PRINT July 1962

Coplans, DuCasse, Gordin, Hedrick, Ippolito, Smith, Zogbaum

A DISCUSSION RECORDED AT the San Francisco Art Institute on the evening of May 9 before an audience of artists.

Coplans: The subject of tonight’s panel discussion is the Ben Heller collection at The Legion of Honor. The Heller collection certainly seems to be one of the most magnificent to visit the Bay Area for a very considerable time. It’s part of the exhibition that was sent by the New York Museum of Modern Art to Europe under the title of “New American Painting.” For the first time, when Europeans saw this collection of paintings, they found a profoundness in American painting that they had not believed was there. They had not conceived that this kind of scale and magnificence existed in painting in America.

Ippolito: I went up to see the show today. I saw the collection in Heller’s house but there were a lot of things missing so I wanted to see it again. I wasn’t very excited about the fact that these people were all brought together. I’d seen them in shows together before. I was looking at the paintings, not as names, but as paintings. I found a lot of the paintings disappointing. I thought that for the kind of collection it’s supposed to be some of the paintings could have been chosen a little more carefully. It’s like he did his shopping at Sidney Janis. This is a reaction I had to this show this morning, not about the artists, but about the show.

Hedrick: I was amazed at the quality—if you think about it as a private collection. There were one or two beautiful paintings. I can’t think of any collection that would equal it in scope. There was a beautiful, red Still, and that to me is worth the whole show.

Ippolito: I’m not saying they’re not terrific paintings. I think they’re extraordinary paintings, the Pollocks, for instance. But some of the painters have done much better work. I don’t think there was a tremendous amount of investigation on Heller’s part.

Smith: To hell with Heller! We’re not talking about Heller. He accumulated these paintings . . . presumably in the best possible state of mind and . . . you know . . . with a lot of money. But what about the paintings? That’s what we’re principally concerned about.

Zogbaum: I agree with Hassel. Painters have no business talking about collectors in the first place. They are our natural enemies . . . in some sense.

Smith: I have seen this show three times in the last week and from the first time . . . I had a feeling about it . . . I didn’t like it. All of you know that in San Francisco the museums seldom condescend to show us these things. They’re reluctant. Ten or fifteen years have passed, during which time this painting has shaken up the western world. Nevertheless San Francisco and its museums have not made any effort, really, to show us these things. When I went out to the Legion I noticed that for the first time in my experience, painters, you know, with paint on their trousers and shoes, and so forth, were out there to look at the show . . . and how many painters go to the Legion? Not many. There’s nothing to see. Well, now they’re showing us something . . . finally. I must admit that I have never, living in San Francisco, I have never before seen two big Pollocks. Never before! So in three visits, finally it dawned on me, something about these paintings. Certain paintings I accept. Tworkov looks great to me. I’ll accept the Gustons. I don’t know precisely what he’s doing but those little drawings show a guy who is . . . doing something. He’s involved. I don’t know about de Kooning. But for Pollock, as he’s exhibited in this show, for Kline, for Rothko, for these guys I would say this: . . . The first time, the idea came into my head, very dimly felt. Saw them a second time, had the idea more strongly. Today, they got to me. I would say this: I’m speaking of Rothko, Kline and Pollock particularly . . . I must speak for myself. I see no intrinsic value in these paintings. I think they are a kind of painting that has resulted from a certain social condition, a certain condition of being, a certain state of mind, which I value very highly. But these paintings, as they exist and stand and are there . . . fail completely to transmit to me the state of mind out of which these paintings came. I feel they have no intrinsic value at all. They’re dirty. They’re poorly made. They don’t come over to me at all. And if this painting doesn’t get over . . . to people . . . now or later. I feel very strongly that this is the condition of these paintings. They simply don’t come over. They’re just a lot of rather messy, sort of dirty color on canvas which, to be sure, sprang from great feeling, great commitment about a certain kind of idea. But if you don’t get it on the canvas, you don’t get anything. The Pollocks are decorator’s junk . . . The rest of it is introverted. It’s a kind of close feeling that you should do this . . . and you feel very much committed . . . but it doesn’t come over . . . Not to me.

Coplans: I feel like answering Hassel’s attack. . . . I just don’t know what to say. I’m taken aback by it . . . I went out to this exhibition. I’d seen it before—many of these paintings were shown in Europe. First of all the intense formalism of this exhibition is quite extraordinary compared with the freedom of American painting. The enormous Newmans—there’s one Newman 17 or 20 feet, I’ve forgotten the exact size—But wherever one looks in this exhibition one has the feeling that these people have taken certain basic concepts from Europe and revitalized them and given them a scale and size that’s quite extraordinary. I think scale is a very important part of this exhibition. When one thinks of, shall we say, the very best European painters, people like Dubuffett or Giacometti . . . compared with the painters in this exhibition they are kind of postage stamp makers . . . I can’t really, Hassel, understand your attack. . . . It’s incomprehensible!

Smith: We’re not talking about American painters.

Coplans: No, no. You take someone like Tworkov, for example, or Guston, Newman and Rothko . . . the sheer innovation of these painters.

Hedrick: I’m not going to try to defend Hassel but I think I know what he is trying to say. He might answer you by saying there is a lot of difference between quantity and quality and also that American painting is a nice title for nothing. Again, I want to go back to that red Still. That was a great painting and it had nothing to do with any of the other paintings in the show. It stood alone.

I want to say again that I would have gone out to see the show just to see that one painting. I don’t agree with Tworkov, but I’ll admit that his one painting there was more painterly than those wide expanses of canvas you’re talking about.

Smith: Look, I understand what Newman is doing . . . If you accept a certain proposition about painting—which is not new, far from it. You know, the constructivists and the neo-plasticists, and so on, preceded him by 30 years. When Malovich put the white square on the white square . . .

Coplans: 60 years.

Smith: Yeah, way back. This was a proposition, a significant mental proposition about painting which was absolutely valid. Sound. Not to be denied. And Newman pretty much takes advantage of a proposition that other people have already, seriously, and with great pain, thought about. I recognize that. It’s a beautiful painting, a magnificent painting. A lot of . . . you know you have that much red. I admire that. But what are we gonna do? Today, what are we red. I admire that. But what are we gonna do? Today, what are we gonna do? 9/10ths of the people sitting out here tonight are painters. What the hell are they gonna do? Are they going to divide up the canvas like that . . . again . . . and again? There’s only so many ways you can divide up a rectangle. You put a great big, enormous, huge piece of red canvas with a few simple things crossing it—it’ll attract your attention. Like the American flag. You feel sort of like saluting, you know? . . . Is that painting? I don’t think

Gordon: What are you doing, Hassel? . . . Besides being absolutely personal, what are you doing?

Smith: I’m pitching for more commitment.

Gordon: You don’t think Jackson Pollock was totally committed?

Smith: . . . decorator’s junk.

Gordon: It’s too emotional, too intensely emotional to be decorator’s junk. In my opinion you’re absolutely wrong. I don’t think decorators are committed. I don’t think decorators are intense. I think decorators are commercial. You’re being personal—you don’t like Jackson Pollock. Ironically, he doesn’t do much for me, either.

Smith: I admire Jackson Pollock very much.

Gordon: You admire Jackson Pollock’s decorative painting.

Smith: I’m for Jackson Pollock but I’m against his paintings. I’m talking about this particular painting.

Gordon: . . . these two big paintings.

Smith: Well, there was one other.

Hedrick: The black and white.

Smith: Better not even talk about that . . . That was so coarse. You look at the Guston, which is black and white. You look at the Pollock, which is black and white. And you see the difference, that’s all. Because this painting, in black and white, of Jackson Pollock’s . . . that’s basic. This painting is coarse. The line is indifferent. It’s brutal.

Zogbaum: Well, as a matter of fact, that’s not the best. For a couple of years he did nothing but this kind of black and white.

Smith: We’re talking about this show.

Zogbaum: I feel sad about this show, myself. I’ll admit that. But I don’t see any point in taking these artists and trying to minimize their accomplishments on the basis of this particular show because it’s a collection and subject to the hazards and limitations and the rest of it. If a certain work is not as important as we’d hoped it should be, that’s no reason to say that this artist didn’t amount to anything and that his work is nothing. Whether we like Jackson Pollock or not, what he did for all of us was to open up a whole world, a whole situation and a whole sense of freedom that none of us really suspected existed. We never really sensed it until he made it evident to us. Now that may not be true in your particular case, Hassel, because you weren’t really looking at his painting at that time. But it was true of a great many painters. It was true of Rothko. De Kooning has admitted it, although they were traditional rivals. Neither one of them had much use for the other. But still the way you have sort of categorized these things and put Pollock, Rothko, Kline in a certain category of people you want to despise and consider decorators . . . I can see how you might do it on seeing just this one show, but on the other hand I feel that if you were familiar with a larger body of the work of each one of these people you would not feel this way and that it would be impossible to make this statement.

Smith: We’re talking about this show.

Zogbaum: No we’re not. We’re talking about painting. Let’s talk about painting. Let’s not talk about this collection. We can use this—

Smith: People have told me these are the finest examples . . .

Zogbaum: Well, they’re wrong. There are some good examples, there are some indifferent examples, there are lots of poor examples. And there are lots of artists that aren’t even in this show.

Gordon: Hassel, I think you’re being very personal. That’s fine, be personal. The only trouble is you’ve done all the talking. I think we should all give an opinion of the show.

Smith: Go.

Gordon: All right, I’ll give my personal opinion of this show. I wasn’t terribly hot about it. I’m not a Pollock fan. But in my opinion Pollock was the first American painter. He was the first who succeeded in being an independent American painter. He did not look to Europe, in fact he was consciously and aggressively anti-European. I have certain reservations about his art. I don’t think he was a great artist . . . but he had a terrific influence on American art . . . he opened the way for Americans to be independent of Europe. And I think that this is realized by the tremendous energy and vitality that exists in American art today. It’s also demonstrated by the fact that European artists are influenced by American art. This is a phenomenon! This never happened before. Now, oddly enough, I preferred de Kooning’s paintings, which I think are old fashioned. I thought Motherwell was terrific. I thought the Gustons were terrific. I like Tworkov’s painting but I thought that was a bad Tworkov in that show. I’ve seen better paintings by him. The thing that touches me about de Kooning and Guston, and that Motherwell, and that Gorky—which sets these paintings apart from the rest of the show . . . There’s a certain sensuality about these paintings that I don’t find in the rest of the show. The paintings of Pollock, which are violent, which are tremendously strong, which are tremendously bold, but . . . they don’t touch me. The other paintings I found kind of dry. I found that Newman’s paintings were very attractive but Newman’s paintings depend on context, the relationship to the room they’re in. The other paintings, Gottlieb, Kline, they disappointed me. That was a kind of shock to me. I’m an admirer of Kline’s—the three paintings there disappointed me. This is my personal opinion. I would like to hear the opinion of some of the other members of the panel . . . to sort of balance the statements that are being made.

Coplans: I can talk now in terms of what I know of these artists . . . It’s impossible to disregard what they’ve given to art. I know of few Europeans, if any, that have both the quality and quantity of the particular painters that are in this show. I can’t possibly examine them outside of my own knowledge and what I’ve seen of these painters. The thing is that here we’re dependent on this one collector, Ben Heller. But if people saw a one man exhibition of Guston they’d have a different picture of what Guston is like as a painter.

Zogbaum: The whole Guggenheim Museum is full of Gustons from roof to basement at this moment. That gives you some idea.

Coplans: The point is, you can’t judge a painter on a collector’s idiosyncrasies.

Ippolito: I came to see this show with a different idea. I came to see the paintings. . . . the best people, but the collection wasn’t the best. But the idea is this, Hassel: All of us, whether we’ve seen the paintings or not, have been affected by them.

Gordon: This exhibition had an influence right here in this area, among painters and sculptors, and I think we’re not admitting it.

Smith: Of course it had an influence. I don’t deny that for one minute. We were all influenced by it.

Zogbaum: We used to feel the same way about Picasso.

Smith: We used to feel the same way about Picasso! Right! What a significant statement. I remember that only too clearly, how we were hung up. You know . . . everybody thought Picasso was the end of painting. “If you can’t do this you can’t do anything.” And gradually we began to see that his stuff was no good. No good. Well, it’s the same with these guys. Get over it!

Zogbaum: The thing is that these people who began to be recognized such a short time ago, perhaps 8, 10 years, have already become official art. Franz Kline never referred to anything he did as painting. He always referred to . . . “Well, that’s the kind of crap I do.” But on the other hand . . . there are people who are willing to pay a lot of money for it. There are some people who feel that it’s not crap. So now it’s become official. But as far as artists who have not become official are concerned, it’s crap.

Gordon: That’s terrific! The trouble with this show is that it’s official.

Smith: The trouble with this show is the paintings. For the most part they’re not any good—

Coplans: I think Zog has hit the nail on the head. Rothko came to Europe . . . and he was very upset because the State Department had taken this exhibition of New American Painting . . . and thrust it down European throats. Rothko said: “All my life I’ve been against American culture. I think it stinks.” This kind of chauvinism about American painting is over and done with now. It’s done with and the whole point is this: It doesn’t have to be judged as American painting. It only has to be judged as painting.

Smith: Right. And I’m judging it negatively, for the most part.

Coplans: Who do you admire in that show?

Smith: Guston. Tworkov. After all this talk about involvement . . . these guys are really involved in the painting.

Coplans: I don’t understand what you mean by involvement. How do you define this involvement by . . . you don’t know the painters.

Smith: I admire these guys. These guys are terrific as far as I’m concerned, but I don’t have to get down on my hands and knees in front of their paintings.

Gordon: Now wait a minute. You are so determined not to get down on your hands and knees in front of these paintings that you decide they’re no good . . . The most difficult achievement an artist is capable of is being involved. And the thing that people admire about Pollock is his total involvement. . . . Now being involved, in my opinion, doesn’t make him a good painter. I think a man like de Kooning is totally involved, but with a tradition behind him, an awareness of tradition that makes him a much better painter than Pollock because he has both involvement and capacity, or understanding, or ability, or whatever the hell it is . . . However, I think it takes an incredible amount of guts to be totally involved, and Pollock achieved this. I think he made it easier for a lot of other people. But I don’t dig his work.

Smith: All right, let’s accept that. But we’re looking at these paintings. We don’t give a darn about how much guts he put into these paintings. The paintings have been removed, they’re utterly separated from anything we know about Pollock. Let’s accept all this. What do the paintings say? . . . We admire this involvement. We admire the person. But the paintings have to stand on their own.

Zogbaum: You know, there are a great many artists who feel the same way that Hassel feels. The only effective argument, saying a painting is no good, or that it is crap, or something, is another painting or another body of work, and we’re all waiting for this. And we’ll see it, there’s no doubt about it. There are enough people with the talent or endurance or whatever it takes to make a painter. But don’t think for a moment that these things are easily done. It will take some doing to produce this argument that will do away with all of the paintings that are in the Heller collection.

Hedrick: Somewhere along the line they made elephants the biggest animals in the whole world. And there’s a story about elephants—if Hassel can do this I can. Elephants have a graveyard where they go to die. When I looked at that show I thought that that was an elephant’s graveyard. These were great men—they’re dead for me. The same way Picasso’s dead. He’s a great man but he’s dead. The younger people think these are the old dads of American painting. Well, great. It’s something for the critics to talk about, for the museums to hang, and hang an American flag next to, it’s great for everybody’s morale, Jackie Kennedy likes them, everything’s fine. Except that this doesn’t have anything to do with facing your own paintings in the morning.

Smith: Go man!

Hedrick: Thank you, Hassel. If I can get in the studio and do something, I don’t care what Heller collects or who hangs it or what’s hung. I’m not going out there because I have something to do in the studio.

Gordon: That’s the easy way out, Wally. There’s nothing easier than turning your back on something that disturbs you.

Coplans: No, I don’t agree. Every time the critics come along and analyze what’s happened the first thing the artist has got to do is knock it. This is the process that goes on today. We have so many people who, before the painting has even left the studio, are prepared to explain it. The only thing for anyone who wants to paint is to get free of it and the only way to get free of it is to knock it and this is what you’re doing.

Hedrick: No, I’m not knocking anybody. All I’m saying is that these people are historic personages . . .

Coplans: Christ, how quickly does history travel? Some of these paintings were painted in 1959, 1958.

Smith: This is a very fast country, very fast. You can’t keep celebrating. You can go on celebrating and celebrating. Let’s celebrate. But finally the mind and the heart and physically . . . finally you’re bugged by this stuff. It’s just like looking at a Michelangelo. We’re just as hung up on Michelangelo and Leonardo and those guys as we are on Rothko. As a painter, as a mind, you have to look at them. You have to decide. You have to make up your mind. You have to decide you’re gonna do this or you’re gonna do that. You’re for something. You’re opposed to something. And it’s unfortunate perhaps, but you can’t go on saying that everybody’s great . . . forever. You know . . . saying these guys were the greatest painters and we just gotta go on doing like they were doing, because they’re the greatest thing that ever lived. You gotta oppose something.

Audience Member: Saying something is great, this doesn’t mean that you have to imitate it. I think the problem with you, and with a lot of other people, is that you can’t get this distance, an esthetic distance if you will.

Smith: I have no esthetic distance.

Audience Member: It’s like the theatre director who says: “This is my way of directing this play and anybody else’s way is wrong.” Now look at these paintings. I think you can look at these paintings without feeling that they are threatening you, or that there’s nothing to learn because it’s all been done, or simply being cowed by the fact that somebody paid $50,000 for this canvas. I think you can look at these things objectively and keep your stature individual from them.

Smith: Man, you have to fight! 90% of the people in this country and every other western country think Michelangelo is great. And they’re wrong! He’s no damn good! The hang ups in art go on and on. You have to fight!

Hedrick: I want to make a statement. I have a funny feeling that Hassel has an idea there. That if for some reason 20 years from now somebody decides Jackson Pollock was a terrible painter it’s going to have a terrific effect on an awful lot of people. Because there’s an awful lot of people in this country who would like to be Pollock, who would like to be Franz Kline, who would like to be Robert Motherwell. And when the day comes that one of these guys is chopped down to his proper size it’s going to put their own painting in its proper perspective and they’re going to be second rate. And I have a funny feeling that all of this yelling and shouting is defending . . . to keep these things in the proper position so we won’t be second rate. I sometimes feel that this is the way American painting is going. They’re basing their tradition on a tradition that’s based on a tradition and, if, down at the bottom, it’s discovered that it wasn’t good . . . what about all those poor cats? That’s my statement.

Zogbaum: You have to distinguish between what you can’t help recognizing as great and what you love and what you really hate. All talk about art is full of paradoxes. And if you recognize that you can also be reconciled to the fact that somebody can be great who you have absolutely nothing in common with and who actually repels you.

Audience Member: Isn’t it kind of stupid to talk about who is good and who isn’t? Who can say? Isn’t it possible that we like Michelangelo now because we’ve learned to respect the Renaissance? Isn’t it possible that another period like the dark ages will come up and they’ll say the stuff was all trash?

Smith: Yeah, but you’re talking about periods. To hell with periods. There were guys that went and guys that didn’t go. That’s all.

Audience Member: What I really wanted to talk about was the basis on which you say this was good or bad.

Coplans: That’s the failure of this panel this evening. I know that when I walked into that museum, though I’d seen these paintings before, I was in love. I saw beautiful paintings. And I only ask one thing of museums, that I should see beautiful paintings. For me that museum is full of some of the most dramatic and beautiful paintings in the latter half of the 20th century. The failure of this panel is to establish the kind of quality that these people have. It’s not a question of these painters against San Francisco painters. It’s just the question of the nature of art itself. These painters in the continuum of tens of thousands of painters. This is what the panel has failed to do. Maybe the wrong people have been asked for the panel. (Applause)

Audience Member: Don’t all of you paint or sculpt because you have something to say and not because you’re trying to beat down somebody else?

Smith: That’s a very good question. Today we’re faced with an influence . . . You may think that painting is a thing that . . . you know . . . a lot of kooks are sort of digging, and so on . . . but it’s a big business! And pressure is constantly being placed on all of us, as painters, to accept a certain kind of thing as being the only thing. Whether it’s the 16th century or the 14th century or the 20th century, the influence of this stuff is oncoming . . . always. There are people who are your neighbors who think that Van Dyke is the greatest painter who ever lived. “This is the only kind of painting.” And it’s a combat. It’s a fight. We are fighting this battle today, every day. Because these things are not just paintings, they stand for something. They stand for a way of life, a certain condition of being . . . and you have to fight these things today. . . . It’s something that has to do with all of us. Profoundly. It has to do with your political beliefs. It has to do with your social orientation. All of these things are involved and you have to know that about painting. It’s not insignificant. It’s not just painting . . . It’s something more . . .

Audience Member: Is there a European style of painting and an American style of painting or is it an international thing?

Coplans: There is definitely an American style of painting. It’s difficult to explain. It consists of certain elements that have been lost from European art and have been revived by American painters. Particularly the question of scale. Since cubism, Picasso, for example, has been very little engaged with the question of scale. And American painters like Newman, Rothko, Kline and so forth, have become particularly engaged with content and format. The American style is concerned with this re-evaluation of painting as a whole. The isolation of the plastic qualities of painting is something that Americans have become very much admired for. I’m speaking as a European now, not as an American. There is an extraordinary formalism in this exhibition, a strong intellectual content, the analysis of the nature of painting, what it consists of. As against what is fairly common in Europe, outside of the two or three fairly good painters, a kind of image producing. Typical of this would be someone like Soulage who produces an iconographic image, beautifully made and very polished, as against Kline, who doesn’t use a polished paint. It’s a kind of direct attack that American painting has that, in my opinion, is very missing in Europe today.

Gordon: I think there is an American style. I don’t think it has to do with scale. It has to do with the spirit of painting. It has to do with a kind of boldness. I think all these paintings have this in common: They have a newly discovered confidence. I think that people like Kline and Newman and especially Pollock are having a kind of orgy of self-satisfaction. My God! We’re Americans and we don’t depend on Europe! I think they express this kind of exhilaration. I think it’s a negative turned into a positive thing. The hell with Europe! You know? I think that Pollock and Rothko and Motherwell and all the others were stimulated by this idea. No longer do we have to lean on cubism, on Picasso or the centuries-old tradition. This is a powerful idea, this sense of independence. And I think this exhibition expresses this independence. Now this idea is becoming academic. I think the idea of American independence is becoming academic. We’re getting smug about it. This has nothing to do with the question: How good are these paintings? But it’s important that we do break away from this leaning on Europe.

Zogbaum: Before we go any further I’d like to say a couple of good words about Ben Heller. We’ve sort of put him down and all that. But if it weren’t for Ben Heller and other collectors, and there are a number of them in his class, there wouldn’t be any American painting. Let’s not forget that. (applause, catcalls) . . . getting back to the painting. This particular collection is kind of top heavy in those people who have been innovators in the most courageous sense, people who have gone way out on a limb, like Rothko, for instance, or Kline. Barney Newman is probably the extreme example. These are all people that I know well and it’s difficult for me to talk about them in a detached way. And I’ve heard different opinions about them in the past years. I thought they were terrible at one time and then I’ve revised my opinion, and so on, and gradually I’ve gotten used to them. Barnett Newman . . . Besides the fact that he’s sort of resuscitated a constructivist image and projected it on a grandiose scale, he’s also told us that painting is finished. There’s nothing to it but that line down the middle dividing it up in a certain way. So in one sense he has functioned more as a critic of art than as a painter. But another thing we shouldn’t forget is that in every painting there’s an element of criticism. Every painting is an argument. As Hassel has said—I might rephrase it—each painting is a weapon. Each painting is a definition of what art is. It may not have become that yet, but that’s what it might be. Well, these people, with tremendous courage, have gone out . . . they’ve divested themselves of the whole trappings of what art was, and they’ve said the hell with it—this is what art is. It had never been that before, and it wasn’t that until a couple of years ago. Now it happens to be in the museum and regarded as masterpieces, as authorities of some sort. This is perhaps too quick. There is no reason for us to accept them as masterpieces and as authorities. Or even as art, for that matter. On the other hand, I think that the works of these artists, who are not untalented people, these things should be regarded with a certain amount of sympathy and of tolerance. They should serve as examples to us because very few artists that I know of have had the courage that these artists have had.