PRINT November 1975



In reference to Max Kozloff’s piece on critics’ abandonment of painting, I think it’s time to admit that painters have some responsibility for that position on the part of critics. It is time to admit that: Sheldon Nodelman and Leo Steinberg are right in stating that objecthood is the fundamental cultural content of ’60s art, that objecthood is an idea better suited to Minimal sculpture than Minimal painting, and that ’60s painting looks best when it comes on like ’60s sculpture.

Stella’s monochromatic shaped canvases with their centers cut out now look like wall versions of floor pieces by Judd, Morris, LeWitt, and Hesse in screen, plastic, and three-dimensional lattices. We forget that the Stellas were probably first, because the idea of an object presenting its geometry so clearly and crisply that it is easy to hold it in mind is an idea much more dramatic when done three-dimensionally. The same can be said of Louis’s twisted columns and Judd’s stacked boxes; the illusion of those columns coming off the wall is less dramatic than those boxes coming off the wall. Noland’s glowing bars of color simply don’t glow as much as Flavin’s lights; Marden’s immutable panels are less so than Judd’s horizontal boxes; and just about every other ’60s painter (Pop, Minimalist, formalist) has a counterpart in three dimensions who is more forceful, because the underlying idea in all of it is to make objects more present. We even have a sculptor who put the idea in print six years ago:

Johns took painting further toward a state of non-depiction than anyone else. . . . The whole process was not one of stripping art down but of reconstituting art as an object. (Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture Part 4,” Artforum, April, 1969.)

I think the message is clear: if painters are tired of having sculptors steal their thunder, come up with an idea other than “reconstituting art as an object.” That idea has been worked over by too many brilliant minds for too long anyway; there isn’t much left in it now. Of course critics also have a part to play; they could develop a discourse which does something other than or in addition to analyzing art as objects. That approach has become a formula, and even neophytes can do it.

—Tony Robbin
New York City

Max Kozloff replies:
Apropos the last remarks, agreed.

At least three artists whose responses to your questionnaire were published in the Special Painting Issue (Artforum, September, 1975), put forth opinions sufficiently opposed to my own to justify some counter-argument.

Every age has its myths. Ron Kitaj, Peter Saul and May Stevens, along with many others, appear to believe in one of our time. It runs: “Art should be for everybody, and conversely, everybody should be for art, and they would be if only we had art of the ‘right kind’.” The fact that not everybody, or even many, care about art (any art, not just modern), seems self-evident, but why should it be otherwise? For artists it would be fine if everybody did care; full employment materially as well as spiritually is a worthy goal. In fact there is no reason to expect a majority to respond with enthusiasm to art any more than other activities invented by human beings. Why should we expect (full employment aside) great numbers to care deeply about art any more than quantum physics, philology or for that matter kite-flying? Sports, however, as well as television, movies and other entertainment forms, are more understandably popular. Even if one aspect of art is granted to be entertainment (an arguable point in itself), the current means of distribution are sadly ineffective.

It’s amusing to read Ron Kitaj’s remark about “quietist arrogance” (shared by all us abstract painters apparently), preceded by the snotty “I am answering you . . . from a table at Florian’s, in the city of Giorgione.” Like the “I remember Pango Pango” beer commercial (burp!), it conjures up anything but images of the active revolutionary, political or artistic. Unintended as this impression may have been, it undercuts the plea for more direct artistic involvement with society (art for everybody), if not outright revolution, by his own example. In Counter-Revolution and Revolt, Herbert Marcuse speaks to the same question.

Art cannot represent the revolution, it can only invoke it in another medium, in an aesthetic form in which the political content becomes meta-political, governed by the internal necessity of art.


The fate of art remains linked to that of the revolution. In this sense, it is indeed an internal exigency of art which drives the artist to the streets. . . . But in doing so he leaves the universe of art and enters the larger universe of which art remains an antagonistic part: that of radical practice.

Interestingly enough, the first of these two quotations is preceded by another passage which has a bearing on the size audience an artist might expect.

If and when a classless society achieves the transformation of the masses into ‘freely associated’ individuals, art would have lost its elitist character, but not its estrangement from society.

In other words, even after the social revolution we all seem to want, art will remain with only a small audience which understands, loves and cherishes it, i.e. the “visually literate.” Unless they are carefully examined, the myths we live by distort the meaning of language and make phrases like “visually literate” sound elitist. In fact, that term only describes the situation accurately, one in which only a small number of people really care about art. Elites are not measured by size alone. To say only that an elite group is one which is small, self-chosen and consists of people who exploit parts of the rest of society fits groups like the Manson Family (whatever their intentions) more closely than the group that likes art, by any measure. This limited definition describes the prison population with some accuracy as well. Small as the prison population is (those justly imprisoned, and there are some who are justly imprisoned), it hardly consists of an “elite” group.

Is it really arrogant to expect art to have only a small interested audience? What of those who believe that art (especially their own?) is so damned important that everybody should like it? Being pluralistically inclined (live and let live I say), I tend to be suspicious of those who would have us worship one art-god (usually a non-abstract one). Those who know best for us all are most to be feared. Uniforms scare me, cultural ones included.

It’s well to remember that when Chairman Mao spoke of the “Hundred Flowers Blooming,” he also made reference to certain “poison weeds” that needed thinning out.

Then does not Marxism destroy the creative mood? Yes, it does. It definitely destroys creative moods that are feudal, bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, liberalistic, individualistic, nihilistic, art-for-art’s-sake, aristocratic, decadent or pessimistic, and every other creative mood that is alien to the masses . . .

. . . should not these kinds of creative moods be destroyed? I think they should; they should be utterly destroyed. (Mao Tse-Tung, Talks at the Yenan Forum on Art and Literature.)

As admirable as Mao has been for China, that’s not the kind of pluralism I have in mind. For one thing, it sure as hell wouldn’t be the artists themselves who decided which moods were “bourgeois,” etc., and if abstraction would be the first to go, how far behind do you think work like that by Kitaj, Saul and Stevens would be?

If the poet and novelist can expect their audience to be verbally literate and reasonably intelligent, why shouldn’t the artist expect his to be visually literate and intelligent; to care and to understand, or try to?

And why is it that so many artists, including Peter Saul, May Stevens and to a lesser extent, Kitaj, who all want to “reach the masses,” attempt to do so through a style so closely allied with cartooning? Isn’t there something a little arrogant—and patronizing—in the assumption that the masses are so dumb they have to be appealed to on that level? Can’t we assume the “masses” in this country are smart enough about themselves to decide what they like for themselves, and that given the opportunity they’ll choose according to their predilections, and that art will be chosen by some of them? And if they aren’t that smart, should the artist condescendingly reach down to them (Shazam!) with comic-book art? I don’t care one way or another about their cartoons as such (live and let live, etc.,) it’s their Save the World with It bullshit that’s irksome.

When Eugene McCarthy ran for president the first time, he reportedly answered a question about sports: “Football is for those who are smart enough to understand the rules, and dumb enough to think they matter.” Art is like that to most people, except that more of them prefer football.

—David Simpson
Richmond, Calif.

Cut the crap, Simpson; the city of Giorgione has just elected a Communist mayor and he just loves the ice cream at Florian’s.

From your quotations, Chairman Mao sounds far more interesting if less soothing for our art than Marcuse, but you have nothing to fear from an old Popular-Front man like me because I will always defend your right to paint pretty stripes, Simpson. However, I will do whatever I can to encourage young artists to study Goya rather than stripes. But I’m sure Live and Let Live Simpson will want people to decide for themselves whether his letter does not confirm many of the things I suspect there about our barren art and its apologists.

—R. B. Kitaj
London, England

The question of what proportion of society is interested in art, has been in the past, or will be in the future, I have a feeling, dear Mr. Simpson, is bigger than both of us and involves, for artists, desire and temperament more than knowledge.

My art grows out of my experience as a woman artist in this time and place. It is based on personal history plus an awareness of and involvement with art forms. What I do and how I do it comes from the inside, never from theoretical or externally imposed considerations. It is impossible for me to see art as a servicer, a vessel for carrying goods, no matter how valuable. Art is not made of ideas; nor are they inimical to it. It is how our living interactions with ideas and sensations grow into forms that determines art’s strength and eventual meaning.

That loving study of art forms is inclusive and encompasses figurative art, conceptual art and even geometric abstraction such as Mr. Simpson practices, while obviously feeling that it is not very important and that it is constantly being put down by a nonabstract “those,” a suggestion of paranoia surfacing here.

The nonart links and sources of art standards and tastes are strikingly apparent in a careful reading of Simpson’s words. He forgets so easily the authoritarianism of the supporters of abstraction Greenberg style as he imputes a desire to thin out the “poison weeds” to “non-abstract” artists. Simpson’s flag-waving pluralism barely covers his wounded psyche.

The “bullshit” which Mr. Simpson mentions is better defined as the flailing about of those whose politics prevent seeing or even looking. His interpretation of my work is a cartoon of the reality.

May Stevens
New York City

I am appalled at Ms. Roberta Smith’s review of Jo Baer’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum. It seems that nowadays art critics either expect to be knocked down by far-far-out art or pampered by sensuous, “emotional” (but challenging) works. If I am correct, the latter would be the only possibility left open for them. In the 1970s the shock value ingredient involved in the presentation of a urinal or a pile of dirt in a gallery or museum space is no longer effective (other considerations are more pertinent). That, compounded with the proliferation of written statements, mixed media, video and the like, seemed to have clouded the perception of an art that relies neither on the visual shock nor on an easy sensuousness. Today, more than ever, the crux of the matter is to look in depth.

Ms. Smith states “you don’t look at Baer’s paintings, you read them”; aside from the fact that all art demands a reading, if she ever attempted it, she failed to perceive that the point was how to read. I am referring specifically to Ms. Baer’s latest works. Here, the critic didn’t see the significance of the use of four-inch-thick stretchers as painting field, a prolongation of the frontal screen. (Personally, I have been using three- or four-inch thick stretchers, where I depicted elements unseen from the frontal stance, sporadically since 1966, consistently since 1969).

“When Baer takes four-inch-thick stretchers, you look at the way the shapes flatten and establish as a single surface the planes of an otherwise thick volume . . .” writes Ms. Smith. But the whole point is missed: pictorial art has always been a frontal image whose components are apprehended simultaneously in a single act of vision. When, as in Jo Baer’s works, the depicted elements are continued or stressed on the outer sides and/or top edges, the simultaneous apprehension of the totality of the visual unit is no longer possible. The viewer is invited to move around the painting to discover the elements that remain hidden from the frontal, traditional stance. Therefore, these paintings demand a sequential approach, for the totality of their components will never be in front of the viewer’s eyes. Only as a result of that process and through a mental recomposition, based on the visual memories, is it that these paintings assert themselves as a unit. Different from looking at a Leonardo, a Picasso, or a Rothko, I assume.

Moreover, doing away not only with framing, but expanding the frontal plane by painting on the surface provided by a thicker stretcher, brings the elements of the pictorial structure to meet the wall. The wall is the natural placement of the canvas as the ground is to sculpture. Obvious. Framing in painting, pedestal in sculpture, interposed themselves between the visual structure and their natural location. Yet, the process I have described in the medium of painting that parallels the vanishing of the base in sculpture is still awaiting critical appraisal. While, on the other hand, the ridding of the base in sculpture has prompted specific esthetic speculations. Again, to add those four inches of painted stretcher doesn’t seem to be physically shocking enough to get the proper attention.

In a way, I am sorry that the superficiality of Ms. Smith’s approach to Jo Baer’s work prevented her from having a far more enriching esthetic experience. Otherwise she wouldn’t feel the frustration she expresses in the final paragraph.

And I deplore the association with blown-up stationery, inlaid furniture or radiator covers that Ms. Smith finds in Baer’s paintings. It reminds me of certain critics of yore that associated Pollock’s paintings with noodle soup.

—Cesar Paternosto
New York City

Mr. Paternosto’s letter, like buckshot, sprays everything in sight, but I will address myself to its main points.

For me, looking means that a painting is felt and experienced in a process which is first nonverbal and sensuous and which quickly causes words, sentences and fully articulated ideas to take shape in the mind of the experiencer. “Reading,” as I intended it, involves the recognition of familiar conventions in a way that short-circuits immediate experience. While all paintings involve pictorial conventions, paintings which can only be read provide illustrations of ideas, of feelings and of ways of painting rather than the immediate experience of them.

In my sentence which Mr. Paternosto quotes at the beginning of his third paragraph, perhaps “continuous” would have been a better word than “single,” but either way, I did not mean to imply that the apprehension of the singleness or continuity of surface in Baer’s paintings with four-inch-thick stretchers takes place simultaneously or at a single point in time. I also appreciate and find credible Mr. Paternosto’s discussion of his experience of Baer’s four-inch stretchers. The point is simply that there are other implications which I chose to discuss. (See Carter Ratcliff’s article in the May, 1972 Artforum for a discussion of the stretcher issue.)

Mr. Paternosto equates the disappearance of the frame from painting with that of the pedestal from sculpture. This seems like another way of saying that art, besides being art, also has become an object. This development has hardly been ignored in the criticism of the last 15 years.

Mr. Paternosto had his experience of Baer’s work, and I had mine; and his condolences smack, if only a little, of a chauvinism critics sometimes get from artists. I was talking about the associations in Baer’s work which, for me, prevent an “enriching esthetic experience,” and which I think are usually ignored in most discussions of her paintings.

Roberta Smith
New York City

Could you please note in print the following errata in my article, “None Dare Call It BoHo,” in the September issue? I am not sure in each case whether the mistake comes from me, the magazine, or the typographer, but I would like the record to show the meaning intended:

Page 64, col. 1, paragraph 1: “conspirator” should read “conspiratorialist,” i.e. one who believes that a conspiracy exists, as opposed to one who participates in a conspiracy. (Editorialist’s note: This is bullshitistical usage!)

Page 65, col. 1, top of the page: “. . . theory were like his own: clear” should read “. . . theory were like his own: unclear.” The intended point is that Wolfe, who is all over the place, objects precisely to Greenberg’s exactitude.

Page 65. col. 2, paragraph 1: “. . . explaining why, given the above, Pop art does not, as Steinberg says it does, furnish the viewer with an ‘existential situation’” should read with the “not” deleted. I mean to agree with Steinberg and disagree with Wolfe.

Page 65, col. 3, last paragraph: “triple-crackers” should read “triple-trackers,” i.e. an exaggeration of Wolfe’s own “double-trackers.”

—Peter Plagens
Studio City, Calif.

The Women’s Art Registry, originated in 1971 by W.E.B. and the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee, has moved to Artists Space, 155 Wooster St., NYC, 10012, as of September 1975.

The Registry consists of slides by c. 1,000 American women artists, the majority from the New York area, and an equal number of historical women artists’ slides. Current women’s exhibitions in New York, teaching jobs available, and other items of interest to women artists are also posted.

Anyone may use the carousel projector to view the slides during gallery hours. The slides are not for sale, but duplicate copies of the entire Registry may be rented and slides may be duplicated at that time. (This does not yet apply to the historical section.) Anyone may enter the Registry by sending four slides, $5.00, and a brief resume.

The Women’s Art Registry is partially supported by the New York State Council on the Arts. For further information contact Sandy Gellis, 39 Bond St., NYC 10012; or Michelle Stuart, 152 Wooster St., NYC 10012.