The little-known 1962 Philly show that first brought pop art to the East Coast

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A show in October 1962 at the Young Men's/Young Women's Hebrew Association at Broad and Pine Streets included works by Robert Watts, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Marisol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jean Tinguely, Robert Breer, and George Segal.

One of the first things you may have noticed in the International Pop show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was a timeline mapping the genre's first appearance in the United States.

International Pop gave New York's Sidney Janis Gallery the honors with its 1962 New Realists show. A few more yards into International Pop, a block of wall text called the Janis show "the first exhibition to make a clear statement for pop art in the U.S."

But there was at least one other show at the time that made a clear statement for pop art in the United States. It was in Philadelphia, and it was first, if by a hair. On Oct. 22, 1962, at the Young Men's/Young Women's Hebrew Association at Broad and Pine Streets, a show of works by 13 artists opened its doors, and it shook up the city's conservative art scene. The Janis show opened Oct. 31 - nine days later.

The Y show is believed to be the first pop art show on the East Coast. If the omission was a slight, the Art Museum has now rectified it, adding new materials on the Y show for the remainder of the run of International Pop.

Any oversight may be partly self-inflicted. Organizers of the Jewish Y show post-dated the title - 1963/A New Vocabulary - trumpeting the fact that right here, in the now, was the art of the future. Many historians have understandably overlooked its place in the chronology.

Yet the Y show is hardly unknown. Art curator Cheryl Harper laid out the history in her 2003 exhibition A Happening Place at what is today known as the Gershman Y.

The 1962 show was the work of a group of volunteers, mostly women who, in the words of Joan Kron, who was one of them, "were all intelligent women who didn't want to be just housewives. None of us were the happiest women in terms of feeling like we were capable of doing something better, but somehow we were all living our mothers' dreams of marrying doctors."

Harper said that when she visited the pop art show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art a few weeks ago and saw no mention of Philadelphia, "My jaw just dropped."

International Pop was organized by the Walker Art Center, and its lead curator, Darsie Alexander, says "the part about the date did pose some confusion. We did our best to highlight the shows and events that we felt had the greatest impact, but in some cases had to rely upon the archival information, which we had to interpret as best we could."

Now, after meeting with Harper, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's curator for the show, Erica F. Battle, has decided to add new materials that explore the 1962 Jewish Y show. Harper's book A Happening Place has been added to the gift shop. Battle says she was aware of the Jewish Y show, but because International Pop sought to trace international connections, and because the Janis show was more influential, it was included instead.

That said, the curatorial process does not end when a show opens, Battle offers. "In conversations with Cheryl, it made so much sense to revisit the Philadelphia story and figure out a way to do it seamlessly," she said. "These amazing women who were anything but your normal housewives were such compelling figures. What they did was truly avant-garde and progressive."

A Tremendous Stir

That Philadelphia show, 1963/A New Vocabulary, was just the start. Over the next few years, the Arts Council produced a series of shows that would go beyond the abstract expressionist art dominant at the time, to pop and "happenings."

One such happening at the Y involved chickens. On the last day of the New Vocabulary show, performance artist Allan Kaprow presented one of his "chicken happenings" with live chickens, cooked chickens, and eggs - plus a nine-foot-high tar, wood, and mesh chicken that was made by art students, and then burned.

"There were actual firemen on site during the performance," said Harper.

Even before match was put to chicken effigy, opening night got the attention of Philadelphians.

"It caused a tremendous stir," said Kron, now a writer in New York, who worked in tandem with Audrey Sabol, the wife of NFL Films founder Ed Sabol. "Many patrons resigned their membership in the Arts Council on opening night. They said it wasn't art."

Art it was, and art it is. Works in the New Vocabulary show ended up in important private and public collections all over the world - although none are in the current show. And although no artworks from the New Vocabulary show are part of the current exhibit at the Art Museum, many of the the 13 artists represented back then are now firmly in the art establishment: George Brecht, Robert Breer, Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Kaprow, Roy Lichtenstein, Marisol, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, George Segal, Jean Tinguely, and Robert Watts.

The shows of the early 1960s functioned as a master class of sorts for members of the Arts Council, some of whom, such as Acey Wolgin, became significant collectors. Janet Kardon became director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, and then the American Craft Museum. Helen Drutt (English) founded her important eponymous Philadelphia gallery.

Several more Arts Council shows at the Y followed.

Sabol developed relationships with artists. Ed Ruscha credited her for suggesting that he make a print of his painting Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, a work that was part of a 1966 Y show, How the West Has Done! A Wild West Show. "She wasn't a hustler," Ruscha once said of her. "I sometimes think I never would have done that print unless she or someone like her had come along."

The 1963 original oil on canvas of that work is included in International Pop.

Sabol, who herself now lives out West, responded to a reporter's inquiry with an e-mail with the words pop art - yawn in the subject line: "Peter, for openers, I'm 93 - and hardly recall the 60's except for the beach boys ... I'm too involved with donald trump's candidacy - now that's a happening that allan kaprow would be proud of."

Kron says Sabol's yawn for looking back is serious (the reference to Trump, not).

A Very Big Typewriter

"There was no such word as pop art. All we knew was that it was going to be very avant-garde," says Kron of plans for the show.

As Kron recalls it, Sabol called her one day after reading a New Yorker article about Tinguely, the Swiss artist known for creating a self-destructing piece of art, Homage to New York, at the Museum of Modern Art.

"Audrey had this large-type typewriter," Kron said, "and she would write letters in large type, and they really got your attention, because no one had a typewriter like that."

The article mentioned Tinguely co-conspirator Billy Klüver, an electrical engineer who occupied an usual place at the intersection of technology and art, and they asked him to help them curate a show in Philadelphia. "He said, literally, 'I will bring you a show that will knock your socks off,' " said Kron. "Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Dine, Watts, Segal, Oldenburg - we never heard of any of them."

Klüver delivered the artists. Sabol hung the show, and Kron promoted it.

She also came up with the show's name. "It was a stupid idea," said Kron, "but it was the fall of 1962, and I thought it was really next year's style. That was a big mistake, because we didn't get the credit."

Still, echoes of the 1962 show at Broad and Pine are much in evidence today at the Art Museum.

Harper says the works by Marisol, Indiana, Ruscha, Dine, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Johns, Rosenquist, Thibauld, and Watts are similar to those in the 1962 show. "These artists were seen first at the Y with who knows what international impact, but with three major art schools in the region [Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia College of Art, and Moore College of Art], one can assume it was significant."

Sabol may be dismissive of the past, but others are not. Both women's papers are now housed at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, and they have been interviewed by Sid Sachs, the University of the Arts director of exhibitions, who is preparing a book and exhibition on the city's overlooked role in avant-garde art from that period.

"One of these days I'm going to re-do Kaprow's Chicken," said Sachs.

The fire department might be on hand. Or, given the times, maybe People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals?

After a pause, he offers: "We'll use rubber chickens."

pdobrin@phillynews.com
215-854-5611

International Pop continues through May 15 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 22nd Street and the Parkway. Information: www.philamuseum.org.

Cheryl Harper will speak about the 1962 show at 6 p.m. May 4 at the Main Line Art Center, in a talk titled "How Women of the Main Line Reinvented Themselves and Brought Pop to Philadelphia First." Tickets: $8 members; $10 nonmembers. Information: 610-525-0272 or www.mainlineart.org.