As a fourth-generation Jersey girl, I was immediately intrigued by “New Jersey as a Non-Site,” the featured exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum. Signs around campus described it as “art of the avant-garde(n) state.” The somewhat clever pun solidified my commitment to see the exhibit, which endeavors to show how artists after World War II came to utilize the heap of garbage that was New Jersey; a place that the curator describes as “industrial wastescapes, crumbling cities, crowded highways, and banal suburbs.”
New Jersey was ideal for young artists who could not afford studio space or materials in New York City. They drove by car across the George Washington Bridge or through the Holland or Lincoln Tunnels (before the tolls cost thirteen dollars) to exploit New Jersey for its seemingly inexhaustible resources of desolate industrial waste and crumbling decay.
It is a very conceptual exhibit, featuring works that are neither delicate nor precious. They are sturdy pieces—photographs of installations past, old magazine covers, or a pyramid of fluorescent rocks collected from Franklin, NJ. As Robert Smithson, a featured artist in the exhibit, commentates, these artists were “using the environment to frame something artificial.” As with all environmental art, they took found objects from various locations, changed their structure and often re-introduced them with a new purpose.
If you are looking for artwork that is aesthetically pleasing, easy to understand, or brightly colored, this is the wrong place for you. Upon first glance, I was often quite confused as to what I was looking at, and it’s definitely an exhibit that is greatly enhanced by reading the descriptions of the pieces. For example, one piece I found particularly was Gordon Matta Clark’s “Splitting,” whose photograph of you’ve probably seen on signs around campus—it gives a multi-level view of the inside of a house. This house is a live sculpture and cinema that Clark created by chiseling away from a cinder block foundation of a house in Englewood until it disjointed. However, I felt that some of the works you just have to laugh at, such as the descriptions and photographs of a performance piece by Allan Kaprow where a “victim” is wrapped in tin foil, brought by car to a dumpster, tormented, and then taken to Grand Central Station. In response to this specific piece, an anonymous freshman at the exhibit commented, “It’s a period of art that I sometimes just look at and say what the hell? I can only take so much modern art in a day before it starts giving me headaches!” He proceeded to leave the exhibit, backtracking through the previous rooms instead of making it to the end, shaking his head. I can’t say he missed much, and as a whole I found the exhibit underwhelming.
In general, “New Jersey as a Non-Site” exaggerated both what the Garden State is and what it isn’t. It’s not a historical analysis of post-World War II Jersey, but it tells the story of artistic experience in a time of uncertainty and doubt. New Jersey was a perfect location for these artists, as it is a place of in-between and often acts as a portal to other, better, places. It spoke to the shared Jersey experience that all natives can identify with—like driving past the graffiti-covered Snake Hill on the Turnpike, the shipping containers at Port Elizabeth, or the badlands that Bruce Springsteen sings about. The things that most Princeton students might only glance at from train windows on their way to New York City.