The current EMU exhibit Subverting Modernism: Cass Corridor Revisited 1966-1980, reintroduces some of the manifold art to emerge from that restless place and time. Detroit’s violent, post-industrial collapse is easy to perceive through the gritty, sometimes brutalized, works of Cass Corridor artists. Take, for example, Michael Luchs’ tall and imposing 1976 vertical sculpture, a chaotic assemblage of wire, tubing, plastic, wood, paper, fabric, and other chewed-up, half-digested bits you would expect to find in the belly of a dead factory. Or there’s Gordon Newton’s Diamond Follow, a tortured piece of plywood that bears the scars of a power saw and the indignities of graffiti.
However, this decay-nurtured, tumbledown aesthetic fails to encompass or correctly explain most of the art to come out of that neighborhood then. EMU art history professor and exhibit curator Julia R. Myers writes, “The characterization of the Cass Corridor artists as tough guys making tough art about a deteriorating and sometimes violent city was ‘journalistic crap,’ according to group member John Egner.” Indeed, to look at Egner’s Untitled, 1966, a triangular canvas painted green and apportioned into orderly geometric shapes by peach- and plum-colored lines, you can’t help but agree that maybe some critics were, at the very least, amiss in their interpretation. Even Newton has described his work as having a “natural feel” that came from “being outside, up north, or on the lake, the way you feel in nature, the yearly cycle of growth and decay.”
The exhibit aims to offer a new critical lens for understanding the diverse work of the period. Myers challenges the prevailing assumption–that Cass Corridor artists were either “urban expressionists,” responding to their derelict surroundings, or “formalists”–with evidence that each artist was committed to his or her own unique aesthetic. Taken as a whole, the artists, like their NYC counterparts, were caught up in a larger movement confronting modernism’s tenets. Myers’ thesis is clearly laid out in an insightful, interesting catalog; I found it indispensable to appreciating fully the artists’ subversive techniques. Copies are available to look at inside the gallery or to buy.
The thirty-plus works on display are divided into eight thematic groups, including “Minimalism/Industry,” “Complexity,” “Violence, Destruction, Decay … and Renewal,” “Vulnerability,” and “Music/Dance/Industry.” These are not perfect categories. Beyond the obvious overlaps, there is the issue of their subjectivity. Myers acknowledges that some works could easily fit into more than one category, and so it’s possible to quibble with some of her choices, such as Nancy Pletos’ colorful and detailed spiral Yellow Two VII in “Nature/Geometry” rather than “Complexity.” Or to wonder why the category “Music/Dance/Industry” contains only works by John Piet. Nonetheless, the themes do serve a useful purpose, of unifying this notable crowd of distinct artists and visions, and recontextualizing their work within a broader sphere.
The exhibit is on display at EMU’s University Gallery through April 28.