PRINT May 1967



Rosenberg and Rubin, continued:

Rubin dislikes myth but doesn’t mind basing his argument on gossip. Every paragraph in his reply to my letter in the April Artforum contains misstatements of fact. I haven’t the patience (nor will the reader) to deal with more than a few examples.

1) Rubin says he had to discuss Action Painting because of “its constant invocation by writers on Pollock (monographers Mr. Robertson and Mr. O’Hara, for example.)” Actually, Robertson did not “invoke” Action Painting; he said just what Rubin said about it, that it was an idea that Rosenberg got from Pollock.

2) Rubin quotes what Parker Tyler says Pollock said about the origin of Action Painting and refers to what readers “assumed” when they first read the article. This is supposed to prove that my article was really about Pollock. But how does Rubin know that what Pollock said to Tyler was true or that Tyler correctly reported what Pollock said to Tyler? Also, how does Rubin know what the readers of my article assumed in 1952? I don’t seem to remember Rubin going around with a pad in those days taking a poll. Of course, some readers may have assumed that “The American Action Painters” was meant to apply to Pollock. Why shouldn’t they have? But it does not follow that the article was taken to describe Pollock. It related him to an idea . . . Apparently, Rubin doesn’t know what this means.

3) Rubin says that “Rosenberg tries to slide over this by making the remarkable statement that . . .” He then quotes something I said. This sounds as if I just wrote the statement in order to win an argument with him. Actually, the statement he quotes was written fifteen years ago.

4) Rubin doesn’t mind if his gossip contradicts itself—for example, that according to Parker Tyler’s account the Action Painting idea came from Pollock and that according to Motherwell’s it came from the Dadaists.

5) I won’t go into Rubin’s weird manners in dealing with Meyer Schapiro. But then we come to something nasty. By the time Rubin wrote his letter to Artforum he knew perfectly well that my piece called “Homage to Hofmann” in Art News last January was actually a speech delivered on tape at a critics’ symposium called “Homage to Hofmann” which took place at NYU in October, 1966—and that it had been erroneously presented in Art News as an article on Hofmann (see Art News, February, 1967, which acknowledges the error). The fact that Rubin undoubtedly knew this did not, however, prevent our historian from dragging in my speech as “an article purporting to he about Hans Hofmann.” Perhaps my mentioning Rubin’s name in the piece was what he calls an “ad hominem attack.” His referring to the piece as “purporting to be about Hans Hofmann” is downright dishonesty.

It’s also cheap of Rubin to insinuate that I objected to his discussion of Action Painting because I wanted him to quote me more. As I said in my original letter, Rubin’s theories, his interpretations of other people’s theories, his contempt for artists (he calls the ideas with which they respond to experience “artists’ cant”) are his problem. I wrote to Artforum because I’d gotten tired of attempts like Rubin’s to knock down a piece of writing by ignoring ideas in it which one wishes to present oneself.

Harold Rosenberg
New York City

“Rubin” doesn’t dislike myth; he believes—as his letter indicated—that it has an important cultural-historical role. He does, however, think it should be sorted out from fact, and that it should not be used to distort our interpretation of art. Mr. Rosenberg considers my citations gossip; but the remarks of Mr. Tyler and Mr. Motherwell in question were first person quotations which appeared in print, in Art News and Artforum respectively.

1) If Mr. Rosenberg would like, I can provide him with a long list of examples of the use of the term “Action Painting” by writers on Pollock. Robertson’s very purpose in saying that Mr. Rosenberg got the Action idea from Pollock was to characterize him in those terms.

2) It may be, as Mr. Rosenberg darkly hints, that Pollock, Tyler and Motherwell have been guilty of mendacity. I reported what they said; it is not for me to vouch for their honesty. Also, quite without going around with a pad I can safely say what many readers—including artists, critics and hundreds of students I know—assumed about Action Painting in the mid-fifties.

3) Mr. Rosenberg seems to have forgotten that he himself identified the original source of the “remarkable statement,” even citing a page reference in a parenthesis. It was therefore perfectly clear to any reader of our exchange of letters that the statement was not formulated in the letter itself. The purpose of this statement in the original essay was, just as in his letter citing it, to slide over the inherent contradictions of his theory.

4) As observed, the remarks quoted here were hardly gossip. Nor is any necessary contradiction involved since Mr. Rosenberg’s reading of the Dada texts Mr. Motherwell referred to was reported by me merely as “a catalyst.” Moreover, Mr. Motherwell’s remarks were prefaced in my letter by the trope, “Motherwell suggests.” I never said I accepted Pollock’s assertion to Tyler (and others) that Rosenberg got the idea of Action Painting from his lips—but got it wrong. I merely reported this; I suspect there is some truth in it.

5) “Rubin” did not know—until reading Mr. Rosenberg’s second letter—that his article “Homage to Hofmann” in the January Art News was transcribed from a pre-recorded taped talk prepared for an N.Y.U. symposium entitled “Homage to Hofmann.” Why this should make the slightest difference anyway I can’t imagine. Moreover, my reference to an “article”—or, if Mr. Rosenberg wishes, a recorded talk—“purporting to be about Hans Hofmann”—was incidental to my main point which was that Mr. Rosenberg had made a gratuitous, ad hominem attack on me and others. (Certainly the scornful dismissal of a critic by name without the least reference to, or citation from, his writing qualifies as such.) A perusal of my texts and letters will show that I have consistently addressed myself to Mr. Rosenberg’s ideas.

As for my supposed contempt for artists, I cannot imagine why Mr. Rosenberg assumes that my recognition of the existence of artists’ cant (there is also critics’ cant, as Mr. Rosenberg well knows) makes all artists’ statements questionable. It is true that I have contempt for the pietistic attitude which automatically treats artists’ remarks as a kind of Logos; I think they must be tested—like critics’ remarks—against our experience of the art. But that I admire much of what artists say is evident in the frequency with which I quote them in my writing. My Pollock texts have many citations from the remarkably concise and intelligent published statements by Pollock. As to contempt for artists, one need only turn to Mr. Rosenberg’s condescending dismissal of the assertion that Pollock had a hand in authoring the Action theory (Art News, February 1961): “There is nothing objectionable, naturally, in an artist enlarging his vocabulary, but what is to be gained attributing to Pollock literary discoveries outside his range.” (Italics Mr. Rosenberg’s.)

William Rubin
New York City