Up Against the Real: Anti-representational Militancy in 1960s New York

Nadja Millner-Larsen

This dissertation traces the history of anarchist anti-art collectives Group Center, Black Mask and Up Against the Wall/Motherfucker, active on the Lower East Side of New York City between 1961 and 1969. Group Center organized art exhibitions, lectures and jazz shows and Black Mask produced an eponymous Dada-influenced broadside and participated widely in anti-war agitation. Eventually taking the name Up Against the Wall/Motherfucker, the group ran crash pads, neighborhood watch brigades and a local free store. These groups also persistently performed actions against the art world, including protests against the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Center, and even the New York School poets. This dissertation argues that such protests were aimed at the institutionalization of culture, but also at the very logic of representation. Situating Group Center and Black Mask's early aesthetic experimentalism as central to the formation of their anti-representationalism, the dissertation follows these groups' collaborations with the artist Aldo Tambellini on a series of "electromedia" performances that addressed the rise of Black Liberation within abstract form. In addition, the dissertation traces the connections between these collectives and a broad range of art practices in which they were engaged, including televisual art, a nascent "expanded cinema" scene, Intermedia, art practices surrounding Judson Memorial Church, a radical theater scene surrounding the anarchist Living Theatre, early Minimalism and the Black Arts Movement. Alongside this cultural history, the dissertation follows these groups' relationships to the politics of numerous contemporaneous leftist groups including New York Anarchists, the Situationist International, Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Power movement and Radical Feminism. While the groups that form the core of this study eventually rejected art practice in favor of "the real" of on-the-ground activism, I argue that the negotiations between politics and form entailed by their earlier aesthetic experimentalism were constitutive of the anti-representational politics they would later embody. Operating at the intersection of aesthetic and political avant-gardes, Group Center, Black Mask and Up Against the Wall/Motherfucker have resisted historical legibility because they maintained an ambivalent relationship to the era's prevailing "new social movements" as well as most institutionalized art movements. This project thus aims to open out this "minor history" to a broad range of influences in order to show how the extremity of these groups' anti-representational militancy was no mere aberration from the modernist project, but rather, an attempt to push the avant-gardist protest against the separation between art and life to its limits, and beyond.