PRINT February 1973



It appears that there have been a variety of interpretations and misinterpretations of the few remarks I made about Richard Serra’s work in my article “Talking at Pomona,” Artforum, September, 1972. Ordinarily misinterpretation is part of the game of being published, as it is part of the game of being exhibited, but I believe in this situation the misinterpretations are more likely to be unfairly distressing to Serra. I would like to point out that if my piece is read rather than picked through by sentimental intellectual ragpickers it is clear from the context that I did not suggest or intend to suggest that Serra was legally or morally responsible, through incompetence, negligence or malevolence, for the recent death connected with his sculpture. I had no direct knowledge of how the piece fell and I never pretended to have it. Moreover, I was not discussing his moral or legal responsibility. I was mainly concerned with the physical reality of sculpture and the logical corollary of physicality, namely that a work which occupies real physical space can have real physical consequences, the most extreme of which may be lethal. No doubt a human being could as easily be killed by a DiSuvero, a Calder, or even a Henry Moore, though the relation of such a physical consequence in each of these cases is differently related to the arena in which the work is entered. If a Henry Moore fell on you, you would be quite dead, but this would not be anymore significantly related to Henry Moore’s sculptural concerns than it would be to Rembrandt’s painting concerns if you were killed by having Night Watch fall on you. Moore’s sculptural concerns are fairly well contained within a virtual or pictorial space of which the spectator is not an occupant.

The reason for discussing Serra (and I could have chosen any number of others) is because his work has usually been presented in a truly physical arena; this was particularly true of the propped pieces. Heavy pieces of metal were poised against other pieces of metal in a transient state of equilibrium (they were ordinarily possessed of considerable potential energy) by their own weight and disposition, and they were maintained in this equilibrium as long as their dimensional stability and the stability of the supporting edifice (wall or floor) remained intact. These propped lead pieces could not be considered in equilibrium unless one considered what that equilibrium was based upon and the possibilities of disequilibrium. Many of these pieces were roped off from the public, and while this protected against injury it certainly called up the conceptual possibility of it, creating the effect of the bars around animals in a zoo. As far as I know the pieces were not originally roped off, probably because of Serra’s own conviction of their stability. And I believe that Serra himself did not think of the pieces as melodramatic. He was, however, not balancing pieces of cardboard but massive pieces of metal, and the image of delicately balanced and uncoupled megametallic pieces was inevitably melodramatic. Others less certain of the durational stability of the pieces seem to have convinced Serra to rope off his pieces regardless of their plausible safety. These were the factors that had bearing upon my discussion. Personally I do not regard those lead pieces as certainly stable, but I cannot see that this has any bearing on the piece that happened to fall, which was not a propped piece (as I pointed out in my talk). As for the propped pieces, I am very unsentimental about them. “Let the buyer beware,” but they have not killed anyone yet; and General Motors, Lockheed and the makers of the F-111 have killed many people, and the directors of these companies are in no immediate legal danger.

—David Antin
San Diego, California

In my essay “Quality, Style and Olitski,” Artforum, October, 1972, I wrote about a painting I understood to be titled Larro 17. The actual title is Beauty Mouth 5. The reproduction preceding the essay is titled Beauty Moth 5. Whatever the title, the painting reproduced is the one I wrote about.

Following my essay is “The Quality Problem” by Bruce Boice. Mr. Boice writes clearly and has enough nerve to move on the plane of the intellect. These are rare virtues in art writing. But the piece is riddled with faults of logic, and finally he is driven down below his level to discuss, as if it mattered, some aspects of the current epidemic of neo-Dada twaddle.

His central thesis is interesting: “. . . ‘quality’ as an evaluation of art has no meaning” because “it is an evaluation based on subjective values without the context of a purpose.” Mr. Boice points out that a thing cannot be good unless it is good for something, and gives as an example a stone which, because it has certain characteristics, is good for and can be shown to be good for throwing.

But when he says that value judgments of art are meaningless because we do not know what is the purpose of art he’s in trouble, because he cannot demonstrate that judgments of quality are made “without the context of a purpose” but only that the purpose is unspecified. If art does have a purpose, or use, as I think it does, and as Mr. Boice allows that it does, and if that purpose or use remains unspecified, as I think it will, then judgments of quality are not meaningless but more-or-less unverifiable. That’s an important difference. It shows not that judgments of value mean nothing but that they may or may not be right, and that must be decided in other ways.

Art is very important to us. It has something, does something or stands for something which all civilizations revere. Just as Mr. Boice’s stone can be a good stone or a bad stone according to its conformity to a particular use, so art can be good or bad according to the verbally obscure use humanity has for it. The standards may not be written down, but they are “there,” in human experience, or wherever. Judgments of quality of new art are based on a larger perception of art’s “purpose,” and are attempts to say what will persistently “enrich our experience,” in Mr. Boice’s words. Sooner or later, we separate the good from the mediocre; Giotto, Rembrandt, and Matisse hold up and others fall away, and there is general agreement. Their art has “quality.” You can pick your own way to say it, but you cannot avoid it.

The function of art writing is to point to art and put it across, or to make the process of getting what art has for us easier or better or more fun. It would be interesting to see Mr. Boice apply his intelligence in this way, and stay clear of the deadly word games now in vogue.

—Darby Bannard
Princeton, New Jersey

Quality ascription is not meaningless in a strict sense, but its meaning is confused, and it does not have meaning on the level for which it is intended. If I write “Darby Bannard is a good person,” that statement is not meaningless in that we can understand a meaning for it, i.e., “I like, respect, approve of Darby Bannard,” but the statement is meaningless as an assertion of fact about the person Darby Bannard; it has meaning only as an assertion of something about the speaker, in this case, me. In the same way, to ascribe quality to a painting by Olitski, Giotto, or Matisse, is only to signal one’s approval of their paintings. However many people also approve of their paintings does not constitute quality as a fact about the paintings by consensus; it only signifies that so many people approve of the same thing. Not being able to demonstrate that something does not exist is not a matter of faulty logic. The problem is not whether we have a purpose for art (we do and it can be specified); the problem is whether art’s purpose can support quality ascription and whether such ascriptions are, in fact, made within the context of art’s purpose. Bannard acknowledges as much by speaking of the vague conception of art’s purpose which must remain unspecified, while in his essay, he only puts off for another time “the ticklish job of pinning down differences of quality,” as if such subtle distinctions could be made on the basis of so vague a conception. To come down from the linguistic heights for a moment, I will say that the mythology of quality and a tradition of quality is a lot of bullshit; what interests Bannard therefore has quality, what does not interest Bannard becomes thereby “neo-Dada twaddle.” It’s as simple as that. Matisse’s “holding up” is supported by “general agreement,” but if general agreement shows something about Matisse, doesn’t so much general agreement as to constitute a “current epidemic” then support what is called “neo-Dada twaddle?”

— Bruce Boice
Hartford, Connecticut

Robert Pincus-Witten sees Conceptualism as a movement which seeks “to defeat criticism and art history” by incorporating methods from such disciplines as philosophy, linguistics, and mathematics (Artforum, December, 1972). He equates criticism and history with “evolutionary stylistic logistics” (Artforum, October, 1971) and claims that since the pictorial/sculptural sensibility is over as a unified movement, “we are no longer obliged to make value judgments on the basis of an artist’s or an object’s pertinence to a vanguard position” (Artforum, June, 1971). “Through a simple expedient, acute Conceptualism appears to attempt to create an art from which the art critic and historian is excluded—the artist himself has virtually moved into these disciplines” (Artforum, October, 1971). Even if these assertions were all true, and they’re not, what difference would it make? For it would be a defeat not for criticism and history in themselves, but only in relation to Conceptualism, which is just one possible movement among many, none of which can remain viable indefinitely. Criticism does not necessarily imply value judgment or pat linear evolution. It provides theoretical underpinnings and ways of getting hold of the work, of confronting what the artist is up to. Conceptualism needs that as has no other art-historical movement to date. Mr. Pincus-Witten himself has said “In my view the methodologies necessary to the artist are now art history and philosophy—the one to know where to begin, the other to know what to do” (Artforum, December, 1971). This can in no way be considered a defeat for criticism, unless he expects that the so-called epistemological Conceptualists will eventually just bore it to death. And the involvement of artists with criticism neither subverts the discipline nor prevents there from being critics who are not artists. Even Dada, which began with far more radical precepts and had a great deal more fighting spirit, was absorbed by existing critical and institutional traditions to become another subject of academic theses and provider of museum pieces. The fact that Conceptualism’s apologists do not disdain to present their case in reputable critical journals is itself telling.

Moreover, though it may use the methods of certain other disciplines in watered down and occasionally garbled form, Conceptualism does not have the ends of those disciplines. That is, Mel Bochner’s “set theory” leads not to more set theory, but to art. Therefore his methods have, not the necessary internal development of real mathematics, but what might be seen as a quasi-ornamental quality, in that they give his art a certain flavor without being functional in the strictest sense. Lacking the extreme precision of the disciplines it has adopted (its rigor is mainly mortis) this type of Conceptualism can only be seen as a new kind of estheticism. Whatever philosophical problems it faces—and it is tackling hard ones and should be praised for that—are still couched in terms less technical than philosophy itself demands. Concept art will not be discussed by philosophy, linguistics, or mathematics; if it is to be talked about at all (and it can be and will be), by default it must be by art criticism. Pretending otherwise is pointlessly coy.

The desire to defeat criticism and art history is laudable in spite of its self-conscious preciousness and in spite of the fact that the attempt is doomed from the start. In fact, it may be periodically necessary as a kind of intellectual housecleaning. What kind of coincidence is it that Dada and Conceptualism, different as they are, both flowered at the same time of a senseless war, a collapsing value structure, and dissatisfaction among many artists with the dominant formal mode? Still, it’s hard to see how you clean house by adding verbiage and pedantry. Parallels can be drawn between extra-esthetic claims of past art and Conceptualism’s attempts to use elements from other theoretical endeavors, and in both cases it constitutes the refusal or inability to face up to the visual, which, in spite of it all, is still the toughest problem going. Formerly, it was mythology, religion, allegory, and the like—today we’re a bit more sophisticated, but baby, not much.

— Joseph Gabe
Berkeley, California

I read with interest Judith Wolfe’s “Jungian Aspects of Jackson Pollock’s Imagery” (Artforum, November, 1972). Pursuant to it, I enclose a photograph of an untitled Pollock drawing of about 1943 (ink, with touches of red paint, on buff-colored paper, approximately 12 1/2'' x 13'' irregular) which, to my knowledge has never been reproduced, though it was shown at the January–February 1964 Pollock exhibition at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery. It, like related drawings presents additional evidence of Pollock’s affinity to Jungian imagery—in this case, particularly, the moon/sun figures at the top, the male/female visual puns on breasts and elbows in the large lower figure, and the head/foot visual pun in the right-hand margin. More polarities are presented in the “free association” of words in the margin: “thick thin / Chinese Am. indian / sun snake woman life / effort reality / shoe foot.” And once again, Pollock’s potent number 46, as well as 13, turns up.

However, despite Pollock’s profound contact with Jungian thought, I have tried in my Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible and elsewhere to emphasize that his Jungianism was no more systematic or programmatic than his mysticism, Surrealism, Marxism, etc. Most of his knowledge of these systems he got directly from experience and from conversation with friends, little from reading or formal study. It is fair to say that Jung’s ideas about the unconscious were more congenial to Pollock than the mechanistic ideas of Freud, just as his Surrealism was closer to the work of Picasso and Miró than to that of the official and more literary Surrealists. Yet in making these generalizations about anyone whose thought grew as organically and intuitively as Pollock’s, it can be misleading to overemphasize any single figure as a touchstone to his work.

— B. H. Friedman
New York City

Re Max Kozloff’s article, “The Trouble with Art-as-Idea” I am reminded of the employer that hires scientists to do pure science. They are told to do whatever they want; no discoveries are necessary. Then four years later (from ’68 Max?) the scientist is canned because nothing useful was discovered. Failure at the art factory.

— John Baldessari
Santa Monica, California