PRINT February 1974



For the past 20 years I have been striving to paint things in three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface (which, in France, is called trompe-l’oeil). Some art critics have accused me of practicing pictorial deception, but no one had ever expressed the desire to call me a liar. Well, now it has happened. In the November, 1973, issue of Artforum, in the “Reviews” section, Bruce Boice, using a Senator from Hawaii as a go-between, yielded to this temptation. He was not referring to my works, it is true, but to a preface I wrote for the catalogue to the exhibition “Reality and Trompe-I’oeil” by four French painters which took place at the New York Cultural Center last summer. Above and beyond the fact that it is not very agreeable to be the target of such mumblings, I wish to make it clear to B. Boice, who cannot believe that we painted our canvases in ignorance of the accomplishments of Harnett, Peto, and Haberle, that what is truly unbelievable is that any painter living in France might possibly have seen the works of such American artists, since, alas, no one has yet arranged for them to cross the Atlantic. In any case, Harnett is no more the inventor of trompe-l’oeil than I. Legend has it that during the Age of Pericles, Greek painters were already vying with one another in an effort to dazzle the birds.

It would be tedious to point out all the incoherencies in B. Boice’s article. The most flagrant of them is that after reiterating that our paintings are “direct rip-offs” and repetitions of works painted almost 100 years ago, he recognizes that we have treated such themes as Nazi Germany, photography, motorcycle races, and the “avant-garde” art of Picasso, Duchamp and Fontana; he could have added television, abortion, police repression, and the war in Vietnam. At the risk of being called a liar once again, I hereby swear I ignore the existence of such prophetic works executed in the 19th century by American artists. However, perhaps it was just a question of wanting to pick a quarrel, and it comes to my mind that young critics with old ideas are like old dogs who cannot learn new tricks.

As for me, unlike many others, I do not believe in “progress” and “innovation” in art. The works of Caravaggio have not eclipsed those of Van Eyck any more than Miró has dethroned Kandinsky. The “avant-garde,” born near 1910, is today an old lady, and under the layer of make-up, her wrinkles are showing. I have not felt it my vocation to add another white square to Malevich’s White Square on a White Ground, but I do experience a mischievous pleasure in painting a plastic bag in trompe-l’oeil around Zeuxis’ bunch of grapes. In reading over this letter, I see that one of the many fallacies in B. Boice’s text is turning into a verity: the exhibition is indeed becoming polemical.

—Claude Yvel
Paris, France

If critics or artists are going to write about philosophy vis-à-vis art, it is of paramount importance that the philosophical position be stated as clearly and simply as the position will allow. I find that philosophical theses are often obscured in order to “fit” or to interpret an artist’s work.

A recent example of this is in Rosalind Krauss’ article “Sense and Sensibility” in Artforum, November, 1973. What begins as stream of consciousness deteriorates into a barrage of misstatement and misinterpretation of philosophical material. The most glaring being the bastardization of the Logical Positivists’ notion of protocol language. Krauss defines this language as a language of sense impressions, mental images, etc.—drawing the inference that the meaning of protocol language is to be understood as a private language. Of course one’s sensations, mental images, etc. are one’s own, but her emphasis on this aspect is entirely fallacious.

According to the Positivists, protocol language is the most primitive level of word-concept validation; it is the ultimate irreducible test of a word-concept’s authenticity, i.e., I am experiencing blue. There is no other validation necessary other than that I am having that sensation of blueness. Protocol language refers to these primary experiences. In absolute contradistinction to this Krauss writes “ . . . neither of us has any way of verifying the separate data.” Hence the emphasis of these sense impressions, mental images, etc. is not that they are private but rather that they are verifiable.

Some of the Positivists did believe in a private language, but in no way is its existence to be inferred from their notion of protocol language. I have chosen only one example though one could go on ad infinitum with this sorting out. I would like to end this letter with a quote from Kant: “Percepts without concepts are blind; concepts without percepts are empty.”

—Abigail Gerd
New York, N.Y.

Although Logical Positivists do not accept a solipsistic view of private languages, they do employ the term ‘protocol language’ as part of a confrontation of that view. At least I take Carnap to be indicating that problem when he writes, “In general, every statement in any person’s protocol language would have sense for that person alone . . . Even when the same words and sentences occur in various protocol languages, their sense would be different, they could not even be compared. Every protocol language could therefore be applied only solipsistically: there would be no intersubjective protocol language. This is the consequence obtained by consistent adherence to the usual view and terminology” [my italics]. If your letter is saying that the issue of privacy does not exist for philosophy, I do not know what to do except to point to the extensive literature on the subject. In my own essay I was attempting to show how a problem that has a long history within philosophic argument begins to intersect with a certain kind of esthetic thought.

—Rosalind Krauss
New York, N.Y.

Lawrence Alloway’s article “Residual Sign Systems in Abstract Expressionism,” Artforum, November, 1973, goes a long way toward uncovering important individual and cultural sources in American Abstract Expressionist painting. In the face of so much recent “positivist”-oriented criticism that deals primarily with the descriptive mechanics of painting, Mr. Alloway’s “breadth and depth” study comes as a welcome relief.

Speaking as an-other-generation painter, I would like to suggest however, that the battle of American vs. European art—while understandable then—now seems a trifle passé and self-conscious; perhaps the intervening years have given us a more rounded view of continuities as well as distinctions (Cézanne and Matisse also “essentialized” in their way).

Finally, I interpret Mr. Alloway’s comments as an addition to rather than an alternative to formal-esthetic criteria. Both approaches require acute perception, and it is to the author’s credit that he has pursued such speculative subjects as myth, revelation, religious vision, primitive impulse, heroic gesture, mysterious light, and morality with rigorous definition and clarity.

—Edwin Ruda
New York, N.Y.

Bruce Boice’s criticism of the use of the term “quality” is correct, but as far as I can tell, irrelevant.

Approaching the question from a somewhat oblique angle, suppose there were a science of visual art criticism. “Visual esthetic science” would presumably be a branch of psychology dealing with people’s esthetic reactions to visual stimuli. This imaginary science would have the general organization of modern-day linguistic study of syntax. Just as linguistics tries to account for people’s intuitions on grammaticality, that is, distinguishing grammatical from ungrammatical sentences, esthetic science would try to account for esthetic judgments. The basic data for linguistics take roughly the form “person P reports that sentence S is good/bad.” Visual esthetic science would deal with data like “person P reports that visual stimulus V is good/bad.”

The analogy between grammatical/ungrammatical sentences and quality/noquality paintings (an important class of visual stimuli) holds up quite well. Sentences, like paintings, are better and worse, not simply good and bad. In linguistics this is called degrees of grammaticality. People disagree about the relative grammaticality of sentences and the relative quality of paintings, although admittedly disagreement over paintings is more common. There is even an equivalent in linguistics to playing false with one’s esthetic reactions because of a fondly held theory, although linguists are less forthright on this matter than art critics. Finally, note that sentences are only better/worse with respect to some set of internalized rules R. While it would be overstating things to say the same of paintings, a more neutral description would be that paintings are quality/no-quality with respect to some set of internal conditions C which might include such things as early childhood experiences and retinal condition, as well as concepts more common to art criticism.

Of course, none of this argues against Mr. Boice—just the opposite. But let us carry our analogy one step further. Suppose someone published a Boice-like article complaining about linguists’ sloppy philosophy in using expressions like “sentence S is ungrammatical” whereas in reality sentences are just ink on paper. The article would be ignored on the grounds that prefacing “I believe that” to each grammaticality judgment would not solve any linguistic problems.

The logic behind this hypothetical rejection applies equally well to art criticism. It is hard to imagine that anybody literally believes that paintings are in and of themselves quality/no quality. Paintings are paint. There is, one must recognize, a tendency in art criticism (but not in linguistics) toward a related belief: with proper education, everybody’s conditions C will produce the same “expert” judgments. This, however, is an empirical question. In fact, I suspect that this belief is wrong, since I doubt that education can remove personal and societal factors from C. But this misapprehension is not very important, since critics with or without this belief all have the same intellectual responsibility: explain as best one can what one’s C is and how it interacts with paintings to produce judgments. Succeeding in this task makes for good criticism, failure makes for bad, and preceding judgments with “I believe that” makes no difference at all.

—Eugene Charniak
Castagnola, Switzerland

The point of contention here hinges on Mr. Charniak’s sentence “It is hard to imagine that anybody literally believes that paintings are in and of themselves quality/no-quality.” Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe too, but it seems to be the case nevertheless. I can’t prove that anybody literally believes this, but my experiences in conversations, responding to letters on these pages, and the fairly frequent critical use of expressions such as “Beyond the sheer quality of so and so’s paintings . . .,” as well as subtler expressions, convinces me that there is such a belief. If no one does believe this, or another conception that leads to essentially the same situation but leaves the ‘quality in and of itself’ part implicit, then certainly the argument is irrelevant. And yes, prefacing sentences with “I believe that” is unnecessary and serves no purpose, but there has been nothing in the argument to suggest such a preface.

—Bruce Boice
New York, N.Y.

The strike of the Professional and Administrative Staff Association (PASTA) of The Museum of Modern Art ended on November 29, 1973, seven and a half weeks after it had begun, with the ratification of a new 29-month contract. Artforum readers received their December issue almost simultaneously with the conclusion of the strike. For those who wonder about the outcome, a brief statement about the provisions of the contract might be helpful.

The contract, which expires on November 30, 1975, calls for an immediate across-the-board wage increase of 11%, and an additional increase of 6% effective December 1, 1974, a minimum wage of $7,000 after one year of employment, and a substantial increase for Senior Conservators, whose salaries have lagged behind those of other professionals at the Museum.

In its first contract in 1971, PASTA achieved the right to appear before the Board of Trustees and meetings of its Committees “subject to the Director’s discretion regarding agenda pressures.” The new contract eliminates this restriction and provides for the advance disclosure of matters to be discussed so that PASTA representatives can better prepare themselves to make informed statements before the Board.

Those senior professionals in disputed titles have retained their right to PASTA membership, although the Association did not achieve the right to represent them in collective bargaining. We are determined to pursue further their right to coverage under the contract.

Although serious matters remain unresolved, additional benefits strengthen a contract which serves as a precedent for museum workers across the country. A significant result of the strike has been the formation of a museum workers’ association in the city of New York. Still in its formative stages, it includes representatives from the Brooklyn, Metropolitan, Whitney, Contemporary Crafts, American Museum of Natural History, as well as the Modern and other museums.

One additional note: contrary to the final statement in the December article that there was a real possibility of people trickling in, in the seven and one-half weeks of the strike not one member of the union went back to work. Perhaps the most important outcome of the strike is that PASTA has remained strong and unified.

—Joan M. Rabenau
Chairman, PASTA-MoMA
New York, N. Y.