PRINT June 1963


Art: USA: now

Art: USA: now, edited by Lee Nord­ness, text by Allen S. Weller (New York: Viking), 1963.
2 volumes, 475 pages, illustrated.

Mr. and Mrs. H. F. Johnson,
who, had they been asked,
would have insisted it be dedicated
instead to the American artist.”

Probably not. A much more likely sug­gestion might have been:

For Fibber McGee and Molly
Who Made All This Possible

For Mr. H. F. Johnson, of course, is the Chairman of S. C. Johnson & Son, Inc., better known to radio and TV listeners as “The Johnson’s Wax Company,” who one day invited Mr. Nordness “for a luncheon in which the discussion cen­tered on the possibilities of his corpora­tion’s aiding the creative American artist as part of its public responsibility pro­gram.” (A “public responsibility pro­gram,” one takes it, is a new phrase for “public relations,” which is a variant of “advertising,” which is not unrelated to “propaganda,” which is a system of not telling as much of the truth as there is to tell.) Being a big company, Johnson’s Wax evidently had a big public responsibility, because nobody seemed to even blanch at Mr. Nordness’s luncheon sug­gestion that the company “purchase the most extensive collection of contempor­ary American art ever assembled by any business organization in the world . . . ” Happily, Mr. Nordness, a New York deal­er, was available to make the selections and do the buying, and before you knew it, American Art (USA: NOW variety) had gotten Johnson’s Wax a great big color spread in Time Magazine, and would be spreading the shiny floor message through European and American mu­seums well into 1964, all in the name of art and public responsibility and aid­ing the creative American artist.

To top it all come two big, expensive volumes with all the purchased paint­ings· reproduced in color, photos and biographical squibs about each artist, Mr. Nordness’s fatuous and fawning introduction and a long essay by Mr. Weller, who makes a heroic attempt to tie the significant and the insignificant, the dull and the interesting, into some kind of a presentable whole. Since works by 102 American artists are pre­sented, in what is, essentially, only an elaborate $30 catalog of the Johnson exhibition, and since the works, as Mr. Nordness is firm in assuring us, neither are his “favorites,” nor the corporation’s, nor even Mr. Johnson’s, nor anyone’s, evidently, Mr. Weller’s job is not an easy one. No one’s favorite de Kooning has somehow got to be written about along with no one’s favorite Meigs, no one’s favorite Kingstein and no one’s favorite Wilde. The effort is not made easier by the design and the printing of the book, which is simply a joke.

Mr. Weller’s text, for example, begins at the front of volume one, becomes con­tinued at the rear of volume one (like a magazine article), is continued over to the front of volume two and is com­pleted at the rear of volume two. The color reproductions are printed on paper so thin that the black print on the other side is clearly visible (the effect on the Albers is libelous). All the reproductions are on out-sized, fold-out pages, like a road map, which never fold back proper­ly, so that after leafing through the book but once, page after page is creased be­yond redemption. The biographical squibs are printed on a cheap, heavy oatmeal stock and are only half the width of the other pages, so that the re­sult of their interleaving is to form a deep crease down the center of the wider pages. The artists and paintings are presented in no discernible order, and since each volume has its own table of contents, one invariably has to trundle to the rear of each volume to see if the item he seeks is in that volume at all, and if so, whereabouts. If wax were packaged this way Mr. Johnson would have been out of business long ago.

––Philip Leider