John Elderfield

  • Howard Hodgkin

    THE ENGLISH PAINTER Howard Hodgkin, who died on March 9 of this year at the age of eighty-four, came from a privileged background, went to the best schools, and became widely popular in his native land, which showered him with accolades that included a knighthood. Yet Hodgkin claimed to have come from humble circumstances, thought of himself as an outsider, and once said that England was “enemy territory” for painters. His own sense of himself was not what people made of him, and when he spoke, as he often did, of the painted frames that were integral to his compositions, it was to stress how

  • The Letters of Paul Cézanne

    CÉZANNE WOULD HAVE HATED THIS BOOK—and Artforum, and me, for reporting its existence.

    Writing in April 1896, angry at “scoundrels who, for a fifty-franc article, have drawn the attention of the public to me,” Cézanne complained, “All my life, I have worked to be able to earn my living, but I thought that one could paint well without attracting attention to one’s private life. Certainly an artist wishes to improve himself intellectually as much as possible, but the man should remain obscure.”

    Cézanne was then fifty-seven, and the reverberations of his first solo exhibition were continuing

  • Bob Dylan’s Tempest

    IN 1962, the year this magazine was first published, Columbia Records released Bob Dylan, the debut album of an all-but-unknown twenty-year-old. Now, fifty years later, Dylan gives us Tempest, his thirty-fifth studio release, unlike anything he has done before. By 1964, the artist was self-aware enough of his shifts of identity to title his fourth album Another Side of Bob Dylan; every subsequent release could have been named the same. In his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles, he wrote that he had wanted to be like Picasso, the greatest changer of persona of all—an ambition that would seem


    DESPITE THE UNDIMINISHED reputation of Willem de Kooning as one of America’s preeminent gestural abstractionists, more than a quarter century has passed since his work was last afforded a comprehensive museum survey in the US. This fall, the Museum of Modern Art in New York brings that interregnum to a close with “De Kooning: A Retrospective,” organized by the institution’s curator emeritus, John Elderfield. In anticipation of the exhibition’s opening in September, artist Terry Winters spoke with Elderfield about de Kooning and the important lessons of abstraction still to be gleaned from the painter’s transformative work.

    TERRY WINTERS: How do you begin putting together an exhibition like this—what’s the strategy? Do you start with a certain set of questions or concerns?

    JOHN ELDERFIELD: Yes, but the questions also come along as you’re working. In fact, at a certain point, they just start rolling down the hill at you. And certainly some of the motivation is simply feeling that it’s an exhibition I’d like to see myself.

    The past twenty years have brought us major retrospectives of the work of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, but the last de Kooning retrospective was back in 1983, at the Whitney.

  • Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus

    Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968–2010, by Greil Marcus. New York: PublicAffairs. 512 pages. $30.

    COLUMBIA RECORDS has just reissued Bob Dylan’s first eight albums, of 1962–68, in their original mono format. These are the canonical recordings—at their center is the great trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde—that changed popular music forever. With what seems to have been either terrible luck or an extraordinary critical opportunity, Greil Marcus began writing about Dylan right as this period ended.

    We know what the response was when


    1. THE ARTIST HAS SAID the work shows the idea of a swan dive: legs straight together, back arched, arms stretched out from the sides during the descent. In this interpretation, the parallel bands marked at top center with footprints are not to be thought of as a diving board (a common reading) but, rather, as the body itself gliding down, displaying the soles of the feet. The arms point down, ready to be stretched sideways in the directions marked by the broad arrows at the bottom of the image. So the dive has just been launched. The diver is not entering the water, ready to deliver a breaststroke

  • “Dada”: a Code for Saints?

    A word was born, no one knows how.

    —Tristan Tzara


    THERE IS NO STRONGER LINK between the respectable world of professional scholarship and the far more glamorous world of fictional intrigue than in the case of disputed inventions. What follows is concerned with the word “Dada,” with the conditions of its discovery, and with the kinds of meaning that were attached to it.

    A disputed invention in Dada is unlikely to produce a definite solution. It is as well to say this from the start. Much of the evidence is either hearsay or circumstantial; the. witnesses change their stories; and all of the suspects

  • Private Objects: The Sculpture of Kurt Schwitters


    SCHWITTERS’ OUTPUT AS AN ARTIST was prodigious, but of all the arts he worked in, the one most objectlike in character—sculpture—seems somewhat peripheral to his main achievement. The eccentric Dadaist sculptures of the early years appear to be mere offshoots from the far more seriously motivated assemblages that spawned them. The small organic-looking works of wood or plaster and wire dating from the mid-’20s are largely monolithic in effect, and further from the principle of assemblage than any other aspect of his oeuvre. He did, we know, refer to the Hanover Merzbau—the labyrinthlike

  • American Geometric Abstraction in the Late Thirties

    A specifically American problem, they are unbeatable in thinking things out in series and in numbers. Starting with figures to create a comfortable unity . . . New World!

    —Fernand Léger, “New York Seen,” 1931.

    “AMERICAN GEOMETRIC ABSTRACTION OF the 1930s,” an exhibition at the Zabriskie Gallery, New York, June 1–July 14, 1972, is being circulated by the American Federation of the Arts. “Geometric Abstraction: 1926–1942,” an exhibition organized by Robert M. Murdock at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, October 7–November 19, 1972 included a broad representation of American as well as European work.

  • Matisse Drawings and Sculpture

    . . . when the issue is one of knowing something, the other senses, by a certain resemblance, take to themselves the function of seeing—a function in which the eyes have priority.

    Confessions of St. Augustine


    MATISSE’S OFTEN QUOTED REMARK that he wanted his art to be “like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue”1 is really the least appropriate characterization of one’s reaction to his work. Few artists have done more to discredit the idea o f esthetic perception as something passive and compliant than Matisse—for all his hedonism and easily

  • Grids

    GRIDS, WITH MODULES AND SERIES, have become important modes of organization for recent art. One is tempted to talk here of grid structures; but if the word “structures” is to have any precise definition we must distinguish it from things that are more properly frameworks. Grids can constitute structures or can, more often, be simply frameworks. To assume that a linear surface organization when visible in a work of art is its structure is to follow in part the Florentine precept that aspects other than drawing are somehow accessory to the work’s substance. Of course, much 20th-century art demands

  • Epic Cubism and the Manufactured Object

    LÉGER WAS AN AMBITIOUS PAINTER. Within a year of joining the Cubist orbit he had created his own highly original style. He was also an optimistic painter. Having innovated once, he hoped to do so indefinitely, and his career became one of willful and continuous change. From the start he was a painter in search of a grand manner. In consequence, the intricately modulated small-scale Cubism of Picasso and Braque was alien to Léger’s blunter nature. He sought instead a style both simpler in its mechanics and potentially more commanding in its effects: a purposefully dramatic and dynamic “epic”

  • Cork: Irish Painting in the 19th Century

    “IRISH ART IN THE 19th century,” an exhibition of paintings, sculpture, medals, photographs, and applied arts at Cork, Ireland, from October 31st through December 29th, is a beautifully presented first glimpse at an (undeservedly) obscure period and a fascinating overview of the Irish contribution to international modernism. Visually most striking was the richness of painting that Irish artists produced. There were no special innovators, but this exhibition served to remind us that quality operates separately from style. Comparable in its own way to the recent German 19th-century show at Yale,

  • Mondrian, Newman, Noland: Two Notes on Changes of Style

    THE TWO UNEQUAL NOTES WHICH COMPRISE this article approach differently the issue of changes of style. The first inquires whether Mondrian’s established drawing style was incompatible with his late ambitions. The second looks at Newman and Noland and asks to what extent Noland’s recent work represents an important break with his earlier position. And if these two parts form a whole it is only because they share the common subject of change. I do not seek to imply any correspondence between Mondrian’s and Noland’s styles—despite certain visible similarities. By way of a preface we need first to

  • Color and Area: New Paintings by Ellsworth Kelly

    ELLSWORTH KELLY’S NEW PAINTINGS maximize one of the necessarily crucial and persistent factors in modern abstract art: the interrelation of color and area. The spareness of Kelly’s art has meant that the “correct” fixing of the dimensions of a color for a specific occasion has always been his basic concern; but here, the workings of scale and shape on color find perhaps their most overt, and hence complete, expression to date. Since his working method has never been a matter of linear moves to fixed solutions, but rather involves treating the same “subject matter” at different focal lengths (

  • The Early Work of Kurt Schwitters

    An object that tells of the loss, destruction, disappearance of objects. Does not speak of itself. Tells of others. Will it include them?

    —Jasper Johns

    IN 1919, KURT SCHWITTERS CHOSE the word “Merz” to describe what he called his “pasted and nailed pictures” because he could not “define them with the older conceptions like Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism or whatever” and because he wished to make them “like a species.”1 This insistence on a generic title reflects Schwitters’ consciousness of having achieved an independent and original status for his art. Schwitters’ historical reputation rests

  • Drawing in Cézanne

    “The Dab Of Color Drawing Out Form Was The Constant Factor, Sureness And Specificity The Hallmark Of His Greatness”

    THE ASTONISHINGLY HIGH level of achievement of the mature Cézanne and the sureness and frankness of his empirical “realizations,” are what impress so much in the exhibition of his works seen recently in Washington and Chicago and opening this month at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This exhibition, assembled to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Phillips Collection, gives us, with very few exceptions, Cézanne in undiluted quality: there is very little here to dissuade us from

  • John Walker, Tim Scott, Isaac Witkin, and recent acquisitions at the Museum of Modern Art

    Recent English art, when shown in New York, has too often been found short on toughness or evidencing a softened interpretation of American idioms. Behind these complaints is the idea that it suffers from what has been called (in this journal) European “humanizing qualities” irreconcilable with the sturdy primitivism indigenous to the American tradition. The problem with this point of view is that what might be accepted as a descriptive statement (that differences of nationality and tradition do affect art) is frequently assumed to be a value judgment (that this European “sensibility” inevitably

  • On Constructivism

    “At Basis, Constructivism Was Not So Much A Method Of Artistic Organization As Of Social Regulation.”

    THE DEVELOPMENT OF MODERN RUSSIAN art often seems like a theatrical scenario, so stylized is the impression we have of it. A lot that has reached us appears detached from credibility, surreal, fictive even. Of course, we have the paintings to look at (or some of them), and the designs and plans—these are all concrete enough. But the difficulty isn’t so much there (though I believe we are not yet looking at them hard enough) but in the surrounding ethos. Once you get interested enough in the

  • Robyn Denny

    One traditional way of creating a distinguished looking art through sobriety has been to deal with closely related and restrained colors in very simple and clear formats and to make a series of paintings as investigations of a narrowly limited theme: This is a commonplace of modern painting. But that this itself is no guarantee of good painting has equally been proven. It does, however, often seem to guarantee at least some kind of modest honesty of effect, as if we recognize this as a respectable concern even though we can’t always feel happy about the range of results achieved. And I found