Retrospect: A rediscovery of the pioneering artwork of Jean Follett
At the beginning of the 1950s, as the juggernaut of Abstract Expressionism crested in New York and a younger generation of artists began to question its foundations—making new kinds of work that thrived in its shadow—a tiny gallery in the East Village became one of the unlikely spaces where the soul of the art world’s future was contested.
Opened in 1952 and named partly for Hans Hofmann, the influential teacher and theoretician of the New York School, the Hansa Gallery, at 70 East 12th Street, embodied in its very founding the complex, often contradictory handoff between the philosophies of Abstract Expressionism and the movements—or side currents or anti-movements—that were soon to follow, spawned in part at the Hansa itself. And in perhaps no artists of the gallery’s universe were the stakes weighed more personally and consequentially than in two whose work developed in intense dialogue, one long celebrated and canonized, Allan Kaprow (1927–2006) and another now little remembered, Jean Follett (1917–1990), among the most innovative painters and sculptors of her day, whose work is finally beginning to be understood and retrieved from obscurity.
Kaprow is best known as one of the pioneers of performance-based art, which he called Happenings, actions distinguished by their insertion into everyday situations. He began as a painter and was deeply influenced by the two years he spent studying with Hofmann in the late 1940s at his school in Greenwich Village, while finishing his undergraduate degree at New York University. Hofmann’s aesthetic theory, which he called push-pull (a creation of oppositions through color, volume and shape) had a lasting conceptual influence on Kaprow’s thought. Ten years older than Kaprow, Follett joined the Hansa, an artists’ cooperative, in 1952 in the midst of a sudden artistic flowering that took the New York art scene by surprise. She had come to New York from St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1946, after studying for six years with Cameron Booth and LeRoy Turner, both of whom had studied modern art in Europe. After meeting at Hofmann’s school, she and Kaprow hit it off, a friendship that deepened during their years at the Hansa. Her work, part painting, part construction, is dominated by figures, both human and animal. In 1950, six years before Kaprow began to use found objects in his work, Follett started incorporating industrial remnants, along with black paint mixed with dirt, stones, and twine.
Her work juxtaposes compositional acuity with highly personal, emotionally charged themes ranging from alienation to exuberance. Profoundly influenced by the primary currents of modern art, especially by Picasso and Surrealism, Follett saw her work as an extension of those currents, in direct conversation with the then-recent past. She called herself a painter, but the work she produced during the ’50s was also included in sculpture exhibits—no one was quite sure where it fit. The way her objects confused existing categories, in fact, is part of what appealed to Kaprow, and in 1956 he too began experimenting with collage techniques that gradually expanded outward until they began to incorporate the gallery space itself. His approach abstracted the tension at the heart of push-pull with other, more radical ideas about art’s relation to life that he gleaned from composer John Cage in the late ’50s. For Kaprow, the incorporation of the actual led to a fruitful aesthetic confusion about what was ‘real.’ The objects incorporated? The painterly gestures and traces of the artist’s hand? This uncertainty turned collage into a dialectic: both an object in and of itself, and life in actuality, not a representation of it. In the extreme, this combination put in jeopardy the autonomy of art from daily life, and by extension its permanence.
Follett, after several years of increasing critical acclaim and inclusion in important exhibitions, was forced to move back to St. Paul in 1962 after a devastating fire in her studio, but she regularly corresponded with Kaprow about moving back to New York to pick up where she left off. She hoped to sell the constructions she had salvaged from the fire and sought advice about who might be willing to purchase them.
‘Follett started incorporating industrial remnants, along with black paint mixed with dirt, stones, and twine…She called herself a painter, but the work she produced during the fifties was also included in sculpture exhibits—no one was quite sure where it fit.’
‘I, unfortunately, know very few collectors now that I’ve been doing my present work,’ Kaprow responded in late 1963, alluding to his ephemeral, collaborative performances, ‘but rest assured that I have always spoken very highly of your art to everyone and will continue [to].’ And Kaprow did actively champion Follett, advocating on her behalf with collectors, with curators including William Seitz at the Museum of Modern Art, and with influential editors like Thomas Hess of Art News. Most significantly, he included her work in the book he considered his ‘canon,’ ‘Assemblage, Environments & Happenings,’ published in 1966. But something happened in Kaprow’s support for her work that went directly to the heart of a debate about artist intention and artistic purpose that continued to play out into the 1960s and, in some ways, continues to this day. The framework Kaprow used to evaluate Follett’s work was his own, his belief in his work’s decisive rupture with the modernist tradition: an insistence on ‘the real’ that favored conceptual ideas and rejected humanist sentiment; indeed, it defined sentiment as sentimentality, something overwrought and undesirable. Yet Follett’s aims were very much formal and compositional, imbued with a strong sentiment that she identified with humanism. Kaprow’s reading of Follett’s missed, or maybe ignored, her engagement in the lineage of modern art, especially a Cubist understanding of space and a representation of emotive expression. And his positioning of her work as a conceptual break, much like his own, points to a persistent instability—an instability that has affected the reception of the work of many artists, among them many women—in the prizing of concepts over sentiment in midcentury artwork.
Defining an Era
Kaprow was instrumental in organizing ‘Artists of the New York School: Second Generation’ in 1957 for the Jewish Museum, the first survey to encompass the second wave of the city’s namesake avant-garde, which included works by 23 artists, ranging from the abstractions of Helen Frankenthaler, Alfred Leslie and Joan Mitchell to figurative paintings by Robert De Niro Sr. and Elaine de Kooning; construction-type work by Follett, Kaprow and Rauschenberg; and the breakthrough painting-collage Target in Green by Jasper Johns. At the time, Kaprow was acting as an art adviser to Horace Richter, the scion of a textile manufacturing family and one of the leading collectors of contemporary art. The Jewish Museum intended the show to focus on Richter’s collection—in which nearly all the Hansa Gallery members were represented—with additions that Kaprow recommended. In his hands, the concept of the ‘second generation’ began to move away from abstract painting to show the full range of strategies that coexisted with it during the ’50s and that would eventually lead to new movements. (The Hansa gallery’s personnel, in a way, prefigured these movements: on staff was the dealer Ivan Karp, who would go on to play an important role in the promotion of Pop, and Richard Bellamy, whose Green Gallery would be pivotal in the development of Minimalism.) In Kaprow’s recollection, his shift worried the museum’s administrators, who grew increasingly concerned by his selections; they were especially puzzled by Rauschenberg and Johns. Columbia art historian Meyer Schapiro, as Kaprow later related, was ‘called in at the last moment to correct some of the ‘deficiencies’…namely that there wasn’t enough soul-searching painting in there, which I wasn’t terribly interested in.’ In fact, he found it retrograde. He had outlined this rationale in 1956, one year before the Jewish Museum exhibit, in ‘The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,’ an essay written soon after the artist’s death and published by ‘Art News’ in 1958.
Jean Follett, Many-Headed Creature, 1958. Courtesy Larry Aldrich Foundation Fund. Museum of Modern Art/licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY
Portrait of Jean Follett working in her studio, c. 1960. Private collection
For Kaprow and others of like mindset, modern art’s exhaustion was made patently evident by the mid-1950s in the work of Pollock, which epitomized to them no more than an ‘advanced style.’ Pollock, who died in 1956 in the midst of a then-ill-regarded figurative series, ‘created some magnificent paintings,’ Kaprow wrote. ‘But he also destroyed painting.’ And Kaprow viewed a return to figuration as no way out of the predicament of how to move forward. Instead the focus had to be on things beyond the scope of painting’s diminishing concerns, on everyday objects, ‘either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or if need be, the vastness of 42nd Street.’ The trick was to create something that belonged to neither figuration nor abstraction, to neither painting nor sculpture. Donald Judd saw this too, and in his 1965 essay ‘Specific Objects,’ he set out to define a form of working that challenged the conventions of painting, especially the inherited shape of a rectangular canvas, and pointed toward a new kind of work whose wholeness belonged to ‘neither painting nor sculpture.’ The issue was not whether a work was representational or abstract, but how the materials were used, how they resisted hierarchies of meaning.
Working in between categories had become the new advanced art by 1960, when Kaprow and many of his downtown cohort took part in the first New York exhibition to survey the so-called ‘junk’ tendency. The title, ‘New Media, New Forms,’ offered a descriptor, not a definition. The show was divided into two parts, the first in June and the second in October, at the Martha Jackson Gallery at 32 East 69th Street (the uptown headquarters now of Hauser & Wirth). The show presented more than 70 artists and included an environment by Kaprow titled Subway, made of wire, cloth and paper. Follett, who had recently ended her longtime relationship with sculptor Richard Stankiewicz, one of the Hansa’s founders, was included in both parts, with two works that indicated her dark emotional state at the time: ‘Death,’ shown in the first exhibition, and then ‘My Creature Washed Up All Over the World,’ both presumably from 1960, neither documented in the publication. That October, in an essay titled, ‘Some Observations on Contemporary Art,’ Kaprow wrote that ‘New Media, New Forms’ proved that the central concern for all advanced art was a sense of ‘extension.’ Written after he had concluded his studies with Cage at the New School in 1958, the essay is permeated with Cagean concepts of indeterminacy. Extension means a feeling from an artwork that nothing is fixed; space is not alluded to; it is actual, part of the artwork. Through extension, Kaprow wrote, the ‘plastic arts have become increasingly indistinguishable,’ making it difficult to differentiate sculpture, painting and drawing. And concern about art as object, ‘as a thing to be possessed,’ was lessened, replaced by work that occupied ordinary places, ‘the household, nature, the ash can and the hardware store’ and extended into real life, ‘the whole world of experience.’ It was one step from the extended object to an environment, a term Kaprow used to signify that the spectator had become a major aspect of the piece because the artist had created a situation for the spectator to enter. And this, of course, lead to the final iteration, Happenings, ‘events in a given time in which, put simply, ‘things happen.’’ The object is no longer necessary.
‘I count you as one of my strong influences and am always a staunch supporter, as I’m sure you know.’
—Allan Kaprow in a letter to Jean Follett, November 11, 1963
While ‘New Media, New Forms’ was on display, Seitz, at the Museum of Modern Art, was completing research for ‘The Art of Assemblage,’ an international survey exhibit that included Follett but not Kaprow. (MoMA purchased Follett’s ‘Many Headed Creature’ after the exhibit closed.) Seitz’s interpretation of contemporary assemblage and Follett’s work moved in the opposite direction from Kaprow’s. Rather than the instability of realism, Seitz saw work deeply engaged by social history, especially by art as a response to the urban environment. ‘The city—New York above all others—has become a symbol of modern existence…’ he wrote. ‘The tempo of Manhattan, both as subject and conditioning milieu, has been instrumental in forming the art of our time.’ Assemblage, for him, was linked to abstract painting through this connection to New York’s ‘vernacular power’ and by an ‘affront to tranquility and taste,’ and was an extension of the fine art tradition. ‘Every work of art is an incarnation: an investment of matter with spirit,’ he wrote. ‘It is often ironic, perverse, anti-rational and even destructive. Yet, with its negative side fully recognized, this temperament is one of the beauties that has flowered in the dark soil of 20th century life’—‘dark soil’ referring to the two world wars, as well as the Korean War, cataclysms that he saw as imbuing assemblage with sentiment. Seitz found his critical framework in the art criticism and poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, who had experienced World War I and wrote in 1913 of artists rediscovering inspiration amid the slaughter in the quotidian, in ‘pipes, postage stamps, postcards or playing cards, candelabra, pieces of oil cloth, collars, painted paper, newspapers,’— a list in many ways similar to the one Kaprow outlined above as his concluding thoughts in ‘The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,’ but positioned toward very different ends.
Seitz viewed assemblage, including contemporary work, as inherently modern, but Kaprow didn’t, a rejection of modernism that was not due solely to Cage. It was evident as early as 1955, picked up in a review by Fairfield Porter of Kaprow’s solo show at the Urban Gallery, where his depictions of the George Washington Bridge (six of which Hauser & Wirth presented in winter 2018 in ‘Allan Kaprow: Paintings New York’) were on view. Porter could not quite situate Kaprow’s art historically: ‘He is not an Expressionist in having emotions that must be put down anyhow in heat. In a manner that looks emotional, he is expressing calculated, basic, formal preoccupations.’ Kaprow’s fascination with calculation would become more pronounced in his Happenings, for which he devised scripts for choreographed actions and sounds, a further blurring of the real.
Assemblage, Environments & Happenings
Part of Kaprow’s challenge in recuperating a place for Follett’s work during the 1960s was that it had to fit into an art system in which the vanguard had again shifted. ‘Assemblage, Environments & Happenings’ was published in 1966 during the ascendancy of Pop Art and the burgeoning of Minimalism, two styles that very nearly eclipsed the book’s subject. Kaprow hoped his ambitious volume would bring renewed attention not only to his work but also to Follett’s. ‘Maybe someday the opposition to my book, which reproduces several of your works, will abate, and this would be a little help, too,’ he wrote to Follett in November 1963, before he secured the publishing contract, brainstorming ideas for how to restart her career. The oversized, square, 300-page book, covered in burlap (resembling the kind of material encounter one would find inside) was designed by Kaprow and divided into three parts: photographic documentation of mainly Kaprow’s work along with the work of others he saw as sympathetic, Kaprow’s extensive text, and a portfolio section that included a range of specific performances. The book had two goals: to situate Kaprow’s own work dating from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s among that of his peers and to provide a complete discussion of his conceptual aesthetics. ‘These materials [a reference to the quotidian selections artists make] are the subject matter as well as the media; unlike the more neutral substance of paint, they refer directly to the specific aspects of our lives.’
‘Looking broadly at the whole of recent modern art,’ he argued, ‘the differences which were once so clear between graphic art and painting have been practically eliminated; similarly, the distinctions between painting and collage, between collage and construction, between construction and sculpture.’ This disciplinary merge placed assemblage as the most relevant, innovative art form to be salvaged from the wreckage of modernism. Kaprow based his analysis largely on his own trajectory away from figurative painting to collage, then to assemblage in increasing scale, to the room-sized environment and to performance; he cast his aesthetic biography a bit like a science experiment whose success proved the logic of his historical sweep. Of course, he wasn’t operating in a vacuum, and in the text he frequently mentions other artists who question modernism. Halfway through, he proffers an alternative modernist lineage that today reads as axiomatic:
mind in the observer, the process is almost reversed…Marcel Duchamp conceived
his Readymades in something of this spirit and so, probably did John Cage in his piece
of ‘silence’ entitled ‘Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds,’ during which a pianist
sat at a piano and only opened and closed the keyboard cover at prescribed intervals
within the allotted time of the piece. [Robert] Rauschenberg achieved the same effect
with his series of blank canvases, and George Brecht arranged an event by sending small
cards to his friends with a few words neatly printed on them.’
Four of Follett’s constructions were included in ‘Assemblage,’ ‘Environments & Happenings,’ a quite generous representation for non performative work. The first appears on page 4 and is the first artwork in the book not by Kaprow. It is the not-quite square plywood-backed assemblage ‘Lady With the Open Door Stomach,’ from 1956, now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The construction suggests a woman who acts as a vessel, a container of meaning. Where her stomach would have been, Follett constructed a small, rectangular door covered in black-painted stones, tar and dirt. In the book, the door is photographed ajar, propped against the figure’s left side, revealing a ‘stomach’ full of wood chips, sand, cement and more tar. The door reveals what is hidden; it is pregnant like a womb, and the figure resonates as a fertility symbol. In fact, Follett’s figure—outlined in rusted metal, wood and twine—is filled with the very materials that gave birth to her assemblage method. Lady With the Open Door Stomach’s surface is highly structured, a subtle formalism not immediately noticeable. Follett holds the center with the figure’s triangular form; thin horizontal and vertical elements bisect the picture plane and establish the boundaries of the figure. The lines organize the picture into triangular quadrants. The only color comes from the untreated found elements. The logic follows compositional rules: a part-to-part relationship among the elements (they are not all equal) and a part-to-whole organization in the use of the repeated triangular motif governing the picture plane.
Opposite ‘Lady With the Open Door Stomach’ is Rauschenberg’s Interview from 1955, a Combine comprising three panels, one of which, an actual door, bisects the work at nearly midpoint on a 90-degree angle from the picture plane. Attached to the flat surface are paintings, drawings and photographs in addition to newspaper, a brick, string and other elements. In Rauschenberg, the door exists as it might be in actuality, suspended open. All the elements can be seen directly, at once, as discrete objects and also as part of a larger schematic based on the artist’s selections. In Follett’s piece, the objects are far less individually recognizable, and each element is used to construct an icon, which is then carefully balanced by the division into quadrants. In other words, Follett engages in what Rauschenberg called the picture plane’s ‘complexity,’ but unlike Rauschenberg, she invites the viewer to ponder the symbols of what feels like a kind of pictorial puzzle.
Next, Kaprow pairs Follett with George Brecht, a combination that appears antithetical. Kaprow selected an untitled 1956 artwork by Follett in which the order is far looser than the elegant geometries in ‘Lady With the Open Door Stomach,’ a grid barely implied. In its minimal use of elements, in fact, the work is unlike her other assemblage. Also built on a base of plywood, it contains items across the top two-thirds of the plane in a loose configuration: bottles, paint brushes, nails, wire and materials from the street—Follett’s arsenal, what you would expect to find lying around her studio. The panel is divided into three sections by a wooden dowel and some kind of industrial hand tool. A piece of metal, suspended on a gentle diagonal, bisects two of the rectangular panels beginning in the center and migrating leftward. The lines suggest a kind of order in an otherwise impressionistic space; they secure the vertical orientation of the work. This dichotomy keeps the composition unresolved, especially when viewed next to Brecht’s carefully constructed ‘Blair’ from 1959, a rectangular piece painted in black and white that also follows the vertical axis. Similar in attitude to Rauschenberg, though fastidious in appearance, Brecht’s work includes a narrow, rectangular boxlike shape divided into five sections: a full-length portrait of a tennis player turned horizontally, nine sets of cards, two of which are blank, with words—mostly conjunctions and no verbs. Below that grid, a thermometer shares the horizontal axis with a day calendar fixed on October 4, 1959, followed by nine slots for playing cards hung on nails, then an array of crossword puzzles. The overall effect is of a series of games set into a highly ordered carrying case. Every element in Brecht’s work is intentional and coded; Follett’s is just as deliberate, but her use of randomness, by comparison, conveys an ethos of sadness, an emptiness or hollowing out due in part to the scale of the small items against the grand scale of the picture plane. It is a piece out of alignment, even more so when juxtaposed with the organized objectivity of Blair.
Toward the middle of the book, Follett’s circa 1955 ‘Many-Legged Creature,’ today in the collection of the List Center in Massachusetts, appears next to the outsider art of Clarence Schmidt, who turned his home and property in Woodstock, New York, into a baroque sculptural labyrinth made of found objects, mirrors, tar and aluminum foil. Kaprow asks us to compare Schmidt’s ‘web’ (Kaprow’s term), the jumble of metal debris set into a garden outside his home, with the ‘spider’ Follett creates, playfully inviting us to imagine what Follett referred to as a ‘creature’ was the author of Schmidt’s environment.
In addition to referencing the human form, Follett’s assemblages regularly included what she called ‘creatures.’ Many-Legged Creature might have been made from materials acquired at Charles Raimondo’s shop at 51 Bond Street, near Follett’s studio. Raimondo, a dealer in scrap metal, was the source for much of the ‘junk’ that appeared in New York artists’ work at the time, a kind of Carrara quarry for the assemblage movement. Follett selected light sockets, caster wheels and heating coils and fixed them onto a ground composed of black-painted dirt and wooden scraps, which emphasize the creature’s strange, arresting form, its many legs falling from a vertical axis and poised just above two rectangular elements. Here the found material is less disguised; it takes more scrutiny to pick out the face, body and legs of the ‘spider’ in Kaprow’s formation. Unlike the two earlier pieces, ‘Many-Legged Creature’ is whimsical, playful, an interpretation furthered by its placement next to Schmidt’s garden.
The final pairing of Follett’s work in Assemblage, Environments & Happenings plays on the mechanistic, with Follett’s now lost horizontal piece, Gulliver, from 1956, and a still from Jean Tinguely’s 1960 Homage to New York, in operation for one evening in MoMA’s sculpture garden. In Gulliver, metal parts from an engineer’s measuring instrument are turned sideways to symbolize the eponymous sleeping traveler to Lilliput, with nails representing the tiny figures he encountered. The white wooden planks read as closed space—no escape from the adventure. The organization—on the horizontal axis, and on a much larger scale than in her previous work, approximately eight feet long—maintains a tension using larger areas of white wood nailed onto the black background. The use of engineering tools (emphasized by Kaprow’s caption, ‘Machine Dream,’) connects the work to the similarly fantastical engineering feat of Tinguely’s infamous self-destroying installation. Tinguely painted most of his elements white, which added unity and a type of elegance to them. He also worked with bona fide engineers, including Billy Klüver of Bell Labs, to time how the elements moved. While Tinguely’s and Follett’s work share some affinities, ultimately the self-destroying energy and cacophony of his multipart, large-scale machine sit uneasily across the page, and in history, with the constructive narrative quality of Follett’s assemblage.
Untangling the History
Kaprow held that artists working in assemblage aimed at ‘relinquishing the goal of picture making entirely by accepting the possibilities that lay in using a broken surface and a non geometric field.’ But Follett certainly was not relinquishing an image, geometries or modernism in the constructions, a fact that Kaprow seems to have elided by insisting on what he described as the works’ almost medieval formation, a ‘magical’ quality achieved not through Follett’s Cubist understanding of object-space-dimension but by a pictographic representational style almost ‘primitive’. He wrote: ‘These fetishes do not function on or in their field as images within a space, that is, the object-ground relation is not present. Instead, the rectangle is the ‘aura’ of the image; it is in fact the equivalent of a mandorla, or halo, and so here too we bypass pure painting.’ In other words, the only way Kaprow could possibly fit Follett into the radical canon he had devised was to leapfrog the work’s power back to long before modernism, before even the Renaissance. Follett, however, consistently stressed that she drew her greatest influences during the 1950s from elements of French Dada and Surrealism. In 1963 she explained to the Whitney Museum that her goal was not only to advance but also to reshape ideas that both movements spawned:
and better kind of Dada. For I do not believe in negating art as Dadaists do. In my kind of Dada, I
should like to make it positive art, though surreal in expression, and Dada both in technique and
expression, but always keeping the principles of balance and the laws which I believe basic and
intrinsic and constant throughout all the ages in a true work of art.’
She drew upon a dialogue with the art of the generation just before her and believed in the validity of rules governing proportion and balance; indeed, they were central to her thinking. Two decades later, she seemed to recognize that her work truly had not ‘fit’ into the new histories of contemporary art formulated by Kaprow and eventually by postmodernism. Asked for an artist statement for a 1987 publication, she gave up trying to situate her contribution and offered a kind of tautology, borrowing a touch of Kaprow’s terminology: ‘My work could be described as abstract, primitive and surreal, but can only be wholly understood, being so deeply personal, in terms of its own, innate plastic language.’ The object, in other words, is the artist, and in this case, the artist is autonomous from the field, a field that has still not found a place for her.
Traditional art history teaches that what the artist says is unreliable, unstable and ultimately inscrutable. But a major reason for rejecting what artists say is that it is intellectually unfashionable in its time. Representing emotive-psychological concepts was an important concern of postwar artists, especially female artists, and definitely Jean Follett. Even Larry Rivers, who studied alongside Kaprow and Follett at Hofmann’s school and was not known for sentimentality, told an interviewer, ‘Whatever it is I’m painting, I want to do it more precisely in the realm of the psychological.’ Tastes shifted and favored ironic, rationalized work, epitomized by Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism and their successor styles. Why are they still so attractive after half a century? Finding an answer requires untangling the history of aesthetic preferences now so embedded as to go unquestioned. The work to be done involves relieving the tension surrounding art’s incorporation of sentiment, to situate accomplished artists like Follett not simply as harbingers of developments like performance but as catalytic in their own right in furthering the poetry of human subjectivity.
Melissa Rachleff is a clinical associate professor in the Visual Arts Administration Program at NYU: Steinhardt, where she concentrates on the nonprofit sector. In 2017 she curated Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965 for NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. Her essay ‘Do It Yourself: A History of Alternatives’ was published in Alternative Histories: New York Art Spaces in 2012. In 2018, she curated ‘Narrative & Counternarrative: (Re)Defining the Sixties’ for Bobst Library, using selections from NYU Libraries Special Collections.