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Colossal exhibit celebrates Philly as a hotbed of the avant-garde

Experimental works from the '60s and '70s sprawl over four Center City venues, with hundreds of pieces by more than 70 artists.

Detail from Catherine Jansen's "The Blue Room" (1970-73)
Detail from Catherine Jansen's "The Blue Room" (1970-73)Read moreMichener Art Museum

“Invisible City: Philadelphia and the Vernacular Avant-Garde” is a colossally ambitious show. This survey of Philadelphia’s art, architecture, and design during the 1960s and 1970s sprawls over four Center City venues with hundreds of works by more than 70 artists.

It includes some iconic objects, such as a model of the zigzag structure with which the architects Louis I. Kahn and Anne Griswold Tyng proposed to replace City Hall. A couple of William Daley’s monumental terra-cotta urns are here, too, looking great next to Yvonne Pacanovsky Bobrowicz’s Nebula Floorscape, a multicolored rug that is the apotheosis of shag.

The show also includes a sketch of Judith Bernstein’s enormous drawing of a screw, which was removed by a city official from a 1973 feminist art show. It includes a video of artist Hannah Wilke doing a striptease behind Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, a Philly-in-the-'70s phenomenon if ever there was one.

Seeing the model of Tyng’s Four-Poster House, a structure generated by the idea of a bed at the pinnacle of a pyramidal house, reminded me of visits to Tyng’s tiny house on Waverly Street, where she tried out many of her big ideas.

» READ MORE: Kahn collaborator Tyng gets her due in Institute of Contemporary Art exhibit

I had a great time looking at works, both familiar and unfamiliar, by people I used to know. And there are some wonderful things I had never seen before, some of them by people I have never really associated with Philadelphia. “Invisible City” is a hodgepodge, one that frequently delights, sometimes confuses, and never convinces.

The show’s thesis is that Philadelphia was a very creative and fertile spot for the arts at mid-century, and many of the ideas that artists worked on here have been influential worldwide, though Philadelphians have not always been aware of that.

It argues that this “vernacular avant-garde” was shaped by the brick and stone from which the city is made, by artists’ exposure to the work of Duchamp and his “readymades” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and by a music scene that spanned from the Orchestra’s string-driven “Philadelphia Sound” to Gamble and Huff’s string-driven “Sound of Philadelphia.”

The exhibition grew out of an effort that was even more ambitious: to create a program similar to the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time, which involves more than a dozen Los Angeles-area arts institutions doing a wide variety of shows, both historic and contemporary, focused on Southern California. “Invisible City” is something less.

The show was organized by Sid Sachs, director of exhibitions at the University of the Arts Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, with assistant curator Jennifer Hirsh. It includes an extensive online component, at, which contains a detailed illustrated timeline and interviews with some of the people in the show. It is conceived as a single show, though each of the four venues approaches things differently.

» READ MORE: UArts attracts $79 million for a maker space, rehearsal halls, a recording studio … and there’s a big dorm coming, too

The display at the UArts Art Alliance is by far the largest, with about 125 works on display. It includes galleries devoted to photography, abstract painting, furniture and craft, and architecture. Among the furniture is Wharton Esherick’s classic music stand, George Nakashima’s familiar conoid bench, and Harry Anderson’s lamp made with a deer’s hoof.

I loved seeing some of the works of the visionary French structural engineer Robert LeRicolais, who taught for many years at Penn, and nearby, a painting by Piero Dorazio inspired by his constructions. It was also witty to hang Edna Andrade’s geometric painting Zig (1966) next to Kahn and Tyng’s zagging City Tower.

While pop is a big part of what Sachs calls the vernacular landscape, the most obvious examples of it here were done by architects, preeminently Robert Venturi and his colleagues.

In a pre-bicentennial project, the architecture firms Venturi and Rauch and Murphy Levy Wurman proposed that the route from Philadelphia International Airport to Center City be “beautified” with large billboards showing Philly things, such as a pretzel, Billy Penn, and Watteau’s Maritime Venus at the Art Museum. The collages they used to present the proposal are here, looking a bit tired.

The Art Alliance also houses some of Philadelphia’s best-known painters and photographers, including James Havard, Warren Rohrer, Ray K. Metzker, and Will Brown. Indeed, it is difficult to argue that many of those on view here have been invisible at all.

Still, this is the portion of the show that can most easily stand alone, and is comprehensible without extensive wall texts or labels. (When I saw it, there were no labels, though there may be some by the time you read this. They will not attempt to recount all the connections and influences that Sachs’ yet-to-be-published catalog will describe.)

The second venue, a gallery in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts historic 1876 building, consists entirely of works by women. This is a questionable decision. Feminism emerged as an important influence on art during the period and it obviously deserves a focus in such an exhibition. But the extreme separation from the rest of the show makes this outstanding gallery feel like a ghetto.

The PAFA portion, which includes the screw and the striptease, is the most challenging and most playful part of the show (and also the only part you need to pay admission to visit). Catherine Jansen’s The Blue Room (1970-73) on loan from the Michener, used the now-antique technology of blueprint-making to create a whole domestic environment, complete with radio, light switch, and the ghostly outline of a couple in the bed.

» READ MORE: PAFA moving fast to acquire works by women while other national museums fall short, report says

Yes, there are a few works by women scattered around at the other sites, but their scarcity in these sections of the show suggests, inaccurately, that art in Philadelphia at mid-century was entirely a boys’ club.

At the UArts Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, the emphasis is on sculpture and conceptual art. A kayak by Rafael Ferrer hangs overhead, and three pieces by Italo Scanga, which use found religious items, seem to find a new style between Duchamp and baroque.

The fourth venue, the lobby of UArts’ Gershman Hall, the former Jewish Y which was a venue for outré events of the time, contains posters, chapbooks, and other literary and artistic ephemera, all of them close to Sachs’ heart, but not scheduled to have labels so they will probably never make sense to most viewers.

Seeing Sam Maitin’s poster for the Y’s pioneering pop art show of 1963 made me wonder why Maitin, who was essentially the city’s cultural leader during this period, has been neglected. The career of Edith Neff, subject of a recent, great retrospective at Woodmere, coincided with this period exactly, but it is missing from this show.

Indeed, there are no examples of Philadelphia’s great tradition of figurative art. Art by and about the African American experience is also missing, which shouldn’t happen in Philadelphia.

Overall, the show is an odd mélange. Fields in which Sachs seems not to be very interested, such as architecture and design, are represented mostly by well-known works. Meanwhile, the show’s aim of introducing us to an avant-garde living in our midst feels half-baked. It rests on a history that is not at all evident in the galleries.

In the end it makes me grateful for the granular, artist-by-artist, movement-by-movement exhibitions that Woodmere has perfected. Over time they delineate the relationships and influences that make art in Philadelphia distinctive.

There is room, too, for encyclopedic shows. But they need to be clearly presented and well-explained, so viewers don’t leave wondering, “What’s the big idea?”


Invisible City: Philadelphia and the Vernacular Avant-Garde

Through April 4 at four venues

Philadelphia Art Alliance, 251 S. 18th St., hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Fri. (until 8 p.m. Thurs.) and noon-5 p.m. Sat.. Closed Sun. and Mon.

Rosewald-Wolf Gallery (320 S. Broad St.) and Gershman Hall (401 South Broad St.), both open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and noon-5 Sat. Closed Sun.

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118-128 N. Broad St., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Fri. and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. and Sun. Closed Monday.

Admission: Free except for PAFA, which is $15 ($12 students and seniors, $8 ages 13-18, under 18 free).