PRINT September 1993

ARTFORUM ’62–’79

The Page Was My Party

ONCE A PERSON, or a public institution, has reached a certain age, retrospection, if not necessarily called for, is not out of order. The 30th anniversary of Artforum strikes me as such a moment, especially as my connection to the magazine—from hands on to mote in the corner of the eye—corresponds to nearly half my life.

To make a broad overstatement, the style—to use the dreaded s word—peculiar to the art of my time at Artforum was informed by the insurgencies of the day (the Peace Movement, Black Pride, the Women’s Movement, Gay Liberation), several of which, needless to say, continue in altered form. By the mid ’70s this loamy nutrient was transformed into all-purpose pluralism. There followed a reactive expressionist revival, pocked by the rancor of European artists reluctant to spout American lingo a moment longer, who turned their gaze upon expressionisms and realisms quashed during the fascist years in Germany and Italy. Next came the radical counterexpressionism embodied in the commodity-theory art of the mid-to-later ’80s, a position paradoxically seeking confirmation in French Structuralist and late-capitalist Marxicisms, psychiatric as well as economic. In recent years this trend has been eroded by an insolvent art market, though the style remains sufficiently locked in place to be seen as a new paradigm.

In academia—from which I recently withdrew—these past 30 years have been distinguished by the subversion of Modernism at the hands of the same deconstructive opacities contributing to the contemporary scorn for painting and sculpture as defining tropes of “Western Civilization.” Not only high culture but popular culture too—not that the distinction amounts to much anymore—have been crippled by the repudiation of literacy innate to these developments. Skilled reading has become an elite diversion; skilled writing, an abstruse yield of pinched device; and artmaking an indulged and shabby therapy.

For sure, my tetchiness derives from a different sense of literacy. I remain a person of the book rather than the chip, the word rather than the byte. (That this essay was computer-driven however astonishing the technology—remains futuristic tokenism on my part.) True, just as, between the 19th century and the 20th, the film supplanted the novel as the dominant artistic expression, it may be that computer-generated arts will supersede the movies. In theory this sits plausibly; in practice, nothing dates faster than technology. The brush, by contrast, has been a stabilized tool for some 40,000 years. As such, it remains a defining tool of humankind, and my interests remain centered on the achievements of the hand.

My dreary synopsis, then, notes the passing of abstraction’s credibility as a fundamental concern of culture. This grand achievement of Modernism now stands for little more than copybook ornament, bereft of any radical signification. The authority formerly commanded by hand and touch, which once were inseparable from artmaking, has been transferred to a surrogate enterprise grounded in the reprographic know-how of the advertising agency: from photography on down through the paste-up, the copy, the caption, all sent out and reshot. Commodity-theory art, heavy metal, death rock, sports, the comix, the TV sitcom, you name it, all these establish cultural norms from which abstraction is so excluded as to make it seem that it never existed.

When the earliest issues of Artforum, arriving from California, fell under my ardent graduate-student scrutiny, it was instantly apparent how remarkable the magazine was, and I yielded to a presentiment of someday finding a home in its pages. Of course I did not then know that but a few years hence I really would be responsible for the New York review section, the toe in the door being effected by Max Kozloff, whom I would meet in graduate school. Frankly, art criticism was a luxury that teaching allowed; then as now, no monetary gain attended its writing. The transient publicity it might generate being but scant redress for its toil, we worked not for the bread but for some higher good. It was the decades of teaching I was then beginning that would allow me to set a critic’s cap at a rakish angle.

The hat itself was a tattered thing—homme de lettres, Modernist, flâneur. Never for me the strident or the Jesuitical Marxist line; only a Francocentric chic would pass, one distantly patterned on Sainte-Beuve, Baudelaire, the Goncourts, and Apollinaire, with whom I self-flatteringly indulged the illusion of spiritual twinhood. My first reviews appeared in the December 1965 issue, with René Magritte’s The Plagiarism on the cover. They ran for the next decade.

As a group of writers—Philip Leider, Max Kozloff, Barbara Rose, Rosalind Krauss, Michael Fried, Sidney Tillim, Annette Michelson, and Lawrence Alloway, among others—we regarded ourselves as an entitled cenacolo, writers of and for a “writers’ magazine” whose content and agenda we set rather than receiving it by fiat “From the Desk of.” Actually this self-beautifying myth was real, and one that Philip, our editor-in-chief, amazingly indulged. As for the actual desks, they merited discard, a dilapidation easily discernible in the sepia cover-photograph of the magazine’s tenth-anniversary issue. Philip and I would howl at the disparity between our influence and our threadbare squalor. His background reinforced a strong class-consciousness; mine—the tattoo of the slogans of solidarity beating dim on tin ears—promoted a horror of socialism’s baleful puritanism.

The Artforum office became a club that I could pop into of an afternoon following the torments of the classroom. (Actually, I love to teach.) That sense of belonging brought the review section to me, and to the cadre for whom I nurtured dizzy ambitions—Lizzie Borden, Bruce Boice, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Francis Naumann, and Donald Kuspit among them, though the latter entered the lists fully formed. We felt honor-bound to mirror the developing rifts in the New York art world. Advertising scarcely mattered in the timing of a review, let alone its ever appearing. Indeed we disdained the monetary side of things. The result was that much time was spent soothing sensible merchants who, despite advertising paid for in full, discovered their artists and exhibitions scanted. My diplomatic skills were honed.

This was particularly so during a period when the fortunes of the general run of art galleries were at an impasse not unlike the present grave moment. The ’70s were hard times; several renowned dealers nearly closed shop, or considered determining a way to become nonprofit agencies smack in the path of government funding. The artists could have cared less. They had always felt, and have since the cave, that there were too few places for them and too few critical voices to their liking. Indeed, only in the last decade—with its outpouring of university-trained art historians—has a really new generation of critics emerged. Still, one notes that certain critics have been practicing their craft for thirty years now, or longer, and that the basic list has been in place for a quarter century.

In any case, the galleries’ withdrawal encouraged my attention to the emerging underground and to the alternative space. Each reviewer’s monthly list of shows to visit began with the admonition that the guide was provisional, to be discarded in favor of as-yet-unknown enthusiasms or just-breaking developments. But no matter how lofty the spiritual or political convictions that prompted it, even apparently radical art has a way of indurating with rapidity, becoming as academic as anything it supplants.

Since the review format allowed writings of personal relevance—they often tended to column length—the “featurette” became an innovation particularly associated with Artforum. Of even greater significance was the Signed Review, the review acknowledged on the title page—hence indexed—so that, as an artist’s reputation waxed, so too would that of the reviewer, who, in the past, had passed anonymously or, at best, by his or her initials, ciphers that only the alert reader would recognize. That innovation—inaugurated by me and perpetuated by the Artforum of later days—acknowledges the plain truth that art criticism, even avant-garden-variety reviewing, is also a form of literature.

Philip was particularly responsive to the views of the Harvard School, then headed by Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss. The kids from Harvard Yard spouted Clement Greenberg; unlike their mentor, they wrote impenetrably. Philip was a pal of Fried’s, Fried a disciple of Greenberg’s. My respect for the lion of Partisan Review had always been equivocal; my eyes told me that many of the artists who emerged in the latter moments of his justifiably powerful grip on the collegiate imagination were just plain dull. I was drawn instead to the artists who at the time seemed to represent a counterformalism for which I coined the term “post-Minimalism,” a bit of journalistic legerdemain that briefly passed for a catchphrase, upon which I sailed by the seat of my pants till “post-Modern” left it in the dust.

Meanwhile, the status quo was warped by the Vietnam misadventure and the odious Nixon years. The duplicitous populism of the Nancy Reagan Court was yet to come. All would become fake, synthetic, gimcrack. What am I going on about? Sham is the new paradigm—has been for years—and, as such, each successive wave is more simulated, more bogus, than the last.

By degrees, a breach widened between the editorial front of the magazine and the review pages at the back, a rupture between an unrepentant formalism and a sympathy with the arts of disenfranchisement. Philip returned to California and John Coplans assumed the editorial mantle. An intriguing painter/writer/photographer, Coplans fell under the sway of Alloway, whose convictions guyed a political rectitude avant la lettre. Finding in Alloway a generational comrade (as I had with Philip), Coplans capitulated to open enmity toward Krauss and Michelson.

These editors, with Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, set off to found October, which, by the end of the ’70s, would supplant Artforum as the compelling voice for the dissemination of new ideas in contemporary art, at least insofar as the university circuit was concerned. It was admittedly wearying to slog through the tapioca of Octobrist prose, but the trek was no less valuable for its gumminess. This valedictory glance should not be construed as an apology for easy art criticism.

IF I WAS forced out during a period of declining fortunes, there can be no doubt of Artforum’s continuing prestige: the magazine in the ’80s arguably represented a silver age after golden years. Still, the acrimonious strife tainted the new dawn. It was with a bruised sense of loss that I realized I was pleasing charmer no more but instead an unwelcome adversary. It smarted that later editors of Artforum kept me at arm’s distance, for fear, perhaps, of golden-age contamination. This exile was only compounded by the October circle (some of them my graduate students), reluctant to acknowledge that their post-Modernist profession of faith did not supplant Modernism but only manifested its next dialectical step, not to say its dernier cri. So, I went to Arts, as Simple Simon contributor. There I met forbearance and, for a moment, a modicum of appreciation.

Artforum not only persisted but prospered during the fizzy ’80s. Yet it strikes me that it became less an organ of art criticism than a certain kind of artwork, a visual repast that one month might tempt, another, repel. Through a skillful amalgam of image and design, Artforum provided the intellectual cuisine that its writing sustained in only a limited sense (with, of course, notable exceptions, such as Thomas McEvilley, Dan Cameron, and Kuspit). As a surrogate work of art, it seems to me, Artforum, particularly in the persons of Ingrid Sischy, Edit deAk, and Rene Ricard, provided an armature for the expressionism redivivus of the early ’80s.

At the same time, perhaps ruefully, October advanced the arguments for an art of commodity theory, an art amounting to the double suicide of literacy and visuality. I would be willing, mind you, to allow that this work still awaits its great exponent, were it not for the express rejection of the notion of “the great artist” endorsed by its apologists. Still, massive denial is no proof of inexistence.

In any case, as once I impatiently donned the hat of an editor at Artforum, I have doffed the college colors that allowed me the privilege not so much of writing art criticism as of actually seeing the stuff in print. My opinion, it turns out—as perhaps those of others—resolved in the transposition. As often as not, the page was my party.

Robert Pincus-Witten, an educator and writer, is the exhibition director of Gagosian Gallery, New York. After a quarter-century’s teaching art history at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, he was elected professor emeritus in 1990. He is also the editor of the Roy Lichtenstein catalogue raisonné, the first volume of which will appear in 1994. He was variously an associate editor, senior editor, and contributing editor of Artforum from December 1971 to March 1976.