (1937–93) explored similar concerns in the installation Spazio Elastico [Elastic Space] (1967–68). Within a dark cube, Colombo stretched a three-dimensional, layered grid of elastic cords, each treated with fluorescent paint. Illuminated by black light, the strings were motorized and slowly pulled, skewing and distorting the viewer’s spatial coordinates. Colombo conceived of Spazio Elastico as “an experimental test-construction to research the optical and psychical behavior of the users, who … themselves will end up self-determining, in part, the image they perceive, open to associations of the possible space-dynamic relationships.”[9] Just as Levine placed emphasis on the present, embodied moment, so too Colombo directed attention towards the relationship between the body, mind and surrounding architectural space. Seen together, Colombo’s Spazio Elastico and Levine’s Slipcover (especially with its pulsating, breathing “lungs”) share common ground with the Brazilian Neo-Concretists, for whom the artwork was an “‘almost-body,’ a being whose reality is not exhausted in the external relationships between its elements; a being which, even while not decomposable into parts through analysis, only delivers itself up wholly through a direct, phenomenological approach.”[10]

Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga and others release a silver mylar balloon from the Factory rooftop on 47th Street. Photo by Billy Name

Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga, and others release a silver mylar balloon from the Factory rooftop on 47th Street. Photo by Billy Name

With their slick, reflective surfaces, Levine’s Slipcover occupied a material register at odds to those environments created by Kaprow, Dine, Oldenburg, and others. While the latter preferred organic materials and haphazardly painted cardboard and canvas, Levine opted for mylar, plastic, and steel, bringing about connotations to NASA and the Space Age, the futuristic and the industrial. Levine’s preference for the shiny and new chimes with Warhol’s contemporaneous Silver Clouds (1966), the inflatable floor sculptures made for his 1968 retrospective at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, and the tin foil-covered interiors of the Factory. Both Levine and Warhol arrived at Slipcover and Silver Clouds, respectively, via painting, rather than sculpture. For Warhol, the helium-filled floating “pillows” were conceived as of as a means of “finishing off painting”[11]—freeing painting from the space of the wall. Entirely in line with Levine’s notion of “disposable art,” Warhol saw his Silver Clouds as ultimately throwaway—to be “fill[ed] with helium and let out of your windows.”[12] For Levine, Slipcover grew from the artist’s dissatisfaction with painting as bound to perspective and illusionistic space. By positing on space rather than object or plane, Levine sought to temporarily reframe the audience’s encounter with and experience of what a gallery could be.

Atmosfields (1970) by Graham Stevens, St Katherine’s Docks, London

Levine’s choice of materials and his emphasis on the architectural, share much in common with the sculptures and experimental architecture of British artist Graham Stevens (b. 1944). Throughout the mid 1960s and early 1970s, Stevens created a number of large-scale pneumatic sculptures, using inflated polythene forms. Inspired by the kinetic experimentations of artists exhibited at London’s Signals Gallery (1964–66) and collaborative practices such as Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV, 1960–68), Stevens employed inflatable plastics to propose new forms of “total architecture” and means of transport. His projects Walking on Water (1966), Atmosfields (1970), and Wavetube (1971) offered participatory spaces that questioned not only the possibility of what architecture could be, but also how it can exploit natural atmospheric resources, such as the sun, wind, and water. These concerns reached their height in Stevens’s mid-1970s work Desert Cloud (1974), a hovering, reflective structure that harnessed solar power and captured water.

Les Levine with Slipcover, Walker Art Center, 1967. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Projected directly onto Slipcover were installation views of exhibitions held in the surrounding gallery space, offering those familiar with the Walker’s program a reminder and of what had recently been on view. By layering images of the recent past, Levine sought to give the viewer a “new version of the room and all that space along with the memory of what it had been, [so that] the room became information about itself.”[13] In doing so, Levine points to the economy of the museum space—the comings and goings of works, and the inherently transient nature of the exhibition format. A year following Levine’s exhibition at the Walker, Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924–76) began the project Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles [Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles], an itinerant conceptual museum that operated between 1968 and 1972. A forerunner in the history of institutional critique, Broodthaers’s sprawling project brought together the usual museum furnishings and didactic materials (announcement cards, labels, etc.) with empty shipping crates (each labelled “picture” or “keep dry”) and reproductions of artworks shown as postcards or projected images. While Levine imprinted imagery of the Walker’s recent past onto itself as a mnemonic means, Broodthaers staged the museological site to question how it produces aesthetic experience and creates meaning. With no actual permanent site or collection, Broodthaers’s museum was his self-proclaimed fiction, a vehicle to unpick and study the methods of creating, collecting, and displaying artworks, and the means by which order and context are imposed upon them.

Brochure cover for Les Levine's 'Slipcover', Art Gallery of Ontario, 1966

Brochure cover for Les Levine’s Slipcover, Art Gallery of Ontario, 1966

Levine’s nod towards the Walker’s institutional history dovetails with the approach taken by British artist Simon Starling (b. 1967) in Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts), an exhibition the artist curated at London’s Camden Arts Centre in 2010. Starling selected works from the past 50 years of exhibitions held at Camden and installed them in precisely the same places where they had once been seen before. Criss-crossing vastly different times in the institution’s history, Starling’s exhibition created a composite, layered collage of Camden’s past, highlighting the movements of each artwork, and the shifting contexts they are subjected to. Both Never the Same River and Levine’s use of projected installation views in Slipcover beg the question of how the museological space structures our experience and memories of artworks. Levine and Starling suggest that artworks never exist in their own isolated reality, but instead pick up the traces of where and in what dialogue they had been previously exhibited.

Les Levine in front of 'Primetime Star' installed as part of Les Levine: Two Environments (1967), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo courtesy Walker Art Center Archives

Les Levine in front of Primetime Star installed as part of Les Levine: Two Environments (1967), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Footnotes:
[1] David Bourdon, “Plastic Man Meets Plastic Man,” New York, February 10, 1969, pp. 44–46 / Artforum

[2] Les Levine quoted in Rita Reif, “And the Walls Come Tumbling Dow,” New York Times, April 19, 1967

[3] Les Levine quoted in “Les Levine: the image breaker,” The Aspen Times, August 17, 1967, pp. 7C

[4] Levine exhibited an earlier iteration of Slipcover at the Art Gallery of Ontario (September 23–October 23, 1966). Here, in addition to projected images, the installation included closed circuit TVs that showed the audiences movement delayed by three seconds, as well as amplified sounds picked up by microphones in the gallery space. While it is possible to trace the use of projectors in the materials held in the Walker’s archives, it is uncertain whether Levine used TVs and sound within the installation of Slipcover at the Walker.

[5] Transcript of conversation between Les Levine and Dean Swanson held in Walker Art Center archives, pp. 1

[6] Allan Kaprow (1966) Assemblage, Environments, and Happenings. New York: Abrams, pp. 31

[7] Transcript of conversation between Les Levine and Dean Swanson held in Walker Art Center archives, pp. 4

[8] Transcript of conversation between Les Levine and Brydon Smith held in Walker Art Center archives

[9] Gianni Colombo, Spazio Elastico. Ambiente visuocine-estetico programmato (progetti: Milano 1964-67), typescript in the Archivio Gianni Colombo in Milan, published in C. Steinle, ed., Gianni Colombo. Ambienti (Graz: Neue Galerie, 2007), p. 50 quoted in Beccaria, M. The Body in the Net: Gianni Colombo’s Spazio elastico in Christov-Bakargiev, C. (ed.) (2009) Giannni Colombo. Castello di Rivoli / Skira

[10] Neo-Concretist Manifesto, Rio de Janeiro, March 1959, signed by Amilcar de Castro, Ferreira Gullar, Franz Weissman, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Reynaldo Jardim, Theon Spanudis reproduced in Clark, L. and Bois, Y., “Nostalgia of the Body”, October, vol. 69, Summer, 1994. Italics in original, p. 93.

[11] Andy Warhol quoted in interview with Gretchen Berg, “Nothing to Lose,” Cahiers du Cinéma, May 1967, pp. 43

[12] Ibid, pp. 43

[13] Transcript of interview with Les Levine held in Walker Art Center archives, interviewer unknown

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