The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

Pioneering MoMA curator Dorothy Miller was renowned for her ability to scope out and promote innovative artistic talent, but even by her standards it was clear she had organized something extraordinary with 16 Americans. The 1959 exhibition was the fifth in the Americans series, which introduced exceptional contemporary American artists. In the accompanying catalogue, Miller mused that the show had an “unusually fresh, richly varied, vigorous, and youthful character.” The work on display was groundbreaking, even to the point of vexing some conservative critics, who dismissed as folly works such as Robert Rauschenberg’s Combine paintings, Jasper Johns’s flags and targets, and especially four nearly monochromatic black paintings by a 23-year-old Frank Stella. The chances Miller took paid rich dividends: while initially controversial, the work in this exhibition would set the stage for the eclecticism and experimentation of the decade to come and soon be established as iconic American art.

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