PRINT September 1993

ARTFORUM ’62–’79

He Was Extremely Terse

PHIL WAS A marvelous editor. He had paid his way through college by writing master’s theses on any subject for other students at $75 a throw. During his military service he had been the fastest typist in the army. Contrary to accusations and impressions, he was an extremely wide-angled editor, who published an enormous variety of articles. When I began working for the magazine I wasn’t a writer, I was a painter, and it was very painful for me to write. But I'd take an article to him and in no time he'd chop the beginning off, tell me where it ought to start, change everything around, make it into a good tough professional piece.

He had little background in art, though he got interested in it. But he really didn’t know the art world at all. I was the editor at large, the guy at his shoulder. Artforum’s founder, John Irwin, wanted the magazine to be a financial success, so he wanted to publish the leading critics of the day, the people at the Timeses of Los Angeles and New York—the very people we were obsessed with not using. I was convinced that Artforum should be a new magazine, run with the new art, and find new writers. Phil went all the way with this.

Phil was terse to an incredible point. He was friendly but brusque: you went into the office, you had to state your business, he responded, and you had to leave. In the first few years he was virtually the only person in the office, doing the editing, the bookkeeping, in short everything. Phil spent no time talking to people in the art world. He was a family man, who wanted to go home to read to his children and talk to his wife. He never went to openings and things like that, didn’t give a fig about the social life. There were two exceptions: in New York he became very friendly with Michael Fried and Frank Stella. Frank was his closest friend in the city. But he never allowed Frank’s opinions to sway him.

The idea that someone outside the art world could make as good a judgment about critical writing as someone inside the art world, that distance from the artist is not an impediment to criticism—that idea has gone. By the time Artforum got to New York critics and artists were in each other’s beds, sometimes literally. There was all kinds of real inside information you needed that Phil felt very distant from. When Artforum was still on the West Coast artists there had hated the magazine because of its attention to major East Coast artists. That was one reason Phil wanted to move the magazine to New York, but when he got here he found the same damn thing—the same tensions among the artists about the magazine, the same anxieties, prejudices, petty jealousies, envies. He was aware of this going on and he used to just sneer at the artists, who he thought behaved in the most incredibly arrogant manner, and he hated it. The constant demand that they be deferred to was completely against his critical grain and his grain as a human being. And eventually he decided to pack up.

He moved back to San Francisco. I was teaching at the University of California, Irvine; I took Phil’s job in New York, Phil took my job out there. He would fly down to Irvine, sleep on a camp bed, teach for three days, then go home. Phil loved teaching art history, and the students adored him. Then he got a religious bug, went to Israel, and severed his ties with the art world.

Phil had the point of view that art writing had nothing to do with popularization or with journalism à la Time magazine. He was absolutely unconcerned with popular writing; he was insistent that criticism had to be the kind of writing or information that would make the critical peer group revise its estimation of the value of certain works of art. But he kept it open-ended as an editor. He had this delicate balance. He did a remarkable job, he really did.

John Coplans