I spent some of the weekend reading 1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan, a columnist at Slate who covers politics as well as cultural topics. (I’ve been known to multi-task myself sometimes, so I know such things are possible.) I’m always a little wary of books that make grand claims in their subtitles, which seems to be happening a lot lately. But Kaplan’s book, which tours through politics, statecraft, science, pop culture and the arts, persuaded me that 1959, the year Williams Burroughs published the first excerpt of Naked Lunch, Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue, Texas Instruments debuted the microchip, and the first two Americans died in Vietnam, really was a year in which developments that had been gestating in quite a few areas of the culture found some definitive expression. Such as?
By 1959 Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had been doing their recondite thing for years, but ’59 was the year that MoMA included them in the pivotal Sixteen Americansshow, which you might say was their entry into the big time. The same is true for Frank Stella, another of the “Sixteen”, though one who doesn’t get much play in Kaplan’s book. For him that show was the first time many people saw the ultra-flat Black paintings like Die Fahne Hoch! that he had begun making just the year before, the pictures that jump-started Minimalism.
(And yeah, I know, Rauschenberg had done all-white paintings as early as 1951, but for him they were an episode in his career, not opening shots announcing a new doctrine. Stella took up flatness and reduction in a more polemical way. For him minimalist wasn’t one more thing a modern painting could be. It was pretty much the only thing a modern painting could be.)
It was also in 1959 that Robert Frank’s book The Americans, an indisputable watershed in the history of photography, was published for the first time in the U.S. (There had been a French edition the year before, but few Americans saw it.) It was also the year that Norman Mailer published Advertisements for Myself, the (mostly) non-fiction collection that announced his evolution from conventional novelist to, as he put it, “psychic outlaw”. The first “New Wave” films appeared that year and Allan Kaprow organized, if that’s the word for it, the first “Happenings”. For good measure it was also the year the Guggenheim opened in New York, but as Kaplan appreciates, for all the novelty of Frank Lloyd Wright’s building, there was something backwards looking about the art inside. Solomon Guggenheim’s foundational collection was heavy on artists like Kandinsky, Klee and Mondrian, and by the time his museum opened its doors they had long since been absorbed into the canon.
So was 1959 really the year everything changed? At the very least I’m ready now to buy the idea that what we think of as the 60s began one year early.