PRINT March 1974



Carol Duncan’s article, “Virility and Domination in Early 20th-Century Vanguard Painting” (Artforum, December, 1973) mows down a lot of Brücke art with one ideological swipe—but misses the central point of much figure painting in the Brücke’s Fauve-like and primitivistic idioms. Ideology is fine as long as it doesn’t run counter to the facts.

1. Ideology: In Brücke art, the female model is “reduced to flesh,” and the masklike faces of Brücke models “deny the presence of a human consciousness.” Fact: Many early drawings and paintings by Kirchner, Heckel, and Pechstein portray the female nude as a lively companion. Couples pose together, gaze intently toward the same subjects (remember the old Freundschaftsporträt?). Even when the female is portrayed alone, as in Kirchner’s famous 1909–10 paintings of Fränzi and Marcella (Marcella, Moderna Museet, Stockholm), two adolescent girls the Brücke informally adopted, the model stares out with the penetrating intelligence of a seer, her body nobly erect and alert. While much of mature Brücke art relies on a masklike reformation of the human physiognomy, this was anything but a device for depersonalization—on the contrary, distinct models remain identifiable (Heckel’s colored woodcut Standing Fränzi) and warmly human; the mask is often used to heighten just those psychological qualities Duncan says the Brücke drained from their art.

2. Ideology: “In Kirchner’s Tower Room, Self-Portrait with Erna, 1913, another faceless nude stands obediently before the artist, whose intense desire may be read in the erect and flaming object before him.” Fact: This powerfully statuesque nude, actually a portrait of the artist’s lifelong common-law wife Erna (not Erma, as Duncan has it), is somewhat fashioned after African sculpture, a source of Brücke primitivism which Kirchner believed gave intense vitality and integrity to the human form. Far from being a mere object of his desire, Erna’s primitivized image became for Kirchner the very symbol of high art, removed from the humdrum of everyday life. She stands over him, gazing down and gesturing almost as if in command; he sits passively on the other side of the table, brush in hand, ready to receive inspiration from his modern-day goddess-muse. A more unequivocal example of reverence for the female form—here that of a particular individual—can scarcely be found in modern German art.

3. Ideology: Continuing Duncan’s horse-blinder tale of the male-as-intellect, female-as-body in Fauve and Brücke art, “Male bathers occasionally appear in the painting of this period, but nudity is normally a passive, semiconscious, female state.” Fact: Kirchner, Heckel, and Pechstein executed over 50 works at Lake Moritzburg, outside Dresden, 1909–11 (Pechstein: Freilicht, Willhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum, Duisburg; Kirchner: Nudes Playing Under a Tree, Professor Anselmino, Wuppertal; Heckel: Bathers in the Reeds, Düsseldorf Kunstmuseum) in which male and female bathers lounge around, wade in the water, play games, or (can you take it) hold hands. The mixed bathing group was for several years a major Brücke theme, culminating in Kirchner’s Fehmarn Island paintings, such as Striding into the Sea, Stuttgart Staatsgalerie, in which male and female nudes dance-step their way between waves and as latterday Adam and Eve in paradise.

To be sure, there are exotic, if not downright sexy nudes in Brücke art—in Kirchner’s work, in particular, one can find nearly anything you’re looking for, if only because of his broadly humanistic stance. A more complete picture of Brücke themes will come to light in an article, now in preparation, on the group’s common studio in Dresden and the outdoor bather pictures.

—Philip Larson
Minneapolis, Minnesota

No, ideology is never “fine,” especially if it is proclaimed unacknowledged or disguised as “facts.” “The penetrating intelligence of a seer,“ a “body nobly erect,” “warmly human” masklike faces, “reverence for the female form”—these arbitrary readings are offered as “facts.” Along with the barrage of irrelevant data Larson throws in to obscure the real .issue, they illustrate in detail exactly what I described in my article: the ideological rationalization of sexism.

Larson asks us to believe that to “revere” a woman as a “goddess-muse” or a “symbol of high art” is humanistic. Actually, humanists never took goddesses for more than allegories. Moreover, real people (female or male) are never lofty abstractions—no more than they are instances of purely physical or biological forces. To raise women above the human, even to revere them there, is to dehumanize them as much as it is to see them as inferior to men. In either case, they end up as objects of someone else’s consciousness rather than conscious subjects. Is it admirable to push people off a raft if you push them off the north, or upper, end rather than the south? Larson can no doubt document that Kirchner long regarded Erna in the high-sounding terms he evokes; but Kirchner’s is a “humanistic stance” only if one assumes that women are not human, i.e., possessed of subjectivity.

If Kirchner did value Erna’s presence as a subject, his supposed “portrayal” of her in Tower Room nowhere acknowledges it. That painting is a self-portrait, not a double portrait—unless you portray people as faceless bodies. I just can’t see a goddess there, let alone one almost in command. At best I see a projection of one into a naked woman whose existence is defined only in physical terms and merely through the eyes of her male companion. (Or does Larson believe in goddesses—did Kirchner, for that matter?) Larson imagines himself in Kirchner’s situation with evident ease. He reconstructs and relives his subjective experience. But you can’t do that with Erna, even if you can spell her name. Her image, as Kirchner fashioned it, precludes any such thought. Yet even to try is enlightening—because it’s so disconcerting: you have to try experiencing yourself as an object. I think that the expression of sexual desire or pleasure is “fine.” But it’s missing in one of the two occupants of the Tower Room.

Of course, I am aware that the ideas Larson articulates are, more or less, what I am supposed to see and think when confronted with Kirchner’s Tower Room and other images of its kind. The images themselves, along with the literature of art, urge such readings. Those messages, however, become highly ambivalent in a moral sense when one ceases to identify with the male artist. Indeed, the moment that one ceases to equate human consciousness exclusively with male consciousness, those elevated ideas about artistic inspiration and the ideal woman lose their authority (not to mention their solemnity). At that point, one recognizes them as mere props to authority: rationalizations that sanction the denial of someone else’s humanity. Larson speaks in defense of that authority and with its voice. He ignores or denounces as “ideology” any observations that threaten its credibility. He advances irrelevant or fanciful data to block and discredit any unauthorized examination of the material: that Brücke artists painted pictures of little girls or nudist scenes with males is evidently meant to cancel out the quantities of dehumanized female images they made—or is it to lessen their degree of dehumanization?

Is it really necessary for art historians to identify with and advocate the values of an artist they select for special study or to insist upon his noble or humanistic outlook? Any notion of humanism that makes cherished objects out of women or men in the name of art actually dehumanizes them. That Larson and other art historians can find a “broadly humanistic stance” in nudes like the one in Tower Room should alert us to the need to look critically at what passes for humanism in much art-historical literature. We have all been schooled to believe that true art is, if not morally good, at least not morally bad. We are supposed to think that it speaks in a sexless, classless voice and that it is spiritually beneficial to all human beings. That doctrine, too, is a ‘fact’—as long as the accepted culture enforces it as one. If we unmask it as the ideology it really is, we are not merely proposing alternative interpretations, but trying to change ‘facts’ such as this in the name of a reality which they oppress. Perhaps they ought not to be facts, after all, if they ever were.

—Carol Duncan
Los Angeles, California

Lawrence Alloway is understandably annoyed that I put him in the same bag as Richard Morphet and John Russell as a supporter of Richard Hamilton (Artforum, December, 1973). The problem is—irrespective of his intentions — the critic either by reviewing a number of artists’ work or by doing a monograph on one is in some sense endorsing their work, at least it has the effect of endorsing their work. I apologize to Mr. Alloway, however, for not making a clearer distinction between the intentions of his general review of U.K. Pop and Morphet’s and Russell’s rather more adulatory monographs on just Hamilton.

—James Collins
New York, N.Y.

It was no great revelation to find among the tangled verbiage of Artforum, December, 1973 a review of the Oakland Museum’s “A Period of Exploration: San Francisco 1945–50.“ Peter Plagens’ article, if one has the right to be critical of the critics, is a second-rate review. Even given the fact that the show and Mary Fuller McChesney’s book may have suffered from the lack of a New York stainless steel facade, slick paper, and push carts, Mr. Plagens is unbelievably naive and uninformed.

The point of the show was not, as Plagens would have you believe, that the West Coast and particularly Oakland is out to prove that New York is second best, second generation or whatever—everybody already knows that (even in the baseball world). The show’s purpose was not really to prove anything, but rather to expose the brief and very interesting period that brought some interesting people together. The period was unique, the people were unique, and the painting was unique. Terry St. John who put the show together did a good job of showing just that. Even your editor, John Coplans, suggested that such a show be put together in a letter to me two years ago—so why the big beef?

But regardless of the importance of the show, Mr. Plagens has his facts wrong again. The McChesney book didn’t help much along these lines for Mary is no literary genius, and her knowledge of the period is limited. She simply collected tapes of artists talking and edited them down—a far more honest approach to history telling than opinionating.

If I were not sick to death of such factual stupidity, I would never bother to write to you. But let us, for God’s sake, get it right “just once.” The scenario “that everybody knows” doesn’t goat all like Peter Plagens says it does. Cliff Still, for one thing, was teaching at Pullman, Washington (Washington State University) before he made a trip to San Francisco to get a show at the Legion of Honor. He made the trip without covering for himself at the school, got “called on the carpet” when he got back and quit. From this, he went down to San Francisco and stayed for several years. Sure he showed in New York before that, but he was West Coast. Rothko and Reinhardt had a different story, and made a different impact (a very shortened version of a fairly complex situation).

To my mind, Dave Park had much more influence on Diebenkorn, Bischoff, Lobdell, and Smith than any of the big three above and unlike Plagens who wasn’t there, I was. The trouble with so damn many of the articles written about the time is either that the critics have no eyes, or else they are so busy combing the nap to find the old familiar names, they are as bad as the old ladies in tennis shoes that only look for the name tags.

You know, Peter, the term “école du Pacifique” was not made up by any Bay Area painters. It came from Tapies in Paris who had an attraction for Sam Francis’ things, and this was long after there was any action in S.F.

What is sad, in my mind, is that no one who reviews the stuff done in S.F. between 1948–50 realizes that none of the good painters that came out of the period (and there are more than Plagens thinks, poor thing) ever gave a damn about making the kind of art that critics like. In fact, that was the very point of the reaction that led to the making of Bay Area art at the time. The energies that drove those involved into doing anything on canvas were because we felt that authorities, critics, artists, picture makers, magazines, etc. were all full of shit. That is why you will not get statements from many of us; it isn’t worth the trouble to correct you.

—George Stillman
Ellensburg, Washington

Although I respect Stillman’s sentiment as a decorated veteran of the San Francisco campaign, most of my “errors“ are inside his head, to wit:

1. I said only that the show tried to demonstrate that a “San Francisco School” existed, not that it proved New York “second best.”

2. My lack of honesty in “history telling” (compared to Mary McChesney’s tape compilation) is irrelevant, since I was only reviewing a show, not telling history.

3. Stillman’s detailing of Clyfford Still’s employment troubles in no way contradicts that Douglas McAgy arranged for Still, Rothko, and Reinhardt “to teach there (CSFA) for short periods.” I did not (repeat: did not) even imply anything about Still coming from New York.

4. McChesney and the Oakland Museum are the ones who think Still’s influence (compared to David Park’s) on Lobdell, Diebenkorn, Smith, and Bischoff was crucial; Stillman’s argument is with them, not me.

5. “God forbid“ was supposed to connote (not too forcefully, it seems) the dubiousness of the term école du Pacifique; nevertheless, it was bandied about in the ’50s, whether Tapies made it up or not.

6. Just because Stillman and colleagues thought the art establishment “full of shit,” doesn’t prove they all painted good paintings because of it.

But these things aren’t the real issue underlying Stillman’s letter; it’s that I found most of the stuff in the show pretty bad painting. The choices are: a) I wouldn’t know a good painting if one sat on my face (possible, possible), or b) Terry St. John picked the wrong pictures, or c) the work in the exhibition is, as a whole, weak, the uniqueness of the period and the people notwithstanding.

—Peter Plagens
Studio City, California