Circa 1958 now showing at the Ackland

Ever had the urge to nail a strand of your hair into a mirror but thought, “Hey, if I nail anything into this mirror, it’s gonna shatter”?  Well, think again—in the ’50s anything was possible: they nailed human hair into faux mirrors, splotched paint across the canvas, and even put everyday chairs on display, all in the name of art.  Through January 4, 2009, the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is exhibiting CIRCA 1958: Breaking Ground in American Art, which “explores two vastly different trends that emerged in and around 1958: Post-painterly Abstraction and Assemblage.”

Ackland Director Emily Kass writes, “During the mid- to late 1950s, many American artists began to pare down their formal vocabulary to a few basic elements. Eliminating any reference to figure or landscape, they experimented with the many ways that line, color, and shape could assert the essential flatness of a canvas without the nuance of personal expression.”  Featuring work by Yoko Ono, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Claus Oldenberg, Andy Warhol, and others, CIRCA 1958 is an exhibit not to be missed.

We attended in late November and were blown away by the instantly recognizable paintings and sculptures.  As we went from room to room, each piece stood out from the last. George Brecht’s Three Chair Events (1961) involves three different chairs (one black, one white, and one yellow) placed in different settings. The “events,” referred to in the title reference all occurrences that take place around the chairs, including sitting on them—an interesting concept, considering “DO NOT TOUCH” is engrained in the minds of most museum goers.

Encouraging a participatory role as an art observer, Yoko Ono asks visitors to nail a strand of their hair into the mirror, adding to the aesthetic—you want me to do what?!? Bright colors and contrasting materials make this exhibit an amazing experience, even for untrained eyes (like ours).

Curator Roni Feinstein explains that the 1950s-’60s were a time when mass media was encroaching on all aspects of American life—and art was no exception. Artists started to experiment with new materials, subject matter and styles. Many paintings now had a three-dimensional aspect to them, with candy wrappers and newspaper pieces worked in.

This exhibit offers a variety of art—from medium, to subject matter, to material—and each piece held us a littler longer than the last. If you haven’t had a chance to check out Circa 1958, then you really should try and stop in. Hey, we even went on our lunch break!

UNC Press is the distributor for the book that accompanies the exhibit. The book is 9 x 11 and includes 61 color plates.

–Rose and Rachel