PRINT September 1973

Robert Witz: Selections from the Tomah Letters

Robert Witz is an artist working Tomah, Wisconsin. For several years, he has been a critical reader of Artforum. The following observations and commentaries have been excerpted from his continuing correspondence.

27 March 72
YOU HOLD AN UNTENABLE POSITION. There is no way for you to maintain your present policies in the foreseeable future. You are not the avant-garde. You are as obsolete as the dinosaur. Have you ever heard of the phrase “participatory democracy”? Well, I am engaged in the struggle for that concept and all that it implies. New York City is just another Washington D.C. and together they are nothing more than the Taiwan of America.

You did get a little revolutionary there for a while. But it didn’t last long. And then I saw you drifting back into your old position of DOING NOTHING, SAYING NOTHING etc; it was then that I decided you needed another letter to wake you up again, so to speak.

I cannot compromise with your position at all because if I do it implies an acceptance of some kind of your policies. And I reject your basic premises and your policies.

I have hopes that you will take a humanitarian position in the future. I believe, in fact, that necessity will force it upon you. I am part of that necessity and that force.

19 March 73
Here are my general impressions from a cursory look at your recent issue—I did read several articles. ld like to go into Lawrence Alloways article and just rip it to shreds but I haven’t got the time. Let us just say that it is too abstract and I dont like his use of language. It postures—like all self-important art critics do—are there any other kind? It uses that awful terrible incomprehensible language that they all use. Colorless, uninteresting, horribly dull. Its the thing to read late at night: it’ll put you to sleep right a way. Dull. Duller. Dullest.

Bruce Nauman is a dilettante. He has no focus and little of substance. He’s weird enough to catch your attention, ergo you tend to explain to death each little sneeze he produces.

Annette Michelson talks professional Artforum journalese. Why don’t you grab somebody off the street and let him/her write a few articles, somebody who knows nothing about art. Or why don’t you do one issue when your entire staff is drunk. You need major surgery of some kind.

Joseph Kosuth is doing the same thing I did in 1961 when I wrote a poem, several poems actually, using dictionary definitions. Long poems, long gone.

24 March 73
It’s nice to hear from you people occasionally. It proves something to me. I thought I had you freaked out again and I thought ld have a few laughs, but I guess you are a little closer to what I am about. I like your magazine quite a bit and, yes, it helps me, gives me a lot of ideas and things to think about. I think my own work keeps me sane as it also disturbs me; but of course nothing disturbs me as much as life itself. I have problems but I could never get as sick as to do some of the things society does to me.

Yes, I was more dependent on the art magazines and your magazine, but now I have become more directly involved with the art community and the underground in Madison without which I might be worse or better off than I am at present, probably worse. They print things of mine occasionally—and I couldn’t live without that: I have another pamphlet of poems and stories coming out in April—plus some hassle, naturally.

My criticism is serious and I mean for you to take it seriously. I usually mix humor with my criticism and in this way I hope it will achieve some results. I have a strategy in that I attack all establishment institutions and things that retard change and growth and seem to hold me back, hold me down, keep me in bondage. I help people that help me, or people that I see who need help that I feel I can do something for.

26 March 73
I don’t read your magazine, I skip thru it. Most of the Hadler figures have by now been collaged into my drawings, and some of the sky pictures; l’ve done that with your magazine hardly ever. They go well with some of my headstone and monument drawings, and others. I see this whole sad thing in Picasso also, his “blue period.” My blue period in painting is going into its 14 year, luckily I have my writings to balance all that off. But my paintings are strong and solid and more influenced by classical ideas. Balance, serenity, sureness, a stabilized world, a world on firm foundations, I hope.

Your magazine is the best for avant-garde works, although I think you have a tendency to stick to important but established figures, like Morris, Stella—who hasn’t, incidentally, done anything worthwhile since his original stripe paintings. Your friends, in other words. The· weakness of those 2 magazines [Art News and Arts] is, I suppose, art history and, in the case of Art News, commercial interests: auctions, etc. I thought, for example, referring back to you, that the guy who did the thing of letting bread and cheese rot in this gallery was frontrunning; and you don’t pay any attention to top European artists. I admit that Art International is a grabbag of disconnections and junk, mostly, plus pretentious, bad poetry, but they do on occasion present interesting new work as well. I guess the problem is finally, that there is just not enough space.

I will probably be forced to continue to attack you, since I am, for my health and for yours and perhaps for us all, and remain, mostly, your antithesis.

29 March 73
Some of my drawings have many statements in them. Society has said no a lot to me. I say no to it. No to General Motors, no to Superman, no to the most powerful nation on earth. This no isn’t directed against all of America but to the kind of arrogance, willfulness and sadism that those 3 types of institutions represent to me.

31 March 73
I think the artist is in great danger in the future, since both left and right, when taken to their extremes, become nauseatingly similar, and the artist is in danger, always, as he is in Russia today and China, of becoming, truly, an ineffectual instrument of the state, instead of remaining, as he should in deed remain, the critic, gadfly, and creator for people, man and society. Maybe there is no danger, I’m not sure, but one should be prepared, and always be practicing preventative measures.

I was thinking about my own position last night, which isn’t exact by the way. I tend to retain lower class values, and to think in terms of the less affluent portions of our society. This determines certain choices, and I do not expect to betray my origins or the “people” in general. I believe the rich are making war on the poor in this country right now, and are currently winning. But I do not think this will last; and, depending currently on what North VN does next, we could find ourselves in bitter straits again, and Nixon and the Republicans (read Money inc) could fan this country into incipient revolution again. The rich could still, I believe, save themselves, if they were not so incredibly selfish and greedy. There are other problems of course.

31 March 73
The fundamental problem of art is that it has little focus or practical value and is too dependent on the exploiting classes of our nation. It remains, generally, decorative and useless. It has power, namely persuasion and propaganda, but it doesn’t generally, and hasn’t lately, utilized them. It has little leverage, since money is power and it panders to the rich and the market place. Art remains, largely, a toy of the rich. Tied deeply and intolerably to imperialistic capitalism. Who controls the mass media? Who the mob? Stalin you recall, always dismissed things he felt to be powerless with the remark its just literature. just another novel. The other side of this coin is that artists, for the present, in this country, are mostly free to work as they wish, since they have no set program or rules to abide by. You always have to pay one side or the other. What should art do now, now that some of our social problems have reached levels of intolerable contradiction and cry for solutions? Will it be able to save us from totalitarianism? I believe it will be able to do so and will do so. Perhaps because American traditions do not, finally, allow such a thing to happen to us. But who knows what sheep or wolves we may turn into. Or even people.

1 April 73
I don’t like to keep bugging you with all these letters but I want to get as much said as is possible, though I know one can never tell it all.

I also want you to know that lm not some sweet prissy little Andy Warhol, if indeed thats what he is.

4 April 73
I’m beginning to adjust to the excitement and disbelief which your letters and their suggestions created in my mind. I am a Leo, and these traits were reinforced when my mother gave me this cup for my birthday, some time ago, which says that I am or should be exuberant, artistic, knowledgeable, arrogant, impulsive, adventurous, forceful, dominant, honest, and brave. I don’t use this cup very often, but once in a while I look at it and the whole thing kind of cracks me up.

5 April 73
An observation: I guess its obvious that johns and Rauschenberg are the kingpins of modern art and have had the most influence. Johns was probably the more successful because he saw the end of the usefulness of abstract expressionism and dropped it and became “brainy,” whereas Rauschenberg, while becoming “cute” also, retained much of it. No one really noticed that johns went back and picked up many of the techniques of impressionism: his painting style. Modern art today is leaving them; they are becoming like de Kooning: museum pieces that stay on, remain. What is coming isn t evident yet, hasn’t jelled. But everybody notices and can see it.

7 April 73
Initially I intended to drive for the top, and maybe I still do. I do expect to achieve some success in my chosen field, the art world, the writers world. I became more compromised by people and their problems in the past years, more social awareness; and not just my problems; this being brought on not only by my own sympathies but also by the drives and energies of the youth community, and the Negroes and etc etc. Now I realize that even more important issues are at stake, perhaps our very survival as a democratic-republican nation, our freedoms, and that this will and does affect, sometimes drastically, my role, even, as an artist. For example my hopes were revived in the late sixties by the underground newspapers and press. They gave me hope, got me going again, and I’m in love with them. Outside of them there seemed to be nothing, there was nothing.

Additional notes: I just think art is growing across the nation, its not just a New York thing anymore, and I am a symptom of this growth, I hope a good one.

11 April 73
I find Agnes Martins work interesting but too sensitive and delicate, with a spirituality I cannot comprehend, and with a lyrical effusiveness and lack of reality—very Japanese—that appalls me. But nevertheless she demonstrates also why men so completely need women; as well as the fact that she is an artist, that her work can be appreciated by both men and women, and that women can be artists as well as creative.

I liked the way Alloway tied her work to other artists.

I am somewhat political—a suicidal course? without alternative at present?—but not a politician. My politics are practical, pragmatic, concrete; the artists political statements I frequently read I find mostly naive and idealistic, lyrical and unreal, unrelated to fact; not connected with our actual lives and our concrete existence as such as it is. Too many wishes and dreams, too vague. And I think Beuys is a hypocrite when he mouths all that proletarian rhetoric. He is not alone. I think he like most of us wants independence and power and achievement, and he definitely doesn’t want to be like everybody else or even have everyone be equal. Many artists and others use marxism, revolution, etc, what have you as a mask to achieve their own liberation; its handy, everybody’s doing it, and it works—so far. I think we all have sympathy for other people and their sufferings, and we would all like to rid the world of as much injustice as we possibly can, and I sincerely believe we try to help them when we are able. But I do not think we feel as deeply for people and their pain and misfortunes as so many of our revolutionaries so loudly proclaim. For example, Nader. This man has to be a little sick upstairs the way he immoderately pursues some of his projects; and yet we need this man and more like him, and desperately. The “people” can be very cruel and sadistic, as well as despairingly fucked over.

13 April 73
Regardless of how much Walter Darby Bannard loves art or is dedicated to art, or perhaps because of his excessive veneration of same, he has not been able, obviously enough, to free himself from the shackles of a dead past, art history, and the traditions of art history, which have never been known, by the way, for their creativity. Cut loose, Walter Darby, let go, free yourself. Plagens was nice to him but, with friends like that, will Darby ever have need of enemies?

Ryman is a hell of a lot better painter than Darby, in fact, he is a painter, he ’s an artist. He kicks Darby’s ass.

15 April 73
I do think that you gave and give too much space to Mondrian. You could have, for example, given a couple of pages to Oppenheim, though his work was seemingly childish, silly and stupid, unthought-out, ragged, modified ‘I really don’t know what to do next and wish I knew what and this isn’t it but here is something at least for now’ attitude.

The attitudes and styles of Alloway and Lizzie Borden give stability to your magazine. Plagens troubled-now—gaze and mind, his seeming beginning to walk near the edge or consideration of same and seeing of other problems and willingness to look further, more interest and challenge. To your magazine.

I’m pretty destructive at times I guess. Sorry. It does have its benefits though, doesn’t it? l’ve finished my third total-no drawing. It took me about 16 hours, steady work. Never again. This time it does have ‘texture.’ It’s final, and kind of unbelievable.

I feel like I live in New York. If they’d just extend the subway a ways you could be here in about 8 hours I’m sure.

6 May 73
I somewhat apologize for the sharpness of the last letters I wrote to you and your magazine, but its not that easy to break old habits. And I am used to attacking.

The art world moves between van Gogh and Mondrian, two extremes of freedom and control, intellect and emotion, and not nevertheless without contradiction. Picasso was in the middle somewhere; he was of course very creative—but he never “let himself go.” He kept a control always. And one could also argue, I suppose that Mondrian is about as passionate as a man can become. Witness Rodins head of Baudelaire, which too much sometimes resembles a Nazi such as Adolf Eichmann. The world is very complex.

8 May 73
My initial reaction to James Collins was, What a reactionary! Then, after reading some of the excerpts from the works of Concept artists and thinking over some of Collins ideas, I realized how overdue and necessary his reaction and article are.

If you take Johns and remove the paint you are left with Concept art. And I would imagine that many people would say who needs the paint anyway. It just gets in the way of the ideas, covers them up. johns is, or at least was, Cézanne among the Impressionists; he never accepted it, always questioned it, and finally did something else. And this is why the constant linkage of johns to Rauschenberg is so deceptive; they are extremely different artists and people. Johns moves away from abstract expressionism, distances himself and is intellectual; Rauschenberg kept close ties with AE and remained more emotional. They are not in fact that close.

I don’t know what to say about Meredith Monk since I don’t like Wagner. I don’t like emotion, I don’t trust it; I don’t like hurrying and scurrying, a lot of running around. I do trust my instincts quite a bit, and I like control and thinking, thought.

23 May 73
Fads, styles, cliques come and go; artists come and go. And even Soyer—I saw his letter in Art News—can be as opinionated, narrowminded, and doctrinaire as some of his opponents are on occasion. I think it is important that we watch closely the actions and reactions and try to keep them from getting out of control and doing all of us damage. Yet we have to try to keep opportunity open for all people, for all levels of society. An open society, a flexible, mobile society.

Concept art has a lot of idiocy but it also has made good and lasting contributions, as should be evident; it first of all got art out of the studio and thereby more in contact with real people and things—regardless of how much it hermetically sealed off from life contacts so many others of its large numbers. I think Heizers digging a stripe is valuable and a valid and important contribution.

3 June 73
Someday lm going to have a wife and a family. This is mostly because society seems bound and determined that I will not.

9 June 73
I will not be called a poet. Call me a writer, an artist or painter, but never a poet.

11 June 73
l’m an American writer-artist and l’ve held more idiot jobs than any other man. I was a bellboy. I was a seaman on an Irish freighter, picked peas and cotton in Mississippi, sold whores on hot corners in Birmingham Alabama, rode rails east and west, from the Golden Gate to the Brooklyn Bridge, rails and busses north and south from Augusta Maine to Juarez Mexico. I was a white trumpet player in an all Negro band in New Orleans. I was King Lear and God in London, I introduced strippers at the Folies Bergeres, I lost a million bucks at Monte Carlo, I flew jets to Rio de Janeiro, sold books on the Paris quays, starved on the Acropolis, apples and pencils in Washington DC, a stud for a retiring actress in Rome, a taxi driver in Indianapolis Indiana, picked oranges in Florida, executive vice-president of AT&T, 3 years a missionary in the Belgian Congo, I was one of the first men to hit the beach at Tarawa and lwo and I graduated Summa cum Laude Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard, l’ve had 3 wives and I have 3 kids, lm 42 years old, I have all my teeth and now I have to wear glasses for reading. I used to kill alligators in Tarzan movies as a stunt man, no doubt Ill land on the moon, after that politics. My novels have been published in 34 languages. I speak, read and write Swahili, Hindustani, Chinese, Japanese, 22 Indian dialects, French, German, Italian, Russian, Swedish, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch. l’ve been knighted by the Queen of England, dined with the Dalai Lama, traded poems with Mao Tse-tung, slept with Sophia Loren. I was flown to Moscow when Stalin was sick and I know he died a natural death: I was his doctor. I was a folk singer in Greenwich Village. For years I was a movie star going under the name of Rock Witz. One night in a barroom I got into an argument with Cassius Clay and knocked him out.

date of birth 9 Aug 34 Tomah Wi
grad U of Wis, US Army, the streets, people, dreams, nightmares
teachers Van Gogh Picasso Daumier Rodin Balzac Eliot Lorca de Kooning Pollock
art magazines girls people work nature modern artists and art I won’t die without a struggle.