PRINT September 1993

ARTFORUM ’62–’79

No Phil, No Forum

IF JOHN IRWIN, the absolute founder of Artforum (he dreamed of a sort of Hugh Hefner fantasy applied to an art world he perceived both insightfully and imperfectly), set the physical style of the magazine (its unusual squarish format and a lush and colored layout), and John Coplans was the driving engine from the inception, by the fifth issue Phil Leider was the magazine’s mind, conscience, and soul. The equation is simple: no Phil Leider, no Artforum—at least of any substance.

Coplans’ willful energy at the beginning of Artforum was enormous, at times near sociopathic. His greatest contribution was discovering Phil Leider. The story was that while visiting the John Bolles Gallery in San Francisco in the fall of ’62, looking for something to review, Coplans heard fantastically rapid typing from the gallery office. Since Artforum was at the time little more than table, chair, typewriter, a couple of packing crates, plus a part-time Irwin and Coplans, he looked in, thinking he might capture a needed secretary. To his shock it was an intense, intelligent man, Leider, on the business end of the typewriter. Quickly realizing he had more to gain than just a secretary, Coplans somehow persuaded Leider to join the enterprise.

Leider had come to San Francisco from New York with no particular professional focus. He was quick to convey a fierce devotion to his wife and young children; he was explicit about wanting to get away from the “dangerous” streets of New York.

This attitude, a little curious to me at the time, nonetheless jibed with the social concern and idealism Leider was always quick to express. For example, he proposed the notion that Artforum should be totally free of commercial vested interest: no advertising. Coplans and Irwin of course viewed this as quite mad and gently if persuasively dissuaded Leider: no advertising, no magazine.

From time to time I was drawn behind the scenes to help find desperately needed financing. Coplans vigorously advocated that I find a backer from among the (then) few movie-industry tycoons who collected modern art in Southern California. This was possible to do. Leider fiercely, as always, fought the idea of the magazine falling into “the clutches of Hollywood types,” and he prevailed. After Irwin’s money ran out the magazine somehow survived on loans and gifts (at the time these were known as “investments”) on the part of genteel San Francisco patrons—until Nick Wilder delivered Charles Cowles.

Leider was an amazing fast study. It seemed he could catch up virtually overnight with any art issue new to him (and most of them were new). For Leider the time was always now. Deadlines were instantaneous—support the writer and get the article right by almost any means necessary. In all of this his attack parsed with that of Coplans.

The eclectic range of the art initially embraced by Leider was singular: from Bruce Conner (whom Leider called “the Dachau playboy”) to Frank Stella (Leider had the greatest empathy, and a mind to engage Michael Fried) to Robert Smithson (so beautifully addressed in one of the last articles Leider wrote for Artforum, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”). I can think of no editor of Artforum who has had a more passionate concern for and belief in the power of the word than Phil Leider. He set standards to live up to.

Walter Hopps