PRINT September 1993

ARTFORUM ’62–’79

A Conversation

John Coplans works as an artist in New York. An exhibition of his photographs initiated at the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, Portugal, is currently traveling. He was editor of Artforum from January 1972 to February 1977.

PETER PLAGENS: I remember you telling me in the ’70s, when you had moved to New York and I was still in Los Angeles, “You people out in L.A. think the continent of art is America, with New York on the east coast and L.A. on the west. But it’s not. The continent of art is the Atlantic Ocean, with New York on the west coast and the European cities on the east, and you guys in L.A. are Australia.” Did you feel that way in 1961–62, when Artforum was getting underway?

JOHN COPLANS: Artforum was intended by its first publisher, John Irwin, to be a commercial vehicle. Irwin went broke, and the magazine was picked up by Charlie Cowles. The commercial idea became less important. Phil Leider, who became editor after a year or so, understood that the magazine’s first purpose was to try to put the West Coast scene on the map, and to support the artists who were emerging there to write the history of the new West Coast art. Which is what I set out to do [as an editor and writer], with much of the information supplied to me by Walter Hopps.

After I came to New York to take over as editor, in 1971, the magazine was in the red. We couldn’t pay the writers, we couldn’t pay the bills. So I went home and had a daydream that I was old man Rockefeller. I called a meeting of my staff and asked where was our nearest oil refinery. I said we’ll all go there in a crocodile of cars. At the refinery I watched the oil going into the barrels for two hours, and I asked how many barrels do we barrel like this? Someone said umpty-umpty-umpty millions. I asked how much solder do we use on each barrel, and was told: four ounces. I asked how much did it cost, and was told umpty-umpty millions. I said take a full barrel and drop it four floors. They did, and I asked if the barrel leaked. They said no. I said cut the solder 10 percent, drop it again, and repeat the process until it leaks. When they’d cut the solder 50 percent the barrel leaked. So I said from now on cut the solder 40 percent. I asked how much that would save, and was told umpty-umpty millions.

The next day I went down to Artforum and went through every operation. There were five IBM typewriters that we paid $75 a month each for. I asked to see the contract and discovered that we’d owned them for three years but were still paying $75 a month. So I got a refund. I found out that we were short 1,000 magazines a month at the distributor. I asked the printer why. He said that because an extra staple was needed we lost the magazines in manufacture. We put in the staple and saved $10,000 a year. I kept the magazine alive through my own will. If you ask what my editorial policy was, I’ll tell you: just to keep it alive.

PP: Did you make the magazine profitable?

JC: Yes. But I had other difficulties. Phil had left nothing in the drawer. I had a film issue that Annette Michelson had done, but other than that, nothing.

PP: As I remember, your back seized up and you lay on your apartment floor for a couple of days.

JC: I almost went under as a result of moving to New York. I hadn’t thought out well enough what I’d do with the magazine, how I’d cope with the obstacles. I ended up changing the entire structure.

Earlier on, in 1965 or so, I had recruited for Artforum some younger East Coast critics who wanted to deal with the new art. There was Robert Rosenblum, Barbara Rose, Michael Fried, Max Kozloff, and Rosalind Krauss. One of the best people looking for new artists was Robert Pincus-Witten. [When I became editor] I brought in extra people, like Lawrence Alloway, for diversity of opinion, and invited a number of these critics to become contributing editors, to advise me, and to write about whatever they wanted to write about. What you had was a radical regrouping of the critical scene. Artforum had this diverse, quarreling group of editors writing about whatever they felt was significant at the moment.

On top of that, I continued to ask artists to write. For example, I commissioned Robert Smithson to do an essay on Central Park. I had Robert Morris cover the land drawings in Peru. Artforum had more reproductions than the other art magazines, and they were big. The emphasis was on critical writing and on a juicy number of reproductions. If you didn’t agree with what we said, you could base your disagreement on what you saw.

I didn’t have a thought-out structure for Artforum. I was hanging in there, day to day, trying to keep the magazine interesting. That was the way I worked until I could get a greater grip on the New York scene. Then there was an attempt to sort the scene out.

PP: Somebody once called Artforum “the house organ for Minimalism.”

JC: The Hess, Greenberg, and Rosenberg camps claimed that it was with Abstract Expressionism that America had for the first time created an art that was different from Europe’s. We were dealing with a group of artists who absolutely disagreed with this claim—who were pioneering an American art that was not rooted in Surrealism and Constructivism. When you look at Carl Andre, for example, who nevertheless says that Brancusi is his master, you can’t see a trace of Brancusi in those flat mats on the floor.

PP: I was told as a young artist that Abstract Expressionism combined European Existentialism and the wide American spaces—confronting nothingness on a ten-foot canvas, so to speak. It wasn’t touted as a complete break with Europe.

JC: A peculiarity of the American scene in the ’60s was that half the artists were shaped in universities, where they studied history and philosophy and the like, and the other half were shaped in the art schools. There was hardly anyone among the Minimalists who didn’t study philosophy, and hardly anyone among the Pop painters who didn’t go to an art school.

PP: Is that how Artforum became a “degree magazine,” written by Ph.D.’s about M.F.A.’s? No wonder its tone was cold.

JC: What you call coldness was simply a better-educated generation.

PP: But the perception did come about that Artforum as a whole was the equivalent of the longest, most excessively footnoted Michael Fried essay you could think of. The magazine seemed to say that the most important new art was being made by, and critically championed by, incomprehensible academics displaced to SoHo. As time progressed, however, more and more new art was coming out of the East Village, in both geographical and psychological senses. Also, Artforum’s American-ness became a chauvinism.

JC: American art had begun to feed off itself. So the world changed: the center of artmaking, as you mentioned earlier, shifted from the New York/L.A. axis to the New York/Europe axis. Also, art became more and more careerist in New York. I started to hear artists saying cockamamy things like “I got the lead review in Artforum.” I mean, is the first review in the Friday New York Times the “lead review”? And when I’d put an artist on the cover, six museums and collectors would call the gallery, wanting to buy.

PP: Didn’t the artists themselves start pounding on your desk, asking when were they going to get their covers?

JC: Yes, and a number of dealers began to pressure the magazine, saying they wouldn’t advertise if we didn’t do thus and so. Galleries began to send for me, to take me to lunch, and tell me I wasn’t covering them adequately. Several of the contributing editors also felt that money was beginning to matter too much in the art scene. Michelson, in fact, wanted to turn Artforum into a performance-art magazine to get away from it.

PP: Artforum had money from Cowles, so it had editorial freedom. Because it published what it wanted, it became more interesting than the other art magazines, and more of the art world started to read it. Because more people read it, the galleries wanted to advertise in it. Because it had clout with galleries and readers, artists campaigned to get their work in it. Rather quickly, it became a kind of buyers’ guide, with a lot of market pressure on it.

JC: Yes, but Kozloff and I also politicized the magazine more. For example, Artforum did an article on the CIA and the Museum of Modern Art that caused the most tremendous row. Nobody at MoMA would speak to me.

PP: What is usually meant by “politics” in an art magazine today is AIDS, racism, sexism, and war in Bosnia. What you meant by “politics” back then was. . . .

JC: An analysis of the support structure of the art world. In my opinion, the last major political articles in Artforum were the quarrels between Thomas McEvilley and William Rubin over his “Primitivism” show at MoMA.

PP: A lot of people today would say the McEvilley/Rubin affair was classic “old” Artforum—an argument interior to art. They would see it as merely a disagreement between a conservative Episcopal bishop and a reactionary Catholic cardinal: irrelevant to the real, secular world. And they would say you were an oldster hoping to see criticism returned to a narrow esthetic arena.

JC: I would answer that everything is interconnected: artists, collectors, critics, galleries, museums. They all function within a system.

PP: But is the system interconnected enough that anybody could still take seriously Barnett Newman’s remark that his painting, “if properly understood,” could mean the end of state capitalism? Today that sounds fatuous.

JC: Whatever—Max Kozloff and I politicized Artforum, and we got trounced for it.

PP: You dealt with a purer, truer kind of politics, the kind that can get you fired. Going up against George Bush and Jesse Helms isn’t going to get you in trouble in the art world. But going up against whoever’s holding the art world’s trump cards can cost you your job. Your record isn’t perfect, though. Weren’t you the editor of Artforum when the infamous Lynda Benglis dildo ad ran? Didn’t you get protests from your own editors, complaining that, among other things, the ad was extraordinarily vulgar?

JC: Lynda said she wanted an ad within the article itself, and I refused. Any artist or gallery could take an ad, but not within an article. As for whether the ad would run elsewhere in the magazine, editors are supposed to have nothing to do with ads; publishers decide about ads. I left it to Charlie. We ran the ad, but then the printer refused to print it because he thought it was obscene. We had a contract with the printer, and we forced him to print it. Once he could object to one ad, he could object to another, or even to an article. We were protecting the magazine, the artists, the writers, and their freedom of speech.

PP: Thirty years later, there’s Artforum, with the same square format. What do you think of your progeny?

JC: The difference in art magazines today is that there’s no critical dialectic. Hess, Greenberg, and Rosenberg had an argument about the nature and value of Abstract Expressionism.

PP: But look at the recent issue of Artforum in which 11 writers each gave an opinion on the Whitney Biennial. Or look at, say, Greil Marcus and Barbara Kruger: they’re probably a lot farther apart than were Krauss and Fried.

JC: Here’s an example of what I think art criticism needs. I read all the reviews of the Richard Serra show last season, and no one connected Serra’s piece with the Bruce Nauman corridor of twenty years ago that was about precisely that kind of compression of space.

PP: Etymological art criticism is out of fashion. Nobody cares about a connection between Serra and Nauman; they’re looking for a connection between Serra and—pardon the reach—Rodney King. And it’s precisely because they can’t find one, at least not easily, that nobody in the scene cares much about Serra right now.

JC: If you’re an artist, the primary ad you want is in Artforum.

PP: Wasn’t that just as true in the ’60s and ’70s?

JC: But the ad style of the early Artforum was typographic. . . .

PP: Ah, the famous black quarter-page, with the artist’s name in large drop-out type, and the name of the gallery, smaller, below it.

To me there’ve been two phases of Artforum since you left: the overdesigned one we used to call Wetforum (because it looked like Artforum combined with the West Coast magazine Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing) and the current version, the hip-hop Artforum. Do you read the magazine now?

JC: I look at it. Artforum retains its original audience, but the audience has grown enormously and there are a number of magazines serving it. Artforum is no longer the central magazine that we presumed it to be. I don’t read it often because I don’t find the art they’re writing about very interesting. Who do I read consistently? Hilton Kramer, in the New York Observer. He amuses me. He’s comically mad, but he’s the only critic who launches weekly broadsides against all the art-world powers that be.

PP: I’m in my 50s now, I figure I’ve got about 20 functioning years left, and if I’m going to spend two hours reading, maybe it had better be Herodotus, or Jane Austen, or a book on the Big Bang, all of which have more to teach me about art than does the terminally hip sociology in Artforum. Nevertheless, I think we at least partly kid ourselves that we don’t read Artforum because we don’t like it. In reality we don’t like it because we don’t read it.

JC: I was talking with Leo Steinberg the other day, and I was putting down the current art scene. He said, “John, you’re an older man, and older people remember better times, more interesting times than current times. In thirty years there’s going to be someone saying that the scene in 1993 was much more open and interesting than the one that’ll be going on then.”

Peter Plagens is currently the art critic at Newsweek and a painter who shows regularly at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery, New York.