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May 22, 2023

Acquisition: USCO

USCO, "Shiva"

Shiva, 1965
paint on canvas, electric lights
overall: 274.32 x 274.32 cm (108 x 108 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Avalon Fund
Courtesy Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati

USCO, also known as the Company of US or US Company, was a group of artists, poets, filmmakers, engineers, and composers who formed a cooperative work and living space in a church in Garnerville, New York. Founded by Michael Callahan, Steve Durkee, and Gerd Stern in 1963, USCO welcomed several other participants with diverse talents and expertise. The National Gallery of Art has recently acquired two works by USCO: Spheres-Time (Tabernacle Painting), a gift from the Carl Solway Gallery, and Shiva. Both works epitomize the group’s central values, such as collective authorship, embrace of technology, and interest in Eastern and Western mysticism.

Incorporating everyday materials and new communication apparatuses, USCO created works meant to heighten viewers’ consciousness through interaction with the art itself. USCO members foresaw the transformative power of technology, enlisting it as a conduit toward altering mental and physical experience. They drew on philosophical and spiritual beliefs informed by different visionary sources and theorists, including Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Meher Baba, and the Kabbalah.

During the 1960s USCO incorporated lights, colors, moving images, sounds, and human actors into multimedia and environmental art practices and artworks, such as installations at museums and galleries and performances at universities and movie theaters, including the Expanded Cinema Festival; their Psychedelic Theater, a collaboration with Timothy Leary; The Tabernacle at their church in Garnerville; and the first multimedia discotheque, Murray the K’s World.

Spheres-Time (Tabernacle Painting) (1965) incorporates elements of abstract and optical art. On a roughly square black ground that has been shaped or notched to create a 20-sided figure, seven large circles made of smaller metallic circles form a ring, which dominates the composition. Twenty-four straight violet rays connect the inner edge of the ring to the empty center, suggesting a void or black hole from which everything emerges.

Shiva (1965) points to the intersection of many styles of 1960s painting—including Frank Stella's shaped canvases, the op art of Bridget Riley and others, the use of industrial color and light by Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, the pop imagery of Andy Warhol, and the body tracings of Robert Rauschenberg. It also includes visual motifs that, at the time, were starting to be defined as psychedelic art. Shiva features three layered, silkscreened figurative elements in the center of the canvas that depict spiritual imagery. The green figure—an outline of Steve Durkee—alludes to  Shiva, one of the principal deities of Hinduism.

Positioned above is a seated Buddha, stenciled in white, over which a mandala of painted flowers with a single electric light suggests an activation of the chakras (energy centers). While the central light remains steadily illuminated, the lights along the edges of the work are timed to the rhythm of human breathing. The work demonstrates the fully collaborative underpinnings of USCO, in which the participants brought their own skills to making work together. While Steve Durkee is often viewed as the primary visual artist of the group, several individuals assisted in the creation of Shiva. Barbara Durkee marked and traced the lines that radiate from the central figures and Michael Callahan built the electronic component that controls the flashing lights.

Shiva was first shown at USCO’s Down by the Riverside exhibition at the Riverside Museum in 1966, which featured several rooms of interactive environments. After the popularity of the exhibition, Shiva and other works were incorporated into the Tabernacle, an environment installed at the USCO Church in Garnerville (now on the National Register of Historic Places).

The Tabernacle was composed of six nine-foot-tall paintings, including Shiva and Spheres-Time, installed on a hexagonal wood frame with a domed ceiling constructed out of a parachute, forming an enclosed space onto which images were projected. A fountain was situated in the center of the space, while multiple stereo speakers were wired to play sounds in rapid succession. Carpets lined the floors and visitors were encouraged to engage and interact with the space. It opened on September 21, 1966, with a tour organized by the Lincoln Center Film Festival that included Agnès Varda, Annette Michelson, and Andy Warhol.

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