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gene swenson and the new american sign painters

Henry Geldzahler, a precocious curator at the Metropolitan Museum and art-world gadfly, particularly piqued his jealous ire. Swenson notoriously sent the museum a funeral wreath bearing the name “Henry” and challenged the curator to a $10,000 riddle, but Geldzahler didn’t take the bait. On another occasion, Rosenquist remembers Swenson loitering outside a party thrown for Rosenquist at Rauschenberg’s studio by collectors Ethel and Robert Scull. Once invited inside, Swenson eyed a huge temporary chandelier and asked how many people it would crush if its ropes were cut; the alarmed hosts had him tailed all night in case he tried to find out. By this point, according to his friend Bill Wilson, “Gene had assumed the pathos of the creative person whose madness has ceased to be funny.”

Petty jealousies and professional disappointments aside, Swenson’s beef with the art world became increasingly motivated by an all-consuming moral and political zeal. As America plunged deeper into racial strife and Vietnam he was dismayed that his fellow writers and artists were unwilling to join him on the barricades. Although he had abandoned the insular debates of the art magazines, in the spring of 1968 he published four pieces in the liberal tabloid New York Free Press, newspaper home to Abbie Hoffman and Eldridge Cleaver. In articles such as “The Corporate Structure of the American Art World” and “Why Have None of My Fellow Artists Spoken a Word in Behalf of the Revolution?,” Swenson decried the funding of museums by “the economic dictatorship” and scoffed at handouts from “‘enlightened’ despots” while suggesting a guaranteed annual wage for artists. Taking aim at his colleagues’ political complacency, he wrote, “We of the art world have been wearing our responsibilities too lightly these days. This frivolity will live in the pages of history as The Shame of the Artists.” Privately Swenson gave Rosenquist the silent treatment for allowing his work to “serve the government” at the São Paulo Bienal, and publicly he accused his old friend of taking the “ostrich position.” In a particularly vicious swipe, he branded fellow critic Barbara Rose “our Marie Antoinette, with all that implies.”

Swenson supplemented his political writing with acts of public protest, including a fiery speech outside the Leo Castelli gallery, and he was arrested twice, which gave him great pride. In February 1968 he began his daily picketing of MoMA, carrying his blue question mark. Apparently out of fear that he might damage the art, museum officials banned his entrance. Swenson staged his last and most poignant act of defiance against the museum on the occasion of William Rubin’s exhibition “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage,” MoMA’s first comprehensive look at the movements since 1936. Rather than applaud his beloved Surrealism’s ascent into the ivory tower, Swenson railed against the museum alongside other critics, such as Nicolas Calas, who lamented the art’s symbolic castration at the hands of a formalist curator more concerned with his subject’s stylistic taxonomy than its seditious sex appeal. Swenson took out unsigned ads in the Village Voice “dedicated to the lost but not forgotten spirit of Dada and Surrealism” and invited readers to “join Les Enfants du Parody” outside the “Mausoleum Of Modern Art” on the night of the exhibition’s private preview. Nearly three hundred sloganeering demonstrators heeded the call to arms and gathered at MoMA’s entrance, which was guarded by crash-helmeted members of New York’s Tactical Patrol Force. On hand for the opening, Salvador Dalí wryly quipped to the New York Times, “I’m very proud of the hippies. . . . But, unfortunately, many of the young people today have no information. Dada was a protest against the bourgeoisie, yes—but by the aristocracy, not by the man in the street.” So much for radical idealism.

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