PRINT September 1993

*ARTFORUM ’80 - ’93*

Picture This

TO ANYONE FROM a museum—with lead time for an exhibition or a catalogue essay measured in years—the monthly sleight-of-hand demanded by a magazine like Artforum holds out the promise of more immediate gratification. This euphoric anticipation is quickly followed by horror at the speed with which decisions must be made, and at how quickly, and publicly, these decisions meet with a response. Decidedly contemporary rather than merely modern, Artforum often publishes unknown or untried critical voices, and cannot seek refuge from public outcry by hiding behind figures of authority. In all of this the selection of illustrations, seldom discussed in itself outside the magazine, is integral to the way artful words will be understood, and to how the reader (who may or may not know the artwork from first-hand experience) will interpret the discussion. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the editors of an art magazine had better take images seriously. The truth is, most of us look at the reproductions in a new issue before reading the articles.

A successful article “reads” visually as well as textually. Picture editing is therefore an essential part of the magazine’s editorial process: tracking images down and deciding which of them to show, and in what order, and at what size, and where, becomes a demanding form of connoisseurship. There is always the danger that design may overpower critical insight, or that the staff will be faced with de facto censorship when an owner of reproduction rights (whether an artist or an agency, a dealer or a family member) withholds permission to print and an entire layout has to be rethought. Ideally, visual reference points not only parallel the text but act as complements, suggesting alternate readings, or giving form to what the text must struggle to describe or only indirectly imply. During Artforum’s sometimes heated picture sessions, questions of context and juxtaposition must be negotiated in order to preserve both the integrity of the art and the writer’s point of view.

When I stop to think of what aspect of Artforum has had the most lasting impact on my understanding of contemporary art, and on the development of my own critical facilities, it is this monthly honing of word and picture. It forced me to look more carefully and think more critically, and served as a continual reminder that it is always necessary, even when in familiar territory, to return the discussion to the artwork—which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Amy Baker Sandback sits on Artforum’s Board of Directors, and served variously as Associate Publisher, Executive Publisher, and President of the magazine from December 1979 to December 1987. She is also a writer, and is the author of the catalogue raisonné of Robert Ryman’s graphic works (Parasol Press, forthcoming).