[The following essay was written by Estera Milman in 2008 and first appeared in the brochure for the Jensen retrospective exhibition she curated at the Amarillo Museum of Art, October 9, 2010 – January 2, 2011]
Since the early/mid 1960s, when Leo Jensen was first counted as a major player in the burgeoning Pop Art community, his artifacts, constructions, oversized interactive games of chance and two dimensional works have occupied the complex cultural space between Pop Art and the authentically vernacular. One example, a reproduction of Jensen’s kinetic construction, The Lure of the Turf (fig. 2), appears in Lucy Lippard’s pivotal text, Pop Art (1966). Lippard describes the piece as “[vulgarized] total… Pop Art,” here echoing John Gruen’s 1964 description of Jensen’s oeuvre as “gaudy, witty [and] highly sophisticated” (New York Herald Tribune). Numerous other references to, and reproductions of, Jensen’s early Pop pieces regularly appeared in the mainstream art press. To cite but a few examples, John Canaday had singled out Jensen’s one man show at the Amel Gallery on Madison Avenue for special notice in the Sunday, February 2, 1964 issue of The New York Times, describing the exhibition as “pure entertainment in the moment’s most avant-garde manner [and] an engaging installation of pop inventions.” In keeping with Jenson’s democratic agenda, The Lure of the Turf was also reproduced in the February 17, 1964 issue of Sports Illustrated, the Fall 1964 issue of Horizon, and the February 13, 1964 issue of New York’s Daily News. Each of these publications also included reproductions of Jensen’s Baseball Machine (fig. 3).
Baseball Machine also served as the primary illustration for the “Editorial Commentary on Current Exhibitions” in the February 1964 issue of Art Voices From Around the World. Gordon Brown opens his commentary, “The Emergence of an American Art,” with the observation that “American values are in the forefront in recent shows and in the talk of the artists who are creating the art of this decade.” Prior to commenting on the “Environments by Pop artists Oldenburgh, Segal, Dine and Rosenquist” on view at the Janis Gallery, Brown posits:
For Europeans, the very rawness of American Leo Jensen’s “Baseball” is attractive. The lack of learned artfulness only contributes to the freshness of the work. America is the new frontier… American popular art has inspired an entirely new school of sculptors and painters, who constitute the most controversial, but probably the most promising, artists of the new generation. Thirty-eight year old Leo Jensen typifies the United States and its varied background.
Under the heading, “His Sculptures Don’t Just Stand There,” the lengthy “Daily News Special Feature” on Jensen also celebrated his “outsized moving sculptures… as the newest arrivals on the pop scene.” The Daily News was also quick to point out that more than half of the “monumental, kinetic sculptural art objects” included in Jensen’s first one man show in New York had already been sold, “mostly to collectors such as Ivan Karp, John G. Powers, Henry Reichmann, Mrs. Henry Luce III, and Edward Scripps II.”
In 1965, Jensen’s Royal Beauty (fig.4) would appear in a Courreges-inspired fashion shoot for the “Women’s” section of the New York World Telegram and Sun (February 16, 1965) and in another, less high-end, fashion spread in the Milwaukee Sentinel (April 7, 1965); Brassiere Dream (fig. 5) would concurrently appear in the October 31 issue of The New York Times’ Book Review (replete with the caption, “Scoring with a dozen women”), as would a number of other of Jensen’s anti-hierarchical, Pop Art constructions.
In March of that year, Jenson was included among the participants in the group show “Pop and Circumstance: New York’s Largest Showing of Pop Art,” alongside Richard Artschwager, Allen D’Arcangelo, Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Allen Jones, Alex Katz, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Mel Ramos, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, Robert Watts, and Tom Wesselmann, among others. Jensen’s Sprite (fig. 6) and The Complete Cowboy (Collection Phillip Morris Corporation) were counted among the four representative pieces lent by the Amel Gallery to this collaborative, artworld-supported fundraiser for the City of New York. Other galleries who contributed work to the show included the Richard Feigan, Leo Castelli, Stable, and Green galleries.
In “Hop, Skip and Jump” (The New York Times, February 2, 1964), John Canaday was doing his best to cover his bets. He compared Jensen’s highly visible and cross culturally accessible pop culture exhibition at the Amel Gallery to two contemporaneous exhibitions at the Perls Gallery (one dedicated to works by George Rouault; the other to 14 other members of the, so called, School of Paris) and to a concurrent showing of sculpture by Francesco Somaini (who he described as “one of the best sculptors at work today”) at the New York branch of the Galleria Odyssia. Having identified Jensen’s work as part of “the moment’s most avant-garde manner,” Canaday describes the artist as a “good craftsman who fulfills his chosen range without pretension” and voices his assumption that the Jensen himself probably did “not think that his art was world-shaking.” The conservative critic further argued that the Jensen’s great appeal was that his work made “a first impression, more and more unusual in Pop art, of complete good humor without dubious innuendo.” Interestingly, Canaday did not close his review by referencing either Rouault or Somaini, but instead by somewhat reluctantly conceding that Jensen was representative of a new world order, wherein “variety [was] not only the spice of art but also, in a civilization so many sided that it demands a multitude of expressions, the surest sign of good health.”
Similar reluctant concessions to the new art were voiced by many well-known custodians of high culture as Pop Art was being canonized. That Jensen’s works continued to be active participants in this heated cultural dialogue is evidenced in Sidney Tillim’s far more conceptually complex essay, “Art au Go-Go or, The Spirit of ‘65’” (Arts Magazine, Sept. – Oct. 1965). Subtitled, “Are today’s artists revolutionists, or mere entertainers in an act everyone’s getting into?,” Tillim’s essay addresses both the positive and negative implications of what he calls the expansion of “popular aesthetic literacy.” Toward this end, the respected critic chose only three images which he understood to be representative of post-Abstract Expressionist Art. Jasper Johns’ Flag (1954) was picked as one of the most “imaginative”examples of proto-Pop. Richard Anuszkiewicz was described as the most prominent American Op artist and his Knowledge and Disappearance (1961) chosen to represent what Tillim called an “intellectualized and incestuous… offshoot of geometric abstraction.” Importantly, Leo Jensen served as the anointed primary representative for Pop Art. Jensen’s 1964 construction, The Complete Cowboy (Collection Phillip Morris Corporation), appeared as the paradigmatic example of what the critic called the “cultivated mimesis of banality.” Tillim explains: “In more than a manner of speaking, Pop art [sic] not only typifies the spirit of this new era of ‘freedom,’ but epitomizes its paradoxes. As a cultivated mimesis of banality (for it is not actually banal), Pop art recapitulates both America’s historical dependence upon and submission to cultivated precedent, and its hostility to it at the same time. By emptying the contents of a lowbrow variety store into art, Pop symbolizes a demand by American art for a kind of radical inimitability and an end to “art for art’s sake”… Thus in proposing reconstruction by a transfusion of “populist” taste, Pop infers the inevitable and probably lasting ambiguities of culture in a democracy.
— Essay copyright Estera Milman 2006/2010