The Business of Plastic, the Practice of Art

The Business of Plastic, the Practice of Art

PLASTIC As Plastic exhibition catalog

"PLASTIC As Plastic" exhibition catalog, held at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, November 22, 1968 - January 12, 1969.

In the fall of 1971, the Society of Plastics Engineers published an article that contained a number of observations about “the value of art to industry.” Not only had there been twelve “major art shows” extolling the creative uses of plastics in just five years, but anecdotally they noted that “scarcely a month goes by during the New York City art season when a gallery or two does not feature the work of an artist or group of artists who work in plastics.” The article concludes with an imperative regarding the continued support for art made with this new material of modernity:

The plastics industry should know what is happening in the world of art, and take what practical steps it can to encourage those who work in plastics. If good commercial design has its roots in the fine arts, it is common sense to keep those roots well nurtured.

In fact the industry had already been nurturing the arts – at least four of the twelve exhibitions mentioned were the result of partnerships between arts institutions and the plastics industry. But the art/industry relationship was definitely not easy to establish. When exhibitions dedicated to creative uses of plastics began occurring in 1966, plastics companies were largely skeptical about the “value of art” to their booming branch of the chemical industry.

It was not until Paul J. Smith’s push to merge art and industry for the 1968 exhibition "PLASTIC as Plastic" at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (MCC) that the industry began to find merit in art exhibitions and relations improved. From early in Smith’s planning process it was clear that the scope of the exhibition necessitated outside technical and financial support. For five years Smith solicited funds from chemical companies, sought collaboration from industry-wide societies, and researched the artists, designers and architects who were taking the most innovative approaches to using plastics. Industry interest in the exhibition was high, but no company was willing to make the leap into official partnership. Smith’s proposal was turned down by the Society of Plastics Industry, B.F. Goodrich, Du Pont, American Cyanamid, Dow-Corning Corporation, Union Carbide, Allied Chemical, Mowbray Chemical Company, and Monsanto. A producing partner from the chemical industry finally emerged when the MCC chose to feature a Yale architecture project that used spray foam. Hooker Chemical Company’s subsidiary Durex manufactured a proprietary form of spray urethane foam and Hooker agreed to provide funds, technical know-how, and the materials necessary to create a large foam architecture installation in the museum’s entrance.

"PLASTIC as Plastic" was the first major partnership between the plastics industry and the arts. Plastic companies subsequently supported a number of exhibitions of plastic art: Phillip Morris and its subsidiary plastics packaging producer Milprint, Inc. sponsored the exhibition "A Plastic Presence" at the Jewish Museum (1969–70); Owens-Corning produced the exhibition Trio (1970), which presented Tony DeLap, Frank Gallo, Eva Hesse’s work with fiberglass; and Hastings Plastics Company partnered with the California Institute of Arts to present "The Last Plastics Show" (1972).

These exhibitions and a number of earlier exhibitions that did not have industry support, touted the exceptionality of plastic and presented artists as holding the keys to unlocking potential of the new material technology. The 1960s and early 1970s were a period of great potential in the world of art and plastic. However, enthusiasm for plastics did not continue to rise. After mixed acceptance of the material’s use from art world critics, mounting evidence of safety hazards associated with plastics, and society’s increasing awareness of environmental damages caused by plastics, interest in the material waned. As the exhibition "The Last Plastic Show" indicates, by the early 1970s the wave of exhibitions dedicated to plastics had crested.

The fact remains that artists working with plastics in the 1960s were innovators. Today we would call them early adopters, a term we use to identify those who dive headlong into new technology as it emerges. Plastic was the most exciting technological innovation of the era – curators, museums, and eventually the plastics industry, came to understand that the experiments artists, designers, and architects conducted in plastics were crucial to the continued development of the material.

The documentation of the plastics exhibitions from the era – particularly in the archive of letters and research documents for the exhibition "PLASTIC as Plastic" – contains many expressions of the uncertainty about the limits of the new materials. This uncertainty often manifested as enthusiasm for projects that merely demonstrated the potential of plastic. Plans for housing developments in space, architecture made of sprayed foam, sculptures in a rainbow of colors that squished, floated, or could be thrown away, illustrate the test-and-learn attitude held by the early adopters of plastic technology.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, plastic objects across genre and purpose were presented together to demonstrate the breadth of new forms. Today, we look at an everyday plastic object with little regard for how it was made or how, why, and when the material itself came into existence. We think nothing at all when we depress the plastic handle on a toaster, slide a debit card into an ATM, pick up a cell phone, or press a button on a television remote. Artists’ innovative practices and their experiments with a new technology of fifty years ago are overlooked because today, plastic today is unremarkable. We see the form and its historical significance of a sculpture made of Plexiglas or an injection molded chair, but do not necessarily see that the artists were intentionally using new technology to create these experimental works. Fifty years ago, curators understood that the innate innovative properties of an object were difficult to imagine without seeing the object itself in a context that underscores artists’ experimental ethos. The modern association between digital technologies and innovation, combined with plastic’s ubiquity, makes it challenging to understand plastic art objects as products of innovation that occurred in industry, art making, design, form, and theory.

I chose to revisit plastic as a curatorial theme to call attention to artists’ innovations and the lasting implications of plastic objects. The exhibition "Plastic: Art in an Era of Material Innovation" at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, SUNY, presents over thirty works of art made with plastic between 1956 and 1976 from the Neuberger Museum’s permanent collection. Clear Plexiglas, cast polyester resin, stitched vinyl, vacuum-formed hard plastic, silkscreened acrylic, and glistening epoxy objects demonstrate artists’ diverse approaches to plastics. Many of the artists whose work is presented – including Hans Breder, Tony DeLap, Harriet FeBland, Frank Gallo, Leroy Lamis, Fred Eversley, Mon Levinson, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Morris, Louise Nevelson, Robert Stevenson, and Andy Warhol – were selected because they participated in the seminal plastic shows of the era, were discussed in contemporary literature on art and plastic, or incorporated the implications of “plasticized” culture into their work. 

When I began researching and curating the exhibition, I reviewed a list of hundreds of three-dimensional objects in the Neuberger’s permanent collection and flagged words such as “neon,” “motorized,” “light,” and “mechanical.” I was looking for work that pertained to the history of technology and for artists that contributed to that history within the narrow realm of electronic, computer, and so-called new media art. The collection, however, is not richly populated with media art from the second half of the 20th century. I also flagged the artist Hans Haacke because I had been researching his work for another article and was interested in his participation in the 1970 exhibition, "Software." There are (at least) two Haacke works in the Neuberger collection—both are plastic. This was one of the first clues that the plastic objects in the collection held potential for my investigation into art, innovation, and technology. I revised my search based on this connection and began looking for objects made with various types of the material.

Of the numerous artists in the collection who worked with plastic, one, Leroy Lamis, had a direct link to newer, digital technologies. In the 1970s, after years of dedicated and enthusiastic work with Plexiglas, Lamis’s art practice evolved beyond plastic. He taught himself how to code software and proceeded to make digital art. I became fascinated with Lamis’s transition from plastic to digital and focused my attention on this link. Here was an artist who found digital art by way of his interest in material technologies.

The decision to expand the curatorial theme beyond Lamis to include many artists working in plastics was based in my conviction that plastic was to the 1960s as the Internet is to the late 1990s and today. The historical developments of the two technologies parallel one another: I saw in the artists working with plastic in the 1960s similarities to the rapid adoption and experimentation with Internet technologies in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Likewise, the numerous plastic-themed exhibitions in the 1960s occur in a similar pattern to the many exhibitions of digital art in the early days of the Internet such as the 2001 exhibition "010101: Art in Technological Times" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or Christiane Paul’s selection of Net Art for the 2002 Whitney Biennial.

Viewing plastic art objects today in a museum setting affords an experiential means to understand the excitement and controversies that surrounded plastic works when they were first exhibited. The significance of art to the history of technological development, as evident in the links between art and the plastics industry in the 60s, is equal to the scientific and technological innovations themselves, and in this exhibition they are presented as such. We can take from it many lessons on how artists, and the rest of us, can approach cresting waves of innovation.

Grace Converse is a recent graduate of the Purchase College MA program in modern and contemporary art, criticism, and theory, the 2014-15 Neuberger Curatorial Fellow, and curator of “Plastic: Art in an Era of Material Innovation,” which is on view May 9 – August 23, 2015, at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, SUNY.