“Collective Dissent: The SMS Portfolios,” on view at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, is marked by a turbulent year in America: 1968. Along with the Cold War and conflicts in Vietnam, there was traumatic violence on U.S. soil. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, in addition to numerous demonstrations and protests resulting in violence, highlight the year as a turning point in American history.
It was the time of the subculture. In the face of these traumatic events and the changing landscape of visual art, surrealist artist William Copley, in collaboration with Dmitri Petrov, started a bimonthly periodical titled SMS (“Shit Must Stop”). For an annual fee of $125, subscribers would receive six issues, which included not only conventional printed matter but also experimental music and interactive works.
SMoCA presents these portfolios from their permanent collection in an informative and expansive exhibition curated by Dana Buhl, curatorial coordinator at the museum. The multiple forms of art that make up these portfolios are displayed as relics of a hidden history. Most are encased within vitrines, while others are framed throughout the exhibition space. This periodical and the work it featured speaks to how loosely defined art can be and illuminates the rebellious potential of printed matter, which it continues to harness today. In the scope of this exhibition, printed matter can be on paper or in book form, or it can be something as disruptive as a tube of paint sandwiched in between two sheets of plexiglass.
As a whole, the SMS portfolios offer a utopian counter-narrative of art history — one that exists outside galleries and museums. The periodical featured the work of well-known artists such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Yoko Ono but also included artists who were more obscure. Through erasing any hierarchy between the participating artists, the SMS portfolios function as a disruption of the art market and other art world institutions. These artists used the tangible form of the periodical as a gallery, instead.
Directly following the Fluxus movement of the 1960s, which consisted of a group of artists who redefined what art could be, the SMS portfolios blend art and life and eliminate distinctions between mediums. These portfolios acknowledge that not everyone has access to high art institutions and question the prevalence of such institutions. If art and life are connected, why not experience it as a part of everyday life? In this sense, “Shit Must Stop” can be read as a protest not only of the global political climate at the time, but also of the politics of creating and viewing art.
Chicago Project, a work by Walter De Maria in the first issue of SMS, details a dialogue between De Maria and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Enclosed within a manila envelope are letters and diagrams exchanged back and forth regarding a proposal for an upcoming exhibition. The letters, displayed on a screen, read like a story. As such, the reader becomes invested in De Maria’s proposal. Sadly, the final letter in the sequence is a written apology from the museum announcing that the exhibition has been indefinitely postponed. De Maria positions his proposed project as the art object itself. What becomes important is the potential of the idea and the in-limbo exchange between artist and institution. In a darkly humorous way, De Maria accurately sums up the condition of the artist by displaying his own career.
The works on display throughout this exhibition may have authorship, but the collective nature of SMS still is significantly represented. Works from each periodical lie next to each other within the vitrines. The viewer is able to take a closer look at some works via digital reproductions displayed along with the tactile yet out-of-reach ephemera. The framed pieces throughout the exhibition, which include works by Joseph Kosuth, Bruce Nauman, and Yoko Ono, function somewhat narratively, detailing the nebulous nature of both SMS and art production at the time. These artists challenged the artistic norms of modernism and minimalism, creating new forms of art that are still influential today.
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At the time they were produced, these works were meant to exist within the everyday, outside the context of the museum. Viewing them inside SMoCA, I cannot help feeling a sense of loss and nostalgia. These art objects are laid out for our inquiry, but we can never fully experience them. They lie there brimming with potential, begging to be activated. But in 2015, is it even possible to completely experience them as they once were?
Ono’s Mend Piece for John is one such work that changes within the context of the museum. The work originally arrived in a box containing instructions, a poem, and a tube of glue. The instructions read, “Take your favorite cup. Break it in many pieces with a hammer. Repair it with this glue and this poem.” The materials, the potential for it to be activated, are on display in the museum. We might not be able to activate this piece within the walls of the institution, but the idea and its potential become the art object instead. This exhibition as a whole is not necessarily about the individual works, but more about a revolutionary idea that’s bigger than any single work itself.
“Collective Dissent: The SMS Portfolios” continues through September 13 at SMoCA, 7374 E. Second St. in Scottsdale. For more information, call 480-874?4666 or visit www.smoca.org.