PRINT September 1974



Re: “The Authoritarian Personality in Modern Art” by Max Kozloff, Artforum, May, 1974. If Mr. Kozloff doesn’t like art, why does he choose to write about it? He’d do better, I should think, writing about politics, or whatever, in Time. Or was it The Nation for which he used to write antimodernist reviews?’

If he must write about art, he ought not to willfully misunderstand what artists write—artistic absolutes are not political or social absolutes. Art is not democratic; as Reinhardt said, art is art. There are only pictures—or sculpture, buildings, etc. If Mondrian needed a Messianic dream to paint his pictures, then thank God he had it, but one mustn’t forget his liking for ordinary dancing.

The ethical basis of modernism lies in the hope that a new art will make a new man; that the power of art to act on our sensibility will dissuade us from seeking power through money or politics. I should have thought this was platitudinous, but there seem to be some who have missed the point, who insist on political solutions. Modern art promises an enriched existence, not a corrected one.

Near the end of his piece Kozloff states: “There is every justification, further, for an artist’s conceiving his art as self-sufficiently communicative . . .” as if this were some kind of disadvantage. It’s a disadvantage only for Kozloff, social scientists, political philosophers, and others who are uncomfortable when they are silent.

—Tom Killian
New York, N.Y.

I assume that pictures, etc., are not only transmitters of sensations but often allusions to different kinds of human conduct, about which their creators very naturally take sides. If Mr. Killian thinks my response to the moral vision of artists means that I don’t like art, he is wrong. The article at issue asked some hopefully pointed questions about the mixed-up conscience of the support system behind modern art. He rushed to the defense of that system by insisting “There are only pictures . . . etc.,” an argument not supportive of art at all, but actually a denigration of it. How odd that a reader who declares that “Modern art promises an enriched existence” should be angered by a writer who feels that “pictures” do have a consequence beyond themselves––in our ethical lives, to be exact. And if that consequence is not always flattering to artists, we only neutralize our powers of perception and judgment by blinding ourselves to the fact. If you put any positive moral value on the phenomenon of art, you must be prepared to admit that it can have, at any one time, a negative one. Mr. Killian is telling me that my intellectual, sensuous, and emotional experiences of art have no right to interact with my moral and political makeup. If only 1 could quarantine my moral and political faculties, whatever they may be, then, presumably, I can qualify as someone who likes art.

Interestingly, Mr. Killian himself indulges in politicking, despite his aversion to considering art as in the world. “The ethical basis of modernism,” he tells us, “lies in the hope that a new art will make a new man.” On the other hand, “Art is not democratic,” a political recognition if there ever was one. If I follow him, this “new man”—although surely Mr. Killian would be generous enough to include “the new woman”—is unlikely to be a democratic creature. Wherever did he get such notions? From looking at pictures, like the rest of us? Rather likely. From reading modern artists’ statements? Certainly. If one is going to argue, at least in part, from this understanding of artists’ rhetoric, then there has to be more to art than pictures, for words condition the way we look at them. The troubling problem I left hanging at the end of my piece had to do with relating the artists’ sentiments to their works. Obviously, since none of us are ignoring the literature by “modernists,” we must be doing something with it. Sure, artistic absolutes are not political absolutes. But they do indicate an authoritarian mentality which Mr. Killian himself concedes. My point is that you cannot use that mentality to defend “modernist esthetics” (“art is art”), and deny its relevance to that which you are defending. It’s not a very coherent attitude. Worse than that, it’s historically defective and intellectually self-defeating.

By the way, I wrote for The Nation, not Time.

—Max Kozloff
New York, N.Y.

Angela, hello again.
I don’t much want to write this letter but, then again, I sense that I should take exception and do so.

Where to begin? Well, I’ve been an artist long enough to have been through all sorts of formal and informal “art criticisms” about what I’ve thought to release as arts but somehow, I’ve never gotten used to them as personal “cheap shots” such as your reviewer, Lawrence Alloway, indulged in for your present issue [Artforum, May, 1974]. Let’s examine somewhat. Firstly, my brief and simple announcement description of what I intended to install in the recently refurbished rooms of Leo Castelli’s uptown operation didn’t seem to me to require his snide, stupid and inadequate “Translation” of it. Nor would this exposition of mine nor anyone else’s similarly put into a commercial gallery need to have its customary conditions of sale so obviously “put down” as such as, “Thus there is the big work, accompanied by small saleable items, an understandable though not a salutary mix.” What an astonishing summary recognition by the tireless veteran reviewer who has just had to put up with such gallery conduct before and now, once more. Of course, if Leo and I didn’t get together this way once again, advertise it variously, then, Alloway couldn’t show up to file another review after all for yet another paycheck really drawn off the publicly provided two of us through you all back at Artforum.

Since I’ve never noticed much published sympathy from Alloway for what I’ve been about, how could I—or even he really—expect his recognition of “innovation,” or the semblance of it from me now. What a phoney pretense on Alloway’s part to issue the obvious sarcasm and surrounding verbiage of, “The innovation, as I suppose it can be called, is the substitution of circular light fittings for tubular ones, used here, as in several recent shows.” (I’ve never seen fluorescent lamps for sale that weren’t tubular. Possibly, Alloway knows some about the equipment that I don’t.) But has this presumptuous reviewer actually presented himself to experience the “several recent shows” as he seems to indicate that he has? I don’t think so. I don’t believe that he went through the two floors of the Cologne Kunsthalle last winter or to the almost simultaneous Lisson Gallery exposition in London or the fairly recent one of the Greenberg Gallery in St. Louis or the several rooms of two retrospective expositions in the St. Louis Art Museum last year. But even if Alloway had only focused in and around New York, he might have noticed, within the small graphic review of proposals for circular fluorescent light which, on short notice, Leo graciously permitted me to place in one of his downtown rooms as a fortieth birthday present to myself early last spring, that the initial planning for the equipment had begun in 1963—hardly “innovative” mediumistically for 1974.

Alloway’s poorly observed report of “the big work” can’t be corrected here for this letter is too long already.

My letter to Leo, framed in the entrance way to the room of “the big work,” explained very briefly by two diagrams and some related texts why, of the two possible choices to test “the new, even walls,” I had decided to deploy cool white circular light on parallel walls. That letter did not, as Alloway stated, give “how to install” instructions. I doubt that he read carefully the letter so readily available before him. But after all, this published misconception of my installational procedure, simply apparently reveals that, from his unsympathetic critical distance, Alloway couldn’t—shouldn’t know better. Most of the rest of the review, the bulk of it, presumes vaguely to “capsule” chronologically loosely the course of my failing career with fluorescent light. But how, Mr. Alloway, could I fail significantly developmentally after proposing nothing much to begin with in 1963 or, say, even in 1961. Why not just leave altogether bad enough alone.

Once again, I can only understand that, as an artist of fluorescent light, I’ve enjoyed the better part. All Alloway can do is to wait to “critick” it however. I remember a Mike Nichols’ quote. Anyhow, to paraphrase it, a critic is like a eunuch at a “gang bang.” I don’t wish that I had said that but there’s another paltry “pop” for you, Lawrence Alloway.

Oh, by the way, Angela, as I’ve told you already, contrary to the continuing advertising in your magazine, Gian Enzo Sperone, however charming a lad he is, does definitely not represent me exclusively in Italy.

Angela, by now, I’ve just gone on and given you a few grievous moments toward another “hard day at the office.” I ought to owe you lunch—right?

—Dan [Flavin]
Garrison, N.Y.

I raised the matter of the “condition of sale” because Flavin’s statements and letters imply a holier-than-thou attitude which conflicts with the unusually blatant marketing arrangement of his exhibition. The giveaway in his letter is his complaint that he hasn’t read “much published sympathy” from me in the past so why am I writing about him now? His choice of term for art criticism, “published sympathy,” shows clearly the unctuous flattery that he expects art criticism to be.

Let me explain how I came to write about his show. Robert Pincus-Witten, who assigns reviews here, said that he was casting his reviewers “against the grain” that month. At the time I thought it was a dumb idea, but I see now, in the light of Flavin’s reaction, that he may have been into something. At least it has led to the interruption of one artist’s complacent expectation of laudatory reviews from Artforum. He has grounds for sanguine expectation in the past record of admiring critiques in this magazine. I can see that the interruption of these favors must have come as a bit of a shock to an artist who, to judge from his published opinions, has a streak of fat. His self-indulgent and congratulatory tone shows in his letter, as in his side reference to a work that “Leo [Castelli] graciously permitted me to place in one of his downtown rooms as a 40th birthday present to myself. . . .”

Typical of Flavin’s mix of humbleness and vanity is his pious loquacity concerning himself. Take his requirement of a critic’s briefing before one would be in a position to write about him: it comes on as a cry for justice but turns, as you read, into an account of his international exhibition schedule. The plea for fairness is a cover for self-promotion. Flavin’s condition that the whole of his letter be published shows exploitative egotism not candor. Notice that it includes a reminder to Italians that they don’t have to go to Sperone to buy his work. Also, he tries to reassert his claim of privilege on the editorial board of Artforum by declaring that it is time to take the managing editor to lunch, and it’s on him, Angela.

—Lawrence Alloway
New York, N.Y.

I’m sitting here watching my daughter jumping around in her inflatable rubber pool hoping she won’t splash water all over my notes. I’m trying to reflect upon Plagens’ article in the June Artforum; mostly I’m trying to understand my provincialism or my regionalism, either one of which sounds terribly inappropriate if not slightly bitter. It tends to raise questions about the abolition of class struggles, if not caste systems. I go away from the article saying, “Why struggle? The scenes too tough.” I guess that’s the attitude some people would like to establish or would prefer you to believe. But L.A.’s not at all like New York. So why judge it as if New York were the norm for the integrity of vanguard art? It’s almost as if self-realization isn’t the question anymore, it’s only the game that matters; ideals aren’t relevant, only making it counts. The grapevine is here but it’s a little slower; maybe it’s a sign that we should stop going through artists like we go through shoes. Someone once told me New York is like Disneyland, all crammed into one big lot. “Every time you look up you see 50 people.” I’ve worked at Disneyland and know the limits of the facade. There’s one way in and one way out with each ticket specifying the park’s lack of liability. The nicest thing about the Magic Kingdom is that you don’t have to go there to know it exists; it’s like a lighthouse always reminding you that it’s there.

I recall a lecture Plagens gave at Cal State, Fullerton, in which he expressed the opinion that New York was like a rain forest with everyone massed tightly together in close communication, while the West Coast, specifically the Southwest, was like a desert in which individual groups were cast as cacti spread out over a wide expanse, each watered separately. He implied communications could only be established if all the artists, out of desperation to emulate New York, could be compacted into one small area. He suggested that it be near Otis, close to downtown L.A. There is no nucleus to L.A. now. Maybe ten years ago there was, but to arbitrarily force one goes against the grain of natural selection.

We’ve had to deal with our being spread out for years, but then isn’t art a reflection of society and not an imitation of another? To put it in a more proper perspective would be to state that there are more New Yorkers in L.A. than there are Los Angelinos in New York. Our art may reflect historical references to the art of New York, but it is our relationship to our environment which separates it.

Wondering if it’s all worth it, is like rehashing arguments Manet had with Monet over Renoir. The truth is, it’s more metaphysical. Paranoia’s plagued mankind since we first raised our eyes, straightened our backs and walked erect. Prior to New York there was Paris and so on, but the Magic Kingdom’s still full of ticket-takers taking tickets even though the management’s had to faze-out several of the better rides.

L.A. isn’t New York’s bastard child. Its profile and blood type are different. It’s hotter here; to go anywhere requires a car; and almost all the architecture has only been erected in the last 20 years. This area has grown so fast that nobody is willing as yet to take it seriously, but we mean business. We’re the product of the last industrial revolution, the new generation, and we’ve got the depth necessary to achieve our own style of support system. Our struggle is for existence.

I jeer Disneyland because people take hours to get there on the freeways, stand in line for an equivalent lapse of time, joyfully hop into a miniature car and drive on a miniature freeway controlled by ride operators who are half-deaf from the high decibel rate of the miniature autos. When you leave this candy-coated worm’s egg you leave behind all its mirrored realities, its engineered dreams of future past, and you hopefully reflect upon the truth of how much is still left to do to wake people up. It’s not the art game that should concern the artists. It’s the importance of the artist’s role in society. Quitting is something our pioneer ancestors never took into account and, although the market is waning in L.A., it’ll pick up from its roots not by carpetbaggers stealing its genius but by its own prodigy. Our struggle is not in New York, but within ourselves, to create a support mechanism strong enough to nourish and bear fruit in this so-called desert encampment.

––Stephen J. Sotnick
Fullerton, California