New Jersey as Non-Site
New Jersey was one of the principal laboratories for experimental art after World War II. Between 1950 and 1975, a host of innovative artists flocked to the state. There, in its cities, universities, suburbs, and industrial ruins, they produced some of the most important works of their careers. In ways not truly acknowledged until now, New Jersey was the catalyst for, as well as the site of, major breakthroughs in the genres of sculpture, Pop, conceptual, performance, land, and black art. New Jersey as Non-Site includes more than one hundred works by sixteen artists: Amiri Baraka, George Brecht, John Cohen, Dan Graham, Geoffrey Hendricks, Dick Higgins, Nancy Holt, Allan Kaprow, Gordon Matta-Clark, Dennis Oppenheim, George Segal, Charles Simonds, Robert Smithson, Michelle Stuart, Robert Watts, and Bud Wirtschafter.
The artists featured in New Jersey as Non-Site coalesced, roughly, into three different communities, some fragile and temporary, others more durable. Hendricks, Kaprow, and Watts taught at Rutgers and Douglass Colleges in New Brunswick, a dynamic university environment that attracted many other artists, including Brecht, Higgins, and Segal, whose farm served as a laboratory of its own, hosting myriad Happenings in the early 1960s. Baraka helped shape a second community based in Newark’s Central Ward, where he forged connections among artists, playwrights, musicians, local citizens, and members of the Black Power movement.
The third community pledged allegiance to no specific town or city in New Jersey. Associated with inveterate travelers Holt and Smithson, its members roamed widely through the state’s quarries, forests, suburbs, and mines. The artists who compose these three groups came to New Jersey for different reasons, and they created varied work while here, but they are nonetheless linked by a set of common interests: cooperation, ruin, and liminality. Whether they found themselves in New Jersey because of choice or happenstance, the artists in this exhibition generally set out to accomplish one or more of the following upon arrival: to nurture unconventional types of solidarity and collective action; to explore places deemed bland and derelict; and to cultivate a sense of marginality and displacement—activities for which Manhattan, for whatever reason, proved less apposite or less hospitable.
Behind these artists’ commitment to New Jersey lay something very specific: difference. For a century or more, New Jersey’s identity had been measured in terms of its difference (not to mention its distance) from New York. Long considered New York’s “other,” New Jersey was very much an “other” place: a supposedly provincial state in the midst of acute economic and social flux, on the margins of a cosmopolitan center. For a generation of artists that prized incongruity, contradiction, and discrepancy, New Jersey was a natural destination. In profound and exciting ways, the state complemented the experiments artists already had begun to imagine.
New Jersey was by no means the only “other place” that artists discovered in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, but it was in many ways the first and most important of them. It was in New Jersey that artists began to experiment with the possibilities of a “post-studio practice,” lessons they would later export to far more remote locations in Nevada, Utah, Mexico, Canada, and Europe. When the artists in this exhibition came to New Jersey after World War II, it was not, as Oppenheim once said, to “[sit] on a hillside looking at a sunset.” Degradation suited them more than natural beauty, and to this end they gravitated toward some of New Jersey’s most dismal, peripheral locales—not to disparage them, but to study, use, and engage them. In keeping with their tendency to work against the grain of conventional wisdom, the artists in New Jersey as Non-Site valued what most snubbed; appreciated what others disliked; and sought out what many avoided.
Inasmuch as the artists in this exhibition were attached to any one place or to the concept of “place” at all, they were attached to New Jersey, and in its ruins, quarries, suburbs, farms, highways, and universities, they fashioned provisional communities and temporary laboratories in which to experiment with art. It is neither incidental nor accidental that the artists featured in New Jersey as Non-Site came to occupy New Jersey for a period of two or more decades between 1950 and 1975: much that defined the state in those years was consonant with investigations that they were just beginning to launch on the streets and in the classrooms of New York. Each of the artists in this exhibition found New Jersey’s landscape both informative and revelatory. Located, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally, within its borders, they seemed to agree on one thing: peripheries like New Jersey provide critical leverage not available in cosmopolitan centers, an unfamiliar perspective that disables convention and expectation alike. “We were inventing the ground rules for a new art here in New Jersey,” Segal recalled in 1973. “Some of it flowered, some of it ended, some of it got brutally treated.”
Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
This exhibition and its accompanying publication were inspired by an extraordinary act of generosity: the gift to Princeton University of three sculptures by George Segal and a vast archive containing Segal’s papers, photographs, letters, and clippings from Rena and Helen Segal and Susan Kutliroff of the George and Helen Segal Foundation in 2007–2009.
New Jersey as Non-Site has been made possible by generous support from Preston H. Haskell, Class of 1960; Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; the Virginia and Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Program Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art; Sueyun and Gene Locks, Class of 1959; and PSEG. Additional support has been provided by the Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Contemporary Art Fund; The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; Elchin Safarov and Dilyara Allakhverdova; the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with further support from the Department of History, the Center for African American Studies, and the Department of English, Princeton University; and the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum. Programming is made possible, in part, by funds from the Jannotta-Pearsall Family Fund of the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole; the Fisher Lecture Series; and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts / Department of State, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts. The publication has been made possible, in part, by the Barr Ferree Foundation Publication Fund, Princeton University.