TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 1968

LETTERS

LETTERS

Sirs:
I remember Jane Livingston just looking, while nearly everybody else was jumping on tires, throwing them, stapling up words, scribbling with colored chalks, playing recordings, and pushing furniture around. No mention of this in her review of my retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum (November).

Instead, Jane Livingston talks about art versus life, when I’m interested in what art may become in life-contexts; about spontaneity, when I’m concerned with games and their rules; about staged events, when my enactments are remote from theaters; about my Environments in relation to the more recent set-pieces of others, when from the beginning, mine were social activities . . .

Indeed, in this spirit of knowledge-ability, Jane Livingston points out that I have beat my own drum so thoroughly that (ho-hum) everyone got the message long ago, and my California appearance was a flop: “Kaprow has at every opportunity talked about himself and his intentions to the point where, if one had troubled to read and look, the mystery has gone out.” Maybe everyone else has gone to the trouble to read and look, but what happened to Jane? I can’t seem to hear the right rhythm. There’s a mystery somewhere.

Hasn’t she read about such old-fashioned matters as: impermanence; rearrangeability of part and whole; the elusiveness of the “whole”; changeability of materials; remote and uncertain authorship; real time and real space; scattered interval and locale; the relation of weather and environs to the work; the public as a “programmed” component of the work, i.e. involvement rather than detachment; freedom and license, and their respective uses; group play rather than personal art as goal; the sense of “form” in these instances . . . Lord knows, I have beat the drum about such issues, yet she doesn’t discuss them. Maybe she did the wrong homework all these years, and has got me confused with someone else’s drumming!

Now, when it comes to troubling to look, I have said that I saw her looking. I am not sure what she was looking at because, aside from a very weensy mention of three pieces, no reader could tell what was in the show from her review. But the catch here is the word “looking,” and looking, in any case, is not enough. Trained to just look, Jane Livingston found herself perhaps “distracted” by other requirements such as physical participation, and thus didn’t even look very well. (What about those five black mounds that appear in the photo of Yard, huh?)

As an expert in my ideas and activities, Jane Livingston endeavors to get at the heart, naturally, of my Happenings. She writes that they “should be conceived as archetype or impetus, and then should eventually be superseded by the experiential conviction that everything is a potential Happening. At that point, the function of the artist, or agent, disappears.” Wrong. (This quotation resembles something I once said with, however, the opposite conclusion.) Everything may be a potential Happening, but it takes a Happener to make that crucial decision, and that very decision italicizes the whatever-it-is. And no work of art—either Happening or painting of Jesus Christ—ever succeeded in getting anybody permanently tuned into “life,” least of all, the artist, who likes to keep on doing whatever he does.

Let me emphasize this: to the best of my knowledge, Jane Livingston has never participated in one of my Happenings. And to have all that know-how about me, one’d think she’d been involved in at least three-dozen or more. Nope. Not a one. It’s sort of like talking about making love when you haven’t.

But she had her chance. She didn’t tell the readers, of course, that capping the Pasadena Art Museum’s show, was a large-scale Happening—Fluids—which took place over three days throughout greater Los Angeles. She figured it wasn’t necessary, and just ignored it, as if it had nothing to do with me—or her job as reviewer. By golly, when a writer doesn’t get the ideas right, and, to boot, stays away from art work, what can you make out of all the words she gets printed?

Well, maybe there’s a generation gap between me and those nice young critic chicks from California—standing so far off with their funny notions. I know there’s a credibility gap. One thing, though; I have to praise Jane Livingston for a damn good intuition: She says that I am “less an artist than a phenomenon.” I agree.

—Dad Kaprow

Allan Kaprow’s eagerness to “beat his own drum” has scarcely been equalled in the recent history of polemics. Surely this alone (and perhaps, on second thought, alone) qualifies him as a phenomenon. That my “intuitive” judgment ranking Mr. Kaprow with phenomena as opposed to artists was singled out by him as the one point of contact between our respective stances on Allan Kaprow gives pause. Possibly his ardent verbal defense of life-contexts; games and their rules; rearrangeability of part and whole, the public as a “programmed” component of the work, freedom and license and their respective uses, group play rather than personal art as a goal, and (not least) remote and uncertain authorship—all championed in one breath and without a discernible sense of irony—will issue in something really new. It is clear that his position will not win us over in the form of art.

In the final section of my November review (omitted by editor due to lack of space) I did indeed acknowledge the Happening which accompanied the Pasadena exhibition. Mr. Kaprow, hurrying to equate “staged events” with “theaters,” and to disassociate himself from both, might consider the original last paragraphs of my article, taken from the exhibition catalog:

FLUIDS
A Happening by Allan Kaprow

During three days, about twenty rectangular enclosures of ice blocks (measuring about 30 feet long, 10 wide and 8 high) are built throughout the city. Their walls are unbroken. They are left to melt.

Those interested in participating should attend a preliminary meeting at the Pasadena Art Museum, 46 North Los Robles Avenue, Pasadena, at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 11, 1967. The Happening will be thoroughly discussed by Allan Kaprow and all details worked out.

I shall also take this opportunity to apologize for neglecting to mention the five black mounds in the photo of Yard which appeared with my review.
––Jane Livingston
Los Angeles, Calif.

Sirs:
The following is an attempt to clear the New York air, currently thick with hazy art theory:

One day I went to see a show in a New York gallery and there was nothing to see. Instead of pictures on the walls there was reading matter; descriptions of works of art and their prices (considerable). I noticed that the gallery was an ugly room and thought about McLuhan.

He is wrong when he calls print “visual.” It is ideational. Little Nell dies just as sadly in braille. “Push the Button” looks different in English, French and Spanish, but gets the same result. “Visual” means something else.

We are not a visual nation. We are surrounded by objects which look ugly to us. Everything has to be constantly redesigned. Designers and consumers are equally unsure about how things should look. Complex and expensive machinery is discarded after short use because the buyer could not tell beforehand how it would look to him in a year. This is part of the price we pay for our huge and democratic melting-pot (the most successful multiple acculturation situation in history). In our eagerness to smooth over differences in taste and appearance, the ability to make fine distinctions has been confused and destroyed.

So what happens when a small tribe of painters lives in a non-visual country which is also a democracy, where minorities are more or less protected, allowed to exist in their ghettoes? Suppose they are left alone long enough to develop a useable visual language, and even produce some great paintings. And suppose that at this moment international recognition transforms a previously tolerated minority into “our painters,” pride of a nation struggling with a cultural inferiority complex (at a time when, World War II won and the Marshall Plan in full force, that nation is aiming for economic and political ascendancy all over the globe).

What happens is a democratic Cinderella Story, where no one is allowed to be the ugly step-sister. Everyone is good, beautiful, a great artist and/or a perceptive art lover.

Democracy is a moral and also a practical system. It respects the right of the majority of the people to determine their environment in so far as this is possible. It also respects the ability of the people to know, over a period of time, what is good for them. By allowing self-criticism, a democratic nation has a built-in tool for perfecting itself.

Not only in government, but also in the production of consumer goods, legislation supposedly encourages competition to please the people, who over a period of time will use their buying power to criticize and perfect products. The existence of a huge advertising and public relations industry may prove to be the fatal flaw in this system.

Advertising men are not ogres. They honestly and honorably seek only to support themselves and their families by working for a living. But paid liars, using psychology and motivational research, destroy or at least delay people’s ability to make true judgements. They are certainly destroying our language. (See Wichita Vortex Sutra by Allen Ginsberg.) Even political ideas and leaders are now being sold to the people by public relations techniques.

The public relations branch of the art world is comparatively innocent, weak, and poorly paid. But men with art jobs and art businesses are highly motivated to survive by creating and presenting interesting ideas about art. To many it is imperceptible that the connections between the interesting ideas and the art objects themselves are becoming more and more tenuous.

Since the art-population explosion caused by the “discovery” of Abstract Expressionism, the desire to make possible the participation of the American public in art has become a factor in determining how many paintings look. Artists want to communicate, but the general level of art understanding is still so low that it is difficult to communicate on a short-range basis without sacrificing quality.

Abstract Expressionism was the product of a few highly developed painters and their followers, working and thinking in a specialized way. When these paintings were exposed to a public anxious to remedy its lack of understanding of what they were about, art writers, gallery and museum personnel and other middlemen were urgently needed in shorter time than so many experts could possibly be educated. Graduates of college art-courses (where often something not only different but antithetical was taught) were hired for these jobs, and so were friends and neighbors of the artists, who might be thought to have acquired some inside information. A few easily distinguished facets of Abstract Expressionism (automatism and thick paint) were mistaken for the essence of the art. Soon inept vulgarizations of Abstract Expressionism were flooding the country. After a while, everybody could tell that there was something the matter. There was a credibility gap.

Across this gap, other artists were ready to build a bridge. These were men who felt that, as artists, they knew what the misunderstood paintings were about, and for other reasons (like growing up in a part of the country where there were no museums, only billboards and pictures in the pulp magazines, calendar art and maybe something in Church), what the public would be able to see. They tried to express painting in terms of popular images. But the demand for art by the recently mushroomed art middlemen and the response to these paintings in terms of shows planned, articles written, geniuses discovered and trends spotted interrupted the esthetic maturation of the new art movement. Good art could not be turned out fast enough to fill the demand.

Like other people, painters like success and money. A young artist is not necessarily better at rejecting proffered rewards than anyone else. On the contrary, he is often someone who can’t even work at a routine job where gratification is postponed every week until payday. He needs the constant gratification of pleasure in his work. He needs to be immediately rewarded in that when he does the right thing to the painting it looks better. Artists who have developed an esthetic need they don’t know how to fill yet (when the work isn’t going well), are among the most miserable people in the world. Only a mature artist, who is really addicted to this special kind of pleasure, can stand a difficult period for very long without giving the whole thing up. He is sustained by the memory of the pleasure he has had in his work in the past, and the belief that he can achieve it again in the future.

Very quickly what had happened to the fad for Abstract Expressionism happened to the fad for Pop art. Wide exposure of poor work made the whole genre distasteful to the public at large and to many artists working in it.

Non-figurative art seemed virtuous and attractive again. “Let’s make very simple very clear pictures of The eye keeps shifting its focus for example, or Colors are affected by colors placed next to them.” Simple and clear, one idea at a time, and as loud as possible. Op art derives largely from material used to teach design courses, where it was considered that these over-simplified and overemphasized visual phenomena were not in themselves art. They bear the same relation to art that the alphabet does to literature. Demonstrations of these simple visual phenomena were exciting to a wide audience, particularly to children, because one could really see them happen. But listening to a shouted alphabet gets boring and then annoying. After a while it sounds like noise.

Minimal painting gets very quiet and peaceful. (A rest for mother. She has a headache from last season.) Minimal paintings attempt to make all art equal. One painting need not be better or even different from another painting. No part of the canvas is treated very differently from any other part. The artist eliminates all the private eccentricities of his vision. He is not attempting to prove that he is better than anyone else by making paintings that no one else can make. He is not telling the viewer that his taste is bad, that he is all wrong about his esthetic decisions and maybe a lot of other things.

Minimal painting derives in part from Color Field painting and in part from the fad for Zen Buddhism. It seems relevant that Rauschenberg once had a show of all black and all white paintings, and that he once exhibited a carefully erased de Kooning drawing.

Are we condemned for the immediate future to a series of simplistic efforts to bridge the gap between an artistic elite and a non-visual nation?

Meanwhile the glorious victory of American art has extended a retroactive amnesty to the hitherto forgotten canvases of mediocrities. No longer does anyone modestly describe himself as an art student or an amateur. Commercial artists who once dreamed of painting resign from their jobs to “make it.” The new artists are almost as numerous as the new art experts. Only the serious collectors seem to be declining in number. One detects a New Nervousness.

Are there still good painters? Yes, more than there ever were. Prosperity isn’t all bad. There are many beautiful paintings being made, but they are harder to find in the bigger hay-stack.

—Anne Tabachnick
Radcliff Institute
Cambridge, Mass.

Sirs:
I should like to take issue with Sidney Tillim’s article “Scale and the Future of Modernism” (October, 1967). His point that post-painterly abstraction “has not conceptually advanced scale in the abstract” (p. 15) seems to be opposed, and refuted, by Jules Olitski’s paintings shown at Emmerich’s this fall. Mr. Tillim later goes on to imply that something of an identity crisis exists in modernist painting—that modernist painting is “essentially . . . decorative” (its illusion is “coextensive with a wall”) but that it lacks architecture. Again, I bring up the example of Olitski’s paintings to argue that this point is not relevant to the most successful modernist painting as it exists. I also question Mr. Tillim’s use of the term “concept” or “conceptual,” both in the reference above and in the declaration, “if modernism’s monumentality has been conceptually circumscribed, it is partly because the distinction between mural and easel concepts have been blurred due to a lack of real walls to paint on.” (p. 16, emphasis mine.) I, for one, am unclear as to what the “concept” of a painting really is—or what it looks like. I can call to mind specific paintings; however, “concept” as it is used here has yet to be explained to me.

I want to comment briefly on Olitski’s recent works, as I feel they defeat Mr. Tillim’s arguments. The brushstrokes, or “‘liney’ areas” as he calls them, mark out two, or rather parts of two, sides—this occurs in all but one of the paintings shown—and converge on one corner. This particular corner is emphasized, frequently with additional reinforcing brushstrokes of white. Furthermore, these brushstrokes are not only coextensive with the sprayed field, but also appear to be contained within it—to participate in the same spatial illusion. This is particularly true of the magnificent Pink Drift where a thick brushstroke has been pushed beneath or literally covered over by an iridescent surface. What I would suggest is that these brushstrokes pin down, or anchor, the illusion of space to the structure of the support at the corner. This achievement allows a freedom to expand the size of the support; consequently, to extend the size and scale of the field, and yet to sustain the hold of the color field across the total area.

Mr. Tillim has noted that Olitski “appears to have succeeded in varying the color mass with color itself . . .” (p. 15). It is not clear to me whether this qualification is intended to exclude Olitski’s paintings from his further remark that, “There is no propulsion in a field.” I would like to say that the varying density of the sprayed color field reaches a kind of climax in the brushstrokes at one end. There is a tremendous pull across the field so that the entire painting becomes something like the record of an instantaneous and monumental gesture. This, I think, would dissociate the illusion from any reference to an architectural context and would—does in fact—relate it directly to the viewer, not to an experience of the extension of space in the world, but to something like his knowledge of the human body, as it is capable of conveying meaning.

It appears to me that Mr. Tillim’s failure to see the implications for scale in Olitski’s paintings is but a symptom of an attitude toward modernist painting which has colored his vision of particular works with preformed generalizations.

––Melissa McQuillan
Baltimore, Md.

Sirs:
For some time now I have been distressed over the vapidity of an art which must latch onto and leach off of an industrial society which owes its existence to the blood letting of its neighbors across the seas—not to mention those across the tracks (read freeways). A new Era of Art and Industry . . . Huzzah . . . B.S.

(L’art, poor l’art.)

Now far be it from me to impose “my trip” upon anyone else; but might I ask one question (or two) of those of you over 30 (and under)?

Given the revolutionary nature of the world virtually everywhere but here, is it too much to ask that someone attempt to come forth with a meaningful and progressive esthetic? Or are we too busy signing petitions of conscience with one hand and caulking up the chinks in our plastic boxes with the other?

––Randolph Bonner
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

Sirs:
Mel Bochner states (December) that I appear “to have serialized color arrangement with the addition of random blank spaces.” In the concentric square paintings I presume he refers to, the colors are ordered as follows: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, red. Or they read: yellow, orange, red, green, blue, violet, blue, green, red, orange, yellow or the reverse beginning with violet in each case. There are no random blank spaces in any of my paintings. If he means by “color” the grey scale used in some paintings, the “blank” spaces he has seen are white in these paintings. The white in these paintings either begins or ends a series of grey-scale values.

––Frank Stella
New York, N.Y.