PRINT January 1971



In his zeal to make Theodore Roosevelt appear a capable, even knowledgeable, critic of the Armory Show of 1913, Joseph Masheck (November) finds it necessary to support his case by being even more critical of a writer on that exhibition than was Roosevelt himself.

The writer is William Murrell Fisher (not Fischer, as Mr. Masheck has it three times in his article and notes); the piece which drew Roosevelt’s fire and now draws Mr. Masheck’s was entitled “Sculpture at the Exhibition” and appeared in the March, 1913, number of Arts and Decoration, a few days before the Armory Show opened. What Mr. Masheck calls a “pretentious essay” was no longer than one and a half regular columns in Artforum and, with its three illustrations, occupied pages 168 and 169. Of the paragraph which offended Roosevelt, Mr. Masheck says that its author “pompously writes that ’the purposeful exaggeration of The Kneeling One, by Wilhelm Lehmbruck, greatly accentuates the lyric grace of the female figure, while the pose is an inspiration.’” Surely I am not the only one of your readers who saw nothing pompous in this sentence. If, however, there is a certain clumsiness here, that is Mr. Masheck’s contribution: Fisher’s text reads, “The purposeful exaggerations in The Kneeling One . . . accentuate . . .” Roosevelt’s references to the phrases “full of lyric grace,” “tremendously sincere,” and “of a jewel-like preciousness” (the first misquoted, the second and third mistakenly applied to the Lehmbruck sculpture), reveal him to Mr. Masheck as an “enemy of stupid writing.”

It was Fisher’s task to say something about the sculpture in the forthcoming exhibition before seeing the actual objects. A considerable portion of his article quotes the opinions of Mowbray Clark, chairman of the sculpture section of the exhibition, on the different situations facing American and European sculptors; Fisher pursues this subject briefly and reasonably. Then come his’ critical remarks, followed by a list of the American contributors to the exhibition. Below is the offending paragraph:

The foreign contribution to the sculptural section will be small—but fifteen pieces in all. Yet we cannot complain, for we are to see wood carvings by Yangnin [! Gauguin], Rodin, and figures by Matisse, Picasso, Maillol, Lehmbruck and others. These things have a distinct and separate vitality of their own, whereas other more familiar figures imitate the real and accentuate the trivial. The female figure by Matisse expresses to a wonderful degree the sense of the elasticity of life and its upgrowing from the earth. It also possesses undeniable poise and charm. The bas-relief by the same artist is a splendid example of true decorative use, and its simplicity of pose and execution enhances its plastic appeal. In the mask cut from a pebble by an unknown artist [certainly Sleeping Muse by Brancusi], one is struck with the devotion to sense of form; it is tremendously sincere and possesses a jewel-like preciousness. The purposeful exaggerations in The Kneeling One, by Wilhelm Lehmbruck, greatly accentuate the lyric grace of the female figure, while the pose is an inspiration. Maillol’s male nude is forceful in interpreting the sheer weight and mass of the figure. All this work is sincere; there is no striving after cult, no dogmatic canons. Each is a conscious effort at self-expression, an attempt to revitalize the vision, no specialization is sought, anything that impresses them is worth while.

Your readers may judge how “pretentious,” “pompous” and “stupid” this writing is. Whatever its short-comings—and I think they are far outweighed by its virtues—Fisher’s intuitions were excellent, and he made a laudable effort to deal with new and unfamiliar art; he had just turned twenty-four.

Fisher came from England. He was for some time in charge of the copyists’ room in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Using the name of William Murrell he later wrote articles and several short monographs devoted to American artists, and is the author of the two-volume A History of American Graphic Humor, published by the Whitney Museum. He died in December, 1969; he was thus spared the careless and, as I think, unjust and unkind treatment of his work at the hands of another art historian.

—Sidney Geist
New York, N. Y.

I want to thank Sidney Geist for responding to my “Teddy’s Tote” of last month. That such a distinguished critic took the trouble to write obliges me to register two or three further comments, much more for the sake of clarification than in order to be contradictory.

My intent was not to try to make Roosevelt (“an admitted layman”) into a great art critic—any more than Rorimer’s was to make Churchill into an “artist” by showing his pictures at the Metropolitan; all I was after was the elimination of the “Ho-Ho” which almost always accompanies academic treatment of his review. (Incidentally, the late Richard Hofstader has pertinent remarks on TR as an intellectual abused by intellectuals in his Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.)

It was unfortunate that I didn’t have a chance to check the proofs; more than a whole paragraph of my text got dropped when the piece was set up (see my letter in last month’s issue), and I might also have been able to catch the misspelling of William Murrell James Guy Fisher’s name. In fact, my own name was misspelled in the table of contents, but all this has a funny appropriateness to the subject, for one of Roosevelt’s pet progressivism’s was an active opposition to standardized spelling (his White House secretaryentirely disagreed and re-wrote everything he tried to send off phonetically spelled).

As far as Fisher’s “essay” goes, I really don’t see why its short length is remarkable, since brevity is one of the determinative characteristics of the essay as a literary form. And even if we quoted the entire article here, the sentence in question, especially the clause “while the pose is an inspiration,” would still not be defensible as informative criticism. But Mr. Geist is right that I was wrong to say the essay as a whole is “pretentious.” Santayana said that criticism shows us “what the work is good for,” and Fisher’s essay somehow doesn’t seem to me to measure up, in this respect, to the writing of men like Sadakichi Hartmann, or lames Gibbons Huneker. There is nowhere in it the expressive, demonstrative conviction which might convert a non-believer to the cause of modernism. It is like a political speech which affirms our own position but which happens not to be a very good speech.

I am grateful to Mr. Geist for expanding on Fisher and sorry that I—as the poet says—spoke something but good of the dead. Fisher’s (or “Murrell’s”) book on the history of American political cartoons, for instance, is an interesting piece of work, and there is surely more to him than I led the reader to suppose, even though my point—I was discussing Roosevelt—was merely that whatever vapidity might lay in the sentence describing the “Kneeling Woman” was not Theodore Roosevelt’s but his. As for Roosevelt’s mis-application of Fisher’s phrases, the reason why this seems to make him an “enemy of stupid writing” is that they could apply with equal facility to thousands of other works of art.

It is fascinating to learn that Fisher’s carved “pebble” is a Brancusi. (The issue does arise, if Fisher was a good critic, as to why he applied the troublesomely ambiguous phrase “by an unknown artist” to a contemporary work whose authorship was verifiable.) Anyway, I am glad to have supplied an occasion for Mr. Geist—the only man capable—to reveal yet another datum on the work of that genius.

—Joseph Masheck

What does Kaltenbach use to think with now that his toe has gone to pot?

—Jim Rosen
Windsor, Calif.

About Phyllis Tuchman’s article “American Art in Germany,” (November): And so what? Has Miss Tuchman ever heard the word “capitalism”???

—John Hill
New York City

Some facts, basic to Miss Tuchman’s discussion of American Art in Germany (November), are mistaken.

Louis and Noland were shown alone in the American Pavilion in the gardens of the Biennale of 1964 at Venice. Johns and Rauschenberg were shown mainly at the vacant American consulate separate from the rest of the Biennale exhibitions.

Between 1960 and 1964, Louis, Noland and Stella were shown in more commercial art galleries across Europe (including Germany and Switzerland) than any other contemporary American painters. German collectors have surely bought “pop artists” because that is their taste and not because they had a greater opportunity to see them.

Concerning my personal activity, by 1960 I was showing American abstract painters—Louis, Noland, Stella, Frankenthaler, Kline, Parker, Youngerman—not Surrealist painters as stated.

—Lawrence Rubin
New York City

The only thing I would argue about with Helmut C. Schulitz in his article, “Goodbye Architecture,” (September) is his insistence that “we should make sure that we do not waste resources just trying to make the environment comply with outworn environmental concepts and old-time esthetic values.”

Mr. Schulitz seems to see a measure of attractiveness in an American urbanscape that most of us ignore and a few of us detest. His opinion that we should accept the industrialized countryside as good design and improve upon it has both practical and esthetic validity, I suppose, but I can’t avoid thinking that Mr. Schulitz is indulging in yet another instance of “the simple transformation of one man’s views“ into an “architectural diagram” of an esthetically specialized kind. What is any sort of environmental planning but an expression of individual sensibility? Who is to say categorically one sensibility is correct?

My contention is that those “outworn” environmental concepts Mr. Schulitz wishes to discard can’t be that useless, even today. There are basic physiological processes of our senses that require certain satisfactions: greenery, open space, architectural forms not too visually chaotic, and a measure of environmental calm. I can’t believe Times Square at rush hour is as “good” for the soul as is a meadow in Yosemite during off season.

Admittedly, this general comparison isn’t all there is to the issue of what should best be done with our environment. But I think Mr. Schulitz shouldn’t dismiss so readily some of the more enduring ideas we carry from the past: visual order, control of technological sprawl, and perhaps a few more trees among the electricity pylons and oil pumps.

—Timothy M. Thompson
San Francisco

I am trying to find the present location of Warren Wheelock’s Old Man and Child, which was formerly in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was sold by the Museum in 1966 but I have not been able to ascertain to whom. My reason for the great interest is that the three figures in the painting are relatives of my wife; her great-grandfather, her grandmother who is still living and is 90 years of age, and an uncle. I would be most grateful for any information given me in this matter.

—Philip L. Shore, Jr.
PO Box 426
Thomasville, N.C. 27360