PRINT November 1970



The following is in regard to “Notes from the Underground” (September).

Professor Laderman, unlike most others who have sent up messages from an underground, is not a spiteful man peddling sour wine. His criticism, however, of indiscriminate innovation for the sake of itself is not new to this decade. Surrealism and Pop art, for example, are known to have usurped the conventions of what had been the avant-garde formal inventions of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism in order to achieve the effect of truly innovative works.

Perhaps the difficulty lies in a promiscuous use of the term “avant-garde.” It has been long misused as the appellation for any new-looking work, a hangover from the past when the originality of art was measured in terms of its shock on public taste. Outrage had been the traditional response to such art since Manet. After Dada and Surrealism, though, two strains of the avant-garde can be discerned; the imitative, effect-seeking, quasi avant-garde, and a true avant-garde (Abstract Expressionism, for example) which upheld the same standards of quality good art has always met.

These latter works can be discussed in light of Greenberg’s definition of the term “modernism”; the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, from the inside, the procedures themselves. Modernism has by nature an acute sense of history, contrary to the fake avant-garde groupies who mimic the procedures and end products. Artists like Noland and Olitski, for example, older and knowledgeable painters, have not leapfrogged the development necessary to their art, and can be considered avant-garde. Their works should not be banned from this category because they shock few and have a large market. Similarly, esotericism and a bohemian life are no longer necessary characteristics of the avant-garde.

Professor Laderman’s call for a return to figuration is no solution to the problems of art today. It seems rather to express a nostalgic desire for security, for the classical tradition in which conventions of space, light, and composition are well established and in which quality is easily assessed. The answer, for a hysterical process of passé-neo is not the neo-passé. Just as neo-classicism in the romantic period seems to have been a short-lived anomaly, so would it be now. Art that truly reflects the “cosmic” and “ philosophical” implications of an age cannot backstep. The experience of Cézanne and Marx is still overwhelming, but one cannot ignore the effects of Heisenberg and Einstein. Modern painting, whether color-field or stripes, can be honest, neither immoral nor irresponsible, and has produced better works than has any “explicitly social and political” figurative art today. It is commendable that artists and philosophers want to change the world, and Utopian dreamers from Saint-Simon to Marcuse have tried. Social realism, however, judging from the work of the thirties and from the art in the Soviet Union today, can only illustrate. The invention of new structures in the best art today accomplished what Laderman attributes to Giorgione and Cézanne—it changes the way one sees. As always, an elite is formed by those who really understand the innovations.

All the same, the viability of good art continues to depend upon the few artists, like Professor Laderman, who insist upon integrity and morality in art and uphold fine standards of quality. One cannot foretell—perhaps figurative art is capable of revitalizing some dead nerves . . . Although this is a decade that has failed in its long fiction attempts, artists are still trying to write the Great American Novel.

—Lizzie Borden
Cambridge, Mass.

Dear Linda:

I should have realized your choice of Lizzie as a nickname was significant. I’m glad the forty whacks were verbal; as your teacher I should have expected them. I am amazed, however, at the defensiveness of your letter and the total acceptance of the Greenberg line. I believe, as you know, in the future of abstraction. My listing of possible futures for art started with a discussion of a kind of abstraction based on truly esoteric conceptual knowledge of an order higher than that generally employed in Establishment abstraction today. Rather than proselytizing for figuration exclusively, I try to proselytize for an art of feeling, sensibility and
knowledge, whether figurative or abstract. Here are some of my answers
to your specific points:

1. Avant-garde art is art produced in terms of sensibility and construction unacceptable to the taste fostered by recent accepted painting. It requires the whole machinery of the critic-dealer system (see Cynthia and Harrison White, Canvases and Careers) to begin to put it over. Noland and Olitski can hardly claim that this social circumstance was true in their cases.

2. On the one hand, Greenberg’s definition of “Modernism” seems solipsistic, a defense mechanism against any difference of opinion. On the other, both my criticism and recent figurative painting originate within “Modernism” and should be considered criticism of the discipline from within.

3. I am not convinced that figuration is not the major art since Abstract Expressionism. I refer you to my article, “Unconventional Realists” in Artforum. There have been several new painters deserving of mention since that article such as Bruno Civitico, Richard Piccolo, Maxwell Hendler, Yvonne Jacquette and Don Wynn. I never listed contemporary American concentric expressionists, some of whom are Leland Bell, Louisa Matthiasdottir, Lennart Anderson, Paul Georges, Paul Resika, James Weeks and Charles Cajori. It is well to remember that Helion, Balthus and Gaston Raux are still alive in France, and Giacometti only recently dead.

4. It is surely untenable for a contemporary artist or critic to think of art history in linear terms as a oneway or two-way street. The linearity we prize is a useful construct of the art historians, but all the objects remain art to be re-experienced and re-interpreted by those artists who do not fear history and do not need the crutch of a narrow contemporary self-congratulating elite to bolster their egos.

5. Social realism was no failure in Lorenzetti’s “Good and Bad Government” frescoes, Breughel, Rembrandt and the 17th-century Dutch genre painters, Goya, Courbet, Millet and the “Death of Marat” by David. If the past is open, the aspiration for a valid social realism is also open. If “A radical political artist must be a figurative artist,” what are the implicit politics of neo-avant-garde abstraction?

—Gabriel Laderman

Helmut C. Schulitz is not merely an Asst. Prof. of Systems Building at the great University of California, he is a great fool. His child, unable to exercise at recess in the poisonous urban vernacular of L.A., Dr. Schulitz nevertheless finds this to be the best of all possible environments. Most of America is designed by those who control large corporations and their artistical hackers. If Dr. Schulitz is able to titillate his sensibilities by viewing oil refineries, let him work there. It is a very unhealthy environment to be in eight hours a day. If the good doctor is stimulated by L.A. drive-ins, let him eat eyeballs. Let Dr. Schulitz leave his important researches for a few weeks and travel the urban ghettoes, spreading his insights unto the populace.

—Dr. Wessel-Fessel
Canyon, California

I probably felt worse than the “curly haired southerner” mentioned in Art Secunda’s letter (September); after all, he was remembered as one of Zadkine’s “seven private students” (actually, there were ten of us). As the only full-time woman student present every school day of that marvellous year 1948–49, I was at a loss to explain Mr. Secunda’s lapse of memory, until I remembered that he was seldom present during those wonderful days at the studio at 70 Bis, Notre Dame de Champs, but the well-known artists he recalled, were. Incidentally, the southerner’s name was Dean Carter, mine, Alyce Nash.

—Alyce Nash
New York City