On December 14, 1963, the New York Times ran a glowing review of a group show at the Thibaut Gallery. Critic Brian O’Doherty wrote that “Hard Center” was “fascinating” and “not to be missed.” The show was of young artists recontextualizing manufactured objects as art; after telling his readers, “there’s not much point going into individuals,” O’Doherty nevertheless name-checked a few: “They include Robert Breer, Nicolas Calas, Walter De Maria, Aaron Kuriloff, and Robert Morris.” Reading the names today, one in particular pops out. De Maria and Morris have entered art history for their minimalist and post-minimalist work. Breer became known for his experimental films. Calas was the exiled Greek poet and critic who introduced everyone from Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to Willoughby Sharp to his old Surrealist pal Marcel Duchamp, and who curated “The Hard Center,” along with his wife, Ellen. But who is the artist whose work, a three-switch light switch called Three Switches illustrates the review? Who is Aaron Kuriloff?
Last year, I went on a search for him. The insights from the art historical record—vintage reviews and mentions, a single folder in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art—are limited: born in New Jersey in 1929, B.A. from New York University, M.A. from Columbia, lived in Queens, taught on Long Island; some interesting group shows and three solo gallery exhibitions between 1964–67; notices by critics both revered and forgotten; some prominent collectors; a couple of institutions. And then nothing. Archival images of Kuriloff’s work and shows struck me as unfamiliar yet relevant to his historical moment, the early days of so many artistic developments we now consider the foundations of postwar contemporary art. But the work also looked prescient. Some Kuriloffs from the 1960s look like they were made in the 1980s; some look like they were made yesterday. Kuriloff’s disappearance from the story of New York’s art world is a good example of how circumscribed that history remains, and how thoroughly artists who did not abide by or conform to what would become its market-fueled, social prerogatives could be forgotten. It’s also a reminder that you can uncover some fascinating work when you tug on a few loose threads of history.
Kuriloff continued to rub shoulders with artists who have since been canonized. In February 1964, after “Hard Center,” he was in another thematic group show, this one on the West Coast. “Boxes,” organized by John Weber at Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles, featured 38 artists. Kuriloff’s box was Two Pillows, blue and white striped, which sat in a wooden shelf painted cerulean blue. Andy Warhol sent four boxes, three Brillos and a Heinz. But it was Kuriloff’s box, not Warhol’s, that illustrated the cover of the show’s catalogue-in-a-box.
Two months later, Kuriloff had his first solo show. Thibaut, which by then had been renamed Fischbach Gallery, after its owner, included more than two dozen works using industrial objects of varying scale mounted on painted monochrome bases, with straightforward titles describing what they were: Fuse Box with Glass Meter; Galvanized Pipe Exhaust Duct; Compressor Tank; and the totemic Six Black Cans. The artist’s captions for images of each work were more specific still: “Six black five gallon cans with wooden handles. Burnt sienna wooden dolly base with four rollers.”
In his Times review, O’Doherty noticed. “They are not just simple readymades. They are carefully mounted and displayed with a calm unobtrusiveness that is underplayed and skillful.” Kuriloff was working at “a new crossroads where the traffic is getting heavier,” O’Doherty wrote, “a crossroads at which Jasper Johns originally planted his painted flags, breaking our reflex re-sponses to the most loaded symbols.”
O’Doherty was right. The traffic was getting heavier, and would get heavier yet. Kuriloff’s show opened less than a month after Dan Flavin showed his “Icon” series of similarly mounted light fixtures at Kaymar Gallery, and just three days before Warhol’s Brillo box show opened a few blocks up Madison Avenue at the Stable Gallery. The double whammy of Kuriloff and Warhol drove one critic to bemoan the art world’s embrace of Pop’s found aesthetic. Writing in Art Voices in June 1964, Edward Kelly complained that these two shows left him “feeling no more visually enhanced than an exhausted shop clerk.”
Reviewing Kuriloff’s show for Arts Magazine, Donald Judd found the use of manufactured objects unimportant and the panel elements “meager and attractive additions.” He did not note the formally similar sculptures his friend Flavin exhibited at almost the same time. “Kuriloff’s purpose seems to be simply to show that these things are interesting,” Judd wrote, “but if Kuriloff only means [this] he is making a minor point.” Still, Judd considered the work serious enough to include Kuriloff in his foundational 1965 essay on Minimalism, “Specific Objects.”
Evidence of Kuriloff’s art-world prominence also came in a special issue of New York magazine devoted to “New York’s Avant-Garde.” Of his multiple mentions, the greatest association was an essay declaring Marcel Duchamp the “undisputed leader” of “the undisputed capital of the art producing world,” which was illustrated with side-by-side photos of two iconic readymades: Duchamp’s Bottle Rack (1916) and Kuriloff’s Six Black Cans (1963).
Digging through the Fischbach Gallery collection at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, I found Kuriloff’s own account of his work in an undated statement, titled “The Epistemological Question of Reality.” Considering the beauty of the functional objects involved, Kuriloff argues, the “machine esthetic” found in “the Dada work of Duchamp and Picabia” reveals the inseparability of art and life, and demonstrates that “heightened meaning can be found anywhere.” This new art shifted its “identification from the landscape of nature to the new American landscape—the object.” Through “the process of mass culture,” the object—the functional object—attained a “timeless” quality, an unchanging ideal, “like a hardware store or a Sears-Roebuck catalogue.” Kuriloff’s new American landscape was the store.
Kuriloff continued to map the qualities of this capitalist landscape in his second show at Fischbach, in May 1965. He arranged multiple functional objects in compositions on monochrome bases, creating visually abundant displays of, say, drawer pulls, shelf brackets, or gardening gloves. To these he affixed engraved plastic nameplates bearing either descriptions (15 Wood Stains; Laundry Bag) or, apparently, product numbers (Series 4515 BB). The centerpiece of the show was a large, glass jeweler’s vitrine containing 15 spark plugs, meters, knobs, and other small objects mounted on book-size panels. Several newspapers flagged the show as a highlight, but no one reviewed it. According to a New York Post Page Six item planted by Marilyn Fischbach, Kuriloff’s Laundry Bag did get a mention when Leo Castelli gallery director Ivan Karp appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Two years later, Fischbach mounted what would be Kuriloff’s final solo show, where he unveiled a new body of work he called, “photo factuals,” artworks that shifted his American landscape from the store to the office, and the advertisement. They were large-scale, black-and-white photographs of office equipment—file cabinets, computer banks, cardboard boxes, desk chairs—based on images from trade magazine advertisements, meticulously uninflected, and stripped of logos or spatial context. Hung flush with the floor and unframed, the photo factuals turned Fischbach’s new 57th Street space into an austere, concrete loft simulacrum of a corporate office, like a set from a dark version of Playtime if the 1967 film had been directed by Michelangelo Antonioni instead of Jacques Tati. “The ancients idealized, the moderns advertise. With his ‘photo factuals’ Kuriloff de-advertises,” wrote Nicolas Calas in the introductory essay for the show. The facts in photo factuals are no longer those of the object, or of the original photo, Calas explained, but of the photographic surface, a “space between fact and reality.”
Except for an admiring mention of his photo factuals’ pared-down surfaces freed from traces of the artist’s hand in critic Gregory Battcock’s 1968 essay on Minimalism, Kuriloff’s last show did not receive much response. His work was ultimately ignored by influential critics like Clement Greenberg, who preemptively dismissed what he called “the machine look” as “arty,” and Michael Fried, whose theories of literalist art and objecthood made no room for Kuriloff’s literal objects. Traveling from a busy crossroad where Johns had planted his flags, Kuriloff was last seen passing the then lightly trafficked intersection of Conceptualism and photography, where artists like William Anastasi and Joseph Kosuth were only beginning to set up shop.
In the space of a few years in the 1960s, Kuriloff made work that resonated with the most significant developments of the day: Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptualism. And he anticipated artists’ explorations of appropriation, advertising, and consumerist culture from the ’80s onward. Yet his most powerful contribution to the art world might be showing how to leave it behind.
Kuriloff effectively disappeared from art history. Possible explanations can be discerned from the Fischbach archive. Despite giving early solo shows to an array of soon-to-be-important artists from Alex Katz to Eva Hesse, Marilyn Fischbach seemed indifferent to the critical dialogues of mid-’60s New York. Communications from Kuriloff’s dealer and gallery never managed to get beyond the perpetual hype of the new or the purported controversy of Pop’s found objects. Later correspondence hinted at payment disputes, including one months-long thread that apparently required an intervention (mediation?) by the artist’s wife, Debby.
In the hopes that the artist’s family could fill in some narrative gaps, I cold-called a string of distantly related Kuriloffs. They helped me locate Debby, a psychologist, who lived with Kuriloff in East Hampton until he passed away in 2004, just shy of his 75th birthday. They’d retired to the house in the woods he’d built for his young family in 1960–63, a concrete block-and-glass modernist box he designed with Iver Lofving, an architect who’d worked for Philip Johnson on the Seagram Building and Lincoln Center. Building the house changed Kuriloff’s art, Debby explained. “He was a painter with a studio, abstract, doing dabs, like they were all doing in the ’50s,” she said in an interview. But when he began the house, “he developed such an appreciation, a passion, for these things, for the insides of everything. He would have a whole wall of just pipes and plumbing. He saw art, beauty, out in the world.”
The Kuriloffs were friendly with many artists, including Fluxus artists George Brecht and Robert Watts, the de Koonings, George Segal, and Allan Kaprow, and Debby recalls many nights where parties ended in long, theoretical discussions about the future of art. “They all liked to talk and argue a lot; he was a teacher, too, you know.” Kuriloff taught art at the Wheatley School, a small public high school in Old Westbury, Long Island, and Debby maintained a psychology practice, while raising two sons in Queens. With Aaron’s art production, it was a busy life that left little time for making the scene. “He was concerned with trying to sell his artwork,” Debby said, “but also he did not like a lot of the posing and the phoniness of the art world.”
Debby recalled attending one party with Robert and Ethel Scull, who collected Aaron’s work. “She had a good eye, very smart,” Debby said of Ethel, “but she was also a control freak. We called her ‘Birdie’ because she’d squeak at the artists: ‘I own you!’ And Aaron walked away saying, ‘Nobody owns me.’ ”
Ivan Karp, Castelli’s director, was a friend and would visit Kuriloff’s studio, but the artist’s real champion, Debby said, was Nicolas Calas. In her 2014 biography, Nicolas Calas and the Challenge of Surrealism, Dr. Lena Hoff notes that in addition to teaching, writing reviews, and curating shows, Calas scouted new artists for Fischbach’s gallery. “Nicolas was really the leader for the avant-garde for Marilyn [Fischbach],” Debby said, “He brought [Aaron] in.” When Calas’s arrangement with Fischbach ended, Debby recalled, Kuriloff felt his relationship to the gallery and the art world had changed.
Around 1966 Kuriloff was experimenting with film and developing the photo factuals, getting advice from darkroom technicians at the Museum of Modern Art. “With the technology of the modern world, he believed art was over as we knew it,” Debby said, “the artist’s touch, the handmade was over. The industrial world was going to become the new world, with a new aesthetic that would be purely technical and commercialized.” The photo factuals pointed to this future, and, according to Debby, to an exit. “He said they would be his last show. There was nothing to make anymore.”
He embraced an alternative model that was right in front of him: the “art as life” philosophy of the Happening. “In the summer [of 1966] we were doing Happenings with Allan Kaprow in the Hamptons, taking the kids to the beach, to the junkyard,” said Debby, recalling a climactic series of Happenings Kaprow organized for CBS television with backing from gallerist and 3M heiress Virginia Dwan. “This was living as art, and that’s also how Aaron lived. Everything he did, he did as an artist. Living art instead of making something and waiting for someone to tell you whether it’s good or bad.”
Rather than producing objects, Kuriloff, like his friend Kaprow, turned to teaching. He created his art department at Wheatley as a “school within a school,” Debby said, that opened students’ eyes to the art around them. “They called it the Cave of Meditation,” she said, and it had a lasting impact. “These were lost kids, from well-off families, you know, but lost, and he helped them find a vision of the world.”
Not that Kuriloff never made art again. The onset of Parkinson’s symptoms in his 60s was the impetus for him to return to art, after a 20-year hiatus. This time it was sculpture, Cycladic-style figures carved from wood blocks he laminated together in his small East Hampton studio. “When he made those sculptures his hands didn’t shake,” Debby told me. “He kept his Parkinson’s under control that way for 14 years. Then he switched to gardening. He was very happy. Artists, they’re such survivors; they create another world. We’ve had a wonderful life.”
If anyone’s missed out, it may be the art world. Kuriloff’s Fuse Box and Jasper Johns’s Flashlight once again crossed paths in Lucy Lippard’s 1985 survey of Pop Art for Thames & Hudson. And in his 2004 history Mimimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties, curator James Meyer recounts a conversation with Village Voice critic David Bourdon, who credited Kuriloff and George Brecht, along with Dan Flavin, for showing assisted readymades in 1964. But when asked if any other historians or curators had asked about Kuriloff’s work over the years, Debby said no. “I did see him burn a letter once,” she recalled. “At Louse Point [in East Hampton], he pulled it out and burned it on the beach. I asked him, ‘Who was that from?’ He said, ‘Someone in the art world.’ ”
Greg Allen is an artist, writer, and filmmaker, and has published his blog, greg.org: the making of, since 2001.
Allen’s publications include The Deposition of Richard Prince (Bookhorse, 2012).
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 110 under the title “How to Get Forgotten.”