PRINT September 1993

ARTFORUM ’62–’79

Yours Faithfully,

IT WAS 16 YEARS AGO, and already there had been too much harping on the “end” of painting, of abstract art, of art as we know it, of the world, etc. Some of us sought to move beyond both trademark American formalist “Modernism” and Minimalist inertness. In the late ’70s, with the stock market bobbing around 600, not many dollars were being bet on art, and we were not quite yet overrun by mercantile investors, not yet stuck in a Hollywood of art stars. Obviously I wish we could have held out longer, but I think we did quite a bit in three short years.

There is formalism and there is formalism. I am no more interested now than I was then in the dumb, only-an-eye ikebana variety that at the time hung over from the ’60s. (My own formal awareness, grounded in Wölfflin, Roger Fry, and classical art history, developed years before hearing of Mr. Greenberg.) By 1977 that discourse was not merely out of steam, it was bankrupt before the deeper formalism of Central European semiotics, then newly accessible, and structuralism. Thus were we coming to see, for example, how Kasimir Malevich had been reduced to a Constructivist by repression of his by no means irrational symbolic aspect. Nothing that wasn’t at least as cognitive as it was perceptual deserved to fly as formalism anymore.

At odds with formalism, of course, was the party—now the tailgate party—of Duchamp, with whom you can seemingly go from 0 to 60 without having to know anything else about art. That, however, is like taking Victor Borge for the world’s greatest pianist. Much worse than Duchampomania, however, was the ’70s cult of “information,” whose adopted formats reflected the national Calvinist ideology. From it descends today’s more styled, mannered, groomed cultural critique, either self-righteous or naughty, too much of which is sophomoric in the very criticality that is supposed to be its strength. How frustrating when smart-ass, anti-transcendental “cultural production” only winds up fueling the old stereotype of the spacey artiste.

Marcuse related art and religion as the only two departments of culture not hopelessly contaminated by capitalism, but my only real disappointment as editor was the cynical derision that met any religious reference. This was blatant in the case of my “Iconicity” articles (reprinted in Historical Present, 1984), in which I undertook to analyze new abstract paintings structurally rather than simply formally, without canonizing them editorially. These essays, which would not have been so ill received in Europe, were tinged with notoriety thanks to the taboo against any engagement with religious, especially Catholic, thought. All the fashionable Enlightenment-bashing ceases when Catholicism comes up; against Rome, anything goes. So the official Freemasonry still suppresses the Catholic element in Cézanne or Brecht (returned), Panofsky (yes) or Lacan—much as it once demanded deletion of Barnett Newman’s Jewish learning as revealed by Thomas Hess.

In my day I was considered nonideological. But what had happened before my time with Hans Haacke’s 1971 Guggenheim exhibition—intended to embarrass slumlords—seems to me rather more world-historic than would be, after it, the interminable ’80s defense of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, 1981, against those nerdy office workers who had to circumambulate it four times a day. Whereas Haacke was smeared as an anti-Semite for one “Real-Time Social System,” 1971, despite another that exposed the Baptist Church (too close to Rockefeller interests to mention?). Serra, the chagrined idealist, would sue for $30,000,000 plus, supported by huffy and grandiose art-world radical pols. It is entertaining now to read those parts of the testimony in which matters of artistic form had to be spelled out juridically (if not necessarily well) by sophisticates who otherwise preferred to stand coolly apart from formalism. In the years between two such different scandals of “public art,” maybe “pure,” nonobjective painting did offer an alternative to moral grossness and pseudoradical politics. Ideologically, then, I was (and am) a socialist, and as such I suspect that no one who finds the handwork of painting to be fundamentally distasteful can be trusted with effecting a democratic socialism.

As far as the operation of the magazine was concerned, I gladly took singlehanded responsibility for each month’s cover, preferring to present—notwithstanding a certain amount of immediate grumbling—works by worthy artists not yet well known in the late ’70s: Elizabeth Murray, Jake Berthot, David Diao, Jan Groover, Michael Singer, Ivan Puni, Leon Polk Smith, Martin Puryear, and Sean Scully. During my three years it was also gratifying to publish continuing writers such as Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe and Peter Plagens (and to welcome Nicolas Calas, Ted Castle, William S. Wilson), as well as newer historians and critics including Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, David Carrier, Regina Cornwell, Jonathan Crary (my former student), Hal Foster (introduced by the publisher), the later Peter Fuller (great on Ruskin’s relevance for alienation theory), Donald B. Kuspit, Francis Naumann, and Carol Squiers, and then, even, to be able to recommend Arthur C. Danto to The Nation.

Recalling my tenure as editor means thinking back across what seemed for a time an ever-expanding art universe. Since “goals” always struck me as vulgar, I can’t remember any immediate ones other than upholding Modernity and keeping open to new insight in art. But I was then already aware of the demand, all the more urgent now, of comprehending art’s historicity, which, if not assumed by Moderns, will always confirm reaction or regression. This is probably easier to applaud in theory than in practice—for instance, I would certainly have opposed the overrated Italians of the next decade, as I oppose free-radical irony and a fashionably self-marginalizing ethnic and self-righteous social pathos today. It is, of course, gratifying to have played some modest part in the unfolding of recent art and criticism; it is more gratifying to have been in a position to advance that interplay of critical and historiographic thought which may at least outlast the inflationary, cultural junk-food of the 1980s.

Joseph Masheck recently completed two books: Modernities: Art-Mutters in the Present (Penn State Press, 1993), and Building-Art : Modern Architecture Under Cultural Construction (Cambridge University Press, 1993). He is associate professor of art history at Hofstra University and was editor of Artforum from March 1977 to January 1980.