PRINT September 1976



In his hagiographical account of the life and work of Chris Burden, Robert Horvitz describes the audience of Velvet Waters as hearing “the sound of his choking and gagging directly, live, right next to them,” and then, noting that these “bone-chilling convulsions” were “objectified” by translation to video monitors, speaks of Burden’s questioning of the “ethical limbo of the spectator role . . .”

Would it not be more accurate to speak of Burden’s actions and the audience’s reactions as self-indulgent pseudo-martyrdom, on his part, and awe-struck acquiescence, bordering upon relic-worship, on theirs? Burden probably has the right to go on doing what he does (although the pistol shots fired at the 747 raise some doubts on this score), and art journals no doubt have a right to report his activities in exquisite detail. In so doing, however, both Burden and the complaisant press are plunging into an “ethical limbo” far darker than the one allegedly inhabited by spectators.

Carl R. Baldwin
New York City

Robert Horvitz replies:
Perhaps, but let’s be clear about one thing. This “ethical limbo” is not just something that Burden and the “complaisant press” have conjured up to rankle solid art-world citizens like Baldwin. By pressing his claim of artistic freedom up to, and occasionally across, the brink of criminality, Burden is exploiting a situation which has been brewing ominously for a long, long time. Over 30 years ago, Robert Motherwell commented that “the history of modern art tends at certain moments to become the history of modern freedom.” I believe that that is true today. A passage that was cut (by me, not the magazine) from the final draft of my article is quite relevant here, and I welcome the opportunity to cite it now: "The notion of artistic freedom has come to represent something quite different from what it once did, owing to the fact that until recently art was produced and perceived within a tightly drawn set of technical and thematic conventions. If the artist claimed a certain leeway in the facture of his work, it was because he had already opted for a highly circumscribed and politically oblique sort of activity: his freedom was small compensation for performing responsibly as a professional. But with the gradual erosion of virtually all of art’s traditional social functions (as well as traditional canons of practice), we find ourselves in a very precarious situation: the artist still asserts a claim of special freedom, but this freedom is now unencumbered by any acknowledgment of special responsibility. And since no criteria remain for telling who is and who is not an artist, this represents a serious loophole in the fabric of social controls over individual behavior in general. Fortunately for artists, the whole moral authority of society is under question, so there is no real pressure on us to ’get back in line.’ I do not look forward to the ’correction’ of this situation—one is surely coming—and in the meantime can only marvel at the way Burden has managed to articulate it. He has captured the essence of this uncertain suspension and resolved it into a defiant and severe carnal poetry.”

Robert Horvitz“ feels that she must choose between two extremes in interpreting Chris Burden’s work: she must either read ”world-historical trends into it“ or fix ”narrowly on its technical novelty as art.“ Nor is she able to bridge the gap between these two poles. As we believe that Burden’s work is incompletely understood unless that bridge is there, linking the technical novelty to any ”world-historical" relevance it may have, we would suggest that the bridge might be constructed in the following manner.

Each event which Burden creates can be seen as an allegorical acting-out of his view of the artist’s experience: of the artist’s dependence on materials (as, for example, in the balancing pieces); of the artist’s individual and unique sensibility with regard to esthetic choices; of the artist’s social consciousness regarding issues of power, will, and authority; of the artist’s vulnerability to criticism and censure because of the stance he takes on behalf of his sensibility; and of the artist’s sense of isolation which is inherent in all these aspects of his experience.

In other words, Burden’s work as a whole can be interpreted as both an examination of the artistic experience and an attempt to define that experience while the individual pieces can be judged, as Horvitz says, on the basis of their “evocative power as images.” In this sense they are like the performances staged by primitive man in order to convey his total experience of a hunt or of war. The fact that Burden’s work “puts one at a critical impasse . . . from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to make any sort of value judgment,” and “balances attraction against repulsion, openness against inaccessibility” indicates that he has succeeded in recreating the situation in which the contemporary artist finds himself.

If we are correct in interpreting Burden’s work as an allegorical, even poetic examination and definition of that situation, and if we are right in believing that it is neither presumptuous nor illogical to view the artist’s experience as analogous to the world-historical experience, then it is not necessary to limit oneself to viewing Burden’s work solely on the grounds of its technical innovativeness or its imagistic power.

Morgan Thomas and Donald Carroll
Santa Monica, California

Robert Horvitz replies:
Burden’s work can indeed be seen as “an allegorical acting-out of his views of the artist’s experience” as Thomas and Carroll suggest, but if that were all he is doing—making art about making art—I, for one, would not have found him worth writing about. In seeking a middle-ground understanding, I think they may have overshot the mark: their interpretation is less an understanding than a critical prophylactic, reducing dire and exploratory situations to merely pedagogical exercises. By cloaking his work in a glaze of reasonableness, they deprive it of much of its raw emotional urgency. Moreover, I did not mean to imply that one must choose between treating his work as either an indicator of world-historical trends or simply as an artistic novelty. What I was trying to say, though perhaps not as clearly as I might have, was that after grappling with his work for a number of years, I am still not sure of its “real” significance: to the extent that judgments must be made, Burden has made sure that they are as intellectually risky for us as his work is physically risky for him.

Finally, I must apologize for Thomas’s and Carroll’s obvious confusion over my gender. The brief self-description was added literally at the last minute as it went to press and I have regretted my flippancy ever since. Sorry about that.

An attempt to dissect a mythology requires a modicum of logic. Jeff Perrone’s try to analyze the relationship between Carl Andre’s work and beliefs not only fails on that count but bears the characteristics of a “job” rather than a serious analysis.

Perrone states that if the railroads were a source of inspiration in Andre’s work, that should have led him, a Marxist, to the recognition of the railroads as an oppressive tool of the robber barons. Such underdeveloped reasoning, if applied in retrospect, let’s say, to Stuart Davis, would question his sincerity as one of the leaders of the leftist American Artists’ Congress, because in his paintings a sewing machine appears as a semiabstract shape instead of a tool of oppression from the needle-trade sweatshops.

If the railroads influenced Andre’s sculpture in material and form, and if working on the railroad triggered or reinforced in him a pro-working class conviction (the recognition of oppression) his statements on the connection can at least be seen as a poetic idea, of interest or not, but to be defended against trivialization and vulgarization.

Perrone gets all mixed up when his sociology gets tangled with seemingly formal-esthetic definitions, He describes Andre’s work as “highly esteemed,” presumably by him as well as by others. Yet he also describes the work as “precious objects.”

In art-terms “precious objects” has a very clear flavor and meaning. The description applies to the trivial, of little artistic merit, and certainly not to the market price (try the term “precious” on a costly Munch or Picasso, or any-bodji of meaning to you). If Andre’s work is significant it is not precious, regardless of what the Tate or any other entity may pay for the work. This brings me to Perrone’s irresponsible folly:

“The British working class taxpayer who poured ink on Andre’s bricks was on to something; if he had been familiar with Andre’s politics, I doubt whether this would have stopped him. Precious objects are precious objects.”

Is Perrone saying that this vandal is-tic act is justified because it was directed against a formalist work acquired at great cost by a museum? That this “working class taxpayer” would have been less (or more?) justified had he known the artist’s political views? Is he saying that the act would not be justified if directed against a non-formalist work even if acquired by the Tate at great cost? Is he saying that all works of art, regardless of content, are justified targets for “working class taxpayers”? What is he saying?

I think that what he is really saying is not openly stated in the two pages of the article. I suspect that the antagonism to Andre comes not because of his visibility, but his socialist beliefs. Other artists are not only allowed their mythologies, but these are lovingly expounded, by the artist or critics, in pages and pages of the same journal. It is a socialist conviction which unleashes the hounds, who seem to run from the left, but come from the right.

It is regrettable that the Tom Wolfe-like thinking of Perrone found its way into the pages of Artforum.

—Rudolf Baranik
New York City

Jeff Perrone replies:
It amazes me that Mr. Baranik would devote time responding to an article he so thoroughly misread. “What is he saying?” That’s what I was asking, of Carl Andre.

Really now, does he want critics to fawn over every artists’ pronouncement or doesn’t he? Or do we make a special case for socialists? Is there some reason he left out any mention of my extensive, quoted evidence? Does he think I hold Andre’s work in high esteem? Read again: I said it was of interest; liking it is a different matter. It is important sculpture, and an acknowledgment of its dominance, its arrogance, identifies it as the art of the ruling class, not of an oppressed class. Is he sure he knows what logic is -especially since he accuses me of not exercising any? Doesn’t it seem odd that he brings up the irrelevant formal/ nonformal distinction and I did not? And really, does he think socialism is monolithic and that if I don’t buy Andre’s brand then I’m a cryptofascist? Does he think Andre’s self-inflicted class identification has anything at all to do with his utterly bourgeois sculpture? I think it has nothing to do with class struggle and creates class antagonisms of the wrong sort (the Tate incident).

And just what does he have against me doing my job, my work?

Roberta Smith’s article “Drawing Now (and Then)”, April 1976, is as depressing a syndrome as any in the art world. Smith echoes the biases of the MOMA and Guggenheim exhibitions and sets up a supportive litany of artists whose lineages and works are all too familiar.

Smith’s criticism is internal (not external, referential or political) within the assumptions set by the curators. In other words, Rose and Waldman set the limits and Smith observes the amenities notwithstanding some clever enough critique of individual objects or artists, or, for that matter, aspects of the exhibitions.

MoMA displaying 46 artists shows five women (one of whom is dead, two are European). This is a joke in terms of the range and extent of women artists today. The Guggenheim restricts the situation to one woman, Georgia O’Keeffe! And what of the toadyism implicit in the museums’ linkage to 420 West Broadway and the Castelli Gallery in particular?

That two women curators and one woman critic can so totally ignore the range of current women’s art is a study in the modes of female dependency and subordination rather than an investigation of art now. Smith lists eight artists who could or should have been included, a small number indeed and all male!

Is it true that art is only white? Male and white? Male, Minimalist-Conceptualist and white?

This over-respectful confinement to established modernist formats is in fact an example of conservative art politics. Smith’s last paragraph lists Johns, Stella, Judd, Flavin, LeWitt, and Marden. Is this where Smith thinks the departure from reduction is taking place?

It would be an appropriate time (now!) for the museums to repair the split with the community of artists and to repair their gross neglect of woman artists in particular.

—Nancy Spero and Leon Golub
New York City

To the extent that I think museums have a responsibility to show what they consider the best art, I align myself with Waldman and Rose. After that, I think we differ greatly (like everyone else) in terms of the taste, bias and historical knowledge which contribute to our decisions and which form the character of work we do. I think these differences are obvious in my article.

In the Guggenheim exhibition, O’Keeffe’s drawings were very good - 1 wish Spero and Golub had mentioned other women artists from the period (which ended with artists who were mature by the early ’60s) whose drawings were equal. There are a number of significant artists who are women and whose drawings, in my opinion, are not equal and so I don’t miss them. For example, Nevelson, Frankenthaler, Bontecou and Bourgeois have never been known for their work on paper, although in retrospect I can see that Bontecou’s omission should have been. mentioned if Jack Tworkov’s was.

I was not at all sympathetic to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition and I discussed what were for me its more glaring problems, including its geographical and stylistic narrowness, its exclusion of all but the more predictable artists (several of whom looked quite weak) and the inequity with which various artists were represented: And by the way, I objected to the preponderance of artists from 420 West Broadway. If I had gone on to name the “younger artists” I felt were missing from the Modern’s show, I would have listed as many women as men. I certainly might have done this, and I am glad it was pointed out to me that I did not. But here again there is the same problem of women artists who are not particularly involved with making drawings (Winsor, Miss, Phelan, for example), or whose best drawing occurs in their painting (Bartlett, Fishman, Korman, for example).

In their rush to use their letter as a platform for general complaints about art movements and museum exhibition policy, Spero and Golub fairly trip over their own objections to my article. They fail to notice, for example, that the artists I thought might have been added to either exhibition (with one exception) hardly qualify as “Minimalist-Conceptualist” or work within “established modernist formats.” “Modernist”–like “formalist”—is becoming more vague and accusatory with each passing art season. Spero and Golub have written what is basically a form letter of art and political rhetoric. They alternate between overstatement and denunciation.

Roberta Smith