When Low Got High

Some of you may recall the 1990 landmark exhibition that originated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City called High & Low: Modern Art & Popular Culture. It was curated by MoMA’s director of painting and sculpture, Kurt Varnadoe, and The New Yorker art critic (at the time) and Varnadoe student, Adam Gopnik. It knocked some hoity toity members of the art establishment on their collective rears, if only for this statement: “A major exhibition addressing the relationship between advertising art and advertising, graffiti, caricature and comics.” What? On the same walls, almost touching?

These are two extreme opposites in art museum terms. While MoMA had certainly never shied away from exhibiting popular culture,  rarely if ever did the two cohabit the same gallery. From the art world’s point of view, this was heresy. From the popular culture point of view this was, well, like slumming. Advertising, comics, and graffiti artists were not all that happy either. Low? Who you callin’ low?

The curators came in for their share of media vitriol. The reactionary art critic and editor Hilton Kramer, of the New Criterion, called it “The Varnedoe Debacle: MoMA’s New ‘Low.’” Here’s a snippet:

What this means for museological practice is perfectly clear. The epoch of the anaesthetic curator is upon us. In the “High & Low” show we are given a vivid demonstration of what results from a view of art that is completely removed from aesthetic considerations. There is a great deal of intellectual passion at work in the exhibition and in the massive—and massively foolish—catalogue that accompanies it, but very little of this passion is guided by aesthetic intelligence. At every turn in the history of their subject, the curators are so utterly agog over the minutiae of popular culture—so infatuated with what might be called the archaeology of it—that its role in shaping modern art ceases to make a primary claim on their attention and becomes a merely incidental aspect of a headlong compulsion to explore the archaeology itself. Not only modern art but art itself is accorded an indifferent and precarious status in this inquiry. All the energy is elsewhere engaged.

But High & Low was an amazing exhibit for all the same reasons that it was despised. It brought together influences from both worlds. It showed the public that what they held in their hands (or their grandparents held in theirs) was not ephemera in the strictest sense, but inspiration on one hand and art on the other. High & Low wed two estranged lovers, perhaps protesting all the way, but loving it too.

The images below are taken from the press packet I recently uncovered, which included the attached press releases.

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For more Steven Heller, check out The Education of a Graphic Designer—one of the many Heller titles available at MyDesignShop.com.

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