20th Century and Contemporary, Architecture, Installation, Museums/Exhibits

New Jersey as Non-Site: Roundtable Conversation with the Curator and Princeton University Faculty

NewJerseyNew Jersey bears the weight of many stereotypes and prejudices, and sits eternally in the shadow of the famous city to its east, New York.  It might be argued, however, that New Jersey became a state before New York did, when on December 18, 1787 – 226 years ago – it was the third state to approve the Constitution, following Delaware and Pennsylvania. (New York waited to ratify the Constitution until July 26, 1788, becoming the 11th state to do so.)

An exhibition currently on view at the Princeton University Art Museum entitled New Jersey as Non-Site looks at the period between 1950 and 1975, during which time numerous innovative artists flocked to New Jersey and proceeded to produce some of the most important work of their careers.  Kelly Baum, the curator of the exhibition, hosted a conversation in December 2012 among four Princeton University faculty members: Beatriz Colomina, professor of architecture; Hal Foster, professor of art and archaeology; William Gleason, professor of English, and Dirk Hartog, professor of the history of American law and liberty.  Below is a transcript of the beginning of their fascinating and lively conversation, which is reprinted in its entirety in the handsome catalogue that accompanies the exhibition; here, they discuss some of the ideas and themes that are packed inside the exhibition and book’s allusive title.

KB  I thought I would start with a question for Hal, since Hal was the one who suggested the title for the exhibition, which was also a conceptual structure, in a way.  I was curious why that title came to mind and what show you were imagining when you mentioned it to me.

HF  Well, no show, really.  I meant it as a joke, in a way, like that old line from Woody Allen: “I believe there’s intelligence to the universe, except for certain parts of New Jersey….” You know, the old, familiar rap against New Jersey as a nowhere, a nonsite.  But then, of course, for others New Jersey is the center of the world; William Carlos Williams saw life through Paterson, for example.  So for me the title was a way to suggest both things at the same time: site and nonsite, center and periphery.  That’s how New Jersey was used by artists based in New York, as a site for events that were not quite at the center, where the center could be displaced a little.

I want to put two things on the table right away.  On the one hand, New Jersey was where “the expanded field” of sculpture was first projected.  One of the primal scenes for postwar art is the story told by Tony Smith about a trip on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike in the 1950s.  For him it was almost a trip to the future, a sublime vision in which art was opened to space, unframed as such.  On the other hand, for other artists—like Robert Smithson in the 1960s—New Jersey was about a ruined past, almost an archaeological site of a lost industrial age.  The tension between those visions was also on my mind.

BC  So you’re also asking a question about this new tendency toward site-specificity?  Because that kind of an approach is not a surprise in my field; the question of site is always there for architects. But site-specificity is actually quite a complicated concept, in the sense that architecture is always tied to a place—it’s local—but at the same time it is also out there in the world through the media.  Even what gets built is influenced by what has been published, what has been done somewhere else in the world.

This complication of site-specificity actually not being specific to the site is reflected in the artists you’ve chosen, Kelly.  Another thing that I’ve noticed is that the majority of them are engaging with architecture—maybe that’s what raises the question of site-specificity.  I suppose what I’m saying is that what you call “site-specificity,” I call “architecture.”  And by architecture, I mean the expanded field of landscape, including ruins of past industrial situations.

HF  The site-specific emerges as a way for artists to contest the “homeless” quality of Modernist painting and sculpture; they had become so abstract, so autonomous, if you like, that they could be anywhere.  So how to move out from this condition—how, too, to move against the confines of the gallery and the museum?  It’s obvious: you go to New Jersey!

BG  Kelly, Hal has said that he offered you the title New Jersey as Non-Site as a joke…well, in our course on New Jersey, Dirk and I assigned the beginning of a book about New Jersey from the 1870s, and it opens with a joke.  One man, the narrator, is on a train going from Baltimore to Washington, D.C.  Upon hearing another man say, “In the eastern part of New Jersey, where I’m from,…” he jumps up and says, “Wait! I’ve never heard anyone publicly acknowledge that they are from New Jersey!”  And this is set in the 1850s!  So it’s already there that….

BC  That they wouldn’t acknowledge that they’re from New Jersey?

BG  Yes, so it’s a well-understood joke that New Jersey doesn’t actually exist as a place, or that it exists but no one would ever acknowledge that they are a part of it, that they belong to it.

HF  Why is that?

BC  And so early…

DH  Well, partially it’s because northern New Jersey is already totally oriented to New York.  I’m writing about New Jersey case law, and you see in people’s consciousness that New York is much more important in their heads than Trenton ever is.  Often they think they’re applying New York law, even though it’s not relevant, because they don’t care about New Jersey.  They’re living here, but oriented to New York.  I think in southern New Jersey it’s the same in regards to Philadelphia.

BC  But there is also a sense of pride there.  I mean, if you talk with Dan Graham, for example, he’s extremely proud of New Jersey.  Speaking of road trips, every time I invite him here to Princeton, I have to travel with him because he can wander and end up somewhere else.  He’s an explorer.  It’s incredible, the whole train ride he asks me, “Have you seen this? Have you seen that?,” and he’s pointing out track housing, of course, but also all of these derelict structures.  And, of course, in 1965, Graham undertook the project of photographing the track housing around the place where he lived in northern New Jersey, the project that would become Homes for America,… there is a certain combination there of fascination and pride.

One little known aspect of contemporary American architecture is how many of the architects of our time were born in New Jersey.  Think of Richard Meier and Peter Eisenman.  It even became contagious.  Greg Lynn lived in Hoboken after graduating from Princeton.  There’s also something about New Jersey that keeps coming up in the discourse.  When Peter Eisenman was teaching here with Michael Graves, in the 1960s, they ran a research project with the students on Route 1.  And every few years, it happens again.

KB  I met with artist Nancy Holt at her home in New Mexico a few weeks ago.  She was married to Robert Smithson; they were both raised in New Jersey, and Smithson was actually born here.  During that visit, we looked at hundreds of photographs from the Smithson-Holt photo archives, going back to Smithson’s days in elementary school, and I got a very real sense of pride in and attachment to New Jersey.  Their relationship to New Jersey wasn’t as ironic as I expected.  I don’t think they romanticized New Jersey, but they didn’t patronize it, either.  It wasn’t the butt of their jokes.  Even Charles Simonds, who has been sourcing clay from a clay pit in Sayreville for decades, has a very strong emotional and artistic attachment to the state.

BC  It’s complicated, which makes it more interesting.

KB  Definitely.

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