PRINT July 1963

Response: Howard Warshaw on Don Factor

HAVING RECEIVED AN ADVANCE copy of a review of my work and having been granted the alternatives of responding to it or not, the review to be published in any event, I have chosen, by replying, what I consider to be the lesser of two evils. I find there are three points to which I would like to reply.

One––“has chosen to disavow his century.” The review begins by saying that I have chosen to disavow my century. Modesty compels me to deny having any such grandiose scheme; it is rather that the reviewer has chosen to define the 20th century. Whenever one tries to cram a mysterious colossus like a century into a little box like a definition he shouldn’t be sur­prised if some of it spills over. Though no revelations are made as to what the limits are for 20th century behavior, nevertheless the review is evidently based on a belief that such limits exist and that they are common knowledge. When he speaks of “the phi­losophic mainstream,” “contemporary metaphysics” and “contemporary attitudes” the reviewer enters into a tacit understanding with his readers that there is general agreement as to what these things are, and, more important, as to what they should be. He appears to have a subjective (though commonplace) idea of what life should be like in the 20th century which he then projects outside upon the world, wherein he discovers it as an objective reality. It is as though he were not, along with the rest of us, wallowing and somewhat lost in the middle of our century, but rather as if, by some kind of clairvoyance, he were like an historian looking back to it with its complete set of documents laid out before him, to be seen in perspective. And I too presumably share in this clairvoyance as I should have to know what my century is in order to disavow it.

In painting as I do, I have been exercising (though quite unconsciously) my right not to share in any prefabricated version of our time. Nor have I a counter-version to propose. I have not chosen to paint as I do but rather followed my nose a long the paths I love. Gertrude Stein said: “Nothing is lost until you look for it.” I try to avoid looking for myself or for my century. I am confident that they both exist and have every reason to believe that they are hap­pening concurrently.

Two––“the mainstream.” If I had decided, at the time I began my formal study of painting, to work in what is referred to as “the mainstream” and had persisted in this winsome quest for orthodoxy during the twenty-seven years that followed, I should have had to manipulate my work through something like the following contortions:

To begin with I should probably have studied with Thomas Hart Benton or with Grant Wood. They were in the mainstream (in America) at that time. Next I might have turned my back on this folkloristic Ameri­cana, with its extremely laborious techniques, in order to find a place for myself among the elegant international surrealists. If then I found myself still afloat in the mainstream I should have had the opportunity, courageously, to abandon hard-earned techniques in favor of abstract expressionism. Hav­ing renounced the “art of the past” for a decent inter­val I should then have been in a position to make a courageous “return to the figure.” At this particular moment, that would probably mean using the comic strip as a source of stylistic influence.

I think there are two mainstreams. The mainstream of painting which runs deep and is very difficult to locate while it is happening, and the mainstream as concocted by popular art criticism, which meanders and vacillates and almost never survives its own cen­tury.

Three––“The sophisticated viewer must necessarily see the work in terms of its many influences and be disturbed by its total disregard for contemporary attitudes and the most important painting of the last seventy or eighty years.” This paragraph nicely illustrates what I had been saying in section one. However it raises another interesting question. Namely, is the “sophisticated viewer” to be disturbed by the influences of Juan Gris, Picasso, Lebrun, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or El Greco, which he may discern in my work, or is he to be disturbed by the lack of influ­ences I just described in section two? In turning to Rembrandt, as I have done, am I turning to the dead art of the past, or to that part of the past which is still living? Does one or does one not believe in the immortality of great works? I do. We have reached a strange point of alienation from our culture when a painter may be called upon to justify ms interest in Caravaggio, Rembrandt or El Greco. My interest in these men is not an interest in “the past” but rather in what T. S. Eliot calls “the present moment of the past.” I should like to quote a few words from his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” (an essay which I wish every art critic would read):

“ . . . But the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself can not show.”

“Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did’: Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

––Howard Warshaw