PRINT January 1965



Dear Sir:
I admire Max Kozloff’s writing but differ substantially with his view on why Abstract Expressionism as a movement has declined.

In the first place, I do not agree that Abstract Expressionism “committed su­icide.” The movement is still very much alive, although obviously past its prime years. In the second place, Mr. Kozloff leaves the impression that “Action Painting” failed because it was based on an unrealistic premise. He states that “there proved to be an inevitable contradiction between the hope that a unique fugitive physical performance could be embodied in paint, and the static, immobile condition of that very paint, which would freeze, not a performance but only its traces.”

In other words, Kozloff is saying that the Abstract Expressionists were attempting something which proved both physically and esthetically impossible to achieve. If this is so, it is difficult to account for the apparent success of the movement, its critical acclaim on three continents and its worldwide influence today. Whether the work of Abstract Expressionists recorded the actual “physical performance” of the painters or “only its traces” (as Koz­loff contends), involves a question of semantic interpretation on which almost any expert jury of critics would undoubtedly divide. The question is only important, however, if one equates Action Painting solely with “physical performance” consisting of simple spontaneous gestures (such as drips, splatter, sloshes, scrapes, etc.). But this narrow interpretation of Action Painting totally disregards the importance of the many formal innovations which painters such as Pollock and de Kooning brought to bear on their objectives. These innovations enabled them to suggest by painterly means a metamorphosis of form within a continuous space, thus adding a new dimension to painting.

Discussing de Kooning, Harold Rosenberg (who, as Kozloff notes, invented the term Action Painting) comments:

“The meaning of visual metamorphosis, as of all metaphor, lies in the artist’s use of it. Faithful to painting values, de Kooning employed his repertory of signs to introduce revolutionary innovations in form.”

“. . . ever conscious, as he said ‘that the idea of space is given to an artist to change it if he can’; (he) frees the shape that is a sign, from the stasis of both free-standing objects and symbolic systems into a new kind of psychodynamic composition.”

If Abstract Expressionism has declined, the reason is not because it committed suicide by attempting the impossible. It is rather that a younger generation of painters misunderstood the nature of this art, and in so doing turned it into a “style” wherein all that remained was a vestigial mannerism.

––Gifford Phillips
Washington, D.C.

In response to Mr. P. D. French’s review of Ralph Du Casse’s exhibit at the Bolles Gallery in your November 1964 issue, I have a few comments. Neither the simplicity nor the humor of the zoo animals is trite or esoteric. The paintings are light and charming, appealing to anyone who is able and willing to look at them openly for what they are––not trying to create an intent or contrivance, or any such qualities which aren’t inherent or present. What is esoteric to Mr. French may just be a lack of understanding or appreciation on his part. Their execution is direct––precisely painted, with intellectual intent and organization of the interplay of forms, color, and surface textures. Mr. French’s own choice of words reflects his attitude and approach to art criticism––slick, contrived flamboyance, and affected. I can see now why Robert Arneson would be inspired to create his sculpture of a critic (shown at the Cellini Gallery)­––however emphatic it may be.

––Myra Bernstein
Oakland, California

In the review of the Richmond Print and Sculpture show in your November issue, M. Martin was not very observant––or else playing favorites. The review stated that Don Potts was “the only artist in the show who has both a print and a sculpture on exhibition.” Even if M.M. didn’t take a good look at the show, a glance at the exhibition program would have shown my name twice, like that of Don Potts. I assume that I too am “the only artist in the show who has both a print and a sculpture on exhibition,” although I did not see my name in the review.

––Bradford Smith
El Sobrante, Calif.

We applaud your fine coverage of the San Francisco photographic scene in the September issue. A handful of sensitive photographers are aware of the current dilemma the medium is experiencing in relation to the established fine arts, and need valid criticism.

I was particularly impressed with the expose of the shallow Marx lye exhibition. The comments “general hokum,” “pretentious,” and alas, “Sick in­deed!” were well chosen; it was unsigned, whom shall we compliment for their honesty?

We anticipate a continuance of the column on photography, and hope to hear more from Margery Mann on the subject.

––F. D. Siemens
Mendocino, Calif.