PRINT April 1974



Forgive this belated contribution to your correspondence; my excuse is that it takes time for the magazine to filter out to the sticks. Some of my friends are still getting Artforum in their care parcels, and my attention was drawn (somewhat weakly) to your December issue only recently. But I really must come to the defense of Alloway, Coplans, and Collins—it can’t be true, as has been rumored here, that the snide New York reception of my Guggenheim show is a conspiracy organized by renegade Londoners. For, despite the prevailing verdict on British art, we can be thankful that British art critics certainly did “travel well.” It must be the purest of coincidences that the illustrations to New York reviews, in general, have given me the most curious impression of the worthier art mouthpieces spending so much time posing in the nude for lady artists that they get more time for introspection than for looking at the art.

More than one critic has referred to the inadequacy of my drawings, citing Picasso’s meninas as the clearest proof. This example, and it is true of almost every drawing I have made, is an exploration of a subject that was to be finally expressed in another medium (in this case an etching commissioned to honor Picasso’s 90th birthday). The “drawing” is a notation for a program of activity to be undertaken on a copper plate. Nor would I wish to question the “formal weakness” of a “study” for a painting, if it gets me where I want to go. So I have more sympathy with James Collins’ distaste for the paintings themselves: he just doesn’t like where I’ve gone, and doesn’t care that I’ve gone there because I am convinced that a preoccupation with formal values is (as much in New York as it was in the Paris so elegantly denied by Duchamp) a symptom of decadence.

An art student, when required to write about art, is continually beseeched to “read the literature.” Now nobody would insist that this is also the duty of an art critic; yet, since so much of James Collins’ article is concerned with the “writings,” it is unfortunate that he doesn’t appear to have done more than take a casual glance at a bibliography. Most of the questions itemized as “ignored . . . because ‘comparative methodology’ are dirty words in English art” have been discussed at embarrassing length by the very writers he refers to.

Lawrence Alloway is quite right to admonish James Collins in his letter in your January issue. As I have often felt compelled to mention, it is unfair to blame him for that indiscretion labeled as “British Pop Art.” Lawrence’s position in London in the late ’50s demonstrated a total commitment to New York Abstract Expressionism and hard-edge painting. He thought my paintings absurd, and was honest enough to telI me so. It wasn’t until he reached New York and discovered that he had invented “Pop” that he showed more than a passing interest. Alloway’s letter was much more informative than the article it sought to correct. In his innocence, the editor of the defunct Penguin New Art series had supposed that the reason no text arrived (in spite of frequent promises to fulfill his contractural obligation) was Lawrence’s chronic inability to produce copy on time. It was a risk he and I had decided to accept, though we knew that the trait was so ingrained that it once looked as if his first book, Nine Abstract Artists, slim as it was, might well be his last.

—Richard Hamilton
London, England

I don’t follow the reason for Richard Hamilton’s circuitous reference to my wife Sylvia Sleigh’s painting in which the models are several art critics, except to recognize an all too familiar tone of British male chauvinism. However, I can add something to his account of my nondelivery of a manuscript. Part of my difficulty was that when I originally agreed in principle to write on Richard, I proposed to deal with his iconography. First at The Hanover Gallery, then later at The Tate Gallery, Richard undertook to supply this information himself before the Penguin book came along. That left me rather at a loss since it was his use of his sources that fascinated me. For some reason, he preferred to preempt me.

—Lawrence Alloway
New York, N.Y.

As Lawrence’s editor, I have reason to know that Richard Hamilton’s allegation about his “chronic inability to produce copy on time” is simply not true. If my word does not convince Hamilton, it should be enough to consult Alloway’s bibliography. He is exceptionally productive where his interests are not interfered with.

—John Coplans

In catching up with art periodicals after a prolonged absence, I came across Bruce Boice’s review of Jakob Rosenberg’s book, On Quality in Art, (Artforum, October, 1973) published six years ago. It caused me to wonder if this was not simply an attempt by Boice to revive the “quality question” controversy which most of us (who opposed Boice) gave up last spring. If so, his choice of Rosenberg’s book as the field on which to reopen the engagement was unfortunate. It is true that Rosenberg did not settle once and for all a question that many of the world’s finest intellects have grappled with over the centuries. He did, however, make a valiant, disciplined, and valuable contribution to a better understanding of the problems of connoisseurship.

Max Kozloff’s letter raised important issues and Boice wisely refrained from answering it. However, his flippant answer to Joseph Masheck’s long and thoughtful letter was most disappointing. Masheck revealed a clear understanding of—and appreciation for—Rosenberg’s real contribution to scholarship as well as that of Roger de Piles, a much maligned and often misunderstood amateur. I will only add to Masheck’s words that I am unaware of any attempt by de Piles to add up points and rank artists by their scores according to his system. That has been done by later and less sensitive critics.

It is too bad that the Campbell’s soup analogy provided Boice with an opportunity to exercise his wit against an advertisement having little to do with the issue of esthetic value. To answer his own question regarding a hypothetical situation involving various responses to the soup, however, I would suggest that he and the other person who became sick after eating what others found good and nourishing should get to a doctor quickly since there is clearly something wrong with them. As for the person who simply dislikes the flavor, it would be a good idea to give himself a chance to develop a taste for what others enjoy. However, works of art are not canned soup. There is more involved in the response to a work of art than a simple reaction to flavor. This analogy will never be accurate, but it could be brought a little closer by substituting a fine bouillabaisse, or an elaborate meal by a great chef for the can of soup.

I do think that it is time now to stop walking around the question that Boice has never answered: how, exactly, does he, an art critic, decide which works to write about? From what he has written, he appears to be an extreme relativist. One of his predecessors, Anatole France, suggested that it was the duty of a good critic only to “recount the adventures of his soul among masterpieces.” But even that implies a judgment about which works are masterpieces. Mr. Boice seems to believe that his duty is simply to recount his feelings about things. Since he denies the validity of the concept of esthetic value, we would have to be extraordinarily interested in Bruce Boice’s feelings to take an interest in what he writes. Obviously he makes judgments; otherwise, as Masheck suggests, he would review art shows in Washington Square (and Miami Beach) along with everything else. If he can define his reasons for choosing some artists and their works to write about rather than others, perhaps we can make a start toward agreeing that values might have a broader base than the purely personal one he insists on. Human nature (whatever that may be), or the values of a sociocultural context just might have a determining influence on his personal values.

Another major problem seems to be confusion about whether those of us who do believe in esthetic value hold that works of art have value or are value. I am proposing that works of art are precisely esthetic value formulated. Their recognition as such increases the total scope of valuable human experience. Obviously I cannot take the space for an elaborate defense of this position here, and it is precisely an explanation of why we respond to such works as the embodiment of value that Boice says is lacking; and that, therefore, what we say about works of art refers not to them but to us. I agree that we cannot define esthetic value in precise and logical verbal statements; works of art are their own definition of value. However, we can discuss many of the elements contributing to the work as value. Formalistic analysis, recognition of meanings and feelings commonly associated with particular elements (colors, lines, etc.), detection of the appropriateness of technique to the end achieved, and constant comparisons of like objects are just a few of the means by which we become familiar with works of art, learn to “read” them, and finally recognize them as the embodiment of value.

Last spring I indicated that I would be interested in what certain experts had to say about Boice’s denial of esthetic value. He misunderstood this as an argument for value by consensus. Yet, I thought it would surely be clear from the names I listed that I knew that they would probably not agree. Naturally I did not expect their opinions to be revealed, as Boice seemed to suspect. I simply wanted to indicate that despite their often opposing positions, they (and I am almost certain Boice as well) would agree in rejecting the idea of absolute, eternal, a priori values. I don’t think that they would disagree that we are discussing subjective responses to certain kinds of objects when we discuss esthetic value. I expect they would disagree about which modern works of art are exceptionally valuable (esthetically) but that they would not deny the existence of value. And as I wrote earlier, history (that is, an accumulation over a period of time of informed opinion) will be the final judge. To answer the challenge he put to me at that time, I do believe it inconceivable that at any time in the future (provided opinions can be freely formed and expressed) art historians, critics, or curators will find Gerôme’s, Meissonier’s, or Cabanel’s paintings superior to Cézanne’s, Seurat’s, or Monet’s. I acknowledge that since I believe works of art are value, my position is somewhat paradoxical. There being no objective criteria by which to judge works of art, they are judged by the values that they themselves reveal. It is obviously an existentialist position then to hold that men invent values (both esthetical and ethical) and so invent themselves. The fact that esthetic values have no absolute existence and serve no obvious purpose does nothing to invalidate them. This idea is difficult to accept only when we are conditioned by a materialistic, mechanistic, pragmatic culture in which the major question in deciding something’s worth is “what is it good for?” Bluntly put, this is the question that Bruce Boice is asking about works of art. And being unable to find an answer, he has decided that esthetic value does not exist.

Edward B. Henning
Cleveland, Ohio

Perhaps I can clear up this question that seems to be of so much concern to so many: “how, exactly, does he, an art critic, decide which works to write about?” I reviewed the shows I reviewed because they were on a list given to me by the editors. My lists tended to have fewer shows on them than those of the other reviewers at that time because I tended to review everything assigned. To be quite honest, those shows on my lists but not reviewed were largely a matter of not feeling up to it. Nothing mysterious here. But the real question is whether responding one way or another entails a necessary judgment of that to which we respond. Liking a thing and judging it are not the same sort of events. A person does not decide to like something, but a judgment is a decision. The two terms seem to become synonymous in the confusion of insisting that what I like must therefore be good. But the fact that I prefer certain artworks to others, that I get ecstatic about certain works and not others, does not in any way imply that judgments have been made. If something makes me feel that terrific, why should I worry about whether it’s any good; to do so is to worry about whether I should feel terrific, which seems to me a pretty ridiculous thing to worry about. I don’t see any reason why anyone should be more interested in what I think than in what someone else thinks, but that’s really a question for the editors, or the readers, not for me. If I didn’t find my thoughts interesting, I would think something else. What anyone else thinks of my thoughts is of interest to me, but not a condition of my having those thoughts.

—Bruce Boice
New York, N.Y.

Lawrence Alloway’s unworthy review of my Paul Jenkins book (Artforum, February, 1974) may become a minor classic of dubious criticism. His piece is blatant defamation of another man’s reputation. Abusing the doctrine of fair comment, he calls the book “an obsequious plug for a friend.” While he cites no redeeming value in my book, I would say more for his review: the ill-natured ad hominem remarks are equaled by critical methods so questionable as to merit brief examination.

One of Alloway’s more irresponsible techniques might be called critical omissions. He writes that I did “not want anything to interrupt [my] continual flattery of Jenkins.” Alloway knows that there are several criticisms of Jenkins’ painting in the section “Author’s Inning” that should minimally qualify as “interruptions.” Their acknowledgment, however, would have embarrassed his insulting characterizations of the book. A second critical device that backfires on Alloway might be called his double damning: damn the author when he does, and damn him when he doesn’t. Withholding from the reader my frequent connection of the artist with nongreat figures, Alloway argues my unscholarly intention of enhancing the painter’s reputation by association with great men only. He belabors my reporting Jenkins’ uncontested influence by Jung and Goya. Would Alloway be happier if Jenkins had been influenced by Norman Vincent Peale and Maximilian Luce? To avoid what Alloway considers “immodesty” and at truth’s expense, artists should be warned that if influenced by great men they should not say so for publication. Despite his accusation of fame by association, Alloway then complains that there was no connection of Jenkins with a great tradition of Romantic painting and Thomas Cole!

A third insidious Alloway ploy is the cheap shot disguised as the unwarranted adjective, as when he sarcastically refers to the linkage of Jung and Jenkins as my implying a “meeting of great minds.” After criticizing my “evidentiary” methods, Alloway reveals that his own include that of the isolated focus. Years ago when I had little detailed knowledge of Jenkins’ history, Alloway’s insistence that Morris Louis’ Salient was crucial for the former’s signature style might have been appealing. Outraged by my silence on this picture, Alloway offers as sample proof Salient’s supposed resemblance to an ICEBERG reproduced by Jenkins next to his Jacob’s Pillow, a resemblance that may be left for the reader’s amusement to confirm or reject. Alloway accuses the author of “evading” and “smudging over” the question of Louis’ influence. The reader is not told that I have tried to show the differences as well as similarities in the art of these two men. The slow, complex evolution and spontaneous creative method of Jenkins discourages singling out individual pictures, but not artists for questions of influence. If Salient was so crucial for Jenkins in 1957, why did it take two years to show up? Alloway is silent on what happened in between. The reader can decide if and by whom evasion has been practiced.

Lastly there is Alloway’s stance of arrogant omniscience by which he flaunts the libel laws and ascribes unethical motives to the author with respect to what he sees as suppression of evidence. He writes, “What Elsen does not mention, because it would neither please the artist nor advance the work, is decalcomania. . . .” No reasonable alternative is credited the author. No proof for this defamatory accusation is forthcoming. Just why should a connection, if true, neither “advance” Jenkins’ work of the ’50s nor please this artist? As a historian my concern was to search for verifiable sources and “advancing” the work was irrelevant. If Alloway’s accusation were true, why then did I refer to Jenkins’ sources in such critically unfashionable artists as Kuniyoshi, Tobey, Wols, and the Tachist movement? Criticism of my book is welcome, but Alloway’s is a dismal model.

—Albert Elsen
Stanford, California

Here is a quotation from Elsen’s “Author’s Inning.” “Jenkins’ work is less impressive to me when one or more of the following things occur: when he has not worked over his color and allows a single hue to occupy a large area without modulation, tempering, or a mixture of some sort . . . when he is spendthrift and there are a lot of brilliant colors and compositional activities. . . .” However, Elsen adds, by way of consolation, that “when Jenkins connects, he makes some of the most beautiful paintings ever seen anywhere.” As I said, the association of Jenkins with great names was heady, but it isn’t a matter of substituting Norman Vincent Peale for Jung. The influence of Jung also needed to be discussed in the context of late Surrealism (decalcomania is a part of this, too). I thought, and still think, that stressing the “differences” of Jenkins and Louis gave too much to Jenkins. And I can’t understand why Elsen should think it odd that the Louis influence, which was rather far-reaching, was not immediately apparent. As I said, the effect of Louis was felt “between 1957 and 1959.” About decalcomania: I stated why I mentioned it and suggested why I thought Elsen might not have, and what he says here doesn’t change things.

—Lawrence Alloway
New York, N.Y.