The current art exhibit at the Gershman Y, Broad and Pine, is alternately a show of shows, a look at the avant-garde of 40 years ago, the story of a pioneering and now-fading institution, a chronicle of how a group of housewives (and a few men) managed to put Philadelphia in the center of an artistic movement ahead of New York and, finally, the story of two women who spearheaded a drive to make the city a headquarters for pop art and other emerging artistic styles.
If that’s a lot of luggage for the exhibit, "A Happening Place: Pop Art of the ’60s," it has the broad shoulders to carry it off. "Happening Place" is a retrospective of the work of the arts council of the Y, which devoted itself to introducing the most contemporary visual and performing arts to Philadelphia. At the time, the city had few, if any, venues for the cutting edge.
As a subset of the arts council, the fine arts committee is singled out, and a further subset of the show is the work of two committee volunteers, Joan Kron and Audrey Sabol. Indeed, the mainstay of the art exhibit is a partial replication of four shows these two curated beginning in 1962. It should be stated that the movers and shakers of the arts council would later become major collectors, gallery owners, board members, directors and founders of other arts institutions. Space limitations preclude all of their accomplishments, but anyone familiar with the Philadelphia art world will recognize the names Inez Gottlieb, Shirley Milgrim, Janet Kardon, Helen Drutt, Stella Moore, Gilda Ellis, Libby Newman, Phyllis Yusem, Judy Golden and Phyllis Rubin Polk.
Kron became a New York Times reporter and best-selling author, Sabol served on the board of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Drutt is a nationally recognized leader in craft arts, Milgrim became a noted playwright, Moore was a cofounder of the Pennsylvania Ballet and Yusem was a founding member of the National Museum of American Jewish History.
These women brought to the city the avant-garde not only in painting, but also in photography, dance, film, theater, music, poetry, a lecture series and numerous symposia. The list of their invited artists is a compendium of the noteworthy of the last several generations. The current show includes Christo, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg, Wayne Thiebaud and Lucas Samaras.
In other artistic disciplines, the curators drew John Cage and Milton Babbitt, David Amram, Dore Schary, Edward Albee, Zero Mostel, James Michener, Jane Fonda, Norman Mailer, Jose Limon, Martha Graham, Agnes DeMille, Edward Villella, Alvin Ailey and Robert Joffrey.
Much of the work on exhibit looks as fresh and daring — or as silly — as it once did. Some noteworthy pieces include Samaras’ nails and mirrors box, Thiebaud’s Club Sandwich, Tom Wesselman’s Untitled Banner #1 and Edward Ruscha’s Standard Station. While many items seem fairly tame by today’s forgiving standards, some of them once spurred controversy.
One of the most charming pieces is a letter sent by one noted Philadelphian to another. The date was November 10, 1967, and Edward Bacon (who has fewer than six degrees of separation from son Kevin) was the executive director of the city planning commission. Never one to disguise his feelings, Bacon wrote to the noted architect Robert Venturi that it had come to his attention that Venturi was chairman of a group that valued and sought to preserve billboard art. This was in conjunction with a Y show called Banners. Bacon wrote, "I consider this to be a betrayal of your responsibilities and a surrender to one of the lowest influences in our contemporary life."
From the dizzying heights of the ’60s, the Y has seen its funding from the parent Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia diminish. The sports aspect of the Y, including one of the few inexpensive indoor running tracks in the city, has been closed. The building has been sold to the University of the Arts, and the last remnants of a cultural contribution are the main-floor art galleries.
Still, the Y carries things out in fine style. A number of public programs surround the exhibition, curator Cheryl Harper has produced a handsome and scholarly catalog, and a gala fundraising dinner was successfully staged.
A Happening Place:
Pop Art of the ’60s
Sunday-Friday through June 30
Broad and Pine streets
$5 adults, free for students with ID