The death of Claes Oldenburg provides an opportunity to reflect on the part that Judson Memorial Church, a Baptist church in New York played at an early stage in his career. André Daughtry, Community Minister of the Arts at Judson Memorial Church, has explained how, from the mid-1950s onwards Judson has been a church with three inter-related missions; the political, the social and the artistic. The Rev. Howard Moody encouraged his Associate Minister, Rev. Bud Scott, to establish the Judson Gallery with Oldenburg as co-director in 1958 in the basement of the building that was known as Judson House, an adjacent building that the church owned and used for student and staff housing. Judson Gallery was where artists like Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Marc Ratliff, Allan Kaprow, Tom Wesselmann and others would have some of their first shows in New York.
Oldenburg’s show at Judson House in May 1959 was his first solo show and consisted of three-dimensional constructions. A two-man show with Jim Dine followed, where they covered the front of the gallery with monoprints. Then, in 1960, Dine and Oldenburg moved on to the creation of environments in the gallery within which they staged performances known as Ray Gun Specs.
Dine and Oldenburg were then able to move to other galleries and Judson became more involved with dance, music and theatre through Al Carmines; with Carmines’ eventually becoming leader of the Judson Poets Theater, which staged regular performances in the choir loft, making Judson Church one of the three original homes of off-off-Broadway. Oldenburg noted, “We were there in the very early, primitive period, the time of the beat poets, and it had a kind of dark character. The Judson Gallery was dormant from about 1962 to 1965 and then reopened under Jon Hendricks. There was Yoko Ono, and Allan Kaprow became involved again.”
Hendricks oversaw “an installation environment of Yoko Ono’s and a series called Manipulations that went on for three or four weeks.” He explained: “Each artist had one day and could do anything within the space—the theme was oriented around destruction. Then my own personal work moved more directly and closely into political art activities, and I welcomed many politically oriented artists, like Carolee Schneemann, who did a great installation performance [Ordeals, 1967], Kate Millet, Ralph Ortiz, and many others.”
A similar ministry also began at St Peter’s Lutheran Church under the ministry of The Rev. Ralph Peterson where Elaine de Kooning curated a gallery in the Parish Hall of the “old” church and Louise Nevelson created the Chapel of the Good Shepherd in 1977 as a commissioned piece for the “new” church. St Peter’s engagement with the Arts also included its significant ministry to jazz musicians, begun by John Gensel.
Oldenburg commemorated the period in 1990 with a poster printed to benefit the Judson Memorial Church on its 100th Anniversary. He wrote: “I wanted to make a symbol of the active Church, a walking or ‘rockin’ cross, which also happens to be a ‘J,’ a birthday candle and a newspaper collage of the world around the church. Selected activities of the Judson over the years are typed on my 1926 typewriter and scattered like street signs over the ‘newspaper cross.’ There’s also a personal reference to the work in outlined newspaper collage I was doing when I showed and performed at the Judson Gallery in 1959-60.” Given Judson’s artistic innovations and political engagement, Bonhams suggest that “Oldenburg’s image of Judson as a powder keg as it celebrated its 100th birthday, was very apt.”
Peter Schumann was another who got his first break at Judson. His first production in the United States, Totentanz, The Dance of Death, was staged there on May 15, 1962. Erik Wallenberg writes that Schumann saw the dance as “the new execution of the old rite” being a resurrection of dances performed throughout the Middle Ages in European churches. Schumann later formed Bread and Puppet Theater as a performing group for his works with their first play being “The Puppet Christ,” and with the group providing “a kind of communion — its signature sourdough bread — to its audience.” Guided by a philosophy of living and working within the means available, Schumann’s aesthetic is inextricable from the paper mâché, burlap, twine, and staples that makeup and literally hold the puppets and the shows together.
His philosophy has been explored recently at ArtYard in Frenchtown, New Jersey, through an installation of masks, puppets, books, paper mâché relief work, and paintings conveying his deep commitment to the creative and political work which unites artists and communities in celebration and protest. The installation featured historic never-before displayed woodcuts, brand new giant books, and paintings in black and white plus giant paper mâché sculpture, sweeping multi-chrome paintings, masks and objects. Schumann’s art includes pageantry, parades, plays, dances, masses, cantatas, circuses, books, chapels, and prints. Michael Bodel has noted that “Christianity has always saturated Peter Schumann’s work” from these forms which are “reclaimed from Early Christianity” to his early works which play “on overtly Christian themes.”
Another who draws extensively on her Christian – in her case, Catholic – background is Cornelia Parker. Sue Hubbard has, for instance, noted that, in Parker’s work, “Out of death and destruction comes resurrection.” Within her graphic works – currently on show at Cristea Roberts Gallery – Parker also destroys, resurrects and reconfigures. These are works often made using UV light to expose 1960’s glass photographic negatives of antique silverware to photogravure plates thereby capturing mysterious and unusual shadows thrown across the surfaces of the prints. Other works are made up of layers of blots and spatters, created by ice or by Parker spitting mouthfuls of tequila directly onto prepared plates. These works, in words taken from St Paul and used as the title of an earlier Parker exhibition, enable us to see as though through a glass darkly. We are presented “with a world of domestic objects and flora in the first stages of emergence from a ghostly past,” “an obscure vision of reality” in which what can’t be seen clearly now will eventually become evident.
Parker’s fellow Cristea Roberts’ artist, Richard Woods, has a major installation at Southwark Cathedral throughout August. Woods explains: “The Small House is a simplified facsimile of a normal terraced house. It is a 2D cartoon depiction of a terraced house, the architecture of everyday. Standing at 7.5 metres tall and positioned directly in front of the magnificent Great Screen of Southwark Cathedral, The Small House aims to spark up a conversation with the transcendental architecture of the Cathedral. I see it as a meeting of the architecture of the everyday and the grandeur of the Gothic architecture that is something beyond the everyday.” The Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, amplifies this latter thought when he notes that, “‘The Small House’ sits in the big house, the house of God, iconic in its own right” and then suggests that “the abiding with us God …. opens the door of the divine house and invites us in to find a home.”
The 2022 Art Installation at Southwark Cathedral aims to bring new audiences to the Cathedral and to make the Cathedral a more stimulating and interactive environment where visitors and members of the congregation can respond to a number of themes through engagement with the artwork. Such aims mirror the reasons for engaging with the Arts that were paramount for Judson Memorial Church and St Peter’s Church in the 1960s and 70’s suggesting that there is a continuity to the Church’s engagement with the Arts within the modern period.
Finally, this month, a project that is a gift from artists to the City of Manchester. In July, Passion Art launched a massive hidden art trail in Manchester to remind us we are not alone. During the last two weeks in July, two artists, ceramicist Rachel Ho, and artist and designer Micah Purnell left 240 beautiful ‘gifts to the city’ to find, to remind us to embrace our stories of loss and self-worth. Hidden in nooks and crannies of the city centre, the two artists left 120 Kintsugi pots and 120 You Are Enough oak engravings which the public were invited to find and keep as gifts.
Ho is a ceramicist, who has exhibited nationally. Her work is inspired by Kintsugi, an ancient Japanese method of mending broken pottery with gold, resulting in more beautiful and precious pots. She explains, “The pots symbolise the fragility of our lives, the scars are then filled with gold lustre; expressing the mystery of new beginnings and new life even in our deepest pain. The pots represent all our stories of loss and reflect the beauty of hope, healing and renewal. I am drawn to clays delicate nature. My aim is to make work that evokes a sense of beauty and mystery. Just as ancient pots have told stories for thousands of years, I aim to use my pots to tell stories of healing.” Purnell is an artist whose work is designed to create breathing space between incessant commercial messaging. He wants to add an alternative message into public spaces where people feel seen, are happy in their own skin, and have a sense of grace towards others and themselves. He does this by bringing the humanities to commercial spaces, with a kinder vision of life, for a more harmonious society. He has left his business card-sized wooden blocks which read You Are Enough around the city as a declaration of self-worth as a counter to the advertising which fills the city.
Each gift was accompanied by an invite to share anonymously how the artworks resonated with those who found them. These are being collected at www.gifttothecity.org where stories of difficulty and hope can be read as the artworks are found. The project is dedicated to Passion Art founder, Lesley Sutton, who, after five years of living with a terminal illness, is drawing very close to the end of his life. Lesley founded Passion Art to build bridges between sacred and secular spaces through art. The project aims to help people feel seen and less alone, to recognise we all have our daily battles and to create a sense of hope and healing.
Top Photo: Richard Woods’ ‘The Small House’ for Southwark Cathedral
Ecstatic Decrepitude, ArtYard, April 30—July 31, 2022.
Cornelia Parker: Light Passes, Shadows Fall, Cristea Roberts Gallery, until 17 September 2022 (closed August).
Richard Woods: The Small House, Southwark Cathedral, Saturday 6 August to Wednesday 31 August 2022.
Gift to the City – www.gifttothecity.org