PRINT April 1967



William Rubin’s interpretation of Action Painting (Artforum, February, 1967) is, as the psychoanalyst said in the joke, his problem. But a few points need to be adduced to correct excessive distortion of the text of “The American Action Painters.”

1) After lengthy argument Professor Rubin reaches the conclusion that if “painting is what Pollock was about, Action Painting is a myth.” This seems to expose the inadequacy of the concept of Action Painting as a description of Pollock. Rubin’s labors were, however, unnecessary, since the first sentence of “The American Action Painters” declares that “What makes any definition of a movement in art dubious is that it never fits the deepest artists in the movement—certainly not as well as, if successful, it does others.” (Page 23, The Tradition of the New, McGraw Hill paperback.) In brief, if Pollock, de Kooning, Hofmann, Kline, are taken to be the leading Action Painters, Action Painting is declared at the outset to be a definition that does not fit them, or, if one prefers, a “myth”—although the statement also predicts that there will be mediocre Action Painters to whom the definition will apply. The dialectical function of such a non-applicable definition or myth is described in the sentences that follow and Professor Rubin can work this out when he gets around to it.

2) “Another familiar Pollock myth,” writes Rubin, “celebrates the athlete whose works are residues of enactments of ‘events’ in the ‘arena of the canvas’ (the underpinning of this is the notion of ‘Action Painting’).” Professor Rubin then goes on to describe how Pollock spent hours “staring” at the canvas he was working on and to demand that, contrary to the Action Painting “myth” of automatism, we “recognize his (Pollock’s) capacity for storing decisions, which would then counter-point the more immediately improvisational aspects of his method when he was actually painting.” (His italics.) A terrific discovery! Only the distinction between Action Painting and automatism is underlined in “The American Action Painters”: “Each stroke had to be a decision and was answered by a new question. By its very nature Action Painting is painting in the medium of difficulties.” (Page 33—see also footnote which discusses the moral essence of Action Painting.)

3) Professor Rubin’s discussion of Pollock’s use of line is interesting and he has, of course, the right to quote, or to fail to quote, anything he pleases. But since he does quote so copiously from “The American Action Painters” to demonstrate its esthetic irrelevance he might have quoted the discussion of line (page 27, footnote) which distinguishes its use by Action Painters from line as “plane, edge, contour or connective,” the very point Rubin wishes to make about Pollock (I admit this is all said in a sentence rather than in three columns).

4) As a “mythological” composition, “The American Action Painters” dealt only with extra-human entities and mentioned no names. On what basis then does Professor Rubin as an historian claim that the phrase “apocalyptic wallpaper” was applied by me to Pollock? And so insolently, too, and with such self-esteem. “Eyes unable to distinguish the point-to-point nuancing and variation involved here found Pollock’s all-over paintings to be mere decoration and ornament—‘inorganic order of simple periodic repetitions’ or ‘apocalyptic wallpaper’.” Whose were those eyes so inferior to Rubin’s? Meyer Schapiro’s and Harold Rosenberg’s? Not a bad bag. But Rubin has no basis in any text for citing “apocalyptic wallpaper” as a description of Pollock’s paintings—did this “historian” read my mind or what? The phrase was used to describe (page 34) the “weak mysticism” and empty pretentiousness which already in 1952 had become an alternative to decision making in the “arena” of the canvas—weaknesses which years later were to be triumphantly discovered by Rubin and his friends as the basis for their assault on Action Painters. I suggest that Professor Rubin quit reading paintings and looking at texts, and that he try it the other way around.

—Harold Rosenberg
New York, N.Y.

Looking beyond the disputatious tone of Mr. Rosenberg’s letter, I am delighted to find that he agrees with most of what I wrote. His main objections seem to be that I have not acknowledged him as having anticipated the critical points I make, and that I take too long to make them. Actually, my discussion of Action Painting consumes about nine paragraphs of which three are entirely devoted to citations from Mr. Rosenberg’s text. This seems to me a rather economical discussion, given the contradictions in the text I was analyzing.

1 ) Mr. Rosenberg declares my labors unnecessary since his definition of Action Painting was not intended to fit Pollock. My text clearly stated that the need to discuss Action Painting derived from its constant invocation by writers on Pollock (monographers Mr. Robertson and Mr. O’Hara, for example). I mentioned Mr. Rosenberg only as the author of the theory and not its application to Pollock.

However, Mr. Rosenberg has discussed Pollock in the context of Action Painting (e.g. The Anxious Object, pgs. 41 & 83) and Pollock himself told Parker Tyler that “Rosenberg had taken the idea from his [Pollock’s] lips, but that he had gotten it wrong.” (Art News, March, 1961.) Mr. Rosenberg’s readers assumed, when his essay first appeared, that it was meant to describe Pollock as much if not more than other painters. Perhaps they were wrong; or perhaps Mr. Rosenberg has changed his mind. Much later, Mr. Rosenberg was to write that “de Kooning’s improvisations provided the model for the concept of Action Painting.” But the kinds of things Mr. Rosenberg says about pictures in his Action Painting essay (“the canvas was not a picture, but an event”—“broken down every distinction between art and life”—“its value must be found apart from art”) are no more true of de Kooning than of Pollock.

Mr. Rosenberg tries to slide over this by making the remarkable statement that “what makes any definition of a movement in art dubious is that it never fits the deepest artists in the movement—certainly not as well as, if successful, it does others.” This will come as news to art historians who have been working with definitions other than Action Painting. The going definition of Impressionism, for example, much better fits Monet than Bazille. Mr. Rosenberg suggests that if his theory does not describe Pollock or de Kooning so well, it does describe the lesser painters. But is the theory any more applicable to Michael Goldberg, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell or Norman Bluhm? (All are mentioned by Mr. Rosenberg in the context of Action Painting, Art News, No. 10, 1961). Nor is Action Painting an esthetic ideal (like Sonata form) toward which Abstract Expressionist paintings tend. Insofar as the artists were making pictures—and they all were—they were moving away from the definition of Action Painting.

The theory of Action Painting tells us less about painting than about artists’ feelings in the years leading to its coinage. The presence of the Surrealists here during the war (with their anti art notions), the publication by Wittenborn of Dadaist texts on “action” (Motherwell suggests that Rosenberg’s reading of the proofs of this book was a catalyst for the Action Painting essay), the lack of worldly success of the painters and their consequent feelings of alienation, the relation of the latter to half digested ideas about Existentialism and Zen—all this and more contributed to what might be called the artists’ cant of the period. Action theory is a partial embodiment of such ideas; the speculations of Princet and Apollinaire comparably embodied the cant about painting as mathematics and technology during the Cubist period. The danger in that case began when critics confused such speculations with the structure of Cubist paintings and the way artists arrived at them (Breton’s hallucination of Picasso at work with his ruler).

2) That the Action Painter’s “each stroke had to be a decision and was answered by a new question” hardly serves to distinguish “Actionism” and “automatic” painting. Mr. Rosenberg’s observation could be applied to all modern painting; probably to all older painting as well.

3 ) The sentence about line which Mr. Rosenberg feels I ought to have cited in my analysis of Pollock’s “autonomous line” continues beyond what he has reported to state that the line is “a figure (in the sense of ‘figure skating’).” This is precisely what Pollock’s line was not. Moreover, Mr. Rosenberg’s sentence referred to Action Painters in general; the point of my text is that Pollock was doing something absolutely unique with line. If, indeed, Mr. Rosenberg wants his text to apply to Pollock, how can he turn around and say that he did not have Pollock in mind when he wrote the original essay? Which brings me to:

4) “Apocalyptic wallpaper.” Here Mr. Rosenberg has a point. I cannot prove he had Pollock in mind when he coined this term, though this has been widely thought to be the case. In fairness to Mr. Rosenberg I will remove it from my text prior to its appearance in book form.

Mr. Rosenberg claims that I put him in a “bag” with Professor Schapiro. Nothing could be further from my mind. Schapiro is a great art historian. I was his student and remain his fervent admirer; he was my doctoral sponsor. I chose the formulation Mr. Rosenberg cites precisely because Professor Schapiro so succinctly defined this type of decoration; the footnote states clearly: “This is Schapiro’s definition of such decoration. However, he excepts Pollock for the most part from this.” (Indeed, there was some slight equivocation in Professor Schapiro’s article.) Throwing people together in “bags” is alien to my thinking. Not so to Mr. Rosenberg’s, however, as instanced by the way in which I was willy-nilly “bagged” into the company of other art historians and critics in his indiscriminate ad hominem attack on us in an article purporting to be about Hans Hofmann (Art News, January, 1967).

Since Mr. Rosenberg accepts my characterization of Action Painting as a myth, might he not rest content? It is no mean accomplishment to have floated a cultural myth, indeed, one which—as I observed in my text—had considerable influence on Happenings and related Neo-Dada activity. Meanwhile, critics and historians will continue to set right that distortion in the characterization of the painting of the ’40s and ’50s which his myth engendered.

—William Rubin
New York, N.Y.

The article on Novros (in the January, 1966 issue of your magazine) demands unfavorable criticism as much as the paintings deserve favorable. There were many incorrect facts. Novros did not study at the University of California at all. He did not exhibit at the Park Place Gallery in 1964. The paintings in the Fall ’66 Show at Dwan, LA, with the exception of one early and rather different painting, were all painted in the summer of 1966. The idea that the work hasn’t changed in four years is so incorrect it is absurd. False deductions in the article come from these mistakes in the critic’s information.

But the most important error in the writing is that the work is not criticized for its independent merits exclusively. Painting must be considered by its quality, not by its historical importance. It is a serious disservice to the artist to do otherwise. Later, when the newness of the work is gone, the work can only be considered on its own merits. Criticism should discuss quality from the very beginning, if there is to be criticism at all.

In the description of the work, Coplans says that the works are to be read as something between painting and sculpture. Novros does not consider his paintings sculptural at all. Coplans considers the paintings only in terms of form and composition and not in terms of color, which is far from the intent of the artist. The color is an important consideration. The paintings are not all reddish/ greenish; the color varies from painting to painting. Coplans did not even look closely enough at the paintings to see that each painting, though basically the same value, is a different color. There is no deeply dented top surface of the canvas. The “halation,” as Coplans says, comes solely from light coming off the special Murano color.

The discussion of “moves” being made by certain artists at certain times is ridiculous and misleading. It is an attempt at art history that does not belong in contemporary criticism and tells more about the critic than the artist being discussed. The article closes with a brief remark about the excellent quality of the work, with which I must agree.

—Reltnee Mroubo
New York, N. Y.

Congratulations on your February issue. It is another and yet more brilliant magazine in a series that amazingly gets better and better. Bill Rubin’s and Michael Fried’s articles on Pollock and Louis are major contributions.

One large quibble; the Metropolitan Museum has as yet precious few important modern American pictures. That being the obvious case I must insist that whenever Autumn Rhythm is reproduced (as on page 21 of the February issue) every effort be made to locate it in the Met’s collection, not in the Museum of Modern Art’s.

—Henry Geldzahler,
Associate Curator,
American Painting And Sculpture,
Metropolitan Museum Of Art

I find it altogether astonishing that Artforum, a West Coast magazine, should be the only one that has had the acumen to provide, in advance of the Pollock show at the Museum of Modern Art, a critical appreciation of that artist as serious and exhaustive as the William Rubin articles. They are certain to be of immeasurable aid to those who will view the exhibition, providing, as they do, the first lucid, unfrenzied analysis of Pollock’s rock-bottom contribution yet written. Artists and scholars everywhere remain in Mr. Rubin’s, and Artforum’s debt.

—Joyce Vefoley
New York, N. Y.

I found the reproductions for your first article on Jackson Pollock excellent and well chosen. The quotation from T. S. Eliot is beautiful. These along with a title that referred to Jackson Pollock as what he was, an incredibly graceful iconoclast, would have spoken sufficiently. The text of Mr. Rubin’s article is detestable. Through the standard art historian methods he has created an academic something which Pollock himself would have loved to destroy. The second part of the article can only be worse. Things are moving too fast and erratically. Art historians should have learned by now that things will no longer fit into boxes made of assumptive theories and footnotes.

—Stephen Mueller
Austin, Texas

Only the lines “There are three elements fighting. The artists, the engineers and the audience. These will have to come to some resolution.” are directly quoted from Billy Kluver in the last paragraph of my Theater and Engineering (February, 1967). The rest of the paragraph is my own text.

—Simone Whitman
New York, N. Y.