In the Fifties, as now, no one knew what would next be pronounced an art movement, only that the Second generation of the New York School no longer piqued the interest of the cognoscenti and investors. Some of the first to seek a new image, a new way, using the language of the New York School but in defiance of its canons, were the NO!artists. NO! meant no to the times, to the hidden compromise below the self-involved surface. Transforming popular images, they created NO!art: crude, rude, not pop but populist. Herbert Brown and the other NO!artists moved towards a shore few wanted to visit. They introduced another way of seeing—for our times; not popular at all, but political and confrontational, and at times ugly by intent.
Brown did not make Pop-elegant work, but yelled NO! to all of that which would later be called Pop Art. In a way his crude composites are like those of the Weimar era when satire was splash-and-splattered, not easy to healthfully digest.* Sex may be all sorts of things, degenerate in Berlin and pretty-photogenic in Playboy, but there are still more sexual images than what is half-hidden in the contemporary canon—a girl with a ball, a famous Lady-movie-star. Sex can be rude and heretical, friendly or scary, as found in the iconographic representations of primitive gods. Sex can be lewd, pornographic, dank or arousing—not what is offered as ads in-the-slick. Like violence and oppression, the erotic can be hard to take. Mass publication is apt to turn the harsh and real into a rosy image—even when it tries to satirize.
Herbert Brown's lines are meant not to amuse but to appall; dirty paintings for clean Americans. Commercial art is crucified, and then the whole is smeared with marks, and sealed—to affront. Time does not make the image bland, as familiarity does not make the crude less so. These are not so much hard works to like as hard works to observe. They work on all levels, and if all the viewer sees is dirt—this is part of the complex. If he sees an elegant construction—this is also part of the complex.
What is on the walls at the Janos Gat Gallery arose in a time that should have demanded more than Soup cans. NO!art presages the era of terror, a dirty war, gunmen in the streets, and political ideas as unpopular now as then. The soon-to-follow Pop-artists displayed the idealized America of Cold-War omnipotence. Brown addresses another U.S., a dirty world, far darker than the neat cartoons that went Whamm-Blamm. This is a world where the Whamm is real, and sex and life is dangerous.
The images are more awful the more elegantly they are executed. NO! is the Permanent Revolution as applied to art, without the crutches of an aestheticising agenda. The NO! works confirm the times, unlike the conventional attacks which are really art-hothouse forays into the beloved, longed-for System.
Those who would tolerate the pornographic when it is tastefully done are repelled by the nasty smears and marks. Those who feel that political art should make straight-laced, concrete statements only will be affronted by the knowing artistic care behind the presentation. No one is likely to be happy, and who cares? Hard art is often hard to look at, but in this case, surely worth the trouble. Hard art means not no art but intense, compulsive images—lasting longer than the divine Fifteen minutes.