TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 1968

LETTERS

LETTERS

Sirs:
I am writing to protest the grossly inadequate account given in your journal of the Recent British Painting and Sculpture show at the U.C.L.A. Art Gallery, organized by myself and Sir Herbert Read (March, 1968). Em­bedded in this contemptuous review and as uninformative and uninformed as the rest of the prose (“concinn­ous,” “adscititious”?) your critic as­cribes a descriptive phrase for Doug­las Binder’s work to me––or to Sir Herbert. Neither of us wrote it. I do not imagine that any of the artists, seven from a total of seventeen, so vilified by the review will bother to reply to your critic’s farrago: the rest, with the exception of Caro and Kneale, are not even referred to by name. So much for an accurate de­scription of the show and its catalog.

It is also informative to find included in the sub-title of the Los Angeles newsletter a reference to John Hoyland’s show at the Nicholas Wild­er Gallery and then to find no mention of the show whatever in the text that follows. What went wrong? Having read on page 37 of your journal that Hoyland’s “. . . results are impres­sive to say the very least” and that “his paintings would hold their own alongside the best recent American color painting,” it is disappointing to find on page 64 a reference by an­other writer to “Hoyland’s rampant plagiarism” and other disagreeable qualities. Editorial generosity is a fine thing but it requires the discipline of objective congruence, if not con­sistency.

But of far greater concern to those of us in London who habitually read your publication with pleasure and respect is the mounting barrier of parochialism. Increasingly, your jour­nal sustains the illusion that art is made solely by Americans in an otherwise wholly dead universe: that the history of modern art is an en­tirely American achievement; and “all known standards” in art, or “tradition” in art can only apply to American standards or American tra­dition. Native pride in native achieve­ments is very justifiable but when it becomes as insular and prejudiced as it has recently, often in your pages, it is hard to resist the suspi­cion that massive local investment in museums and private collections in American art has produced a para­noid situation which refuses to al­low the illumination of any outside references or standards of any kind. I do assure you that originality and maturity among artists has not stop­ped entirely outside America, and the making of history in painting and sculpture has not shifted, lock, stock and barrel, to America either.

So long as cultural achievements are mistakenly equated with power, this time-consuming, regressive con­fusion will persist. Among other mar­velous things, art is supremely an act of revelation: it really has nothing at all to do with empire building or colonization. At one time, England suffered greatly from ignorance and prejudice about foreign achieve­ments. I have observed that as our role as a “world leader” (the horrid phrase now used so frequently in America for American participation in the visual arts) has declined in politics, our imaginative awareness has become clearer and more open. There is a message in this for you, and I write hopefully and in good humor.

Speaking only for myself, I really have not written and lectured on the splendors of American art, with pas­sion and keen admiration, for the past sixteen years in order to undermine its brilliance; and, for a com­parable period, I have not struggled to raise immense sums of money with which to stage large and scrupulous retrospective surveys of work by many American artists at this gal­lery, with all the fighting energy that this has demanded, in order to prove its inferiority. American art has many supporters in Europe; nowhere are they as numerous or warm hearted as in London. But if you persist in loading extraneous power politics onto art so that the area of debate or the objective flow of information in America retains its present arro­gant and claustrophobic atmosphere, you will find American art in an ab­surd situation in which it is made only for Americans, bought only by Americans and discussed and written about only by Americans. Your brief attempt at an axe job on a serious exhibition of recent work by mainly very young British artists, which is traveling around the United States at museum and university gallery level, is another step in that direction. How many serious shows of recent British art have there been in American museums anyway?

—Bryan Robertson
Whitechapel Art Gallery
London, England

Sirs:
Jane Harrison Cone’s review of Donald Judd’s work at the Whitney (May) interested me especially because her favorite piece was also mine, and, since our tastes have so seldom coincided in the past, I was curious to discover whether we had reached the same conclusion by the same routes. I soon found the answer––the routes were predictably antithetical.

In a detailed description of the piece she says, “Inasmuch as the purple surfaces are of noticeably varied lengths, one is made compellingly aware of an implied sequence or series, something which in fact is not the case, so that the surfaces and the intervening spaces evade any resolvable visual comprehension.” Actually, of course, nothing could be further from the facts. The piece has been worked out in the most complex and subtle way and if Miss Cone had spent a few moments studying it some of the interaction of solids and spaces would have emerged.

The photograph of it reproduced on page 36 is difficult to read since it was taken from an angle, and a considerable distortion of the voids and solids results. The following notes are therefore entirely based on my memory of the piece having seen it only once.

On the simplest level, however, the following patterns seem clear. Reading from left to right,

1) Box #2, 4, 6, 8 10 are always the same size and serve as a kind of modular repeat.

2) Space # 2, 4, 6, 8 are always the same size and are identical in size and shape with the boxes mentioned above as well as always being directly to the right of them.

3) The spaces to the left of the repeating modular boxes, i.e. spaces #1, 3, 5, 7, 9 are always identical in size and shape to the boxes two to their right. In other words space # 1 equals box # 3; space # 3 equals box # 5, etc.

Finally, space #9 equals box #1, which very importantly changes the series from a linear pattern into a circular one.

The rationale for the size of the constant modular box and space as well as for the increasing size of the variable boxes and spaces is as ex­plicit and carefully developed as the rest of the scheme.

Since Miss Cone failed to make any of these deductions from per­sonal observation, she might have sensed that some kind of cerebra­tion on Judd’s part had taken place if she had given attention to his drawings which were shown nearby. One of these is a most carefully worked-out study for this piece and scarcely justifies the opinion that, “the surfaces and the intervening spaces evade any resolvable visual comprehension.”

—Victor W. Ganz
New York City

Sirs:
I would like to clarify two mis­conceptions stated by Jane Livings­ton in reference to my work and that of Ron Cooper (Plastics: L.A., May, 1968).

1. All Airline Everything .000327 was conceived and executed in terms of being greenish-black with a red particle reflection, not grey as described.

2. During the period of almost two years that I have known Ron Cooper, I have never heard him refer to his work as “sculpture”; nor do I consider my suspended pieces to be sculpture. Therefore the affinity between our work exists in our mutual interest in color and painting, not in similar forms.

Also, on pages 43 and 44 of the June issue, reproductions of my paintings are dated 1968. These paintings were completed in 1967.

—Greg Card
Granada Hills, Calif.

Sirs:
It is tempting to pursue the game of criticism-by-association invented by Robert Pincus-Witten in his review of the recent work of Jean Dubuffet. (June, 1968.) Shall we try? Noland-Nolan? Rauschenberg-Rosenborg? DeKooning-deKooning? Each has about the same merit as the tendentious pairing of Dubuffet and Buffet which is designed as a prejudgment of the work to be discussed.

It is clear that Dubuffet does not Fit In with Artforum’s views on What Art Must Be. But it is a bit randy of Mr. P-W to dismiss the coloristic aspects of Dubuffet’s cast sculpture as perfunctorily as he does. No doubt it is true that “he might have as easily drawn his lines in violet and yellow” as in red, blue and black. Albers might as well paint his pictures in any other combination of colors than he does––and, what’s more, he has. Noland might as well paint his stripes in any other colors––and he does. And so forth. It is sad that Mr. P-W does not respond to the textural richness, the powerful contours, the joyful abundance and the inventive imagery of Dubuffet’s new work. But fair, gentlemen, is fair.

—Aaron H. Esman, M.D.
New York, N.Y.

Sirs:
Emily Wasserman’s conscientious, if brief, recording of her reaction to Robert Irwin’s disc paintings at the Jewish Museum (May) corroborates an earlier suspicion of mine that these works would be at least partially misunderstood when first unveiled. In fairness to Miss Wasserman, her misconstrual has to do not with any lack of critical sophistication, but it is accountable instead by certain current prejudicative assumptions in the context of which it is not immediately possible to do justice to Irwin’s new work. It should be said as well that one of Miss Wasserman’s observations very nearly hits upon the reason for this, and she seems, rather surprisingly, to have sensed the crucial issue early on. Namely, she pinpoints the fact that Irwin is authentically concerned with the spectator’s degree of committal to the work of art. This does not have to be professed or even consciously known by the artist to be true: it is absolutely implicit in the paintings. But it is hidden––almost as if the works were secretly programmed to reveal themselves only after an unspecified but more or less prolonged individual acquaintanceship. In Miss Wasserman’s words, Irwin doubts “that the spectator will be able to withstand the amount of time necessary to fully apprehend . . . (the) works.”

What I object to, what I feel is most gravely erroneous in her conclusion, is, first, that this doubt on the part of the artist infers esthetic compromise or insecurity, and second, that Irwin’s insistence on presenting the paintings in a specific set of external conditions “gives him away” as a (pejoratively) theatrical artist. If she was really distracted by the means of presentation, she was playing into the hands of the prejudices which Irwin seeks to defeat, but she didn’t then realize this and think harder about why she wanted the object to be equally satisfactory within another environment than the one in which she saw it. There seems to be confusion about what actually constitutes theatricality in art (a difficulty which I have frankly not resolved to fit all instances). However, I do believe theatricality to be a useful judgmental premise in application to much contemporary painting and sculpture, even given semantic ambiguity. If theatricality means stagedness, it does not have to infer esthetic failure or compromise. Irwin does stage his recent art, but this fact in itself has no logical bearing on the ultimate success or failure of his work. And he emphatically does not seek to dramatize the pieces toward the end of drama as such. What is not grasped is that Irwin’s disc paintings operate in such an unconventional set of terms that the viewer has precious little to prepare him for the experience. As with all radical art, its true meaning temporarily withholds itself. It is tempting to analyze at length the superficial causes for initial misgiving, such as each piece’s deceptively sweet and enravishing aura (“perfumed” is not quite the word), or the iconographic difficulties of tondo format. But these phenomena will gradually neutralize themselves, as it were, and in their place other values will become more relevant. For example, Irwin’s new works push space, or better, atmosphere, out into an incredibly broad radius; they use wall surface to more and better effect than has practically ever been done; above all, they hold the atmospheric area which is both generated and consumed by light. Yet the paintings’ physicality is not in any figurative sense dissolved by light, and, accordingly, no sacrifice is made for the sake of “presentation.” The works are about disclosure, as well as hiddenness; they deal with light in a way that makes most so-called “light art” look trivial; but they are ultimately paintings, and they belong within painting’s synthetic lineage. If the disc paintings, no matter in what museum, come upon the spectator as presented situations, rather than, for instance, as gratuitously given and finally self-situating pictures, as perhaps they do, then, once again, it does not follow that here is a necessarily insecure, and, by implication, shallow artistic manifestation. Far from indicating compromise, the disc paintings are the best body of work Irwin has made, and he, or anyone else, will have a hard time maintaining the level they represent.

Much less admissible than anything said or left unsaid by Emily Wasserman in her cursory discussion is Artforum’s astonishing decision to reproduce an Irwin disc painting on the cover of the May issue. This entirely misleading photographic image will remain as an indelible token of discredit not to the artist but to the magazine, whether or not it was subtly intended to slight the painting depicted.

—Jane Livingston
Los Angeles, Calif.

What is at stake here is not so much the content of the review (which was certainly construed as more negative than it was), as the methodology behind it. Perhaps it is not a critic’s task to speculate on how work might look if presented in a manner different from that which the artist specifies, but Miss Livingston must admit to the many possible alternative experiences of that work. At the point where I found my own viewing experience of the discs to be at odds with or in contradiction to the artist’s intention, I judged their physical impact and their visual subtlety to have been vitiated. But this does not imply that I thought the art was shallow, as Miss Livingston seems to have inferred from my review.

I stated in my review that I was (and still am) quite taken with both the fineness and beauty of Irwin’s work––take or leave my adjectives. That I was unsettled by the means of presentation is in another sense additional evidence of the work’s strength, since I do think that the quality of all radical art rests in some measure on its capacity to force a reassessment of conventional perceptual responses. However, given the artist’s intention to break or dissolve the framing edge of the painted discs by his use of the lighting setup, I found, after repeated viewing that the presentation did not fulfill such an intention, no matter how lovely, fascinating, ambiguous, or nuanced the discs were in other ways. Insofar as stagedness became an issue for me in looking at these works, and a factor which in this case did seem to interfere with the artistic intention as I understood it, I had to conclude that theatricality resulted in a certain degree of esthetic failure. But this is not a critical “line” I would hold as universally applicable in a pejorative sense. Indeed, I still find Irwin’s work of high enough quality and visual interest to more than adequately survive both my own criticism, and hopefully, Miss Livingston’s adulation.

I was not involved in the choice of the May issue’s cover, but I find Miss Livingston’s final paragraph a consummate example of “West Coast paranoia.”

—Emily Wasserman