PRINT November 1976



Nancy Marmer’s “L.A. 1976: The Dark Underside” (Artforum, Summer 1976) raises a crucial issue in contemporary art, criticism and art history. Ms. Marmer is a sensitive, intelligent and extremely literate observer of West Coast art, and I have no argument with her evaluation of specific objects. Nonetheless, her article revealed a critical bias present in much contemporary art criticism and art history that deserves to be challenged. While agreeing with her identification of the basic conservatism of the “L.A. 8” exhibition organized by Maurice Tuchman at the Los Angeles County Museum, I seriously question the issues she raised concerning the “Imagination” show at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art.

A succinct but accurate statement of the idea that dominated her article is that “formalist,” “modernist,” “New York” and “International” art is “renewal,” “discovery” and a “higher level of achievement.” Any derivation from this canon is “conservative,” “provincial,” a “weakening of faith,” or “the dark underside.” While she recognized that a justifiable questioning of art, art history and the role of the artist in society is underway among artists, critics and art historians alike, she mistakenly classified it as “basically conservative.” She apparently misunderstood the ideological impetus of the 1974 Paris “Luxembourg” exhibition, MOMA’s Beaux-Arts architecture show, and the Metropolitan’s “French Painting 1774–1830,” by linking them to LACMA’s “L.A. 8.” By doing so, she confused two very different kinds of exhibition—one concerned with a curator’s evaluation of recent art, the other re-viewing a historical period. More disturbing, however, was the implication that any challenge to established opinion is conservative, when in fact, it is conservative only from her limited “modernist” point of view. (One of the organizers of the Beaux-Arts exhibition has written that its function was to better explain modern architecture, not to replace it. (David Van Zanten, “Remarks on the Museum of Modern Art Exhibition ‘The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux Arts,’” Journal of the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, May–June 1976, pp. 31–39.)

The primary impetus behind the three exhibitions was to revise accepted opinions on these historical periods in art—not to establish a new set of “masterpieces,” rather to clarify any issues that may have been obscured through ignorance. Prejudice tucked away this material in storerooms or provincial museums and it is time to look at and study it in order to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. These exhibitions represented a determination to question the given of previous art historical and critical opinion—not exactly a conservative ambition. A similar ambition appears in the questioning of (a form of dialogue with) “International,” “New York” “formalism” by the artists of our “Imagination” show. The very fact that Ms. Marmer could draw up a long list of “modernist” idioms suggests an established “academic” repertory that deserves to be challenged.

Of course, all Artforum readers in Los Angeles are sympathetic to Ms. Marmer’s fear of “Benton-like isolationism,” but she has over-reacted in being threatened by any questioning of modernism and its historical antecedents. It is just that this tenacious “faith”—obscuring much of the art history of the modern period—that is truly conservative and that must be recognized when it is applied in contemporary criticism.

—Julius Kaplan
Department of Art

I thank Prof. Kaplan for his kind initial remarks, but am distressed by his misreading of my “L.A. 1976.” His tendency to take phrases out of context and to distort my “critical bias” by reductive misstatement does not help to clarify issues. But most of all, I am astonished by Prof. Kaplan’s apparent obliviousness to the ideological ramifications of current revisionist reevaluations of 19th-century French art. I, too, dote on filling in gaps in my knowledge, and do not deny the fascination (from a historical, sociological, iconographical, and even critical point of view) of the three shows of French art to which I briefly alluded; but I also find it naive to ignore the art-political and art-market consequences of the revisions of taste embodied in such exhibitions (a subject interestingly explored, incidentally, in Rosen and Zerner, “The Revival of Official Art,” New York Review of Books, March 18, 1976).

These three shows were not obscure historical exercises produced in a vacuum. They occurred within the context of a wider attempt to resuscitate the reputation of official 19th-century French art—an art originally supported by the Academy, endorsed by the French government, and rewarded by Salon medals and residencies at the Villa Medici in Rome. Such sponsorship is, of course, no reason to dismiss this officially endorsed art, but it is impossible to remain ignorant of the fact that the revision of our estimate of official art in the 19th century is inevitably accomplished at the expense of the reputation of those artists who challenged the government-salon system and who refused to produce the “licked” surfaces or subjects demanded by officialdom. Though the challenger’s story is only a small part of the complex history of 19th-century art and though it has grown tedious through overexposure, it is still (in spite of its familiarity) the politically radical side of the tale. If the revisionists have the advantage of novelty on their side and if there is no doubt a certain historical equity in their current willingness to reexamine official art, there is yet no way to glorify their somewhat pedantic enterprise from an art-political point of view or to avoid the conservative content implicit in their upward reevaluation of what nevertheless remains “official art.”

Contrary to Prof. Kaplan’s assertion, I by no means consider all “questioning of art, art history and the role of the artist in society to be basically conservative”; he, however, seems to hold the utopic belief that all questionings may belumped together as radically progressive and that any change in opinion will inevitably be a change for the best.

As for my characterization of the “Imagination” show as “basically conservative,” my intention was not at all to espouse any narrow view of modernism, but simply to suggest the real danger for regional art in the defensive, exclusive posture adopted by the curators of the LAICA exhibition. The wholesale, isolationist rejection of invigorating outside influences (if such a rejection were even remotely possible in a mass-media culture) would not, I believe, preserve native strength, but would inevitably reduce regional art to the repetition of a set of stale provincial refrains.

If Prof. Kaplan will reread the concluding paragraph of my essay, he will note that I in fact recognized the virtue of questioning the limiting clichés that are currently used to describe Los Angeles art of the past decade. As for my own “long list of ‘modernist’ idioms,” I doubt that even the most fervid of revisionists would really want to sidestep entirely all the major phases of modernist art. Even if many artists, critics and historians now rightly reject the suffocating views of certain recent, notoriously rigid interpretations of “modernism” (and if the word “modernist” itself has consequently undergone a pejorative shift in the past few years), I nevertheless believe that there are very few among us who would therefore be willing to dispense entirely with the influences of all the major idioms of post-World War II American art—and certainly not in favor of some hypothetical tradition that might, for example, have stemmed from the grandes machines of official 19th-century academic painting.

—Nancy Marmer
Los Angeles

In “Nadar and the Republic of Mind,” September 1976, Max Kozloff categorized Nadar’s iconography by dividing it into three specific classifications: “romantic and bohemian intellectuals who had come of age before the coup-d’état of Louis Napoleon; cultural workers and dignitaries grown to prominence tacitly under his patronage; and the ubiquitous bourgeoisie.” But what Kozloff did not fully develop was the essential cultural meaning underlying the iconography which he categorized so well. For in the broader more symbolic sense Nadar’s iconography concerns itself with cultural as well as social emancipation. And although Kozloff makes this distinction, he did not, I believe, clarify the interrelationship between cultural and social freedom.

Beginning in 1789 and maturing during the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, France developed a sense of personal liberation that was not to be dissuaded by the return of a monarchical government in 1851. Man’s new-found sense of independence and self-assurance guaranteed that he would not become the subservient follower of pre-Revolutionary times. Generally speaking, therefore, the French had attained an unconquerable private strength of independence. Socially this resulted in the “ubiquitous bourgeoisie”; culturally the result was a new sense of self-reliance, for the artists and intelligentsia had undergone a cultural transition, in the attitudinal sense, from aristocratization to democratization. They were now in full charge of their own cultural destinies, and Nadar’s photographs reflect this emancipation.

Interestingly enough, however, it was the successful ones whom Nadar photographed. Nowhere in his oeuvre does one find the blue-collar prolétaires intellectuels Cabot, Fouchery, or Karol (friends of Nadar’s during his early days of la bohème who chose not to leave the anonymity of their bohemian existence). Instead Nadar photographed those who, as Kozloff noted, were “at the very pulse of their culture.” (Champfleury, George Sand, Baudelaire, Delacroix, Alexandre Dumas, Edouard Manet, etc.) His subjects were currently vital, intellectual forces who had arrived at a certain level of cultural prosperity.

In sum, Nadar’s photographic portraits, with the exception of those of the bourgeoisie, symbolize the development of cultural power. A new status had been attained in the third quarter of the 19th century, a status built upon the success, and therefore might, of culture rather than landed money and traditions. And this status was a direct result of the independent initiatives of the “artistic nobility” whom Nadar characterized so well in his photographs.

Jeannette Gillespie Stollar
New York City

In the September 1976 Artforum article, “The Directorial Mode,” A.D. Coleman proposed the concept of a “directorial” mode of photographic expression. I would suggest a different method of classifying these diverse approaches to photographic expression. Photography is really concerned with either depicting natural visual phenomena or with illustrating new phenomena.

I would classify those artists in the first group, those who illuminate natural visual phenomena, as photographers who “intensify reality.” (The term “reality” is certainly threadbare from use, but I am at a loss for a more acceptable term.) These include such photographers as W. Eugene Smith, Lewis Baltz, and Edward Weston. A diverse group indeed; however, these three photographers are concerned with illustrating what is, not what can be. For example, they want to show what a landscape, either spatial or social, looks like. They want accurately to portray what is before their lens. This concern with perspective visual truth does not, however, keep them from judicious editing, even modification, of what they are photographing. Thus, to make a more concise documentary, dead bodies might be moved from their final resting place or live ones recruited for a more effective cast.

On the other hand, a smaller but important group of users of the medium do not want to record reality, rather they are interested in manufacturing a new reality. The easiest example of this mode of expression is Jerry Uelsmann’s photographs. While the components of the picture are bits and pieces of recorded reality, the end result is something quite different—a manufactured reality. Similarly, some of the work of Les Krims fits within this mode. For the photograph Self Operation Fiction published with Coleman’s article does not reflect actual medical procedures, rather, as the name implies, it is a constructed fantasy, a theatrical reflection of Krims’ imagination.

Bill Holmberg
Pensacola, Florida