PRINT March 1974

Artists as Writers, Part One: Inside Information

JACKSON POLLOCK WROTE OF HIS painting She-Wolf, 1943, that it “came into existence because I had to paint it. Any attempt on my part to say something about it, to attempt an explanation of the inexplicable could only destroy it.”1 The idea that the two systems of signs, one visual and one literary, are antithetical is not generally shared, however, to judge from the copious writings by artists that actually exist.2 To consider the genre, it is useful to assume a principle of coexpressibility, in which verbal and visual forms can be translated into one another with at least a partial fit. Unless this is done, we are not in a position to understand the relation of art and theory since the later 19th century, because from that time the literature of art has been dominated by artists, though the fact has not been sufficiently recognized.

It is worth noting that the use of artists’ statements is resisted by formalist art criticism. Clement Greenberg’s followers often observe the methodology of art history, but they cite only a small group of canonical works, starting with Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting” and closing with Michael Fried’s “Three American Painters” as a rule. The words of artists are not introduced as evidence because individual intentions and opinions count for little compared to the momentum ascribed to “modernist” art as an evolutionary line. At the very least, therefore, we can expect specific information from artists’ writings, of a kind resistant to premature historical simplification. However, I think that more than a sense of diversity can be derived from attending to what artists say and write, inasmuch as artist-originated information is in a privileged relation to the artworks that they produce. The fact that art and commentary issue from a single source gives such texts the status of inside information.

Artists’ writings serve as self-characterization by providing an index of specific traits and aims, in opposition to the homogenization produced by stylistic or thematic grouping. There is an increase in the connections between the work of art and the rest of the world. Obviously a work of art’s formal closure is an indispensable part of its visibility, but this is not dissolved by references to objects and ideas. On the contrary, the formality remains though not as an exclusive source of value. Art’s connection to referents constitutes a relationship that is not destructive of esthetic solidity. As cultural artifact the work has the capability of being applied to and being influenced by the rest of the culture, all that we share with the artist outside the Mallarméan process of “despotic polishing” from which we, as spectators, are excluded.3

20th-century artists have been and continue to be highly articulate, and in the first half of the century were responsible for numerous magazines. De Stijl, 1917–31, was edited by the artists of the movement and, of course, published pivotal articles by Mondrian and Van Doesburg. In the first issue Van Doesburg wrote: “This periodical hopes to make a contribution to the development of a new awareness of beauty. It wishes to make modern man receptive to what is new in the visual arts.”4 Thus an educative function is proposed: to provide a conceptual framework for the art being produced by the writers. Van Doesburg again: “this periodical will create a more intimate contact between artists and the public, between the practitioners of the different visual arts.”5 The single-source theory makes possible more intimate contact with the work of art, one in which the act of interpretation is legitimately expected to reduce the mystery of art. There can be no absolute concordance of production and consumption, but the spectator who is in possession of contextual information and, say, intimations of the artist’s intention is less likely to be directed by his own personal habits of attention and interpretation. Le Corbusier’s and Ozenfant’s L’Esprit Nouveau, 1920–27, carried their own articles as well as Léger’s, and it constitutes a file of essential documents, carrying intimate information (in Van Doesburg’s sense), accurate far beyond the capacity of any writer of the period. There was a well-founded lack of confidence among artists in what Van Doesburg called “public criticism,” by which is meant writing done reactively without being corrected by input from artists themselves. The definition of Neo-Plasticism and of Purism depends on the interpenetration of art and text, of visual object and literary statement. The texts were, until recently, half-forgotten, but later influential interpreters, such as Alfred H. Barr in Cubism and Abstract Art, 1936, did not move outside the limits placed on interpretation by the initiating artists. The texts continued to function as a constraint even when they were rarely consulted. It was not until the ’50s, with books like Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, 1960, that the verbal material was (1) brought forward openly, and (2) inspected critically, treated as symptom as well as law.

Both De Stijl and L’Esprit Nouveau were narrowly based, purposeful journals dedicated to the enhancement of a movement as well as to the dissemination of inside information. Abstraction–Création, Art Non-Figuratif, 1932–36, was more loosely organized on the basis of a general preference for abstract art over other styles, but the arguments issue from the artists who had a common membership in one exhibiting society. Even without a rigorous form of argument, statements as formulas of belief flourished; the impulse to organize seems natural to European artists between the wars. It is similar to the opposed movement Surrealism which was an essentially interdisciplinary movement in which the term “poet” was the highest praise that an artist could earn. The first magazine of, the movement, La Révolution Surréaliste, 1924–30, was followed by La Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution, 1930–33. The reproductions, the poetry, and the critical and expository articles form a complex texture of interchangeable parts as one channel crosses others reciprocally. The massive contemporaneous documentation of Surrealism, with each shift of emphasis signaled by Breton’s manifestos, continues to dominate the subsequent study of Surrealism, much in the same way as the magazine De Stijl preempted later criticism of that movement. The problem is to preserve the value of the documents without being paralyzed by their topicality. William Rubin’s visualist approach to Surrealism reduced this tyranny, but at the expense of the literary context, which is indispensable. Nicolas Calas’ forthcoming reevaluation of Surrealism, in terms of subsequent experiences, has yet to be published but will surely contribute to our liberation from the constraints of original, but now obsolescent texts. This is the difficulty of prompt and expert commentary by the artists themselves. We gain insight and. save time, but the authority of artist-originated statements can have an inhibitory effect. If a writer admires an artist he will tend to remain within the zone of meaning indicated as relevant by the artist. However, a work of art is not something that can be restricted to mean only what the artist knows he put into it. Its use by later generations of consumers, its variable interpretation, expands meaning beyond a simple end state that the artist can control.

Van Doesburg was quoted above to the effect that his magazine would facilitate contact “between the practitioners of the different visual arts,” meaning that painting and sculpture would be viewed as part of an architectural aggregate. In Surrealist publications painters and writers shared common motifs so that the visual and the verbal are presented in parallel or intersecting courses. (A comparable situation of coexpressibility is raised by Arp’s sculpture and poetry, which share a mutual iconography.) The course of art history and criticism in the United States, however, has been in opposition to possible interdisciplinary contacts of this sort. Emphasis has been placed on the autonomy of each art and on the self-sufficiency of the works within each art; internal syntactical properties have been examined at the expense of signifying functions. Thus, although parts of the writings of early modern artists are familiar, they tend to be fragmented. Mondrian, for instance, is well known for his theory of the purification of art, but mode of reduction has been abstracted from the urbanistic and reformist context of De Stijl as a whole which, in part, he certainly supported. Léger’s admiration for the machine and his definition of the human body as an object are known, but in isolation from the socialistic and working-class affiliations declared by the writings as a whole and by the contents of the magazines in which his articles originally appeared. Thus the original purpose and meaning of artists’ writings has been overestheticized at the expense of political ideas and historical concreteness. Visualist criticism of painting and sculpture can only proceed at the expense of contextual and comparative study. The recent flood of artists’ writings in America, first by Americans, recently by Europeans in translation, suggests not only another step in the Anglo-Saxonization of culture, but a revival of the idea of the work of art as a cultural product. That is to say, as an artifact in which both personal and historical style are present, not simply as kinds of shape, but as motifs, and in which modes of organization are themselves signifiers.

The emergence of Abstract Expressionism was documented from the beginning, though informally, by its originators. In New York from the late ’40s, verbal information was generated by artists, and passed on to other artists and to the public through public discussion, magazines, and catalogues. For example, a literary magazine, The Tiger’s Eye, 1947– 49, published important texts. by Gottlieb, Motherwell, Newman, and Rothko (Newman was, part of the time, an advisor). Starting slightly later, but overlapping in time was the discussion group which held regular Friday night lectures and panels, 1948–49, at the artist-run art school “Subjects of the Artist.” The school collapsed, but the forum was continued at Studio 35. Selections of discussions here in 1949–50 have been printed, and are an invaluable guide to both the details and the general climate in New York. A good sample exchange from the final sessions at Studio 35 is this:6

Reinhardt: An emphasis on geometry is an emphasis on the “known,” on order and knowledge.

Ferber: Why is geometry more clear than the use of swirling shapes?

Reinhardt: Let’s straighten out our terminology, if we can. Vagueness is a “romantic” value and clarity and “geometricity” are “classic” values.

De Kooning: I meant geometry in art. Geometry was against art—the beauty of the rectangle, I mean.

Moderator Lippold: This means that a rectangle is unclear?

De Kooning: Yes.

These meetings led to the Club, or Artist’s Club, founded in 1949, at which the emphasis shifted to Abstract art on a de Kooningesque base (even its broad coverage was de Kooningesque in its evasive complexity). Though subjects ranged widely, Newman and Rothko, and the esthetic that they represented, were not in evidence at the Club. The published form of selected evenings at the Club can be found in It Is, 1958–60, and in Art News.

Interesting ideas concerning the relation of past and present, indebted to de Kooning’s impacted historicism, characterized the discussion on the subject “Is Today’s Artist With or Against the Past?” at which the speakers included Hartigan, Kline, Mitchell, Rauschenberg, Reinhardt, Resnick, Vicente, and de Kooning himself. Another discussion, inconclusive but premonitory, dealt with the problem “Is There a New Academy?” at which the speakers included Dzubas, Ferren, Frankenthaler, Parker, Reinhardt, Resnick, and Tworkov.7 Despite the presence of Dzubas, Frankenthaler, Parker, and Rauschenberg, the artists represent overwhelmingly the short-lived de Kooningesque phase of second-generation Abstract Expressionism. For evidence of what the former contributors to The Tiger’s Eye were thinking about in the ’50s, it is necessary to look elsewhere, to, for instance, The Museum of Modern Art. The catalogues of “15 Americans,” 1952, (Baziotes, Rothko, Still) and “The New American Painting,” 1958, (Rothko, Still, and Newman) included statements, a form of data distribution that prospered in the ’50s. At the Whitney Museum, for example, “The New Decade,” 1955, “Young Americans 1957,” and “Nature In Abstraction,” 1958, consolidated the joining of words and work, a practice followed, on a broad base, at the University of Illinois at Urbana, in the (neglected) catalogues of its exhibition series “Contemporary American Painting and Sculpture.”

Prior to museum publications however was a significant number of gallery catalogues written by artists. Between 1944 and 1947 Newman wrote a group of brief, but seminal texts for the Betty Parsons Gallery. The subjects were Gottlieb, Ferber, and Stamos, and Pre-Columbian Stone Sculpture and Northwest Coast Indian Painting. The artists enabled him to put forward an emblematic image of man and nature, and the native arts led him to explore primitive art as the temporal equal of modern art. He conceived of a form of American art that was not abstract, in the geometric sense of the term, but the projection of a primal American identity. The fusion of “modernity” and the primitive in these catalogues is crucial to an understanding of the originality of American painting of the period. Related pieces of intimate writing by artists include Rothko on Still8 at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery, and Gottlieb on Gorky at the Kootz Gallery, 1950. There are sufficient examples of such writing to show that the intercommunications of artists were spilling over into public forms on a spontaneous rather than an organized basis. In fact, we approach here an important difference between European and American forms of commentary by artists.

The abundant writings of Hofmann and Albers point up the contrast. On the whole their publications have a pedagogic intention, designed to instruct, to advance art by teaching a better way of doing it. To this extent, they resemble the aims of the Bauhaus, whose books were published to support a prior idea, to fortify a position, as were the journals De Stijl and L’Esprit Moderne. It is not my intention to remove their contributions from the sphere of relevance to postwar American art, but Albers’ and Hofmann’s split allegiance is worth remarking. Here is an example of Hofmann’s prescience in an area that is close to later American painting, the relation of American art and Impressionism. I don’t know when this connection became general, but I heard it first in a lecture by Meyer Schapiro in 1956, at which he compared the allover and equal parts of a Pollock drip painting to the microstructure (Fritz Novotny’s phrase) of Impressionism. From this time on the comparison proliferated, but here is Hofmann in 1932:

The Impressionists, insofar as they had again attained the unity of light, led painting back to the two-dimensional in the picture plane, and they, insofar as they tried to simultaneously formulate the atmosphere and the spatial effectiveness by means of color, have impregnated their works with a transcendence which found expression in the transparency of the picture plane. Light forces itself into the picture plane in an illusionary manner and in the same manner flows out again from the illusionary depths of the picture plane.9

Hofmann’s and Albers’ construction of complete theoretical systems is rare in the United States, leaving aside sports such as John Graham. The three artists who have pursued such an aim are, probably, Barnett Newman, Robert Morris, and Robert Smithson, but even their ambitious work is informally presented compared to the theories of Albers and Hofmann. To find the reason for this we need to evaluate the kind of utterance that American postwar artists seemed to prefer. Basically they made statements.

A statement is defined (Random House Dictionary, unabridged) as “a communication or declaration in speech or writing, setting forth facts, particulars”; it is also “a single sentence or assertion.” In America the artist’s statement has developed into a specific mode. In this usage a statement is not an article, which is longer and more formally structured. A statement is taken to be a projection of the artist writing in the first person. We read a statement not because of its literary interest or intellectual argument, but because an artist has written it to indicate something. The authority of a statement derives from who is making it. With the contraction of the role of the writer as general intellectual, the artist, to a large extent, has taken the role of commentator on current values. The prestige of the statement, therefore, can be related to the high estimate that was put on artists in the 19th century, an estimate which they have been content to accept. The messianic potential of the statement as a form can be summarized in the celebrated quotation from Clyfford Still: “Let no man under-value the implications of this work or its power for life;—or for death, if it is misused.”10 Even without making such exalted claims for art, the statement does rest on the notion that the practice of art is particularly significant among human activities. Thus artists using the statement are free to write poems, summarize philosophies, predict the future, and dismiss the past. The statement as an exhilarating blend of aphorism and slogan has been used brilliantly by American artists. It was the standard form of It Is writers, where it was often called a “cahier leaf,” a foreignism which, I suppose, indicates some School of Paris influence at the heart of gestural Abstract Expressionism. Certainly some of the artists in It Is write in a style that seems influenced by, say, Georges Braque’s notebooks, which contain sentences like this: “Limited means produce new forms, inspire creativity, make a style. Progress in art does not consist in reducing limitations, but in knowing them better.”11 These two sentences obviously have a wide applicability: what they do is take the artist’s operational experience in working and apply it to a wider condition. The statement is a means of extending the studio into the world and making art a model of behavior.

A statement, therefore, is characterized by its refusal of length and its elasticity of form, as a few examples will demonstrate.12

Barnett Newman: There is a tendency to look at large pictures from a distance. The large pictures in this exhibition are intended to be seen from a short distance.

My year 4 moving forms, ice cream flowers
odors, fears
5 praise from a grandmother for a
mud pie lion
7 the found books of nude marble
women hidden by a school-
teaching methodist mother
Diana of the Ephesians
Egyptian embalmers and the se-
pulchral barge
the fight between the monster
Tiamet personification of
chaos darkness disorder evil and
Marduk god of light
where water is the parent of all
things — where universal
darkness reigns — where gods
have been forgotten
face illuminated by the sun and
the Babylonian hero wrestling the
tossing a bull
standing on a gryphon
the carrying of mud bricks by yoke
and cord
the dialectic of survival
everything I sought, seek
what I will die not finding

Hassel Smith: So much sense data?
So much ideas?
So much feelings?

What is the recipe?

I don’t paint by recipe.

Mark Rothko: I would sooner confer anthropomorphic attributes upon a stone, than dehumanize the slightest possibilities of consciousness.

William Baziotes: It is the mysterious that I love in painting. It is the stillness and the silence. I want my pictures to take effect very slowly, to obsess and to haunt.

The relevance of an artist’s writings to his own work may be oblique, as in Motherwell’s introduction to his edition of Arp’s On My Way,13 in which he discusses ways in which flat, freeish forms can be redolent of organic nature. The human analogues that Motherwell finds in Arp may be extrapolated to his own undulant vertical forms, the dominant motif of the Elegies to the Spanish Republic. These forms have been interpreted as references to taurine pudenda, but this reading is surely a pseudohieroglyph. They are more easily seen as generalized unisex torsos, and Arp’s biomorphism, as recounted by Motherwell, facilitates this view. Motherwell’s role in the verbalization of art in New York is of central importance. From 1944 to 1951 he edited The Documents of Modern Art, including books by Arp, Ernst, Kandinsky, and Mondrian, and the series culminates in his own unsurpassed anthology The Dada Painters and Poets. These books placed in the hands of American artists key documents by important early modern artists. Though the American artists wrote in another way, the fact that they felt impelled to clarify their positions verbally may well have been influenced by the Documents.

The roles of artists as writers are varied. There are the statements made on behalf of one’s own art and those about a friend or colleague, which often have the intimacy of first-person writing. There is, too, the artist as art critic, fulfilling the set tasks of the writing profession. The outstanding example of this practice is Robert Goodnough’s criticism as it appeared in Art News in the early ’50s, when he wrote early, studio-based accounts of Pollock and Kline which are central to the study of each artist.14 Fairfield Porter in Art News and, for a brief period, in The Nation brought the attention of a Realist painter to bear on a wide range of subjects but with special effect on other realists. For instance, he wrote of Morandi: “Part of the quietness of his painting seems to come from his having thought about the question of the least number of things in a class necessary for a sample of diversity.”15 One of the ideas that changed in postwar art was the evolution of Cézanne from being regarded as a classicizing geometrician to a nervous individual. In 1959 Porter declared the newer view when he praised Cézanne for “the skill of combining a new understanding of uncertainty (the quiver of broken color and the elusive contour) with the insistent emotion of his contour line.”16 And this item needs to be taken in relation to, say, Guston’s familiarity with Merleau-Ponty’s article on Cézanne, which was available early in English translation. The opinions of artists can have an evidential value concerning the level of knowledge and the focus of interest at specific moments.

Another artist who doubled as art critic was Don Judd, who wrote for Arts in the early ’60s. He specialized in looking for nonreferential sculpture, but was often forced to write about art that had only potential object-status. Referring to Noland and Reinhardt, Judd condones the fact that “the shapes and surface are only those which can occur plausibly within and on a rectangular plane”; “all the parts and the whole shape are coextensive.”17 However, “the image within the rectangle is obviously a relic of pictured objects in their space. This arrangement . . . has to go entirely.”18 Judd’s dogmatism reveals the fact that he is taking a theory that supports his own sculpture, applying it to other people’s work, and showing up their inadequacies. Walter D. Bannard (the painter Darby Bannard) writes out of a comparable unifying impulse. Prejudice is, of course, one of the risks when an artist writes not in the first person but about his colleagues and competitors on a professional basis. We can set against Judd, Stella’s comments on concreteness of which Judd takes no account.

I used to say that, after all, a painting is only an object—not meaning that it’s just any object. It is a special kind of object—one that’s intended to be a painting. My position was a reaction to the high-flown rhetoric of the ’50s, but my reasoning got . . . abbreviated.19

Incidentally this quotation will serve as an example of the neglect of interviews which characterizes art criticism. Much of the first-hand information gathered in interviews has not been used interpretatively because writers tend to do a new interview rather than examine existing ones. However, considering that there is not much intimate (Van Doesburg’s sense) information about Stella, it is odd that his subtle appreciation of art as an object of a special kind should not be better known.

The role of photography is relevant in relation to the expansion of the literature of art. Since the late 19th century photography has aided in the identification of work by facilitating comparison, but in the ’30s a new usage was found. Matisse’s paintings were photographed and reproduced in successive states; information about process and artistic decision was thus given objective status. Previously it was possible to deduce the progression of a work from the separate studies for it and from analysis of the closed skin of the finished work, but with photography earlier states of the work itself were given. The documentation of Guernica by Dora Maar in 1937 carried this procedure to a further point of thoroughness, in which revisions could be seen as existential acts, not merely as pentimenti—fossils in the completed work. An unnoticed consequence of the proliferation of illustrated books and magazines, beyond the inventory of diverse artists and styles, was a new degree of intimacy with the work process, which is also the thought process to a considerable extent, of artists. The public received preliminary access to the sphere of “despotic polishing,” equivalent to the effect of the publication of variants in poets’ manuscripts. In the United States, this approach led to Art News’ series “So-and-so Paints a Picture,” in which a writer and a photographer cooperate to chart the development of a single work by an artist. The method has its abuses and some of the evolutionary lines traced in these articles were falsified, but the occasional deceptions do nothing to impair the usefulness of this approach. After all, the series includes not only Goodnough on Pollock and Kline, but also Thomas B. Hess on de Kooning’s Woman 1, the best of his writings on this painter.20 The reaction of American artists to this expanded coverage was to try and control it rather than withdraw from it on the lines of Pollock’s declaration. There is a shift here, of course, from the documentation of process to the emergence of the artist as a performer. The ratio shifts between these two factors, for certainly the presence of the artist himself, in the present moment as opposed to the record of past decisions, makes public the former privacy of the artist’s life.

Linked to the iconography of the artist in the studio (which would make a fascinating study) is the use of the interview. This developed to a considerable level between the wars, as in Matisse’s conversations with E. Tériade in 1929–30. These wide-ranging discourses are alive with Matisse’s sharp observations. Of New York he noted: “the sky begins after the 10th story, because the stonework is already eaten up by light. The light and its reflections take the materiality from the buildings.”21 And on Tahiti: “Gauguin left as a rebel. That’s what kept him [alive] in this ambiance which liquifies you, as is said there. His combative character, his sense of being crucified, preserved him from the general torpor.’’22 In other interviews, however, Matisse is often repetitive, saying in the flow of conversation points made earlier that had become habitual. This is, of course, a limitation of oral communication with its mnemonic patterns uncorrected by afterthoughts. Once an artist is famous the collection of his ideas and opinions is irresistible, even when, as in the case of Picasso, the remarks are mostly truistic or vain. On the other hand, since the interview form is journalistic in origin, it has expanded the sources of first-person statement beyond conventional art resources. The best comment on de Kooning’s big-brush “landscape” paintings of the later ’50s, by the artist, was in Time: “I have to do it fast. It’s not like poker, where you can build up to a straight flush or something. It’s like throwing dice. I can’t save anything.”23 Any study of artists as writers must allow for artists as respondents in a wide range of interviews.

Pop artists were an informal group, without manifestos or a common program, and without the Abstract Expressionists’ attachment to the pathos of myth or the anguish of existentialism. It seems appropriate, therefore, that the first statements by the artists were in the form of interviews, elicited externally, that is to say. (Oldenburg’s writings were not known, but he had written a great deal of poetry by the time he was associated with Pop art.) John Coplans interviewed Lichtenstein, and G. R. Swenson interviewed Dine, Steven Durkee, Indiana, Johns, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Warhol, and Wesselmann. This is the first time that the verbal definition of a new tendency (an art that was neither Abstract nor Realist) was performed entirely by interview. Such sessions had never before scooped the other methods of communication, but from the early ’60s, with tape recorders taking the place of stenographers or the writer’s memory, oral records proliferated. The advantage of the interview, in addition to supplying inside information, is its authenticity, guaranteed by the artist’s contribution. Hence the writer/interviewer is spared the act of evaluating what he gets. This is satisfactory to many artists who thus appear in interview situations that they dominate, in isolation from stylistic comparison and group affiliations. The world of the interview is that of the perpetual monograph, without summarizing decisions involving analysis or speculation (as can be seen in Avalanche).

The quantity of writings by artists is enormous and though detailed bibliographies are normal in catalogues, omissions are frequent and errors are often perpetuated. There are two causes of bibliographical weakness: (1) overreliance on the artist, the artist’s widow, or the artist’s scrapbooks; and (2) overreliance on a concept of bibliography as diligent methodology rather than as prior control and knowledge of the field. In the first case, information is often patchy and covertly edited, either by lapses of memory or in malice; in the second case, information is collected but not read. Here is an example, chosen at random, of a missing piece of data. The bibliography of a Philip Pearlstein catalogue is described as “selected,” but this does not really justify the omission of a piece that the artist wrote about his landscapes in Scrap, an obscure source but an important one. The subject is rocks:

When I first started to paint them they were nothing more than interesting forms, abstract enough to allow freedom in developing paintings, and with the same self-contained character that still life has as subject matter. However I soon became a connoisseur of neurotic rocks, an involved sympathetic spectator of the quivering of ancient frustrations; the act of drawing their portraits became the dissection of dying nerves.24

The importance of this early statement (1961) is that it locates the change in his art not in his switch from landscape to figure, but in the difference between one kind of landscape painting and another. The point is: both Scrap and Time have to be included in the bibliographer’s focus.

Every form of communication has its limits and, in the case of artists’ statements, it is the risk that early comments will be stretched to characterize their later work. The criticism of Rothko, for instance, has never recovered from his early remark that art should be “tragic and timeless.” This now resembles a commercial slogan more than a declaration of belief, because a really successful statement has the effect of freezing interpretation. What is “tragic and timeless,” for instance, about Rothko’s high-keyed paintings of the ’40s? Personally I regard them as among his best work. Another example is Andy Warhol’s recorded wish to be like a machine, which has been repeated by all his critics, both favorable and unfavorable. In fact, like Warhol’s other statements, it is false; it was not written or spoken by somebody else as sometimes, but it is a fragment of an evening’s surreptitious recording at which Gene Swenson, with the help of David Bourdon, led Warhol on to talk without telling him the purpose. Thus, to say the least, the remark is out of context, edited to confer on it a spurious resonance. Another statement that has been turned from tough aphorism to cliche is Rauschenberg’s dictum about acting in “the gap between art and life.”25 Written at a time when Abstract art was dominant, the introduction of “life“ as one of the artist’s concerns made a point, but this is no longer the case. What we need is a reevaluation of what this enigmatic sentence might mean now. Here then are three cases in which the authority that artists’ statements carry with them has blocked rather than facilitated discussion.

Lawrence Alloway



1. Jackson Pollock, quoted in Sidney Janis, Abstract and Surrealist Art in America, New York, 1944.

2. Artists’ writings can be traced back to the origination of the senseof personal creation by artists in the 15th century, for example Ghiberti’s Commentary and Alberti’s Treatise on Painting. In the 16th century , Leonardo’s notes and his plans for publication of sections of them, such as the comparison of the arts, is a characteristic blend of personal and systematic interests. The first questionnaire in the history of art dates from the 16th century, when Benedetto Varchi asked artists their opinions on the status of the different arts (Michelangelo and Bronzino were among his respondents). In the 17th century, letters (Rubens’, Poussin’s) and books by artists(Charles Ie Brun’s on physiognomy, for instance) grow numerically. In the 18th century, Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty and Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses typify independent system building and intelligent conformity respectively. Diderot’s comments on Falconet’s sculpture in one of his Salons were answered promptly by the artist, so that there is a confrontation of artist and writer even in the case of the founder of modern art criticism. In the 19th century memoirs (for instance, Holman Hunt’s and Gauguin’s) and letters (Pissarro’s and Van Gogh’s among others) are numerous. This writing was done neither as technical advice nor prescriptive formula, but in terms of personal experience and theoretical inquiry. It clearly accompanies the development of artists away from a repetitive guild structure and toward and into an area of individual enterprise and personal expression. As the traditional sanctions of church and state weakened, the necessity for unique inquiry into the meaning of art by the artists themselves increased.

3. Even the consumer’s exclusion from process is no longer absolute, given the documentation of the creative process that now abounds. Indeed, with the theory of Action Painting, process officially became subject matter.

4. Theo van Doesburg, in H. L. C. Jaffe, De Stijl, New York, 1970, p. 10.

5. Ibid.

6. Modern Artists in America, edited by Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt, New York, 1951, p. 19.

7. “Is Today’s Artist With or Against the Past?” Art News, June-September, 1958; “Is There a New Academy?” Art News, June-September, 1959.

8. Reprinted in my “Residual Sign Systems in Abstract Expressionism,” Artforum, November, 1973.

9. Hans Hofmann, “Plastic Creation,” translated by Ludwig Sander The League Magazine (The Art Students League), Winter , 1932–33. I am quoting from a typescript.

10. Clyfford Still, Paintings by Clyfford Still, The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1959.

11. Georges Braque, Illustrated Notebooks, 1917–35, translated by Stanley Applebaum, New York, 1971, p. 33.

12. Barnett Newman, typescript, Betty Parsons Gallery, 1951. David Smith, Possibilities 1, Winter 1947/8, edited by Robert Motherwell, et al., New York, p. 25. Hassel Smith, The Artists View, 1, San Francisco, July, 1952. Mark Rothko, “Statement,” Personal Statement 1945, David C. Porter Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1950. William Baziotes, “Statement,” It Is, no. 4, Autumn, 1959, p. 11.

13. Hans Arp, On My Way, New York, 1948.

14. Robert Goodnough, “Jackson Pollock Paints a Picture,” Art News, May, 1951, and “Franz Kline Paintsa Picture,” Art News, December, 1952.

15. Fairfield Porter, “Art,” The Nation, January 21, 1961, p. 68.

16. Fairfield Porter, “Art,” The Nation, November 28, 1959, p.406.

17. Don Judd, in William C. Agee, Don Judd, The Whitney Museum of American Art, 1968, pp. 11, 14.

18. Ibid., p. 10.

19. Bruce Glaser, “Questions to Stella and Judd,” WBAI broadcast in 1964, edited by Lucy R. Lippard, in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art, New York, 1968, pp. 148-64. One of a number of very informative interviews by Glaser. Another is “Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Warhol: a Discussion,” WBAI broadcast in 1964, reprinted in John Coplans, ed., Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, pp. 55–65.

20. Thomas B. Hess, “Willem de Kooning Paints a Picture,” Art News, March, 1953.

21. Jack D. Flam, Matisse on Art, New York, 1973, p. 62.

22. Ibid., p. 61.

23. Willem de Kooning, Time, May 18, 1959.

24. Scrap 6, New York, April 19, 1961.

25. Rauschenberg is responsible for three other statements that have received curiously little notice: an interview with André Parinaud in Arts, no. 821, May 10, 1961, p. 18; “Random Order,” Location 1, 1, 1963, pp. 27-31; and a piece on Oyvind Fahlstrom written for a Galerie Rive Droite catalogue and reprinted in Art and Literature, 3, 1964, p. 219. These have not had their due effect on Rauschenberg criticism. In particular, the idea of “random order” seems to obviate the need for Leo Steinberg’s theory of the “flatbed picture plane.”