Cake: ICA Turns 50

In ICA’s kitchen, Robert puts down his frosting palette knife and looks at the cake. “It would be great if we could make little spider lines coming out of that part,” he says.
Grace and Robert making cake

Grace and Robert making cake

On the counter, the Clyfford Still catalogue is open to a painting called 1948-S. Nearby, its reproduction—in frosting on an enormous cake—is shaping up nicely after some initial trouble with the mixer. “We broke it,” Grace explains. “I think because the icing was so thick.”

Lauren is working with the red. “It really crystallizes,” she says, “so if you get stuff on it you can just scrape it off.” She should know. Lauren has being experimenting with the icing all week, making sure the colors match 1948-S. The red, as you’ll see, was particularly important to get right.

Fifty years ago today, ICA opened its first exhibition, a show of paintings by Clyfford Still.
Clyfford Still opening invitation 1963

ICA Records, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.

It was perhaps an odd choice for a first ICA show, as Still was an established abstract expressionist rather than a pop or happenings guy, but he was teaching at Penn that year. 1963. The birthday celebration will start in just a couple of hours with Chief Curator Ingrid Schaffner’s annual lecture, “What Is Contemporary?” The frosting team is hoping they’ll be done in time to make it to the talk. “People’s jaws are going to drop when they come out of the lecture and see that cake,” Grace says.

Every year Ingrid Schaffner offers up a new iteration of “What Is Contemporary?”—a reliably exhilarating romp through the pastures of contemporary art. Tonight, in honor of the big birthday, she is focusing in on ICA’s own backyard, approaching the museum’s history as a microcosm of the broader contemporary art world.

“One of the purposes of tonight’s talk,” Ingrid says, once the crowd settles into the auditorium, “is to rejigger and refresh our sense of the ICA as an institute. As a space dedicated to research and investigation.”

Even our approach to marking our half-century anniversary will be premised, Ingrid promises, not on looking back at our most famous achievements, but “to exploring lesser known aspects of our history.” This in a spirit of what she calls “not knowing”—a term she’s keyed from Philip Glass, whose influential Music in Twelve Parts was performed at ICA in 1974. Glass, as Ingrid reports, once said, “It’s the not knowing that makes it interesting.”
Spiral Jetty

Photo by Chris Taylor

The lecture begins, as always, with a photo of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, built on the shore of the Great Salt Lake. The image is updated each year, and each year, depending on the weather and the water level, the work looks a little different—a nice metaphor for the way contemporary art shifts even as it endures, often seeming a little different every time you catch up with it.

Spiral Jetty is notoriously difficult not only to catch up with, but even, apparently, to locate. Ingrid tells how Tacita Dean (who had an early show at ICA in 1998) wanted to make a pilgrimage to the famous earth work. She drove around the desert for days, down winding roads and in and out of gulleys, but she never found it. Later she made a piece called Trying to Find Spiral Jetty about the experience.

Ingrid is full of stories tonight—stories and pictures and ideas and lore. She tells how Penn’s fire marshal tried to shut down Robert Morris’s installation Labyrinth but was ultimately appeased by this sign:
Robert Morris sign

ICA Records, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania

She shows a photograph of Marcel Duchamp at the opening of ICA’s 1966 exhibition The Other Tradition, looking down into a vitrine of works by Marcel Duchamp.

In reference to Kara Walker, who is organizing a show at ICA next winter, she notes: “In contemporary art, the past does not lie still.”

She speculates that ICA’s 1976 exhibition of Amish quilts might be connected to the 1970s interest in grids and other minimalist forms.

She shows a picture of two rocks by Vija Celmins (one found and its twin made) from a show curated by Judith Tannenbaum, who is here tonight in the audience. She shows Red Grooms’s bicentennial papier-mâché vignettes of Philadelphia history, and Sarah McEneaney’s personal narratives, and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photograph of pure light on a screen, and Jenny Holzer’s early parking meter stickers, and ICA Marketing Associate Becky Hunter’s Agnes Martin tattoo.

Photo by Becky Huff Hunter

And then, at last, she circles around, easing into a final story about Clyfford Still.

When asked by a fledgling Artforum if they might reproduce one of his paintings for an article about his ICA show, he wrote back, “I must unhappily withhold permission to allow further use of image…The reason is that the high-keyed red, it is simply not a reproduction of my painting—in fact in spite of the imagery it is quite foreign to my thought and feeling as I used color to express them.”

“It’s taken fifty years,” Ingrid says, clicking to a slide of the cake. “But I think we’ve got it right.”
Ingrid cutting cake

Photo by Shira Yudkoff

To stay up to date with all ICA’s romping, email