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Breathless Days 1959–1960: Retro Active

Brion Gysin Untitled (1) 1958–9 Courtesy Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery / photo Howard Ursuliak

There are a few key dates that come to mind when one thinks of watershed moments of 20th century culture—the end of the Second World War in 1945, perhaps, or the general strike and student protests of 1968—but 1959 is unlikely to be one of them. This spring, however, an ambitious program at the University of British Columbia makes a case for the importance of that era with “Breathless Days 1959–1960,” a series of screenings and public conferences organized by UBC art history professors Serge Guilbaut and John O’Brian that mines the early intersections of poetry, jazz, queer culture, philosophy and film that shaped modern culture. In tandem with these events, a curatorial team of graduate students in the art history and critical curatorial studies programs presents an exhibition of works from the period at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery that includes modern art icons such as B.C. Binning, Robert Frank, Jack Shadbolt, Nancy Spero and Weegee. In this email interview, Belkin director/curator Scott Watson discusses how the exhibition came together.

Gabrielle Moser: How did the idea for this “Breathless Days” exhibition come about?

Scott Watson: The idea came from the conference of the same name organized by Serge Guilbaut and John O’Brian, but the title originally comes from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film À bout de souffle. The dates 1959–1960 were chosen to move away from the usual focal years of postwar art history: abstract expressionism in the late 1940s and early 1950s and pop art in the early 1960s. The late 1950s was a pivotal moment that saw the end of the beat era (or the increasing commodification of its attitude), the beginnings of the space race, an increase in Cold War tensions and the eve of American involvement in Vietnam.

GM: Where does the subtitle “A Chronotropic Experiment” come from?

SW: It literally means “turned toward time” from the Greek chronos (time) and tropos (to turn). But a chronotrope is also a medical device for regulating the heartbeat, so the curatorial team thought that went well with the idea of “Breathless Days.” The exhibition has been an experiment because we did not know what we would find that was produced in those two years when we looked at what was in the Belkin and Vancouver Art Gallery collections.

GM: Why is it important to focus on the period of 1959–1960 at this time? Are there lessons that this moment has for today?

SW: Art before the advent of conceptualism, at “the end of painting,” really involves a different discourse than the art of our present day. So much of this work attempts to address nature, the cosmos and myth in terms utterly uninflected with irony. Today there is a renewed interest in the possibilities of abstraction, so it is illuminating to see how abstraction was practiced at this time and how it registers the historical crises of its era, like anxieties about the possibility of nuclear war. Of course, our current constellation of crises is much the same. The problem of nuclear weaponry, for example, remains as acute as ever.

GM: Which works are you most excited about in the show and why?

SW: It was exciting to do research on works we didn’t know much about. There is a beautiful painting by Agostino Bonalumi, who was a close colleague of Piero Manzoni, that prefigures conceptual procedures in painting. It was made by “printing” white circles on canvas with a jar. It is also illuminating to see a great painting by an under-celebrated Canadian modernist, Margaret Peterson, hung near great Inuit prints from 1959. My favorite works in the exhibition are by Jess, an artist associated with the San Francisco poetry scene of the 1950s and 1960s. We used a collage by the artist on our invitations—it’s a passionate, homoerotic work that includes a picture of Kerouac.

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