PRINT September 1993

ARTFORUM ’62–’79

A Conversation

Charles Cowles is the owner of the Charles Cowles Gallery in New York and serves as chairman of the board of the New York Studio School of Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture. He published Artforum from September 1965 to November 1979.

HENRY GELDZAHLER: Artforum got started in San Francisco in 1962. When did you get involved?

CHARLES COWLES: I think Nick Wilder started talking to me about the magazine in the summer of ’64. I was a student at Stanford, majoring in journalism. Wilder was a grad student working part-time at the Lanyon Gallery in Palo Alto, in old Gov. Stanford’s horse barn, and promoting young artists. He was sort of my Pied Piper, and he started talking about Artforum and its troubles. In October of ’64 Artforum was dead broke and missed an issue.

HG: How had it gotten started?

CC: John Irwin was the founding publisher. He was a salesman working for Mike Pisani, a printer, and they printed things like the local opera bulletin. This was a vehicle for them to keep press time up and to write about culture and art.

HG: For Nick to have seen its potential it must already have had some rigor, some weight to it.

CC: Though Artforum started out as a local art magazine, it quickly developed into an international one. Philip Leider, the editor, was fabulous, the guiding light.

HG: So you inherited Phil?

CC: Yes, I inherited Phil. In October ’64 I was in my last year at Stanford, and I put up the money to help the magazine out of debt and get it off the presses on the condition that I could spend a year there doing whatever needed to be done. I sold ads, I worked on circulation—

HG: A learning experience?

CC: It was my senior project.

HG: And the fact that your family was in publishing made that kind of career interesting for you.

CC: My family’s in publishing, I thought I wanted to be in publishing, I was majoring in journalism, I wanted to stay in California, and I was interested in art. So Artforum was the perfect thing. From October until June I spent every moment I wasn’t in class at the magazine, or coming to New York to promote it—selling ads, things like that. The first ad I ever sold for Artforum came when I was going from gallery to gallery, up and down Madison Avenue, and I walked into Marilyn Fischbach’s gallery—Donald Droll was running it. I spent two minutes telling them about the magazine. Donald turned to Marilyn and said, “Marilyn, you better buy that.” [Laughs] And that was the first ad I ever sold.

HG: Did you walk around with copies?

CC: Yes, I did the Andy Warhol thing: I had Artforum in my hand, I walked around and said Here’s the magazine, it’s great—that sort of thing.

HG: Were you shy?

CC: I guess I was perhaps a little shy. Not too. I wasn’t a naturally aggressive salesperson; no, I wasn’t a hustler.

HG: And Phil Leider—

CC: Leider had already moved to Los Angeles and set up an office on La Cienega Boulevard, over the Ferus Gallery. So the first year I didn’t have much contact with him, because I was primarily working with Irwin in San Francisco. At any rate, when June came around I finished up at Stanford, and I needed to do something with my life. So I went to the owners and said, Look, here’s the story. The magazine’s not making money. And you guys are tired of it, and I need something to do, and I like Artforum—I’d like to take it over. And they said okay.

HG: They were relieved, in a way.

CC: Yes, but then there was the problem of how to take it away from the other guy. Because I said to them, quite truthfully, he’d had his chance, he’d had two years and he had to let it go.

HG: That was your first bout of ruthlessness? [laughs]

CC: Right. And they said, Fine—go to it. Well, he said his blood would be on their hands, and so on, but eventually they gave him 60 days to pull it together. He couldn’t and I took over.

HG: And he lived.

CC: He lived, yes. And within 24 hours of taking over the magazine I moved it to Los Angeles.

HG: Because Phil was there?

CC: Because Phil was there, and because L.A. was a scene. San Francisco was wonderful but it wasn’t the place.

HG: Los Angeles was beginning to have a world of collectors and galleries and a kind of energy that San Francisco has never managed. And was there—I don’t know how to say this—did you leave Phil in charge?

CC: Yes. Phil and I had a very good relationship, I think, and I gave him complete freedom, because I really trusted him and believed in him. That’s what the relationship of publisher and editor can be in certain cases. I mean, I don’t consider myself a great intellectual scholar, and Phil was more inclined that way. I was more inclined to PR, circulation, and advertising.

HG: Phil was wonderful. His angle of vision was very honest and consistent, and he stated his view clearly.

CC: He was an honest, straightforward man. I don’t think it was his nature or personality to admire anything totally; he could always find fault, and always would. But you know, he was usually right. He found the good points and the bad points.

HG: Did you have any serious disagreements with him?

CC: If Phil and I had a disagreement it would be a momentary shouting match and then it was over. I think we both had our good sides, and we would both realize who was right and wrong in each case.

HG: When I look at some art magazines, and I see the level of ads they carry, I don’t even care enough to check the content; I don’t want to turn the pages. Did you ever reject ads because the art was under par?

CC: Yes, we rejected ads fairly regularly. We tried to be polite about it.

HG: And you were able to do that because you were financially independent—because you could afford to?

CC: The primary reason was that we wanted to improve the quality of the magazine, we wanted to be the best, and I just felt that we couldn’t compromise ourselves.

HG: So you’re not a sentimental creature.

CC: Only a little.

HG: [Laughs] You think of the Artforum years as positive and formative for you?

CC: They were a very important part of my life, and they were certainly formative, and yes, I have fond memories. In retrospect I think I would have done it differently. I should have had more dialogue with Phil than I did.

HG: There is a volume, the first 21 years of Artforum, that must have been published in 1983. And it has a very heady intellectual tone to it. Artforum was a magazine that everybody read, but you really had to put on your thinking cap. It wasn’t a matter of being delighted by art as you turned the pages; it was a question of being challenged intellectually. And I think Artforum, with a few other magazines—like Art in America—has managed to keep at that level. It’s quite rare.

CC: I came from a publishing background and I believed that magazines and newspapers should be educational tools; that you should try to raise the audience’s level of education. In any case, in an art magazine, where you’re doing lots of illustrations—and illustrations not only in editorial but in the ads—you can keep the average person happy with them. You just hope they’ll go beyond the pictures.

HG: What about the move to New York, in June ’67? What prompted that?

CC: We moved to Los Angeles because we felt that the scene was more active there than in San Francisco, but we weren’t yet strong enough to be in Europe or New York. After two years in Los Angeles, though we loved L.A., we felt that there was more action in New York, that most of our editorial and advertising was coming from New York, and that we should be in New York.

HG: You had a ten-year stint at Artforum, leaving in 1975. Did you leave with regret? Or was it time to get out?

CC: Well, you know, there are different ways of leaving. I left the office (to become the first curator of modern art at the Seattle Art Museum) but I still owned the magazine. And I didn’t leave with regret, because at that point I felt I needed a change in my life. Phil had already gone—he was burned out.

HG: What was the immediate reason you sold the magazine, in November of 1979, to Anthony Korner and his group?

CC: I’d left New York, and left the magazine. I had been asked about a year earlier, Since you’re not there, would you consider selling. I said sure. I had a number of offers over the years, but the only one I entertained seriously was Anthony Korner’s, because I felt that he and his friends were serious about contemporary art and about the magazine, and would continue the magazine in a serious way. Exploring contemporary art’s very difficult: you’re always going to be half wrong. The important thing is to be right a lot of the time. And as long as you're really curious about contemporary art, and saying honest things, you’re O.K.

HG: You really wanted the magazine to prosper.

CC: Yes, but as far as I was concerned Artforum was making money, so it wasn’t a serious problem. It wasn’t making a lot of money, but you could always run it and make it break even. In my mind we always more or less broke even, from the day I took it over. Aside from the question of how much money you were willing to waste on certain promotional activities, it was just a matter of paying off the old debts and then keeping the thing going.

HG: Did the debts take a long time to pay down?

CC: Well, we took our time about it.

HG: I’ve never had enough money to understand why it’s smarter to pay debts off slowly than quickly. When you first had a staff to help you on advertising, did you feel a great sigh of relief that someone else was sharing the burden?

CC: When I moved to Los Angeles, in 1965, we hired a New York ad rep, Paul Shanley, who’s still around the art world. But I always had more responsibility. I was selling ads until the day I left the magazine.

HG: What are you proudest about?

CC: The fact that I thought we were publishing the best art magazine around; that we were serious and honest and admired by people who understood the art world.

HG: Your achievement was to take on an unknown business and make it work. Your other achievement was to have the humility and good sense to let Phil Leider run the editorial side of Artforum.

CC: I knew that Phil knew more about the art world than I did, and more about editing, and I thought we made a good team.