PRINT October 1976


Topics in American Art Since 1945

Lawrence Alloway, Topics in American Art Since 1945 (New York: Norton, 1975), 282 pages, 64 black and white illustrations.

THE FIRST WORD IN Lawrence Alloway’s selected survey of American art since 1945 is “differentiation.” It is a key term, implying a wide range of subject matter. The jacket cover promises Abstract Expressionism, Hard Edge and Systems, Conceptual Art, Pop Art, Happenings, Earthworks, Public Sculpture, and finally, The Changing Role of the Critic. Indeed, we get all this plus Alloway on “highway culture,” photo-Realism, Radio City Music Hall and the chronology of an art gallery.

This will at once establish the seriousness of Alloway’s dedication to every kind of subject matter that can comfortably sit in the range of “art,” and his willingness to explore all different kinds of antithetical productions. He writes a sensitive appreciation of Agnes Martin, a clear discussion of Leon Polk Smith, and exhibits a surprising dedication to the outcast Norman Bluhm. This kind of inclusiveness, even from a “selected” body of work, sometimes risks being merely “topical”—or now, at reprint, of being of less than passing interest. But it is to Alloway’s credit that he sticks by his idea and includes whatever he thinks will give a real picture of a complex situation. This kind of catholicism is surely more welcome than the more familiar critic’s view which would exclude, a priori, large groups of work that did not fit into a highly defined historical or political scheme. What we would expect of Alloway’s general acceptance is a refreshing view of the last 30 years, because he encompasses so much, is at pains not to constrict his visual experience, and feels that reporting lesser known artists gives the most true picture of an era.

We might also expect that this attitude would work against highly defined taste and agreed-upon value judgments. Yes and no. But I want to discuss why, given the positive orientation of his outlook, I cannot accept this view of diversity and differentiation, and why at almost every point I feel uneasy with Alloway’s reporting.

Alloway does encourage open-ended, unbiased experience with visual material. We find on almost every subject, at the beginning of the discussion, an explication of the “differentiation” scheme. “Efforts are made to unify these discrete movements . . . but obviously this delivers very little . . .” (pg. 17). This occurs in the first article, on “The Biomorphic ’40s,” and the reference is not just to the ’40s, or to Abstract Expressionism, but to “the movements of 20th-century art.” What Alloway finds most appealing in the art of the Biomorphic ’40s is “the impression . . . of a natural and personal abundance” (pg. 20). He begins a monographic piece on Gottlieb by distinguishing between the “clap of thunder” theory of New York painting and a “complex and graduated set of real relationships.” It is clear which Alloway prefers, and he makes more than convincing use of Gottlieb’s, and later, Pollock’s and de Kooning’s careers to prove this same point. (And here one would like to add that many of the ideas initially expressed in Alloway’s Abstract Expressionism articles have later become such common currency that it is difficult to separate the original from the cliché, certainly the problem with topical but extremely influential types of reporting.)

Pop art, a term originated by Alloway in England, was part of the largest infusion of new visual material into the art context that we had ever seen; it was the perfect representation of Alloway’s “expansionist esthetics, aimed at relating art to the man-made environment of the ’50s” (pg. 119). The relevance of Rauschenberg is that “instead of an iconography in which each part is tightly related, we have an iconography of divergent episodes and simultaneous events . . .” (pg. 132). And rather than seeing Lichtenstein as a rather narrow stylist, Alloway finds the overall effect of “diffusion,” because he works in an “extended situation, as opposed to trying to squeeze everything into one knock-them-dead picture” (pg. 145). And of criticism in general, Alloway sees two opposed approaches: “one that aims to distill and purify and one that studies the expansion and connectivity of art” (pg. 193). Alloway, it should be noted, was quite interested in Noland, Stella, and rather rigorous, “tightly related” kinds of painting. Later he comes to repudiate the work—but for no reason having to do with its value as art. We can, however, read his interest in Minimal-type painting as an ongoing effort to “cover the scene” in all its complexities.

This willingness to accept variety permits Alloway to accomplish an amazing feat—he could report with appreciation any of the dominant styles from 1945 onward—and we can hardly say the same of any other critic in this period of time. “It is not necessary to believe in the historical succession of styles, one irrevocably displacing its predecessor, to see that a shift of sensibility had occurred” (pg. 81). He is speaking here in the essay he wrote for his Guggenheim show, “Systemic Painting” (1966), and his point is to stress the multiplicity of stylistic inputs discussable in the recoil against gestural abstraction.

Within the philosophy of variety there is a possibility that what passes for reportage may degenerate into passive and uncritical acceptance of all art system components, especially when accompanied by an impersonal tone devoid of value judgments. The well-known Cageianism (which Alloway quotes) “value judgments are destructive of our proper business, which is curiosity and awareness,” can be seen as a definite period philosophy (early-60s liberal). Accepted literally, it can lead into a dead-end of nonchoice, where any evaluative distinctions are abhorred because they strike the writer as being not “open” enough. Yet at what point is the “open” critic simply describing the system at hand, and to what point is he just being manipulated? (Although Alloway will finally come to this very question, he does not illuminate his own situation, but the “crisis” of some other critics.)

There is nothing wrong with a many-sided approach to experience, and the good critic will not be “closed.” But the critic must be more than a reporter. “An art critic’s function is the description, interpretation and evaluation of new, or at least, recent, art” (pg. 251). Yes, exactly, except this must be done with the realization that a critic cannot simply accept the opinion and values of the artist as gospel, and that the critic’s own value system is at stake at every moment. With Alloway, the most conspicuously absent quality is the evaluation. If the biggest bugaboo of the ’60s is now formalism, modernism, or, specifically, the question of “quality,” then we can appreciate Alloway’s nonpartisan reluctance to assign ultimate merit according to intuition. But the substitution of the ineluctable “quality” motive with a rather promiscuous “quantity” schema has just as many problems.

Of course, just because a value judgment is not in evidence does not mean that a judgment has not been made. As I have said, we know that the mere occurrence of an article on a certain work of art automatically confers importance. Judgment is superseded by sheer exposure. The question remains—does Alloway write about something because he likes it, or because it happened?

Any reader will understand that Alloway would rather write about what interests him, what he thinks has value, than give space, and thus promotion, to that which irritates him. Yet because he relies neither on a grand historical notion of development, nor any necessary methodology of individual achievement, nor any position of advocacy, he is left with only two kinds of presentation.

The first is description. Description is the critic’s first task, but it is really only a matter of practice and style. It is learned, and can be valued on the acuteness of vision, on the ability to perceive what is visually salient, along with the purely technical expression of this acuteness. At this point one might think that description is reporting, and that “objectivity” is what is at stake. Yet “objectivity” is really impossible (reporting itself is not a neutral activity). Further, preconceived ideas can enhance, not just inhibit the ability to explain. To be a good describer is no easy thing, and Alloway does it well. I think his powers of observation are best expressed in a continuing series of articles on women sculptors, for instance the piece on Cecile Abish (Artforum, May 1974), none of which is reprinted here.

The other form of presentation is Alloway’s “interpretation” of the work, which usually is based on artists’ statements. Because of his laissez-faire attitude toward subject matter, and his catholic embrace, he often tends to accept uncritically the voice of the artist, especially in reference to artworks. This kind of uncritical acceptance, together with the field-view, are blended in one article, “The Expanding and Disappearing Work of Art” (1969), where we are given description and quotation and nothing else. It is a concentrated version of the worst side of the Alloway methodology, in that he completely abdicates his critical responsibility—which goes hand in hand with a uniquely self-effacing sensibility.

Alloway does not want to reduce the situation, so he “proposes” an unmanageable list of “control methods” (good choice of term, uncritically accepted) “devised by artists”; the list is then elaborated upon with quotations which are also accepted without hesitation, quotations which read from the self-serving to the outright ridiculous (or both: Andre’s “naturally occurring particles which I simply display in a natural unmodified manner”). Alloway sees this outline as an argument for “expansionist rather than reductive esthetics,” and while he admits that “Conceptual art has its clerks,” he adds the remark: “no movement is tested by its failures,” i.e. everyone is, temporarily, a winner. History will sort things out perhaps? Alloway lets artists spout whatever they want, for they are, at the moment, being given all the benefit of the doubt as to the authoritativeness of their statements. It’s a form of critical welfarism.

Of Sol LeWitt he says: “In his hands, Conceptual art is executive control” (pg. 99), without commenting upon what this might imply. As for the photo-Realists, Alloway notices that their realism is aligned with advertising, and that their remarks are evasive. But he willingly quotes them as being unconcerned with subject matter, or at least its implications:

Bechtle: “I am certainly aware of the social implications of my subjects, but I try to preserve a kind of neutrality.” Cottingham: “I am just using the subject as the stepping-off point to compose the subject.” Eddy: “I think the subject matter is dictated to me by the kind of painting problems I’m interested in.” McLean: “I think neutrality is very important” (pg. 188).

Alloway emphasizes that the photo-Realist does not express “his commitment to objects or a situation in the world.” Alloway observes the consumerism of photo-Realist iconography, but prefers to see it as a problem of description rather than criticism. Finally, in the absence of all other criteria, he makes this assertion about Ed Ruscha’s photographs: “[They are] a concordance of decisions, unmistakably esthetic, for all their deadpan candor, in the absence of other purposes.” If images serve no purpose, that makes them art. Art by default.

The three best chapters are the two on Barnett Newman and one on Robert Smithson, and this has in no small way to do with the somewhat short-range historical approach given to them, as well as the relatively extended treatment. Alloway convincingly differentiates (in the best and most appropriate sense of the word this time) between what is meant by the “sublime” in the 18th century, what Newman means by it in his original formulation, and what Newman holds over from the 18th century. The article on the Stations of the Cross presents us with both general and personal history. It is most appropriate that Alloway refuses to accept everything Newman has to say about the sublime and its relation to Abstract Expressionism. It is one of the few times we find him taking exception to an artist: “Nevertheless [Newman’s] version of the sublime can be connected with the 18th-century definition of it, which was also originally conceived as antithetical to the problem of beauty” (pg. 33). Here Alloway criticizes, corrects, and appreciates.

In “Robert Smithson’s Development,” Alloway is at pains to pry apart the differences between Minimal sculpture and Smithson’s enterprise, and we are given more than one-sided description. Smithson is involved in progression as deterioration, not static seriality; is involved with intricacies and the “suspension of definite closure”; stands against the modernist view of sculpture in being antipicturesque, complex and artificial, rather than exhibiting “summary wholeness and supposed inevitability.” For once the methodology and the description are working with each other rather than against—which was the case with Alloway’s discussion of reduced-field painting. With Smithson, the autobiographical information and the artist’s own ideas (unusually intelligent, reliable, and responsible) are fused into a whole meaning, because they emanate from an internally consistent conception of the artwork, the art world and the world at large.

Naturally, Alloway has objected to artists’ work in print. He gets quite upset, say, with de Kooning after the ’50s, and turns vehement about Noland after expressing relative admiration for his work earlier in the book. Since Alloway considers the artists’ words about the artwork somewhat inviolable, and judgments concerning the relative value of the work to be irrelevant in a field situation where everything is potentially of interest, we might ask what it is that changes his mind since it cannot be the work itself.

The answer is clear. As soon as he begins to show disapproval of de Kooning, Alloway launches into an examination, not of the work itself, but of the criticism of Thomas Hess (pg. 63).1 This is a sure sign that something has gone awry. De Kooning is still “associational and permissive, which is an attitude, a structure,” and this would seem to be compatible with Alloway’s own permissiveness. (Alloway is interested in the associational as he comes out against a criticism of form and rallies for iconography, experience, signs and signifiers.) He remarks, “Of a [de Kooning] painting his critics can say . . .” (my emphasis) and it is clear who is responsible for Alloway’s dissatisfaction. Again, we go from an acceptance in 1966 of Noland’s yearly formal innovations as being “meaningful, not because of ingenuity or surprise, but because of repetition and extension” (pg. 89), ending up (1973) in “Through the 1960s, Noland, like Stella, was highly productive, but of what? He painted shrewd and inventive elaborations of visual emblems from which the function and signification has been drained” (pg. 258). This is quite a reevaluation—but we have been prepared. The latter quote is not a comment in a chapter on painting, but on criticism. Why doesn’t Alloway see these hard edged/system paintings in the same light as before, as “the projection of a certain set of human decisions,” as “personal and arbitrary” (pg. 65)? The answer again: that he now sees the paintings through their intermediaries, and continually heaps all his most outraged fury not on artists but on critics.2

The last section of the book is entitled “Art Criticism and Society.” It includes articles on Op art, public sculpture, and “The Uses and Limits of Art Criticism.” The Op art piece is, on the surface, about “art without art criticism,” or, in other words, art without art critics. It concerns how Op art permeated the popular communications media while remaining unacceptable to art critics as art. In typical “objective” reportorial style, Alloway gives insight into the scene at the time, but does not include his own feeling about it. No acceptance of Op art as Art, not even a little ambivalence, just an outsider’s view of the troublemakers, critics:

All three reviewers [Hess, Rose, and Ashton], it is interesting to note, not only recognize instantly that Op Art is not art, but they are also in possession of knowledge of what art is. For Miss Rose, Op Art was not performing “the real task before painting in our time.” She spelled out what is implicit in the Hess-Ashton-Rose position: “Our affluence, leisure and rising literacy will call for more and more art of this kind, which should be colorful, decorative, and easily experienced.” This is merely the revival of an archaic definition of the masses and their kitsch, but it makes a possible flattering drama of the one versus the many, the cultivated elite against the brute (if more affluent) crowd (pg. 241).

One wants to know where Alloway is—elite or brute crowd? Or if he sees this as an unreal dichotomy, what does he think? In any event, art critics are shown to be always “them.” He does give some credit to Sidney Tillim, who accepts Op art as art. Does this mean that Alloway agrees with him? Or is he just reporting that someone else had a different viewpoint? Alloway does not exhibit any degree of self-consciousness of his own response other than as reporter. The most we make of his involvement with Op art is that it has a historical precedence in Seurat. Op art is tacitly given a holy treatment, while the critics burn. For him, Brigit Riley is wronged, too, but she has lingering elitist tendencies herself, and Alloway—without confronting himself about it—is caught between his absolute loyalty to the artists and their antipopulist sentiments. The Op art article is finished off with a flourish of Information Theory, the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, the Unconscious, and Froebelesque solids. The question which never occurs to Alloway is: why even bother with whether or not other critics think it’s art if you’re not going to tell us what you think?

The meatiest article comes last—and is the most revealing as to what we can expect from the “differentiation” view of things. It is the other, equally malicious, side of the critical polarity. On the one hand, we have the claim that criticism is just as important as art (exemplified by Michael Fried). The other says that critics are subservient to artists. Alloway holds up Apollinaire as the exemplary art critic: nonpoetic, plain journalistic motives, descriptive, predictive powers, and a complex awareness of the complexities. This view of Apollinaire is at least open to question.

Now, in the ’70s, what are the prospects for art criticism after a crisis within modernism, a breakdown of academic values, and an economic slump? Alloway refers to the “politicization” of art criticism. What does he mean? Certainly not that art criticism has become a tool of political change—how can he when he disparages the potentials of criticism, that is, its function as an adversary? Critics can be politicized as individuals, just as artists can, but their work cannot be called political as a consequence; it can at best only be about politics. The members of the Art Worker’s Coalition were clear about this when they disavowed any connection between their work as artists and work as a politically involved group. To the extent that this applies to critics, then, criticism is as much an alienated commodity as the art object it serves. Alloway has accepted the image of the guilty, the middleman, the demoralized, bureaucratic art critic; but he refuses the critical examination of the artists from whom he derives this viewpoint.

In this world, the artist is supreme and the work is part of a system which is worth exploring “because it is there” in all its “diversity.” This is the line we have been hearing all along: critics, involved with secondary positions in the art world, are not really doing the “creative” work; they feed off the artists, and are as disreputable as they are dispensable (this is what the conceptualists, especially Art and Language, held to be true: that artists must be their own critics, and critics went right along with it). To swallow this kind of thinking presumes the glorification of artistic prowess and the humbleness of the critic (who reports and quotes). Without the artists, after all, there would be no critics; so be thankful.

Alloway concedes that “a good deal of black and Puerto Rican art is . . . beyond the vocabulary of art criticism.” This is not given a negative value at all, and is the logical outcome of art without art criticism. On the other hand, it sounds rather defeatist, another way of annihilating the work of the critic, placing guilt and ethical and moral compulsions on the critic at the expense of a numbingly permissive, liberal attitude toward advocacy art. There is certainly no use in calling the cultural and individual identity of third-world and women artists “revolutionary,” as Alloway does (pg. 268). “There are now a great many artists . . . who are putting revolutionary pressure on society by revising the role of the artist,” and one would love to agree, but this just isn’t the case. The fact is that most artists (who are white, male and middle class) have every reason to retain their current role, and critics who continue to describe a complex situation without inquiring into artists’ motives or the personal, subjective response of the critic will be overlooking who has power and why they have it. A catholic point of view will be of use for future graduate students in art history, but it will not radically change the structure of the art market, or the art world—a structure built upon the notion of art as the privileged object, and the artist as mythical genius.

What is clear is that critics must resume, self-critically, their work, both conscious of and fighting against market considerations, artists’ myths and guilt left over from the ’60s. The criticism will begin with the artwork, encompassing the issues at stake within and around that object, without the veil of myths of the disinterested, apolitical, autonomous object and artist.

Jeff Perrone


1. See Alloway's “de Kooning: Criticism and Art History,” Artforum, January 1975, pp. 46–50.

2. Alloway has perceptively described the ambivalent and disintegrating role of the curator (“The Great Curatorial Dimout,” Artforum, May 1975), but the effect is the same as with his discussion of the critic––the middleman-bureaucrat is subjected to review under the notion that he does his “ job” independently of the meaning of the art he processes. Alloway and his critics (see Letter to the Editor in response to his article, Artforum, Sept. 1975) both overlook how it is that artworks tend to reveal the circumstances under which they were made by how they are handled once they enter the world.