PRINT April 1997


IT WAS PROBABLY SOMETIME in 1963 that the founder of a struggling, funny-shaped, and at that point very new art magazine out of San Francisco came across the writing of a young critic in Art International whom he obviously decided he admired. That, at any rate, was the year John Irwin invited Kozloff to contribute to Artforum from New York. Though barely aware of the journal at the time (“I was in France on a Fulbright—I think a magazine with an odd format devoted to art had appeared before I left”), Max was delighted to do so. Decades passed, and publishers and editors came and went (Max himself serving as executive editor for a few years); today, Max Kozloff is surely the only writer regularly publishing in Artforum who would recognize John Irwin if he passed him on the street.
Veritable tsunamis have broken and receded in art and art criticism since 1963, and Max has watched them wash in, and then out, with a certain curmudgeonly glee. Meanwhile he has stuck fiercely to the standards enforced by his own intelligence, by the rigorous care with which it is his habit to inspect the visual images that engage him, and by the searching way he combs his own responses to them. Max would probably frown at the idea that those responses should be grounded in any particular theoretical camp, and I think he feels this has put him out of step with a lot of the thinking that has been applied to art and photography during his lifetime. I also don’t think he minds. Call it the camp of Max: ferociously learned, voluminously wide-ranging, humanistic, tender at heart, but not at all forgiving of anything sensed as doctrinaire or narrow-minded. So far this camp has only one critic, and given Max’s views on simulations and simulacrums in art, I doubt he would tolerate cloning. Editorially if not scientifically speaking, this is a pity.
Simultaneously elegant and stubborn, Max’s writing has appeared in most of the art and photo magazines I can think of and others besides, and he has published a civilized shelf—full of books (one of which, Lone Visions, Crowded Frames, has just been reissued by the University of New Mexico Press). But I first met him when he allowed me (at first rather begrudgingly, as I remember) to edit his articles for Artforum, and his conversation was one of the perks of employment there, so the magazine you are reading is the experience we share. A poltergeist that has haunted this publication for eons has been the mysteriously persistent impression that its text is impenetrable—technical, obscurantist, cabalistic. People seemed to enjoy floating that notion by me when I worked at the magazine, but if I challenged them on it, which I naturally tended to do, they would sometimes try to duck by pinning the blame on Artforum’s earlier history—at which point I usually found myself thinking, Now I know they’re bluffing: That was when Max was here! The essay I am honored to introduce shows how this critic’s writing has always worked: a challenging, closely argued statement, it has both breadth and style.
David Frankel


Twenty-one years ago, after having switched my field from art criticism to writing on photography, I started to make photographs as well, and in earnest. It afforded a surprised insight into the process from “behind” a medium I had previously regarded only from the front. But there was no reason that this new intimacy should require the sacrifice of a previous distance. I was beguiled by picture-making and attached to writing about the art of others. Why not—like a few colleagues—be responsible for both? Back then, one who let it be known that he simultaneously practiced an art and commented on it was looked upon as a dubious character. I recall the artist Scott Burton warning me that if I were to do pictures, then it was advisable to drop criticism, as he had (to my regret, since he was an excellent writer). One should not overtax the art world’s ability, he said, to handle only one identity per person.

Nowadays that idea seems quaint, as we’ve long since become familiar with art that expects to be taken as criticism or that is indistinguishable from large or fine print. The tendency to fuse the discursive and the “figurative” was well underway in the ’70s, and was recognized as a form of contracting two imaginative activities into one. In contrast, my more conventional idea was to divide my efforts, in acknowledgment of their separate categories and demands. Showing and telling might be wonderfully contaminated by each other in the mind, but they assert their sensory difference when practiced.

There must also have been a sort of politics implied in my instinctive move to a new medium. A liberal’s ideal of social goods can only exist in great tension with contemporary art’s radical individualism. As an art critic, I was constantly adjusting to yet resisting this regnant, aloof individualism. Put off by the coldness of late Minimalism, I was repelled by the aridity of Conceptualism, and the perversity of Body art. For that matter, I had trouble coming to terms with the remote, ahistorical absolutes of Modernism itself . . . and the authoritarian art writing that went with them. Unhappy time, the early ’70s: the foreground war dragging on, and art in a high- or low-tech mode, numbed yet narcissistic. I remember the scene as self-assured but without a grasp, as if it had lost its hold on the times.

Photography appeared, by comparison, to be in mostly unpretentious touch with what was happening, or had happened, affecting us all the more because it couldn’t help itself. That was its nature: to take intermittent, multiform light traces of the world and to absorb us in the viewing process. It wasn’t just that one looked at the photographic picture as one looked at a painting, one looked through the picture by virtue of the grip it had on another world and a different time. Though quite literally flat, photographs had plenty of allusive texture. Here was an image bank that acted as a backlog of historical appearances. It bonded disparate peoples through visual memories, and the fact that they were largely the memories of strangers did not diminish the impression that they were collective ones. Far-flung viewers had from the first been able to recognize and identify with them. All the better that photographs created such empathy in a manner most familiar, even accessible, yet mysterious. Photography was a gallery of visual effects derived from unexamined causes. How much did we really know about photographs’ psychological influence over us, the source of their fascination or their pathos? For hardly anyone had studied the dynamics of how we experience photographs. And few had tried to articulate them in words by introspective means.

Yet the general enthusiasm I felt for the medium in those days was hardly exclusive. Shifting patterns in collecting, maybe combined with a genuine concern for pervasive but neglected imagery, had made the photographic scene volatile. Visiting intellectuals wrote essays on photography, and galleries in large number opened their walls to it. Sociologists and, later, media specialists began to consider photography in light of their disciplines. My concern as a decamped art critic was to develop an approach to photography on its own ground. For all my moral interest, I was equally motivated by aesthetic curiosity. Little did any of us realize that this volatile scene was the dawn of the age of the “image,” a centerpiece of later cultural studies. Photography, in short, was to serve disparate agendas, recommending itself to each as nothing less than the prime mode of visual communication in the twentieth century.

Art, by comparison, was a sideshow. But it was nevertheless to art models that writers on photography at the time addressed themselves. To be sure, in its previously established histories, the medium was described as a shifting series of mechanical processes or as a sequence of images performing social services, apolitically defined. This had been the no doubt useful but still only preliminary work of Helmut Gernsheim and Beaumont Newhall. Meanwhile, with great effect, MoMA’s John Szarkowski was active in demonstrating that photography could be approached by analyzing its formal strategies, and then, in encouraging viewers to detach the picturemaker’s activity of looking from the humdrum depicted. Photographs, in short, were “about” the autonomous, self-interested, and finally ahistorical perception of their author. Moreover, when displaced in a museum context, they were so open to conflicting readings that the idea of content itself was removed from discussion. The aesthetic worth of the image—and it could be a modest image—had to be taken on faith, as a pronouncement handed down. By the late ’70s, as if to justify their critical regard, a number of writers decided that American photography needed a patriarch, the equal of any counterpart in Modern art. The result was a skewing of the earlier historical record by the elevation of Alfred Stieglitz to founding status (to the neglect, say, of Lewis Hine, who had far greater depth, vitality, and influence).

As I was eager to write away from art-world hang-ups, to engage in such a familiar argument would draw me right back into them again. Surely criticism realizes itself as it discerns the poetics of an artistic vision, whether in photography or any other medium. But a difference exists between that sensitive act and an unwillingness to progress except on the back of a celebrity. If power games were an issue, it seemed more useful to uncover their actual channels in photographic culture than to invest in arguable hierarchies. For the time being, though, I could only address the problem of photographic power through an art-critical model, my 1973 essay “American Painting During the Cold War” (itself inspired by Meyer Schapiro’s work of the ’30s). In that piece, I suggested that parallels between the action painters’ apotheosis of risk and, for example, American foreign policy “brinkmanship” could illuminate our art because such correspondences showed that its cultural context was also political.

But these rather schematic (and now commonplace) attitudes were transformed by the practical realities of a new craft. Suppose one took a viewer-oriented approach to photographic genres—portraiture, photojournalism, fashion, and so on—those redundant sequences based on our apparent desire or need for the information they purveyed. Genres rather easily assume that we’re in an attuned and receptive state for constant transmission of typical messages. The fact that such media signals are often misfired and people are wrongly targeted doesn’t lessen the basically transactional sense of the photographic experience. I could imagine myself to be (often I actually am) a representative viewer of genre photographs, my appetites multiplied in step with their appeals. Reckoning with this scenario, one might react as a prospective traveler, customer, voter, nature lover, family member, and most often but less specifically, as a mild voyeur. Photographic culture could be seen as a gallery charged with endless, inciting “prospects.”

I wrote, then, of the viewer in such circumstances as being implicated by the voluntary act of looking. That word stressed two things: that contact with photographs was obviously involving and that it could also cast us into roles that had moral overtones. As soon as we realize that the photographic act can exploit or demean subjects, we notice that it just as easily celebrates or glorifies them. So, the medium makes our material advantages or disadvantages relative to those in the picture, a routine influence on photographic experience. When perceived, this influence might call into play a kind of excitement that rustles through viewers’ responses, shading them, as I thought, darkly or brightly according to their own social placement.

But this acknowledgment that we are disparate, fixated audiences who make up a heterogeneous public was not a momentous discovery. And it had the defect of emphasizing our differences rather than explaining how the medium does connect us in passionate ways. Eventually, the sociology of photographs seemed to me to afford only short-term answers to larger and more ambiguous problems. Something more than a scheme about transmission and reception, and harder to explain, ramifies our encounter with these images. Genre analysis could not account for what was deeply interesting in the photos themselves—their way of provoking a subjectivity that may have been affected by one’s class, gender, or race but that also went beyond such predispositions. John Berger alerted readers to that potential by relating the material appointments of a scene (for example, in an image by Kertész or Sander) to a scenario that told of the work, the daily life, and sometimes the emotions of its subjects. It wasn’t so much that he legitimated any particular projection as a method of getting at content, but he made it an object of study. For me, the work of this novelist who cares for pictures suggested a point of departure in photographic criticism.

Portraiture, for instance, was a genre that invited and naturalized a special projection. The rules of photographic portraiture imply a peculiar interaction between two parties, the subject(s) and a photographer who intercedes for later viewers. Peculiar because the performance of sitters assumes that they are alive to and within the viewers’ presence, which isn’t the case. There is inevitably a dead zone that separates them and stretches across space as well as time—a zone I wanted to animate in my criticism. And I hoped to do so by interpreting the degrees to which the performance, nervously reactive to the artifice of its own ritual, is toned by mistrust, inwardness, uncertainty, or pleasure in the diplomacy of the moment effected in unison with the photographer. (I took stock of such effects in essays on the portraiture of Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, and Peter Hujar.) It seemed to me that the more we learned about such inevitably theatrical resonances, the more we would be enlightened about behavior we shared with the pictured subjects. For the charade in portraits is a pondered version of our less deliberate, incessant, and more fluid poses in life. How often have I surveyed the faces in photographs for signs, guessing from them a kind of music in the exposures of self-consciousness. In this sounding, the social background and circumstance of sitters counted for much. But their scrutinized, unpredictable awareness of being on display—their response to the moment—contributed more to the content of the portrait.

So, here was a strenuous criticism that I hoped was credible because of its attempt at a psychological realism. But when I started to make photographs, their airiness was anything but solid, and their “psychology” was unclear. I looked into the shop windows of New York, and with imagery tried to turn some of them into Parisian ones. Through modified zones of half-light and hue, the picture described its physical locale, yet it might have suggested that the mind of its maker was somewhere else. My stimulus, for an unknown reason, was failed retail. Without a doubt those objects left in stores for rent were melancholy; they evoked past hopes. At the same time, the chroma of reflections spoke of a present that was clearly ineffable. It was easier to oscillate between these qualities and values than to fuse them, until I noticed that passersby behind me, whose shadows had distracted from a still-life project, were in fact my real subjects . . . and I turned around.

Just the same, it had been necessary to move through an intermediate stage—the depiction of statues. They struck me as immobilized public spies, only pretending to go about their posturing so as to keep discreet, sidewise tabs on the community. At the same time, I understood them to have no choice but to be misunderstood and abused by the indifference around them. I considered them with ambivalent feelings reserved for debased icons. As for the crowds that sometimes swirled in the plazas or parks where statues were stationed, their human spontaneity worked all the more attractively against the hyperbolic behavior to which the sculptures at one time alluded.

Yet the experience of photographing such public spaces drove home the fact that the camera tyrannizes human freedom in its own right, that it congeals social exchange and gives it the character of a tableau vivant, unconsummated, tense, and perplexing. Mostly I warmed to the crowds for their density, built up in moments of festival, ethnic, or communal celebration in many countries. Their good time afforded me the quite different joys of observing them in action. None of this work is specifically anecdotal or documentary. My subjects and I had but the most glancing exchange, as I wanted only to obtain some glimpses of them, the edginess of their life, in startled frames. With disconcerting frequency, an individual seemed detached from the crowd, a creature whose introspection was frozen, like that of a statue.

As a person whose work had forked, I couldn’t anticipate how far I would be taken, and on which road. I do know that my criticism was gradually drawn to the contrast between the photograph’s nominal and effective content (in Roland Barthes’ terms, studium and punctual). The former is usually indicated by the image’s social or technical idiom, and the latter is brought out by a wild power to shock, disturb, or touch a viewer, sometimes constructed by artistic design, but more often generated through a fortuitous or maybe inadvertent detail captured within the picture’s socialized program. Barthes has written of the detail as a feature that he detaches from the pictorial field through his unsharable private subjectivity. Not only is this ungenerous, it’s mistaken, because the unaffecting genre material and the moving detail are indivisible. Photographic images are haunted by the sheer doggedness of the random. I suspect that this is another way of saying that the world has its unpredictable way with them. The world is strewn with obscure, uncalled-for particulars, which mingle indifferently with our programs and our stories. But as photographs blend these particulars in spasmodic ratios, miscellaneous jolts and narrative import are all part of the picture.

I wish the “discourse” on the medium of the last fifteen years had picked up on the “incidental” in photographic recording, the value of which is crucial and ambiguous. John Szarkowski had emphasized the transfiguring element of luck in photographic practice, his way of alluding to—or rather, ensuring—an indeterminate content. But for their part, regardless of their individual stakes, academic theorists in general prescribed new closures upon the viewing process. The culture of which photographs provided tokens was seen as a traffic in inequities. (To this day, it’s remarkable how little pleasure theorists take in photography’s gifts of remembrance and identity.) There emerged a long-term put-down of the medium, judged by the political controls and corporate interests that regulate the distribution of images in history. This view of pictures is saturated by a phobia toward power systems, whether those of late capitalism or art-world hype. When they serve such interests (and which ones don’t?), photos must be incriminated artifacts and mendacious filters. One writer’s collected essays, typical of this outlook, was called Photography at the Dock, as if the medium itself was on trial. Such presumption of guilt was also extended by writers who examined the photographic foundation of popular culture, which “overprivileges” the visual in the “society of spectacle.” In proportion to their delirious rise in the media, images fell on hard times in the Ivory Tower, being compelled to eke out a living as flimsy pretexts for longwinded sermons.

The idea that texts are somehow superior to images (as if they could be ranked) sounds crazy to me, but this idea is widely assumed—and goes unquestioned—in academia. In the sociology of higher learning, those who study the visual arts are placed on the bottom rung of an intellectual hierarchy. Literary critics, semioticians, and political scientists, role models all, may be asked to lecture to art historians, but not the other way around. Wishing to improve their status and to blend in, those in the image line could distance themselves from visual objects in their increasingly theoretical work. It says a lot about their approach to the image that they canonized Duchamp, more renowned than any other twentieth-century artist for his animus toward the visual. It says even more that they stamped out pictorial allusions and therefore descriptive appeal from their language, one reason for the abstract tenor of their writing. Suitably deadened in tone, it gained prestige in the semantic environment of grad-student seminars.

In its time, Modernist writing on photography had been chaste—no politics and no sex—while the academic doctrines that replaced it have pretty much excluded everything else. Certainly, they raised vivid issues—about “gender” and the male gaze, for instance—but these fullblooded questions produced anemic answers. It could not be otherwise when ideology counted for more than anyone’s actual experience of the work. I define experience here as the way a viewer “transacts” with what is depicted in a photograph, seeing it as a pictorial subject, and yet with a sense of it as an opening to real activity, with all its vagrant data, in a time past. A lay visitor to our mandarin scene would conclude that it was prepsychological. He or she would search in vain for a clue as to how, in any embodied transaction, feeling is triggered through specific looking. Without that clue, the field lacks a candid and therefore inviting approach to its subjects. Instead, what it purveys to general readers is a corporate statement with an intimidating effect.

An educated eye, a sociopolitical critique, a self-affirming consciousness: these are strong assets of any criticism. Only, let them be combined with and worked through each other, so that they may be mutually informed yet moderated by their competing interests. Let them reach out toward, rather than shun the photographic image. Let it be realized that the pictures themselves may have an unexpected impact, but won't bite. The age of the image needs a reaffirmation of photographic criticism as a separate field concerned with filtrates of memory, rich in portents of art, yet based in the material witness of life.