PRINT January 1974



I should think that a critic of Mr. Rosenberg’s erudition would be possessed of a better memory than is shown in his letter. Also a greater curiosity about his hosts and his surroundings. Along with the “small show” was an exhibition of the Mexican abstract painters currently active, some of whom were on the panel, or informal discussion, as he prefers to call it. I doubt if Mr. Rosenberg came to Mexico to set up an exhibition at the National University’s Department of Cultural Extension gallery (a rented commercial space, hardly a museum) at his own expense, since he was not much interested in what was going on there. I don’t know any more about Mr. Rosenberg than anyone else who attended the event, nor do I expect him to remember that we met afterwards at the home of a mutual friend. During the conversation I commented on what he had said about Rivera’s murals, saying that wasn’t it a bit insular to judge all art by the New York art world’s standards, at which he grew annoyed and said that that was “a ridiculous statement.” He seems to be fond of that phrase. What his letter does clear up for me is the misapprehension I have had all these years that Mr. Rosenberg came late to the panel having just arrived in Mexico City from New York. I now learn that he spent five of his six-day visit to Mexico swimming in Acapulco.

Arnold Belkin
New York, N.Y.

James Collins has me down (Artforum, December, 1973) as one of the British critics who has supported Richard Hamilton while failing to ask such searching questions as “Can Hamilton draw?” However, my piece on Hamilton, written in 1966, was a survey of “The Development of British Pop,” all of it, and Hamilton appears in it as a representative figure of “the first phase of English Pop Art (1953–58).” To go from this unarguable placing to asserting, as Collins does, that I nominate “Hamilton as one of Pop’s titular heads” is faithful neither to what I said nor how I think. I don’t see how Hamilton’s presence in a general review of the subject of U.K. Pop can be compared to the texts of Richard Morphet and John Russell who have written monographs on him—something that I have not done. If Collins had kept his eyes open, he would have seen that my name has been removed from the announcement of a forthcoming Hamilton book in the Penguin New Art series. I object to Collins’ attempt to put on to me problems raised by the work of other critics.

—Lawrence Alloway
New York, N.Y.

Lawrence Alloway’s “Residual Sign Systems in Abstract Expressionism” (November, 1973) is a step in the right direction. But it is only a beginning. Newman, Rothko, and Still have shaped for modern American art a genuine heroic and tragic vision that avoids all the pitfalls of mental and emotional bombast that lie in wait for those foolish enough now to attempt it. To have forged an answerable style that refuses to resort to the defense mechanisms of irony or a purely and all-too-human scale is a feat which neither the literature nor the music of our time has been able to pull off.

Modern art at its best turns out to be older than the art of European or Western civilization. Even at its best, however, it largely operates within the memory or the influence of non-European cultures which serve to date it in a no less time-bound way. A truly original art finds its source at a point of origin that is prehistorical and outside the time dimension. Such an art arises out of a systematic obliteration of memory, a condition inherent though barely attempted and never realized within the American dream. One can watch Pollock moving back toward it through North American Indian culture and “the ideographic picture” as defined by Newman is a revelation of the same process at work in Newman and other artists at one stage of their American development.

Rothko, Newman, and Still realize the American dream in the very face of all those parodies of it that reveal only the obvious—its mock-tragic face. That the devastation of the American psyche,providing as it does our global and daily theater, is but the “anti-masque” of the tragic achievement of the artists Alloway discusses needs to be thoroughly documented and explored. It is an apocalyptic achievement of the first order, an achievement uniquely American which unveils for all some time in the future to see what was the true and metaphysical form of the American Revolution.

Admittedly, the possibility of a future is now problematic. But this much: if there is to be one it will have to find its cultural and spiritual ground somewhere within the new, older than time, precincts constructed by, among the few others, Newman, Still, and Rothko.

—Ross Woodman
London, Ontario

Reference the use of the term “meta-art” by Adrian Piper in Artforum, October, 1973. Piper makes no mention of the fact that the increasingly fashionable prefix “meta”—from the Greek meaning “together with,” “after,” “behind”—has been linked to the word “art” since about 1970. The new term was formed by analogy with “metalanguage,” “meta-logic,” “meta-mathematics,” “meta-philosophy” etc. Rune’s philosophical dictionary defines a meta-language as “a language used to make assertions about another language; any language whose symbols refer to the properties of the symbols of another language.” The former is generally called the “observer’s language” and the latter the “object language” (because it is the object of study). As J.G. Kemeny points out the terms “metalanguage” and “object language” are relational and he stresses that “it is nonsense to ask whether a given language is a meta-language; we can only say that it is being used as a meta-language of another language at the moment. The metalanguage can in turn be studied in which case it is used as an object language, and the previous object language can be the meta-language of a third language” (“Semantics in Logic,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1970). The result is an infinite hierarchy of languages and meta-languages.

The artists Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden of the New York “Society for theoretical art and analyses” have made use of the term “meta-art” and they defined it as the “art of art” (in Ursula Meyer, Conceptual Art). The Hungarian artist Bela Hap has created a work concerned with meta-languages, and in Paris, Jean-Claude Moineau has organized a “meta-art” group.

Jack Burnham, in his semiological analysis of selected artworks in The Structure of Art, defines a meta-language as “a two level system whose plane of content or signified is in itself a semiotic system” and he claims that “meta-languages in art are the expression of an art activity . . . as a proposition about art.” He also believes that “all forms of non-objective art are meta-languages.”

Another writer, Stanley Paluch, designates as meta-art “those things, in themselves aesthetically irrelevant or insignificant, which take on an aesthetic significance in special contexts and lose that significance as soon as removed from those special contexts” (for example, Duchamp’s Readymades, Warhol’s Brillo boxes which acquire the status of art in art galleries). Paluch also maintains that “meta-art objects, so long as they have the status of art, are also about art” (Journal of Value Inquiry, Winter, 1971).

The whole notion of meta-art has been critically examined by the English artist John Stezaker and questioned on the grounds that “the principles and rules devised by ‘second order’ activity are by the nature of meta-languages . . . only applicable to the ‘first order’ art. These principles cannot be applied to the second order activity itself . . .” (Frameworks Journal, June, 1972). Therefore, if Stezaker is correct, it would seem that Piper’s idea of meta-art replacing art activity proper is logically impossible.

—John A. Walker
London, England

Adrian Piper replies:
I am indebted to Mr. Walker for his brief but varied etymological account of the term “meta-art.” He successfully demonstrates that the term has no greater degree of entrenchment in the language than any other shorthand label for what artists do. It is evident from his account that the term has the status of a stipulative definition for each of the writers mentioned, some of which are inconsistent with others (e.g. Paluch’s vs. Burn’s & Ramsden’s)—and certainly inconsistent with mine. So it is difficult to see how Stezaker’s use of the term could be ‘correct’ (unless Mr. Walker means by this simply that he accepts it), or how my use of the term therefore entails the logical impossibility he describes, since my use is clearly inconsistent with Stezaker’s.