PRINT April 1970

Les Levine: Business as Usual

Superior culture is one of the most artificial of all human creations. . . .
—Clement Greenberg1

Transparency is the highest, most liberating value in art. . . .
—Susan Sontag2

Culture, which today has assumed the character of advertising, was never anything for Veblen but advertising, a display of power, loot, and profit.
—Theodor Adorno3

I don’t find it interesting to create antagonism, however I don’t find it very interesting to prevent it either. In a totally programmed society my art is about packaging, but I don’t package my work so that it is acceptable to the art world.
—Les Levine

AMONG THOSE KNOWLEDGEABLE ABOUT ART there are two distinct types: those who detest Les Levine and those who appreciate the negative vibrations which Levine radiates with such effortless ease.

The bomb has gone off and we are all on the beach. Art, that Renaissance product, no longer exists; only the art world and its burn-off are left. So Levine’s artifacts, or souvenirs as he calls them, are just the basis for sundry advertising activities. His golden rule is: “No artist ever received any more attention in the media than he deserved, because the media inherently define worth.”

By and large, Levine is not a brilliant formalist innovator, heretofore art’s criterion of success. Considered to be an “idea” artist, he has had 20 one-man exhibitions in two years. It is patently clear that no artist could be that original. So frequently Levine lifts or “synthesizes” ideas in the air; his uniqueness lies in dealing with these as amplified art information. For instance, Levine’s Clean Machine is a most elegant summation of Minimalist esthetics, traditionally made palatable for some critics by the inclusion of various surface and spatial articulations relating to, or defying, older traditions. But Levine removed and transformed these allusions into sterile, vacuum-molded, plastic projections, forcing us to deal with the question, “Can you accept this as an esthetic experience, even if it is not prettied-up with art historical allusions?” Few of us could.

The plastic Disposables are a structural paradox. Their production and sale as art produce a double bind. They challenge the market mechanisms which restrict the supply of certain art works, making it clear that this restriction is due not to rarity or scarcity, but to economic strategy. Levine thus notes that Noland’s stripe paintings could easily be manufactured like awning fabric, with strip frames to match, at virtually no decrease in quality. If this is so, then the perpetuation of high art in the midst of mass-production is nothing short of social hallucination. By signing contracts with department stores for the sale of millions of Disposables ($1.25 each), Levine is filling a niche in the ecology of art economics—and in the process may make as much money as Kenneth Noland. Hence Levine, as an artist, sees little use in uniqueness or pseudo-uniqueness, but only in well-considered business methods, a juxtaposition of kitsch and high art which brings to mind the methods of Frank Zappa.

Levine considers business the contemporary art form. In an earlier age esthetes and the nobility established cultural norms; but obviously today businessmen define what the public will buy and for what price. Levine admits that “basically I’m a corporate type with interests in all areas of management. By opening a gallery I intend to move into legitimate art; this will be a business based on all the tried and true items of American consumerism: pop, color field, and all the rest.” He maintains that “One of the major functions of my gallery would be to create artists and art groups. Obviously you have to start with talent and ability. Many young artists have this, but for one reason or another they don’t function in a commercial environment. Intelligent artists can be reimaged, as some of the best gallery dealers have proven in this decade. In several cases Richard Bellamy was much more sensitive than his artists.”

The artist’s business dealings, press releases, and other publicity-getting strategies are regarded by most of his peers as déclassé. As Levine sees it, all commercially successful artists utilize these services through one agency or another; it is only the professional reticence and anti-bourgeois mentality of the working members of the art system that have obscured this and the fact that all art is advertising for the individual as a profit-making entity.

Levine further points out that “Basically it is business that supports art. Who else buys full page color advertisements? All good art, like any other product, is packaged for a specific market. This is one of the reasons art usually approximates the size of furniture; art works increase in size directly in proportion to a prospective owner’s status and apartment size.” Furthermore, “If you sell art objects to five collectors for $20,000 each, you as a dealer have enlisted five agents with an interest in supporting the market values of your merchandise. This works in various ways. For example one informal cartel shares many of the same artists. Since these dealers, who are worldwide, buy outright, they collectively support the market prices for their artists. If a painting by one artist goes on the market, they’ll bid it up excessively. Actually a small write-off means that their entire inventory of the same artist’s works goes up in value. No one is hurt because nobody wants to own cheap art. Most collectors need assurance that they’ve made the right choices. If you’re looking for status, there’s not much in buying something for five hundred when it’s going to stay at five hundred—so everybody has an interest in seeing that prices move up.”

Levine expresses obvious admiration for such an operation—but just as obviously it has nothing to do with his style. On the process level, he insists, there is no such thing as good and bad art, but only business methods which are more or less successful. “Bad art” is just another way of saying that the information about a certain art making process has been downgraded.

All art may appear to bring us more information, but in fact it is only sustaining our notions of “good art” with perhaps minor modifications. In reality the concept of art is built into all art. By learning about the art tradition, Levine feels, we preprogram all further responses to any new art stimuli. More effective artists realize that for a brain programmed to absorb only ritualized art experiences, “new art” is the result of interrupting only a tiny portion of the art-viewing program. So far only one artist has substituted a totally non-art experience for art. This, of course, was Marcel Duchamp: “With Duchamp, once he signed the first object, all he had to do was let other artists sign other objects—since he defined the system of found objects, subsequently the system defined itself.”

Thus artistic choice is a meaningless freedom in any advanced technological society. Rather, Levine sees choice limited to the range of activities defined by the structure of technology itself. The desire to believe otherwise, or tamper with this, is simply a humanist neurosis. Art gives us the safety valve of trivial choice—“so that we don’t gum up the works.”

Real control has nothing to do with the kind of control that national governments exercised around the world. Control is through the process of information. Man’s technologies, viewed as communication, fed back signals telling the brain what to do. While governments exercised their traditional prerogatives, the process continued unnoticed. Who ever voted for the telephone? Who ever voted to allow printing? Who ever voted to let the world X-ray itself with a cathode ray tube? Who ever voted to allow man to step from the ground into a man-made construction and travel 3,000 miles in four hours? Who ever voted for the automobile? “We’re talking.” Who ever voted for talking? No democratic populace, no legislative body ever indicated by choice, by vote, what kind of information it desired.4

The illusion that art provides us with esthetic information is both sustained and destroyed by society’s conservative elements. Thus while museums and important collections are largely supported by the business community, these same business interests are responsible for all significant technological innovations. Through “progress,” business and technological interests have consistently undermined the very standards of esthetic idealism objectified by the institutions of “high art.” Choice, then, is the right to believe in art. For Levine, this represents no paradox; he simply becomes a part of the system as it actually operates: “Is choice ever logical in a system that is totally prechoiced anyway? I tend to think not. This kind of choice only relates to a fixing or stopping mechanism in the overall cycle of social activities. But in a society which is no longer much concerned with contemplative devices and selecting mechanisms, choice is a technological anachronism.”

Levine’s strength as an artist is his ability to reify art as social context, that is, to create art out of whatever concerns art. This was the point of Levine’s restaurant, in fact a commentary on the sociology of New York’s more frequented artists’ bars. Since the middle ’60s Max’s Kansas City has been the bar and restaurant of the New York art world. At Max’s everybody plays Hollywood opening night. Status is mirrored by where you sit. At 5 o’clock, secretaries take off their Peck and Peck dresses, put on their Paraphernalia outfits and head for Max’s. From the beginning it was a place that wanted to be talked about in Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire. Gradually, in the last two years, many artists have grown tired of such voyeurism, gladly accepting the unpretentiousness of St. Adrian’s, a bar located closer to the loft district. Here communication is with other people, not with the environment.

As Levine explains it, Mickey Ruskin, Max’s owner, asked him to become involved in a competing restaurant. “It was a fantastic blow to his ego when St. Adrian’s opened and some of his people started going there. I was an ideal choice for Mickey because primarily he wanted to punish his customers for daring to go against pontifical orders, for daring to move to a new church, and in punishing them he presented them with the thing they most hated—Les Levine.”

From the beginning, Levine’s had a tackiness that exemplified bad faith between the owner and his figurehead. Levine saw it as a kind of space-age Howard Johnson’s for the tourists, while Ruskin still had illusions of cornering the meat-and-potatoes artists’ trade. The result was an abortion of white plastic bucket seats, kelly-green tablecloths, charcoal walls, a juke box filled with 1950s rock, dreadful colored plastic lighting fixtures, environmental TV that never worked, waitresses in bowling team T-shirts, Jewish memorial candles at every table, and third-rate Op paintings which Mickey Ruskin had put up in desperation to draw the artist trade. “The paintings are camouflage,” Levine insists.

But perhaps the prime element of masochism on Levine’s part was the menu itself. “They should have gone further with the ethnic thing, implying that the food was Irish-Jewish-Canadian and then having nothing to do with it, in fact creating software. As a joke, ‘Lobster Levine’ only lasts one day.” No doubt the best software was the staff itself. “I wanted a very straight bartender. I don’t know if you knew Rudy who was our night bartender; he was fantastic! He’s just a complete art work in himself because he’s totally mundane and ordinary. He’s the ultimate cliché. Rudy cracks a joke you’ve heard 500 times before; in fact everything he says you’ve heard 500 times before. There’s not a hip bone in his body. No matter what he says, it’s never smarter than you. As a rule bartenders are always putting the customers down, you know, always letting customers know how stupid they are.” But as an environment Levine’s proved something that gallery environments and street art had only touched on in a very heavy and nonaffirmative way, namely that every environment, good or bad, is worth attention as a work of art. Focused intelligence makes an environment, which is the reason most art environments end up as predigested experiences.

In January, 1969, upwards of 25 writers, artists, and critics were invited to fly, by chartered airplane, to the Cornell Earth Art Show. As part of the ensemble Levine took over 200 photographs of the trip. He observed that relatively few people would actually see any earth art first hand and that the tangible reality of the show was “media appraisal.” Levine’s incessant picture-taking of critics looking at art produced a very up-tight situation. But the artist’s selection of 31 photographs for “Systems Burn-off X Residual Software” in Chicago made its own point. These depicted not only the assorted piles of sand, rocks, and markers that made up the show, but also critics behaving as critics, endless landing fields, forests, cloud banks, and other more or less normal phenomena—as if to say all these naturalistic attempts at anti-art are really self-defeating; why not make art out of the intentionality of anti-art?

The 31 photographs of “Systems Burn-off” became 31,000 typewriter paper offset copies. In Chicago these were distributed about the floor and raspberry Jello was poured over them. Copies of the 31 photographs were affixed with chewing gum to the walls, explaining that as the earthworks disappear back into the ground, residual software would be its only remainder.

Some months later Levine did an exhibition in Los Angeles entitled “Paint.” Within a 30-by-14 foot space the artist had assistants pour fifty gallons of colored house paints on the floor. The results were photographed by automatic camera, and framed as color sequence photographs for sale—similar to the “So and So Paints a Picture” series that Art News ran for so many years. Again the point was not wet paint too thick to become a painting, but information about pouring paint. In a preprogrammed society no one has to experience an art exhibition, since the only real experience is making the art. Levine insists that many viewers were relieved to find that he used something as visceral and normal as paint.

Duchamp maintained that to neither make nor lose money was to come out ahead in art. Levine, through “Profit Systems I,” doesn’t agree; his Cassette Cartridge stock, purchased at $2375, made over $5000 in eight months. Obviously the idea of an unprofitable work of art is a contradiction in terms. As Levine sees it, the ideal fusion of power, money, and art is personified by the museum trustee, an occupational goal still in the development stage for Levine.

Very likely the artist’s chef d’oeuvre is his “Your Worst Work” show held at the Architectural League of New York this past fall. To my mind it was no accident that this exhibition took place only ten blocks away from Henry Geldzahler’s “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970.” Frequently, when the human mind strives for the sublime over the vulgar, it is left with very little choice. Of course the “art” is Levine’s willingness to depolarize the issue of quality in an atmosphere which already has all the answers. Levine’s own piece was a rejected poetry reading poster complete with Turkish bath snapshots of the poets. This was documented with hot exchanges of letters with the Wave Hill Performing Arts Committee who rejected the poster design. The exhibition made a shambles of the Architectural League and almost dissolved its Board of Trustees. As a general interest topic, Newsweek and Life did articles on “Your Worst Work.” In fact the artist claims that Geldzahler was going to use his “White Sight” sodium vapor lamps over the entrance stairs to “New York Painting and Sculpture,” but thought better of it when he realized that Levine would get all the publicity for his show too. When asked why he thought “Poetry Poster” was his “worst work,” Levine replied, “I didn’t get paid for it.”

Possibly since Duchamp no artist has challenged the infrastructure of artistic taste with as much rigor. The substance of Levine’s approach is essentially this: esthetic choices and categories are to an overwhelming extent defined by communication structures. Thus what we define as “Art” in the art historical tradition is no more than neo-Darwinian “survival of the fittest.” This principle is tautological since by definition whatever survives obviously must be the “fittest”; analogously, “Art” is what remains after everything else is destroyed or forgotten. Levine’s art is not “Art” but rather it is about the mechanisms of esthetic speculation which produce arbitrary notions of immortality and worthlessness.

Jack Burnham



1. Greenberg, Clement, “The Avant-garde and Kitsch,” (1939), in Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste, by Gillo Dorfles, Universe Books, N.Y., 1969, p. 121.

2. Sontag, Susan, “Against Interpretation” (1966) in Against Interpretation, Dell Publishing Co., N.Y., 1969, p. 22.

3. Adorno, Theodor W., “Veblen’s Attack on Culture” (1967), in Prisms, Neville Spearman Limited, London, p. 79.

4. Brockman, John, By The Late John Brockman, The Macmillan Co., N.Y., 1969, p. 119.