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PREFACE TO THE UNTOLD SIXTIES
Coming in from the Cold
By Alan W. Moore
Co-Founder, ABC No Rio
I first found the writings of Alex Gross in the archive, in the microfilmed pages of the East Village Other from the late 1960s. Late in the last century I was researching the Art Workers Coalition, a seminal New York group which came together to challenge dominant institutions, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. Although Grosss writing was not in any bibliography or citation I had previously encountered, I quickly realized that he had chronicled the arising of the AWC, their earliest positions, and the artistic and political context of this important moment closely and assiduously.
Through his lively, opinionated and spicy writing, my eyes were opened to a world gone by. For my study this was buried treasure, the historians dream. Alexs newspaper texts made reference to a book. I looked for it, but it seems that it never came out&ldots;
Some years later, while I was revising my dissertation work, Alex popped up on the web. He had posted excerpts from an-other book he had written this one. These bits concerned the Art Workers Coalition, but also politicized cultural activity in London and Berlin, places he had worked as a playwright and reporter for the underground press. The polyglot Gross had produced most of his memoir of the 1960s during the early 1970s, writing in the same bright style I had admired in his journalism. It was a time capsule, or time machine as he calls it, of this world-changing period.
Finally we met. He is curious, effusive, energetically polite a real charmer. Alex lives with his partner Ilene in a crowded apartment across the street from the former newspaper office he worked in 40 years ago. Now its a bank. We visited the lobby, and admired photos on the wall of the building as it once was the Fillmore East concert hall. We went to the copy shop, and I acquired a typewritten manuscript copy of this book.
I pored over it eagerly. This was all news to me and when it wasnt, Alexs account filled in background and shading. Alex is a reporter. His attentive eyewitness account is a basic document by a trained and knowledgeable observer. At the same time, he was a partisan, and his writing is relentlessly personal. The reader really feels it&ldots; it being the texture of cultural politics, the sizzle of social change.
The book opens in 1963 with the arrival of Alex and Ilene in London. They are unusual people. An artist and a writer, stu-dents of yoga, sexually adventurous, they arrive in London during a moment of great cultural change. It is the time of the Profumo political sex and spy scandal, of offshore pirate radio stations Radio Caroline, and transistor-toting rock music fans: mods.
English society is still hidebound, and Alex tells of drawing room battles over class prejudice in the London theater world. He is studying translation, German to English (he later worked in linguistics). In short order, Gross becomes intimate with the London theater world, and works as a Dramaturg for the Royal Shakespeare Company. His health prevents his further rise, but it doesnt block him from a career as a writer for the newly fledged underground press.
One of the first photos in this book is Alexs press pass, in which he appears as a Beatle-haired lunatic in thick black glasses. This is clearly the picture of a dangerous egghead or as he describes himself, a counter cultural agent. On the loose in Europe, an institutionally certified intellectual, a journalist and an artist Alex was a man of fluid positions.
The overseas American intellectual in the 1960s was caught up in the Cold War. That was a struggle between twin totalities capitalist exploitation or socialist tranquilization. Alex was a traveling man, and a man of the left, with a perspective that mainstream journalists did not have. (I am thinking of the estimable Janet Flanner, who was in Paris during the 1968 events, but had so little to tell.) Still, like the rest, Gross was navigating polarities. As a counter-cultural rebel his position was difficult, as the realities of the U.S. political scene tended to snap people back into stereotypical positions defined by the nexus of power
His is a relationship of intrigue with American officialdom dur-ing a period when the Allied Powers wartime occupation of Berlin was still ongoing. Gross describes the 1967 German police riot that ended in the death of Benno Ohnesorg. It happened during his night on the town with a man he suspects was a CIA agent. In his pursuit of a good spy story, Gross later takes a trip to East Berlin in the company of Harvey Matusow, the famous stool pigeon for Joe McCarthy. Following his career of destructive and complex deceptions, Matusow became an artist in London, where Alex met him. He claimed all along to have been a red double agent, and Gross presents possible evidence. That Matusow had become an artist, in the fluid 1960s intermedia scene, seems to me even stranger.
Grosss German adventures involve dizzying shifts in roles. He is funded to come to Berlin for his work in translating German plays (among them one by Peter Weiss about the Holocaust) but also for his connections with what was then seen as the hip, fashionable underground press. He and Ilene find a batch of old German projectors in second hand shops, and they set up as psychedelic light artists.
After a brief correspondence, Alex becomes the Liberation News Service correspondent in Berlin. Hes working for Ray-mond Mungo, who wrote the memoir Famous Long Ago. As a foreign correspondent, an agent for the international under-ground, Alex reports from inside the legendary Kommune 1 (Ka-Eins), the radical group known then as much for their free wheeling sexual mores as for their left politics. Despite that K-1 were favored demons of the press, Alex feels warm, happy and relaxed among them.
He includes an analysis of the nature of German authoritari-anism, while noting the revolutionary perfectionism of the students. He was inside that movement, and he likens the emo-tional tenor of their left debate to dance. He also discusses the pertinent question of demonstration tactics. He believed that imagination and wit were more effective than the almost ritual-ized violence Germans went in for during demonstrations, and he charts a change in Germany from the grim style to one more festive under the tutelage of Dutch Provos.
In both London and Berlin Gross witnessed the birth of concern over U.S. actions in Viet Nam. When he returns to the United States, he finds that is on top of the agenda.
He takes up his desk in the office of the radical newsweekly East Village Other. The paper is upstairs from the Fillmore East concert hall, and the journalists work, write, and argue to the deafening sound of live rock music.
On the culture beat, Gross walks into the Museum of Modern Art to find a demonstration going on. The well-known technology artist Takis has protested by withdrawing his artwork from an exhibition. Among those gathered are critics, curators and artists from the gallery where Alex is also showing work. Within days, the reporter is in the thick of it, meeting and talking with the New York art community which has taken a stand against the ways of the museums.
For me, this is the guts of Alexs book, the story of a seminal struggle of artists as workers. While it could sound wonkish to those uninterested in artists organizing, Alexs vibrant and per-sonalized account of the formation of the Art Workers Coalition reads like any exciting labor struggle or political adventure story.
A basic disagreement on aims emerges in these early meetings between a liberal group intent upon politicking with the museum, and another more committed to radical causes. Without hesitation, Alex and his editor use the East Village Other news-paper to promote the nascent group and their demands, or points. For them, this is the longed-for artists' branch of the movement that would directly confront the leaders of our soci-ety on their own chosen turf the museums.
A valuable appendix to this book includes the multiple versions of the evolving demands or 13 points which mobilized hundreds of artists as the driving force of the Art Workers Coalition. The group became a bellwether of American anti-war and anti-establishment cultural thinking at the famous Open Hearing of April 10, 1969.
Along with the sharp small portraits of American arts leaders involved in the protest, Gross makes the point that this group owed much of its life and direction to foreign artists. Takis, a Greek whose country was experiencing the trauma of military rule, was deeply concerned with democracy and social justice. Farman was an aristocratic Marxist Iranian from a country then toiling under the British and U.S.-imposed rule of the Shah. That poet insisted that the views of the average run-of-the-mill artist be given as much attention as those of the superstars.
New York artists, Gross contends, were simply too vapid and afloat in their thinking to create an effective movement among artists at that time.
Throughout, Alex Gross interprets his experience, deriving pointed and useful observations about the rise and fall of radical groups. The politicking within the group was incessant and complex. Early on, curator and publisher Willoughby Sharp was negotiating with the Museum of Modern Art on behalf of the group. Gross writes that Sharp was eased out of the leadership of the AWC at a meeting convened by the influential critic Greg-ory Battcock.
Of this early purge he reflects, radical groups begin with one or two entrepreneurial types thinking they can advance their designs, only to be overturned by more genuine radicals or other entrepreneurs with more radical vocabularies.
After the National Guard shootings at the Ohio Kent State University, the art schools of New York were converted into day and night poster factories against the war. Gross comparative approach informs his account of the mass meeting of artists in 1970 that led to the temporary merging of the Art Workers Coalition into a larger anti-war group, the Art Strike. The meeting began with the bizarre appearance of a young man waving a red flag and urging everyone to arm themselves and take to the streets.
Americans, Gross writes, substituted a cinematic image of revolution for getting their story out to the American people. The German students he worked with had talked to other citizens, and moved the government as a result. Today former protestors are ministers.
One of the great values of Alex Grosss account of the events of these years of artist organizing in New York is its dialectical position. For decades, Lucy Lippards has been the principal story of the doings and significance of the AWC. Almost alone of major participants, she has written her version repeatedly. This then is an important revisionary view emerging from the aspic of the past.
It is also a history of artists union type activism, as Alex and his comrades continue the original mission of the dissolved Art Workers Coalition under other names. They united ecology groups opposed to the expansion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the organized artists of early Soho arguing for their rights as tenants. They went on to found the Art Workers Com-munity, an artists rights organization that labored on for many years, just as before it the Artists Equity group sprang out of the political activism of artists during the 1930s.
This book has been long delayed, yet it appears now amidst a new burst of scholarship and memoir concerning the radical past. The question of artists acting in the political sphere is strongly present today. Alex Grosss book connects this question to the complex, extraordinarily dynamic politico-cultural 1960s. As Alex Trocchis 1962 manifesto Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds that launched the English arts lab movement puts it:
The question is not who will patronize the arts, but what forms are possible in which artists will have control of their own means of expression, in such ways that they will have relations to a community rather than to a market or a patron.
Since (and well before) the events in Seattle 1999 startled the United States, a swelling global anti-capitalist movement for social justice has been protesting the ruin of the planet and the immiseration of its peoples at summits of government and business leaders around the world. In the moment this book comes out, these activists, most from a new generation, are not only protesting they are actively questing for solutions.
The organizing ambitions of the radical left have been displaced from the classic Marxist historical class of the proletariat to the precariat, a recently coined term to denote temporary workers, most young, including many intellectuals. (Italian activ-ists parade the figure of San Precario, an ersatz saint, in a political vernacular street theater.) These workers are precarious, flexible, temporary. They are cut off from the secure factory jobs of the past, but free to innovate towards a new world, a counter-culture even grander than that envisioned in the 1960s. Now especially, a book like this is of inestimable value in opening the locked dusty doors of our useful pasts.
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