PRINT May 1974



In Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Weekend, there is dialogue between Corinne (Mireille Darc) and Joseph (Daniel Pommereulle) as follows:

JOSEPH: Very well. Tell me your name, Madame.

CORRINE surprised: My name’s Corinne Durand.

JOSEPH: No it isn’t. That’s your husband’s name. What’s yours?

CORINNE: My maiden name is Corinne Vitron.

JOSEPH: No, that’s your father’s name. What’s yours?

CORINNE shrugging: What? . . . My name? . . . Well, I . . .

When I married, I took my husband’s surname. This was the year 1954. I had begun the journey out of my father’s house years before that.

Over the years, I have often thought about the “problem” of surnames for women. At one point of my heightened consciousness, I considered calling myself Shirley X (for X-chromosome), but then I thought: “Aha, it will turn out I’m merely taking Malcolm’s name.” Applying some wisdom I had picked up during the above mentioned journey (still going on), I realized I could not solve problems for all womankind; I would simply have to find a solution which worked best for one woman, me, Shirley Soifer. SHIRLEY SOFFER. As I said these last two words to myself, I realized how comfortable I felt with my 20-year old surname, how vitally much a part of me it was, and that I, too, had given the name a history, or rather, a herstory. Indeed, I helped to shape the name; my life, my name, my essential presence—all seemed both intertwined and unified.

You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when I read Annette Michelson’s article in the February Artforum, “Yvonne Rainer, Part Two: ‘Lives of Performers’” and found that Michelson had liberated me from my surname. Jes’ plain Shirley is mentioned 15 times (I counted.) My semiradical past was coming back to haunt me. I found myself in the third world of dogs, children, and domestic servants. The great invisible unwashed was I, rubbed in (rubbed out?) 15 times.

Lumpen proletariats of the art world, unite! Freedom is another word for nothing left to lose but your surnames!

— Shirley Soffee, née Friedman
New York, N.Y.

Lucy Lippard’s interview with Charles Simonds, “Microcosm to Macrocosm/Fantasy World to Real World” (Artforum, February, 1974) raises many serious questions. I do not wish to concern myself with the esthetic positions of Simonds’ various projects, except to say that “No, Virginia, I do not believe in the ‘little people.’ ” I am more concerned about and deeply disturbed by Simonds’ patronizing attitude toward art and the people who make art, his superficial approach to poverty, injustice, human suffering, and his convenient interpretation of the work and ideas of the late Robert Smithson.

To begin with, he doesn’t see “any reason to leave behind ‘things’ which lose their meaning in time, or even exist as a symbol of meaning at a given time past.” And “It’s insanity to exist only within four white walls and a sociological framework confined to narrow commodities and values.” As I gaze at the photograph of his Project Uphill I can’t help but notice that Simonds is planning to leave behind a rather large “thing.” He has disdain for art and galleries, yet he has no qualms about placing his “things” between the covers of one of our leading art magazines. An art magazine can very easily be seen as a sort of portable exhibition space, whose existence depends in part on the revenue it gets from commercial galleries who take out advertisements for a lot of “white walls.” Simonds’ sentiments are strong, and I wish he had thought about them a little longer before he spoke into the tape-recorder or that Lippard or somebody had done a “Rosemary Woods.”

Simonds considers the art world to be a prison. From my cell he seems to be a very willing prisoner. His politics are a combination of Ayn Rand and Frank Capra, with a dash of the old Art Workers Coalition thrown in for good measure. This sort of cheap liberalism and silly idealism really pisses me off. If I’m not mistaken, the Lower East Side is predominantly Puerto Rican. It is a desperate area where the residents live at the extremes of poverty and depression. For Simonds to visit the slums for a few hours a day to give the “peasants” art that for various reasons they may not want is disgusting.

Simonds says that he has “been working with the Lower East Side Coalition for Human Housing and the community on East 2nd Street designing a park-playlot” whose construction will begin in the spring. He does not offer valuable information concerning who is actually paying for this project and how much money it will cost. I would also like to know who gave the go ahead for this project. Was it the bureaucracy of the city or the community?

It is curious that the Lower East SideCoalition did not nominate someone who lives in the “immediate area” to design the park. Surely there are capable Puerto Rican architects and designers who could have come up with something more pertinent to the community than a series of hill-like sculptures. Parks are a good idea, but so are vacant lots if the residents of an area want them.

It appears to me that Simonds wants to turn New York City into the vast swamp that it once was. If he desires more land around him, then he should leave the city, because the city is not going to go away. Simonds is forgetting that a lot of people like living here. Those vest-pocket parks, which he refers to as “stage backdrops or dead ends” are to a large segment of this city a very real respite. They are as valuable to the neighborhoods they are located in as he considers his Project Uphill to be to the residents of the Lower East Side.

He also makes the following statement: “The city has to do with a concept of nature that exploits, pictorializes, steps outside of nature and tries to superimpose on it both an abstract ideal of ‘good design’ and/or short-sighted capitalism.” An extraordinary example of duplistic verbalism. This sort of sloppy phraseology can be found throughout this interview. Contrary to what Simonds says, vacant space on the Lower East Side does not represent a kind of devastation of the earth similar to a strip mine. This statement is a good example of an unimaginative reading of what Robert Smithson was concerned with. He is trying to get support from a dead artist. This is upsetting especially since Smithson was a good friend of mine.

As Les Levine once said “There’s only one thing better than a good artist and that’s a dead artist.” If Bob were alive today, I doubt very much if he would go along with Simonds’ thinking about unproductive land. He would, like myself, have preferred the dead dog in the lot, than the-park that will unfortunately fill up that space. It’s true that Smithson was very interested in devastation, as I am, but he was not interested in disguising it with whimsical little fantasies, like Simonds’. Smithson would have called it “Fun and Games.”

If Simonds is going to feed off the complicated ideas and theories of Robert Smithson, then I suggest he read up on them, and stop giving us back distorted readings of the texts. He can begin with Bob’s statement called “Cultural Confinement” (Artforum, October, 1972).

In closing I would just like to add that I find most public projects that the city and well-meaning “designers” propose—and much too often get to carry out—ultimately condescending and insulting to the people who are forced to live with them. As far as I can tell from the information given on Project Uphill, it will be no better than previous projects of this sort.

—Ira Joel Haber
New York, N.Y.

Project Uphill developed out of the joint energies and interests of myself and individual residents of 2nd Street whom I met while working there; then out of the Association of Community Service Centers, Mobilization for Youth Legal Services, and the Lower East Side Coalition for Human Housing (of which I am a member), all located on the same block as the park. To summarize the complicated and lengthy process that ensued: The project was then proposed to the City Playlots Program, the Parks Council, and the Borough President’s Office, all of which jointly helped secure the lot from the Department of Real Estate through the Site Selection Board. So far, the organizations that are contributing to the funding and construction are: National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Play-lots Program, Parks Council’s Matching Basis Urban Improvement Program.

Bob Smithson can speak for himself.

––Charles Simonds
New York, N.Y.

To Whom It May Concern:
Charles Simonds’ project for the Lower East Side is an excellent step forward in park development. His art has developed out of a community consciousness and his own carefully worked out sense of land use. The undulating hills that make up the park, provide a ground for neighborhood involvement. The hilly elevations would increase the scale of the site. This, in turn, would widen the scope of those who live around it. He replaces the isolating impositions of arty architectural parks (those groundless playpens that dot the city), with a democratic landscape that relates to the needs of the people. It is not hard to understand why the local people are already so enthusiastic about this project. The Parks Department could learn a lot from such an enterprise.

I therefore feel that Charles Simonds should be provided with funds to complete this much needed project.

Robert Smithson
799 Greenwich St.
New York, N.Y., 10014
June 13, 1973