PRINT March 1995



To the Editor:
Upon my arrival in New York prior to the opening of the Cy Twombly exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, I read Rosalind Krauss’ article on Twombly published next to the embarrassing market gossip written by Peter Schjeldahl on the same subject [September 1994]. Usually I refrain from reacting to criticism; it is wonderful if someone has other ideas, and if the mistakes one makes are corrected. I write in this case because Ms. Krauss’ article represents some sort of journalism that I find entirely inappropriate. She is not seriously interested in criticism, she is just denouncing, like someone using strange philology. The question of right or wrong is totally irrelevant in her discussion. She makes “discoveries” because they fit into her predetermined picture—this awful, silly nonsense play with Mars, etc., is entirely her “invention.” Writing that Twombly misreads Jackson Pollock’s marks, Krauss is worlds from the truth. Does she really think that you “read marks” in Pollock’s paintings? A sheer, impossible semantic speculation! She reads, classifies, and stigmatizes.

I do not know why Ms. Krauss calls me Twombly’s “mouthpiece,” and why she quotes from one of my texts written almost 20 years ago. There are many new ones, Ms. Krauss! She has never met me, and has never talked to Twombly either, so can have no justification for such a stupid term. Twombly needs no “mouthpiece.” The conclusion itself is embarrassing enough. Among the things my education instilled in me is a strong spirit of freedom and independence—exactly the opposite of what Ms. Krauss insinuates. Her remarks on Roland Barthes indicate that there is more than a world between what he has written and her grasping of it.

How could someone who loves art (?) write such an article as the introduction or welcome to a great artist’s work in New York? I have been taught, particularly by the late Otto von Simson, to create a finely balanced text that must make the reader curious and longing to see the actual works. Ms. Krauss just creates misery! Culture lives a very fragile life at the end of the second half of the century. How fragile is clearly proven by Ms. Krauss’ comments, which one can only describe as an intellectual hypocrisy, or, perhaps better, a bankruptcy dictated by hate. How sad and poor—such a strange approach.

—Heiner Bastian

Rosalind E. Krauss replies:
Mr. Bastian’s letter underscores the extraordinary gap between his world of reference and the one out of which my essay on Cy Twombly was written, namely, American cultural and intellectual discourse in the last quarter of the 20th century. As just one example: he chooses to quote me as saying, tout court, that Twombly misreads Jackson Pollock’s marks, and to chastize me for this as an attempt to “stigmatize” Twombly. But when I used this word I placed it in quotation marks and preceded it with a reference to an intellectual context: namely, I said that it belongs to “what Harold Bloom would call a strong misreading.” For readers of Artforum, as indeed for the wider audience of Anglo-Americans interested in theories of how culture is transmitted from one artist or generation to another, a reference to Bloom’s work has a definite resonance. For Bloom speaks (in his Anxiety of Influence) of the complex relation between great literary masters (like Shakespeare or Milton) and the poets who follow them, poets who cannot themselves move forward except by acknowledging what these earlier masters did. Weak poets do this by producing pale imitations of the masters. Strong poets, however, “misread” the masters, thereby both engaging with their work and freeing themselves from it. There is nothing negative in what Bloom is describing. His admiration for Shelley, for example, is expressed through his analysis of the way the later poet’s work is a brilliant “misreading” of Milton.

I do not see how a painting like Twombly’s Panorama could have been produced outside a complex relation to Abstract Expressionism in general and Pollock in particular. Panorama produces a certain critique of (the then-current understanding of) Pollock’s handling of line. The enormous productivity of that critique, and the possibilities it opened for Twombly to produce great art, were what I was trying to set out for the readers of Artforum. It would be beyond my comprehension that Mr. Bastian could see my comments as anything but praise of Twombly, except that—and this was indeed what I laid at his doorstep in the essay—his notion of praise moves in certain poetic channels and mine does not. He surely must know, however, that if Twombly’s work has often received a lukewarm reception when it has crossed the Atlantic—and the Peter Schjeldahl essay with which mine was paired was an instance of just this—this is because it has been misperceived (and thus, indeed, “stigmatized”) as soft, “poetic,” and European. I was trying to combat this perception by showing that the conditions of the work’s beauty are also those of its resistance and toughness. I think this is also what Roland Barthes was addressing in his brilliant essay on Twombly.

When I wrote the Artforum article I had no idea what Mr. Bastian’s relation to Twombly was except that he was in the midst of the enormous labor of preparing the catalogue raisonné and seemed to be the writer to whom Twombly turned again and again to introduce his work in various exhibition catalogues and books. I thus assumed that over the last several decades Bastian’s writing had projected something of the public image Twombly wanted for the work. It was in this sense that I saw him as repeatedly “speaking for” Twombly. Given the rather great difference of opinion we have over the channels through which our forms of admiration for Twombly’s work are to run, however, I am glad to hear, via his letter, that this is perhaps not the case.

To the editor:
I appreciate your and Linda Nochlin’s attention to my book, the collection of essays Secret Lives in Art, in your November issue. I am an admirer of Ms. Nochlin’s work, and am grateful for her positive remarks on my collection, but she has essentially misunderstood a central theme of fatherlessness in my autobiography and criticism. Nowhere do I say or have I ever said or implied that “fatherlessness” is “devastating,” as she claims. Like Ms. Nochlin, who says I “never consider the advantages fatherlessness may bestow on the child,” I have found the condition highly expedient; but while she describes it in purely personal terms, as she makes clear from a family anecdote in which she finds herself delightfully alone with her mother due to some temporary absence of her father, the opportunity of fatherlessness from my own viewpoint includes the political. The return of Ms. Nochlin’s father in her little story puts an end, as she asserts, to a certain “summer of . . . bliss” with her mother. The father’s very presence impedes her maternal relationship. Her access to her mother is inhibited by her father’s claim. This observation is critical to any feminist analysis of the state and women’s place in it of the past quarter century. Women like myself, fatherless from the start, with theoretically unobstructed access to the mother, have been quick to understand our advantage—both personal and political.

On the flip side of this scenario, it’s hard to imagine that Ms. Nochlin hasn’t grasped the benefit of having had a father in a patriarchal state. For women, like men, the personal experience of growing up with a father has tended to provide unalloyed insight into the workings of the system he represents, the system that has bound us all. The special challenge to fatherless men, of learning to comprehend the very political oxygen we breathe without benefit of paternal example, is the focus of a vast historical literature on male deliverance—a subject covered in my essay on Robert Bly, who has helped to contemporize this well-known quest. For fatherless women the quest to understand what they have not been supposed to enter, much less lead, obviously compounds their challenge. At this point, women with fathers are equally defied (their fathers having been generally constrained to discourage them from entering the world), uniting us in mutual enterprise.
Jill Johnston
New York