On a November afternoon in 1969, two men and two women began to wrestle in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art until they were prone in a pool of blood, then suddenly got up and left, scattering behind them papers printed with the demand that the Rockefellers resign from the museum's board. The papers claimed that the Rockefeller family used art to "disguise" its involvement in the manufacture of weaponry for the Vietnam War. They were signed "The Guerrilla Art Action Group,'" or GAAG; the acronym was a pun on gag, both as in joke and as in constraint to speech.
The group's action at the Modern (the blood turned out to be animal's blood from packets tucked beneath the quartet's clothing) was one of several it staged during the late 60's and early 70's, when it overlapped with other loose-knit artist organizations, principally the Art Workers Coalition, which spoke out against the war and for civil rights, artists' rights and other causes. The organizations were precursors to Gran Fury and the Guerrilla Girls.
GAAG was certainly one of the most colorful of the earlier groups, its actions a quintessential late-60's stew of street theater, ''happenings,'' body art, political protest and collectivism. This show at Printed Matter, put together by Catherine Morris and Steven Harvey, documents the group's raucous activities with GAAG communiques and leaflets, newspaper articles, photographs and books.
Jon Hendricks and Jean Toche were GAAG's founders. During the mid-60's Mr. Hendricks was director of the Judson Gallery at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, where several famous ''Happenings'' occurred. Performances there by Mr. Hendricks, Ralph Ortiz, Al Hansen and others involved the ritualistic destruction of one thing or another. (Mr. Ortiz smashed pianos.) But Mr. Hendricks came to feel that these symbolic events, before like-minded audiences, were politically ineffectual. So with Mr. Toche he began to organize public actions. ''If I could have stopped the war with a painting, I would have done that; but I'm not a good painter,'' Mr. Hendricks recalled.
In retrospect, GAAG can't be said to have changed the world, but unlike so much other so-called political art, which is solipsistic, strategically self-promoting and actually destructive (spray-painting ''Guernica'' or vomiting on Mondrians), its wry, absurdist actions at least were directed toward a public beyond the art community. In matters of art, the late 60's were a less cynical time than today, perhaps, and there is something heartening about recalling another era's mostly selfless belief that artists who care about social affairs should band together to act outside the rarified confines of museums and galleries.