PRINT November 1974



The appearance of three antivideo essays in your June issue (by Kaprow, Smith, and Moore), totaling 4,000 words, signified a great deal more than they collectively stated. Serious critical attack is always welcome. But none of these essays rises above mere attack on the medium to assess the works––the videotapes––themselves, as products of the mind, not the camera. What your June issue simply means is this: that a body of work (I refuse to call it “video art”) built beyond the orthodox center of art-world thinking can no longer be ignored, even by those who know nothing about it or fear it.

To put it more bluntly: no serious criticism of art recorded on videotape will ever be written until the obsession with medium as end in itself––a legacy of formalism––is restrained. Roberta Smith (whom I should call “ Bobbie,” since she herself prefers informalities like “Doug”) is so blinded by what she thinks I believe about the medium, for example, that she could not see the work on view at Fischbach at all. The idea that Studies in Myself is a virtuoso display of “amazing technology” is patently ludicrous. There is nothing amazing about a camera and a typewriter, except to a Trobriand Island medicine man. Worse, there was evidence on hand of several kinds showing exactly where I stand on the issue of heavy video tek (which I despise, just for the record), beginning with the television set-turned-to-the-wall (1971) and the Everson Museum manifesto (1972), which states the point in old-fashioned words. She quotes the introduction to my documentary essay in your magazine (“Video Obscura,” 1972), but not the conclusion, wherein the immateriality of video––via swift transmission of images and concepts––is stressed.

Not that the worst sins in the June issue were committed against me. Kaprow and Moore, slaying far afield, hacked away at many artists and colleagues who barely fit the label “video artist” (neither do I). A broad, thin, and brief attack on a medium––to say it again––is not a substantive attack on anyone’s work, whether it occurs in videotape, latex, rope, paper, photostatic enlargement, or performance. Yes, of course, much, video activity is falsely experimental: so is the vast bulk of activity in any medium, including the pencil. What still remains is the difficult task of defining the essence of the activity that matters. No one has done this yet, least of all Kaprow, who is simply the reverse coin of the Global Village enthusiasts, particularly when he recommends his pet alternative to videotape, nothing other than “environmental (tapeless) video, the kind whose only product is the heightening of consciousness and . . . experience.” In brief, the Happening-cum-performance, invented 16 years ago by Kaprow himself, nominally to escape the conventional art-world structure. But the Happening never did, as we all know, while the videotape, wherever it begins, passes instantly and easily beyond that support system. On this ground––the only ground that matters to me––I would recommend videotape to Allan as a medium if I didn’t know that he is already energetically recording work upon it.

—Douglas Davis
New York, N.Y.

Douglas Davis would prefer studies in depth of video works (which I’ve done elsewhere) but when I wrote my article (“Video Art: Old Wine, New Bottle,” Artforum, June, 1974) I thought it was time to look at the forest instead of the trees.

What I perceived was mostly 19th-century utopian clichés, corny science fair displays, an art world still hopelessly limited by an exhibition mentality and, in the case of the popular video art tapes, a sustained confusion between a novel packaging device (the tape) and an art of the video medium.

As if to discredit my hard criticism, Davis points out that I am recording my own ephemeral works on video even as I take videotapes to task. Quite true. But videotape used as straightforward demonstration (as for example a tape showing the use of a lathe) or video used to document a person’s performance, is perfectly valid. Such a tape is an educational tool, as I consider my tapes to be, but is not necessarily video art.

Some tapes are, of course, interesting documents of theatrical performances, but that is not what I am speaking about. A precious few (I mentioned Acconci, Jonas, and Stoerchle) have something to do with video per se. And there is a larger group of tapes that emerge from the electronics of the medium––kaleidoscope shapes derived from animated films of the ’40s, Surrealistic images of faces and dancers distorted and overlapped by “special effects” gadgets and accompanied by ubiquitous rock music or synthesized Bach––but these are more appropriate to the pop entertainment world than to experimentation. In other words, I believe I’ve looked a lot closer than Douglas Davis might think.

The problem as I see it is that video art is logically sponsored by the art world––which by tradition is a goods-oriented market within a culture that is rapidly shifting to a service economy. While a TV set is sometimes a pretty object to look at and buy, video is a medium for communication. Exhibits of video environments or videotapes in galleries and museums emphasize the precious thing instead of the human event in process. For this reason my own activities take place outside of the sanctum sanctorum.

Thus, while Davis says that I haven’t been able for 16 years to entirely escape the conventions of an art support system which is indeed one of my clients, I have been able to persuade the system to support me in my peripheral role.

The art establishment is just about to enter the 20th century. It needs to be educated. Davis, as a writer and video artist, has at his disposal two powerful media to help bring that education about.

—Allan Kaprow
Pasadena, California

The following is in response to Dan Flavin’s letter in the September Artforum.
Dear Dan:
Please excuse the misunderstanding. In the future the asterisk will be
removed, although a notion of “exclusivity” isn’t implied by simply stating “represented. ” But since you bring it up, my sense of curiosity forces me to ask where in Italy those interested in your work can have contact with it. The thirty works of yours that I keep (and cherish) there for that purpose might be best placed elsewhere. I’m open to suggestions.

—Gian Enzo Sperone
New York, N.Y.


We protest the arrest by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation of Jean Toche and we demand that all legal charges against him be dropped. We state the following:

When Tony Shafrazi defaced Picasso’s Guernica at The Museum of Modern Art, he committed a deplorable act against artistic freedom, no matter what romantic motives may have inspired it. When the Guerilla Art Action Group on February 28, 1974, hailed that act, it committed a grave injustice against freedom in art.

No one has the right to unilaterally and arrogantly “join” another artist’s work. Tony Shafrazi has not “joined Picasso in a collaboration work,” as defined by the Guerilla Action Group; rather, he has attempted to suppress the artistic freedom of Picasso by infringing on the artist’s inviolate right to make a statement without censorship, altering, annexing or parasitic “joining.”

On the same February 28, 1974, Jean Toche issued a statement in the name of the Ad Hoc Artists Movement for Freedom, extolling the Shafrazi act. In a document full of pseudo-revolutionary bombast the group hailed the “freeing” of Guernica. The document even protested the cleaning of Guernica as an erasure of “the joint Shafrazi -Picasso political conceptual art work” and a “crime against freedom of expression and Artistic Freedom.” The letter also called for the kidnapping of museum trustees, directors, administrators, curators and benefactors.

On March 27, 1974, Jean Toche was arrested in his home by the FBI acting on a complaint of Douglas Dillon, President of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Though we condemn the senseless act of Shafrazi and the totalitarian logic of his defenders, we nevertheless demand that Jean Toche be freed of all legal charges.

The Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art must have known, as did the art world as a whole, that the call for kidnapping could not have been anything but symbolic in essence. It was made in a public letter, against an unspecified number of people of various categories. We believe that Mr. Dillon acted not against a real threat, but against a statement he must have understood to be metaphoric, in an act of vengeance against an artist who for years played a role in the antiwar movement and the movement for artists’ rights vis-à-vis the establishment and the museum hierarchies.

The arrest of Jean Toche was essentially a political act. It is in this sense we come to his defense as artists and art-workers in a common bond against a power structure which is acting as an enemy of freedom in art.

—Joyce Kozloff
Alice Neel
Yvonne Rainer
Corinne Robins
Salvatore Romano
Larry Rosing
Rudolf Baranik
Arnold Belkin
Louise Bourgeois
Allan D’Arcangelo
Hans Haacke
Phoebe Helman
Tom Wesselmann
Robert Wiegand
Joan Semmel
Jack Sonenberg
May Stevens
NewYork, N.Y.

Thank you Artforum (Robert Pincus-Witten particularly) for the somewhat sympathetic review in the April issue––not so much praising my work as the “moral impressiveness of the commitment.” After noting my inclusion in the 1926 Société Anonyme International Exhibition of Modern Art, and Alfred Barr’s watershed exhibition in 1936, “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism,” and having connected me with others of the proto or first generation of Abstract Expressionism, you say, “And, yet, we know nothing of Putnam.” Let me try, as briefly as possible, to tell you about my work––I’d like to place it vis-à-vis your critical stance.

Much has happened since 1923 when I turned “modern” and attempted to do “a Kandinsky.” Obviously a slow-comer, for only lately do I seem to be reaching maturity as a painter. Out of step with the times, my work was too modern for a while; then, when “abstractions” came “ in,” I was out––since sea, sea birds were recognizable. Followed: Pop and Op, Minimal, Hard-edge, et cetera! Living in the woods of Westchester, I faced the dilemma of how to get a showing.

Every critique of early shows spoke of my painting as “oriental,” not because of Eastern art influence but (I think) because of a devotion to Asian philosophies and religions. Nature-loving, quiet, sensitive, strong in design and essentially calligraphic, my painting flowed alongside, parallel to the “mainstream.” Rough waters at times: “to save my life” in 1937, using a big brush with black paint, I painted an appropriate word or two across a couple of dozen canvases, making “necessary” attachments to the frames, pencil sharpener, wire wastebasket, rope, beads, toilet seat, anything to lift this “object” out of the ordinary into the Universal. In this I succeeded, but later I saw that such desperate tactics were dictated by my limitations as a painter.

Abstract Expressionism (Action Painting) gave me a big lift. The fact that Pollock, Still, Rothko, de Kooning and the others did not “represent nature” was to me accidental, incidental––added little to their accomplishment. What meant so much to me was their insistence on immediacy––a state of mind, spontaneous-free-daring-caring-alert, wide open to intuition––beyond reason; an “approach” to a canvas so wholly alive that it could effect a change in the “self.” In the East, the prime need for a certain psychic attitude to create has always been known, but in the West it has only now been stressed.

For three years, I painted––working from a “feeling for form”––until something suggested water (the movement or light on it), then with a double vision for “form” and nature I continued––finally the shape-color of a bird (or more) appeared to “complete” the formal organization and finish the “seascape.” I didn’t want to do birds forever––fortunately the vibrant life of blue flags struck me (one morning by the pond); I sketched the swordlike leaves, fleur-de-lis blossoms––found I could paint from a drawing with equal spontaneity. Today, I use a sketch, work directly from nature––from memory or imagination––from an idea or story––or occasionally improvise from the color dabs squeezed on canvas from the ends of tubes.

I am excited by “painting,” and whatever “isms” have come along since Abstract Expressionism are to me not new but extensions, ramifications of Mondrian, Bauhaus, Dada, Surrealism, etc. and have more to do with design-decoration-plastics-architecture-engineering-sculpture-business-writing-science-life-magic-machinery than with painting. I have nothing against such manifestations––certainly expressions of these times, but I deny with my whole being that painting is dead.

Each art has its own field, special powers: painting is an “eye” art––seeing is helpful to understanding. Halfway between literature and music, this medium in this century has swung toward the latter––neglecting its most unique function. Nature representation in painting can interpret life in the language of myth with the utmost intensity and clarity. Science ascendant––the world’s mythological stories are supposed to have lost their relevance, but today, anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc. have come to recognize that read properly all myths (with individual twists and stresses) are telling the same story––man’s inner search, trials, findings: Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. Everywhere, always, the artist has mostly been busy vivifying, describing, picturing the spiritual adventures of mankind. Suddenly, all “hero” tales, religious legends, become poignantly alive––their meanings interpreted by one’s own understanding of the way of life. Painters again have a flood of rich content to work with––their canvases can once more support the whole gamut of experience in its spiritual-intellectual-emotional-physical fullness.

At adolescence––Tolstoy made me see the dire sickness of the world in every phase of human activity. After taking census in the slums of Moscow, he asks: WHAT IS TO BE DONE? These words weighted my youth. To have a medium to express a saving wisdom I must come to sometime, I practiced painting. In 1929, Mei Lan Fang with his Chinese opera came to New York––here was ART on a level I could never have dreamed. If this were so, then the culture and philosophy behind this performance must be interesting! The transcendent light that began to filter through to me then from acquaintance with the works of Lao-tse, Buddha, Basho and their like, I later realized was the same as that illuminating the words and example of Jesus––the dancing of Dervishes and Hasidic Jews, the customs and rites of American Indians (the instructions of Don Juan to Castaneda). Indeed!To become ever more porous, permeable to that light is my desire.

I have tried to tell in my way the same old story (not to persuade others so much as to convince myself): She-Wolf Pictograph, series of 19 paintings on theme of the “monomyth”; Sea Bird Saga, 11 lithographs with poem; Come Dance With Dragon, 24 paintings (metaphysical heroes); Miracle Enough (Beacon Press), books of drawings with haikulike words; Moby Dick Seen Again (in preparation), handlettered text with brush drawings––takes off from Melville’s masterpiece. The artist’s problem––keeping a balance between such subject matter and the formal demands of painting was ever present.

Abstract art is essentially puritanical––especially that making enigmatic, cryptic, morphological statements (limited to flat, primary color or no color, denying personal ideas, emotions and living brushstrokes). This “immaculate school” (so named by Milton Avery) calls for the cave, desert and mountaintop. Choosing the isolation of studio and self, turning back on nature and humanity, this inner way is traditional and legitimate. However––having found the treasure, we must (according to the monomyth) make our arduous way back to the village we left––share our wealth with neighbors.

Could time be ripe to reverse the trend (away from man-nature) begun by Cézanne, others––a reaction to the excessive pictorialism of their day, and return to the Western tradition (from Giotto) of painting the appearance-of-nature––three dimensions, natural light? This, without losing or lessening any of those amazing and precious insights, momentous technical-psychological achievements, due to the restless creativity of 20th-century masters. Perhaps the contemporary artist is prepared now (more specifically and directly) to again discover, support, and clothe the spiritual aspirations of mankind. The ultimate challenge may still be to paint an apple, substantiate a dream, sentiment, mood, idea––tell a story graphically clarifying some profound truth. As opposed to this hell of a world about us, isn’t there also quite obviously a rebirth of spiritual energy––vision burgeoning wanting expression in paint?

—Wallace Putnam
Yorktown Heights, N.Y.