by Sid Sachs
Title Magazine asked the curator Sid Sachs to recall the Philadelphia exhibits that most impressed him over the years. His response follows.
You asked me to write about the top ten exhibits I have seen in Philadelphia, not knowing that I am native to the area. I have lived in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or New York my entire life and during the six or seven years I wasn’t directly in Philadelphia, I was visiting very frequently. So paring down a list to ten exhibits is daunting. I am not sure I believe in top ten lists or annual best celebrations anyway. Let me try to recollect a few local exhibits that had significant meanings to me.
Bill Beckley’s MFA exhibit. Spring 1969. Tyler School of Art. Beckley made a frieze of letters out of Masonite up high in the corridor like an elementary school display. Below the letters were line drawings on typewriter paper. They were like stick figures and “unskilled” with narratives about George Washington. William Wegman would do drawings like that years later. No one I knew was making Conceptual Art like this; in fact at the time I don’t know if there was yet a category “Conceptual Art.” I only knew I liked this a lot though this was way out there and at the time beyond my ken.
Peace Show at PMA. C. 1970 The Philadelphia art students curated this group exhibit (if my memory serves correct) that was against the Viet Nam War where Christo wrapped the grand stairs and Ferrer deflected the Fountain. Wow. When was the last time any local art institutions listened to the vox populi?
Rafael Ferrer at ICA Fall 1971. Rafi’s exhibit was one of the most outstanding installations ever at the ICA. It was an awful space, a two-story box in front, cut across in the back by stairs and a corridor with a short T- shaped space in the back. Rafi aggressively tackled this issue; he criss-crossed a tarp at the door so you had to duck to enter and when you came up you were assaulted by a searchlight in your eyes. A large platform rose up in the space that held the light, it was made of lashed telephone poles that were burnt and seemingly used to make drawings on the walls. The floor was a huge scatter piece of ash and leaves. Up the stairs, Rafi constructed a room with short doorways cut out. Inside this space were drum heads in galvanized tubs and water, neon signs (did they say “artforhum” here or in another installation?) and televisions facing away from the viewer so that they produced a glowing light. Process Art right in the middle of its period of importance and local too when the ICA never gave a Philadelphia artist full blown exhibits.
Italo Scanga at PAFA 1971. Such an amazing show of local arte povera! What was it doing at the Academy with Sidney Simon’s bronzes in the next room? Total curatorial schizophrenia. Scanga used flea market found objects, tools and glass to make an amazing installation. Take a Mission settle and prop up one end with plaster blocks. This is Mission before Princeton’s The Arts and Crafts in America exhibition. The weight of molten glass poured onto a metal shovel elevates the handle – how’s that for process art eh? I photographed the installation but damn if I know where the negatives are.
William T. Wiley at ICA c. 1971-72 Wizdumb. Perfect name for retrospective of this UCal Davis California artist who taught Bruce Nauman at the time of Funk and mayjane. Heavily attended opening by a cross section of viewers, both artists (who were influenced) and collectors. Look up Enigma Doggie to see what stoner assemblage can be. Not the heavy politically conscious paintings made later but experimental and damn fun. Didn’t hurt that a Wiley watercolor graced the 1969 cover of Steve Reich’s Live/Electronic Music album.
Pulsa at PMA. 1971. A collaborative technologically advanced group that made a light/sound environment with computerized sequences again outside the museum near the fountain. Their command center was on the balcony out the door that used to exist behind the Large Glass. I remember climbing a ladder that was leaning against the balcony to get a better understanding of what was happening. From that vantage the lights were programmed to blink in a spiral that you couldn’t see from the ground. For a city that invented the computer why didn’t high tech take off in the art schools like at MIT?
Agnes Martin at ICA winter 1973. This was earth changing. Hand made, sensitive “Minimalism” and the first museum exhibit by Martin who had stopped working for 6 years. Then the lecture was like hearing the Oracle of Painting. If it weren’t for this exhibit and Dan Dietrich and Suzanne Delehanty who initiated it, there would be no Agnes Martin as we know her.
Virgil Marti/Stuart Netsky SS White Building 1992. In the front of a group exhibit in a dirty unused space with the ceramic tiles coming off the floor and the space raw and dangerous, here was a pile of pillows so beautiful, camp, and smart that I wish I could have purchased them all. This was my first knowledge of both of these artists, two of the best working here.
Pop Abstraction at PAFA 1998. With knowing hubris the best contemporary ensemble exhibit ever to take place in the Furness building and the best exhibit I have ever developed.
Virgil Marti at Morris Gallery PAFA 2001. Best exhibit ever in the Morris Gallery. Virgil played off the building and Pop culture and sexual orientation all in one swell swoop (pun intended). Psychedelic and Pop and so flaming sly. And PAFA bought the installation! It was supposedly going to be installed in an underground tunnel connecting the two buildings. Well… still waiting. It should be reinstalled permanently in the Furness building where the Bill Viola is because Marti played (literally) off the patterning of the decorative aspects of the architecture whereas the Viola could be anywhere – like why not put it in the Hamilton building in the basement, which is an awful dungeon of a gallery but with its lack of lighting could be modified swimmingly for video.
Marcel Duchamp, Arshile Gorky, Paul Cezanne, Barnet Newman, Anselm Keifer, Constantin Brancusi. All retrospectives at various years with curators Anne D’Harnoncourt, Ann Tempkin, Joseph Rishel, Michael Taylor and Mark Rosenthal that were academic, intensive, beautiful and exquisitely hung. None better.
To be continued?
Sid Sachs is the Director of Exhibitions at the University of the Arts.