PRINT March 1972



I did not mean to say or imply that Noland’s work is about the same problems as Matisse’s work of about 1914 to 1917. Part of a sentence was left out on page 63 of my article (“Richard Diebenkorn: Cloudy Skies over Ocean Park,” Artforum, February, 1972) and the meaning, unfortunately, was slightly altered.

Please make note of another typographical error. The sentence should read: “For my part I think that Matisse’s way of phrasing the questions in his work of about 1914 to 1917 was remarkable at that time. . . .”

—Jerrold Lanes
Cambridge, Massachusetts

There is an error in Robert Pincus-Witten’s review (Artforum, January, 1972) of my work. The steel plate pieces are based on centripetal overhead balance, i.e. the plates are mutually interdependent and each is required for the support of the whole. The tapering of the corner is essential for the balance of the works on a level surface. The balance will not support a point load.

—Richard Serra
New York City

In his 1968 publication Brancusi (New York), Sidney Geist presents the following information concerning the influence of African sculpture on Brancusi:

Like many of his friends he was struck by the power of African sculpture, declaring later that only the Africans and Rumanians knew how to carve wood. But he declaimed against its influence and told Epstein that he had destroyed work where it had appeared. Immediately, African sculpture had the effect of intensifying the rationalization of his forms, and ultimately of reminding him of the carving of his native Oltenia.

In spite of Brancusi’s “declamation” it would seem that there are tantalizing instances of common expression shared by Brancusi and the African tribal artists such as the Dogon and the Tellem.

As added documentation for the thesis of Katherine Michaelsen (Artforum, November, 1971), consider the endless columns of Brancusi and the Dogon “Ladder” illustrated here. Both the Dogon and Brancusi have produced endless columns that are spiritually uplifting for their respective audiences. The Dogon relies on the symbolic evocation of specific tale or vision. Brancusi, characteristically, expresses himself in a more universal, non-specific manner. His work strikes a responsive note with our esthetic rather than our interpretive sensibilities. It is more immediate and uniquely personal, an expression which does not require an iconographic knowledge.

Visually, both the Dogon and the Brancusi image share a segmented and modular quality. Yet this similarity of forms has been achieved by artists who have come together from opposite ends of a line of inspiration that stretches from the a posteriori to the empirical. The Dogon is trying to illustrate a specific object—a chain or ladder which reaches to the sky based upon the imagery of his folklore. Brancusi has designed his column intuitively and from non-literal mathematical sensibilities. “The module of ‘Endless Column’ is the only object [by Brancusi] whose inner proportions may be stated in magically neat terms that have the appearance of a formula.”

Concerning measurements, Brancusi had often said that they “. . . are harmful for they are there, in the things themselves. They can rise up to heaven and come down to earth again without changing proportion.”

—David H. Katzive

Miss Barbara Rose’s article on the films of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy in the Special Film Issue of Artforum is a case study of the critic’s sleight-of-hand generalizations and misuse (or lack of use) of scholarly tools, resulting’in a serious misrepresentation of the artists discussed. I will only mention the most disturbing comments in the article.

First we are told that “Dada and Constructivism were the creations of provincial artists.” The term attempts to explain the overriding spirit of both these movements, but it fails dismally. If a number of those artists came from Eastern Europe, as many came from France and Germany, countries which are as Western as one can get. If the term is used in the sense that these artists came from the countryside, then it is even more off the mark, because once they arrived in metropolitan cultural centers they very quickly identified with the latest technical and cultural achievements, utilized them, and pushed beyond. If Miss Rose means by “provincial” those artists who came from the provinces and became “urbane” then she means “urbane,” not “provincial.” In the article she applies the term to Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray who “were provincial artists forced to turn against the hand because neither had any real facility.” Is “provinciality” then merely a lack of ability in painting? That term is “clumsiness.” Then again, “[l] a sense they had to make pictorial films because they could not acquire the painting culture necessary for the creation of great painting.” What kind of pseudo-art-historical mumbo jumbo is that? But let’s move on.

In the article we come across that academic insistence on finding a precedent which often becomes a ludicrous exercise. Is it so difficult to imagine, for example, that Man Ray discovered cameraless photography on his own? Why try to find a predecessor in Schad, especially when Man Ray clearly relates on pages 128–9 of his autobiography the accident through which he created his first rayograph?

As for the actual filming of Emak Bakia, although Dudley Murphy had shown Man Ray the effects of special lenses, there is no indication in his account on page 269 of his autobiography that Man Ray himself used such lenses. A viewing of the film confirms that very fact. The distortions of light were created with various crystals and reflecting mirrors, the “splintering images” through the superimposition of film, and the term “fragmenting planes” is foreign to me, but there is nothing comparable to it in Emak Bakia.

The main point of Miss Rose’s article is that Man Ray’s films are but “kinetic solutions to pictorial problems.” As evidence she cites the following example:

[W]hen a sculptural object, such as the dancing collars or the Dada object reminiscent of a violin handle known also as Emak Bakia is shown, the camera does not move in space to explore the object, rather the object revolves in front of a static camera.

But, in fact, in Les Mystères du Château du Dé Man Ray does precisely that, move his camera around a piece of sculpture to show its three-dimensionality! More than that he explores the whole chateau in three-dimensional terms, by sliding the camera along a passageway, panning a room, tracking down a staircase, and rotating the camera slowly 360° to show the full vantage from a single point.

But then the whole problem which Miss Rose sets out to examine is a false one. She attempts to make both Man Ray’s and Moholy-Nagy’s experiments in film their coming to terms with painting through film. In the case of Man Ray, films were a preoccupation rather focused in time (he completed his four films between, 1923 and 1929) when he continued making his objects, photographs, rayographs, and paintings. And as for Moholy-Nagy I refer her back to my article “Totality through Light—The Works of LázIó` Moholy-Nagy” in Form, 1968, which she cites in footnote 10 to explain the manner in which he made his film Lichtspiel. Simply by looking at the film she could have made the observation I made, namely that “the camera was focused on a perforated sheet between it and the light prop.” I suggest that she reread my article for its content, not for one of its trivial remarks. In it I explain how Moholy-Nagy systematically explored new media and new effects in his search to express the unlimited effects of light. It was in the course of that search that he turned to films.

And finally I wish to correct a seemingly minor mistake, but one which leads Miss Rose to a false conclusion. In her attempt to build her case she misinterprets the very thrust of Man Ray’s efforts. In footnote 6 she says:

In his Autobiography, Man Ray says that Emak Bakia was named after a villa meaning “leave me alone” in the Breton language. It is more likely that the title is an anagrammatic combination of the sounds of Anemic Cinema and Ballet Mécanique, two films which were extremely influential on Man Ray’s thinking. (Indeed one might think of the three films as a trilogy.)

For one thing Man Ray’s autobiography is entitled Self-Portrait, not Autobiography. Second, the words are in the Basque not the Breton tongue, as Man Ray clearly states whenever he talks about this film. A quick check in a standard work of reference such as W. J. Van Eys’ Dictionnaire Basque-Français, Paris, 1873, reveals the following results. Emak is the imperative form of Eman, meaning “to give.” Bakar means “alone” and Kin is a suffix meaning “with” which makes a word into an adverb and which often drops the n. That gives us Emak Baki, “give with the lonely);” which I would take to mean “leave me alone.” The implication that Ballet Mécanique is a film of the same genre as Emak Bakia is true in only the most superficial sense. For although both were made by painters working in Paris, the former follows Léger’s mechanical and constructivist tendencies with the slightest Dada tinge, while the latter examines light abstractions and fuses nascent Surrealist elements with well-tried Dada shock effects.

—Steven Kovács

I wish I could be as partisan to any specific artist or school as Mr. Kovács appears to be to the cause of Man Ray. Unfortunately, I believe that the work of any artist or critic, myself included, is open to continuing criticism. I welcome Mr. Kovács’ disagreements; I wish they had been more illuminating in terms of the larger discourse, rather than an unequivocal apology for the work of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy—an approach I too might find more comfortable and rewarding than the consistently critical position I feel obligated to maintain—vis-à-vis the work of Man Ray, an artist I admire in many respects, as well as vis-à-vis the work of any other artist.

Mr. Kovács’ objections are several, and must be dealt with point by point:

1) Regarding the use of my adjective “provincial” to describe the esthetic shortcomings of Dada and Constructivism. I regard as provincial work which derives from, as well as reacts against, an existing situation developed outside its original geographical and intellectual context. ’Provincial work is always, to borrow a tired sociological category, “other directed”—toward a firmly established ongoing continuous tradition situated elsewhere or toward an audience that must be shocked into attention through extreme formulations. With regard to mainstreami.e. School of Paris painting, Futurism, Dada, Constructivism—all of American art prior to the close of World War II, as well as the “provincial” schools of painting which developed outside Florence, Rome, and Venice earlier in the history of Western painting, is provincial. Sometimes provincial origins result in a vigorous originality, once the artist has accommodated himself to mainstream modes: e.g., El Greco, the Carracci, Rubens, Constable, Munch, Mondrian, Pollock. It appears from his critique that Mr. Kovács understood my article not at all. I also find the assumption that any Western art by definition cannot be provincial particularly offensive.

2) With regard to “painting culture,” I mean the technical assurance that accompanies the mastery of the mainstream tradition. With regard to mumbo jumbo, I plead innocent. It is cheap derogation used to discredit the author’s method without understanding it.

3) Regarding the issue of art historical precedents: I am not an advocate of linear art history, which is the reason I chose to investigate the films of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy within a broader sociological and esthetic context. My idea that Man Ray saw Schad’s not to mention possibly Moholy’s first experiments in cameraless photography came to me from two sources: Aaron Scharf’s definitive fully annotated Art and Photography and conversations with Hans Richter. To point to possible sources of the rayographs is in no way to denigrate their quality. I personally find them superior to the precedents on which they are based. However, this matter of historical precedent versus esthetic quality, of technical experiment versus specific realized work is basic to the particular absurdity of contemporary criteria regarding the relationship between quality and innovation. I would like to write more in the future of the origins of this confusion, and the manner in which the relative criteria of “radicality,” “breakthrough,” and “innovation” have been misused to legitimize the “quality” of works, in the absence of any generally accepted objective critical criteria. Documents permit us objectively to date work—the origin of what I have elsewhere termed the “begat” syndrome. In the absence of verifiable criteria for judgment, criticism exposes itself as entirely subjective, and in the process loses all claim to authority in the public’s eye. These claims (explicit or implicit) have always been spurious. They represent a desire on the part of the critic to control taste and markets through public assurances of factual accuracy and verifiable proofs. This need locks in neatly with that of the individual artist to be seen as the original Creator, to start anew with the tabula rasa on which his is the first name to be graven, to be the patriarch of a new family tree. (See the provocative study on this subject by Hans Kleinschmidt, “The Angry Act: The Role of Aggression in Creativity.”) The critic who identifies with the artist’s sense of history is lost indeed.

4) Man Ray’s relationship to Dudley Murphy remains a matter of conjecture. We have only the artist’s account of it. I do not see that there is a wide divergence between the terms “splintering images” and “fragmenting planes”: to splinter is to fragment. The use of multiplying mirrors and conceivably defracting crystals in the film Murphy made with Léger, Ballet Mécanique, leads one to believe these were devices Murphy invented or helped to invent to translate the Cubist vision into filmic terms.

5) Man Ray was more sophisticated by the time he made Les Mystères du Château du Dé in terms of the difference between cinematic space as opposed to pictorial, space. The Surrealists, already beginning to make movies out of film history rather than from painting precedents, pointed to new directions.

6) There is no dispute that Mr. Kovács’ article on Moholy-Nagy’s films is seminal. His technical descriptions are studiously accurate and necessary to an appreciation of the films. My object was entirely opposed to his, however; for I was primarily interested in the possible motivations, within the existing sociological, historical, and esthetic context of the plastic arts’ detente during the ’20s and ’30s that produced the motivation for turning to film as an alternative medium.

7) In my typescript, I referred to Man Ray’s autobiography which appeared in print as his Autobiography. Since I took a large part of the facts regarding Man Ray from Self-Portrait, an utterly uncandid and perfectly charming book, it is unlikely I did not know the title. As for Man Ray’s statement, familiar to anyone who has read the Museum of Modern Art film catalogue, that Emak Bakia is Basque for “leave me alone,” I took as just another Dada joke. Common sense reveals that Emak Bakia sounds too much like Anemic Cinema and Ballet Mécanique for these similarities to be coincidental. Unlike Mr. Kovács, I take an artist’s word for nothing. The artist is primarily involved with inventing and perpetuating his legend; the historian and critic with unmasking it, and putting it in the proper perspective and context.

8) Mr. Kovács is correct in one matter: the title Emak Bakia is presumably taken from the Basque, not the Breton. However, there is an error in the text he overlooks that I wish to correct at this time. Kynas-ton McShine brought to my attention a sleight-of-mind causing me to confuse Arthur Wheeler, Man Ray’s patron, with Monroe Wheeler, former publications’ director of the Museum of Modern Art. I am pleased to correct any wrong facts, but I find it odd that when a critic steps on the toes of an artist, a third party yelps.

— Barbara Rose
New York