TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT October 1998

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

POISON IVY

To the Editor:
After the initial shock of seeing “our dirty linen” washed in public (by an outsider, no less), I found Ronald Jones’ “Crimson Herring” in the Summer issue (on “Black Like Who?” the Harvard symposium on stereotypes in contemporary art) quite brave. At the same time, it was a bit confused—how could it not be?

Before going further, let me confess: I’m of the pox-on-both-your-houses school myself. The Kara Walker attackers and defenders have so occupied the floor that mere examiners of the work have no room.

One reason the audience was so “snow-packed,” as Jones put it, is that beyond the brutal demographics of the art world, many black arts professionals were not informed of the symposium, or if they were, they decided not to attend: they feared they might get angry (not at white people, but at the conference organizers) and lose their cool.

The warning signs were there, in the choice of panelists and the framing of issues—all crimson flags that this was one symposium that would not have the intellectual weight one expects from Harvard. When so many who have pondered long and hard on the issues as they affect the art world (bell hooks, Michele Wallace, and Judith Wilson, e.g.) are conspicuously absent, while so many with axes to grind are there, even the pretense of reasonable discussion seems abandoned. Not to mention the shameless imbalance in the opposing sides: three lonely “attackers,” most out of their depth (Florence Ladd is an academic dean recently turned novelist, and Bettye Saar, while a good artist and nice person, is not an academic heavyweight)—against the combined market power of the most currently certified names? I ask you. Even the symposium’s sponsorship by two of Walker’s biggest collectors hinted at agendas unnamed. However serious the intentions of the organizers may have been, they could only he undone by suspicion that this was a market maneuver in masquerade.

Jones was right to point out the unfortunate timing of the debate “at a moment marked by the withering life of affirmative action on certain upscale campuses”—or, for that matter, in the mainstream art world. And his use of Anselm Kiefer’s example was apt, I feel (though I’m not sure it’s an exact equivalent). But it was disappointing to see someone so perceptive adopt the simplistic casting of the disagreement as a generational dispute: i.e., between younger and older blackartists. This furnished one more example of what Jones himself rightly identifies as the ignorance that verifies “the real effect of multiculturalism in the academy as hovering a few degrees above zero.” Part of the problem, of course, is the lingering truth of the folk wisdom of the black art world, that there is only room for one or two blacks of either gender to be successful at a given time. Add to that the further restriction of age, and the odds become astronomical. But while there is a “market” reality to the generational war (so that it is not too difficult to see who is sponsoring it, and why), its intellectual reality is almost nil. Outside the questionable parameters of the Harvard symposium, it comes as no surprise that many older black artists are thrilled both by the aesthetic bravura and by the sheer personal gumption of Walker’s work, and that, equally, many younger black artists are appalled by its seeming lack of psycho-political reflection—nor is it any surprise that most black artists, of whatever age, are thrilled and appalled at once.

I agree that we need “refined beliefs in racial and cultural equality,” but we need lots of variety in the refinement. What we don’t need is the kind of unitary vocalization—one right point of view, one hip generation, that white culture seems to demand of us, so that it doesn’t have to think about us so much, so that we’re not too complicated.

Lorraine O’Grady
Senior Fellow, Vera List Center for the Arts

Ronald Jones responds:
My ego was momentarily buoyant on the swells of Ms. O’Grady’s apparently friendly and blithe letter; after all, one is so rarely called “brave” in print these days. For me, it is a first. But in spite of the unreserved courtesy, her letter deserves to be derailed. Ms. O’Grady has implied that “reason and debate” were in default at the Harvard symposium because those arts professionals who are, by her writ, the most currently certified names (bell hooks, Michele Wallace, and Judith Wilson) sat somewhere “offstage” and out of town, seized up with panic that they would suffer an emotional meltdown were they to set foot in Harvard Yard. We should really hear from Ms. hooks and others on this subject once they regain their composure—as of today we have not. Ms. O’Grady’s arguments with the organizers of the Harvard symposium must ultimately end with them, but I do have a cordial word of advice: the fear of suffering a spasm of animosity should not cause anyone to shrink from responsibility. It will, I fear, only keep one high, shy, and dry.

Indeed a company of black arts professionals were in Cambridge those days having chosen not to recoil. Without an invitation to sit-up-on-stage, they still came, like the rest of us, to participate. And they did, voicing a concern or two that ring in Ms. O’Grady’s letter, and many more that did not. I respect that.

As for those who were invited up on stage, Ms. O’Grady has sketched them as walking wounded. Poor Florence Ladd and Bettye Saar must now learn that being a dean, and nice, and good immediately renders you mere academic acolytes by the canon of Senior Fellow O’Grady. Ms. O’Grady’s rhetoric has created the “greater but still inculpable fool” mechanism to describe “outsiders” who fail her innocent eye test. At least I have been dubbed the courageous outsider. But in this I may take only cold comfort; in the fine print Ms. O’Grady renders me innocently confused, and falling short. But then in an unexpected turn of events, I am, it works out, not at fault at all. The reason? Too senselessly white to see that the symposium organizers had ulterior motives; they pulled one over on me. To telescope Ms. O’Grady’s reasoning—I now sit happily among the good gang of black arts professionals who did attend the symposium and were themselves too duped by all those hidden agendas. And the reason? They were too plain silly for not realizing that this symposium was all a market-driven conspiracy.

Gazing up toward the Ivory Tower, Ms. O’Grady expects us to learn that there is a market reality to the generational differences I wrote about, but that its intellectual reality adds up to nothing. She seems unusually suspicious of some market-driven cabal she imagines the Harvard symposium might have been tied to. She spends her time implying that this conspiracy taints the art world’s young while she and the other academics fight the good fight. This is woefully oversimplified. Yes, the succession of generations is often marked by increasing financial prosperity for factory workers, lawyers, artists, and academics too. But I do not remember the last time an artist’s appearance in a symposium produced a spike in their market. Participation at that level generally provides benefits where tenure evaluations are concerned. But wouldn’t it really be nice were her conspiracy theory true? Collectors, art professors, magazine editors, and artists huddled in the smoke-filled room plotting their “market maneuver” in the form of a college symposium that is destined to make them all richer and reinforce their niche in history. And all this on the backs of the dopes on stage, unwittingly cast as holders of the flame. But only that we could accomplish this tour de force. Then the art world would have taken its first lessons in influence production as it is issued daily from the governing disciplines and professions that hardly take notice of us at all.

———————

SCHOOL’S OUT

To the Editor:
Back in the mists of time, when I used to write for Artforum, I was held to a strenuous test of proof when making provocative remarks; perhaps not as strenuous as The New Yorker, but a lot tougher than The New Republic. Apparently that has changed, so I’d like to offer a few corrections in fact or perception for your recent article on LA art schools (“Surf and Turf,” Summer 1998). Andrew Hultkrans gives the impression that there are only three art schools, trapped in a very Freudian-sounding death struggle, in Los Angeles. In reality there are closer to ten, mostly working together to offer support to the region’s artists, well known and not. In fact it is the flow of students and artist/teachers between Cal Arts and Otis and UC Irvine and Art Center and UCLA and Claremont and so on that makes Los Angeles such an extraordinary hothouse for new art.

In writing about Cal Arts, Hultkrans states that it was founded by Walt Disney “exactly twenty years ago” in a cultural wasteland, and follows this assertion with a quote from Vogue in 1989 that purports to describe some of the founding principles. Nothing at Cal Arts is exact, but it was in 1961 that Disney began the takeover of a well-established but bankrupt art school called Chouinard, alma mater to Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Al Ruppersberg, and many others—hardly a vacuum. Disney died in 1966, but he had drawn up a plan for an interdisciplinary arts college, which was taken up by a group of avant-gardists like Herb Blau, Mel Powell, and Allan Kaprow. They created a progressive, artist-run college whose essential characteristics are still in place today. The new school opened for business in 1969 and moved onto the current campus in 1971.

Yes, the art school did become famous as an outpost of Conceptual art, but it has always been more than that. For several tempestuous years in the mid-’70s, a feminist art program brought to the school by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro contested the assumptions of the Conceptualists. In the mid-’80s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, Catherine Lord (who was dean 1983–90 and now teaches at UC Irvine) led the struggle to break down the typical heterosexual male dominance in art departments across the country. And in the ’90s we have sought an international perspective, bringing in such artists as Karin Sander from Germany, Maria Fernanda Cardoso from Colombia, Margaret Morgan from Australia, Ulrich Goerlich from Switzerland, Derek Boshier and Georgina Starr from Britain, as well as the usual complement of New York suspects, like Jennifer Bolande, David Reed, Robert Bordo, Martin Beck, and Paul Ramirez Jonas, all to teach for a semester or more. Beats me how this adds up to narrow PCism.

In the end any school gets measured by the depth of alumni achievement. Cal Arts is saddled with an impressive history here, one that can set us up for invidious comparison games. There is the astonishing group from the mid- to late ’70s, of course. Then the likes of Ashley Bickerton, Guillermo Gomez Peña, Steven Prina, and Carrie Mae Weems from the early ’80s; Cindy Bernard, Nayland Blake, Lyle Ashton Harris, Catherine Opie, and Gary Simmons later in the decade. More recently, Julie Becker, Andrea Bowers, Sam Durant, Dave Muller, Laura Owens, Rubén Ortíz Torres, Monique Prieto, Marina Rosenfeld, and many others have been making their mark in Los Angeles, New York, and further afield.

Maybe next time you and Andrew are in town you’d like to come out for a visit. The campus is easy to find, and we’re only a few minutes from the Superman ride at Magic Mountain.

Thomas Lawson,
Dean, School of Art
California Institute of the Arts

Regarding Andrew Hultkrans’ article on LA art schools, the attention is welcome, but his tour of the UCLA Department of Art was somewhat misguided. If, for example, Dennis Cooper had kept his fashionably exposed ears to the trendsetting ground at Warner, he would not have heard anything remotely resembling Seattle grunge for quite some time. The mood is more aptly described as “transambient”—culturally complex, conceptually subtle (not sober), and visually “dubby.” Students say they are drawn to UCLA because of its diversity. As for drug-crazed mercenaries or mindless makers? Please stop beating a dead stereotype. They think and make. Not exactly a new idea; after all, the genus Homo has been associated with the species sapien, not faber, for 10,000 years. In that time, “man,” i.e., the thinking, speaking subject, has never been able to successfully separate a “concept” from the material entity called a “signifier.” Even Saussure resorted to the analogy of two sides of the same sheet of paper and then demonstrated the process of significiation by cutting into it. But dividing them into two sides of the same city? I don’t think so. When theory and practice come together—as they have at different moments for Cal Arts, Art Center, and UCLA—it is thrilling and more addictive than drugs. What we’re really cutting into here is a certain kind of regionalism and anti-intellectualism that is on the wane. It redefines the field in ways that are professionally astute, even stylish, but not necessarily market driven. I’m afraid your critical hemlines are too short, guys.

Mary Kelly
Chair, Department of Art
UCLA, Arts and Architecture

According to Andrew Hultkrans’ article, “Cal Arts’ Conceptual orgy came to a close in 1983–84 with the arrival of Catherine Lord,” which cites Art Center’s Richard Hertz on her destructiveness. The heroic narrative sustaining today’s Art Center is based on Cal Arts’ “failure,” said to date from 1983. The cause of this “failure” is Cal Arts’ PC-ness. Proof: Hultkrans cites Art Center’s Gilbert-Rolfe, who cites someone else saying that in the early ’90s Cal Arts’ graduate students made “things” and “ingredients” instead of art. Catherine Lord was so powerful that even students were still catching the PC virus years after she resigned (1989). The conceptual narrative glue is the idea of negative continuity: once tarred, always feathered, stigmatizing a whole (the present) from the part (the past). Facts indicate something else.

Cal Arts did not rehire Hertz in 1978; Gilbert-Rolfe was not rehired in 1985. How then did Hertz become the source of “evidence” when he was involved with neither Gilbert-Rolfe’s departure, nor John Baldessari’s, which Hertz characterizes as identical to Gilbert-Rolfe’s? When Gilbert-Rolfe speaks, he says he was “driven out” of Cal Arts. Your readers should know that in 1985 there was a grievance panel appointed to hear Gilbert-Rolfe’s appeal against the art school; that grievance panel met for over four months, and, while flawed, the decision not to rehire Gilbert-Rolfe rested with the then-president of the school, who read two reports on the matter, and voted with the majority report. (I wrote the minority report.) So “driven out” hardly cuts it. Baldessari left Cal Arts in 1988 because the market side of his career accelerated, and so far as I know, he has never written a word blaming Catherine Lord for his leaving. Hultkrans should have noted all this, instead of presenting these men as victims.

I took a leave from Cal Arts in 1993 to get Art Center’s MFA writing program going. I resigned at the end of that year, and not because of Art Center students, who were wonderful. I fled Art Center because Hertz/Gilbert-Rolfe have more concentrated authority than anything ever seen in LA art schools. I was the only full-time academic member of the graduate program; all others were part-timers in enrollment-driven classes—which is fatal to any faculty continuity, let alone “rights.” By their hirings, Hertz/Gilbert-Rolfe control the curriculum without faculty meetings, with no discussion of spending or needs.

Hultkrans mentions current Art Center faculty, but why is there no mention of Chris Kraus, who splits a position there with Sylvère Lotringer? Or of Artforum’s West Coast contributing editor, Bruce Hainley, who taught this year at—Art Center. Readers should know Hainley was turned down for a position at Cal Arts in 1997. And Kraus was refused a position in 1994, which lit the fuse, as far as I’m concerned, that produced I Love Dick. Is Cal Arts a target for those not securing employment there, namely, Hertz, Gilbert-Rolfe, Kraus, Hainley? Are editors at Artforum helping ressentiment become a condition of employability in art schools?

Sande Cohen
California Institute of the Arts

As a Cal Arts student, I am offended by the egregiously unfair and potentially damaging treatment your magazine has applied to the institute. In LA, we are lucky to have several significant educational facilities, each with different emphases and goals. The art media, in its cult of youth/cult of celebrity hysteria, have attempted to trivialize this abundance by staging a dichotomous war of personality, ignoring practice and product in favor of faculty gossip and snapshots of young faces. Though I wish this article’s objective of destroying the silly buzz around LA art schools could succeed, it undoubtedly will not. I would hope that Artforum might investigate our Pacific metropolis more responsibly in the future.

Malik Gaines
Los Angeles

God knows, when I was in school, the life in the fishbowl scene, with dealers coming to MFA shows, had a pretty awful effect. But I guess that’s just part of the game now. Still, the story your reporter told just seems so old. It’s like the gospel according to Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, circa 1983. It’s hard to believe that stuff is still getting trotted out. And when someone’s also quoting that Dennis Cooper piece in Spin as a source of information, well, you know you’re in trouble. Granted, any coverage is bound to be controversial—but couldn’t you have found someone with the info or some insight?

The deeper issue seems to be, Why can’t Artforum get it together to do decent, critical coverage of LA art? Look at how you treated Paul McCarthy: almost no coverage whatsoever, until you run a cover feature on what was, arguably, just about the worst show of his career, those horrible tomato-head sculptures at Rosamund Felsen. Seems to prove the rule that the way to get into your magazine is to make some really expensive, really bad art. I mean, is this really just a trade publication? And if so, why not get down and dirty, and give us the real info, like sale figures, fabrication costs, and the like?

Look at what you do cover. There’s Dennis Cooper and Bruce Hainley both doing “opening” pieces on pretty minor artists, including one kid barely out of school. What about Amy Adler or Julie Becker? I’m not usually too open to the “boy’s club” argument, but regarding Artforum, it seems pretty true: you better be a boy, or have boys like you, or best of all, both, to get any (positive) attention. I don’t care about politics, but I do care about art, and this kind of misinformation and bias in coverage seems really un-smart. It also seems borderline unethical on the part of certain writers.

I wish I could expect more, but honestly I don’t. I sure wish you did.

Andrew McKinley
Los Angeles

It was, and is, way more complicated than that. In consequence, it was, and is, way more interesting than Andrew Hultkrans’ fiction about Los Angeles art schools, in which bad feminists stop the boys from being boys and the boys unlucky enough to be stuck teaching lubricate the machinery that manufactures the talent that they hope will replicate them.

Can anyone there spell REVISIONISM?

Catherine Lord
Professor, Department of Studio Art
University of California, Irvine

Andrew Hultkrans responds:
While I was flattered by the barrage of mail responding to my survey of the hype surrounding UCLA and Art Center, I was more than a bit surprised by the bile quotient. Most treated my intentionally limited report as if it were CNN’s coverage of Operation Tailwind—equating Gilbert-Rolfe’s hot air with sarin nerve gas. But while egos may have been bruised, no lives were lost here. Arts education is a valuable part of the art world and the humanities in general, but artists are neither created nor destroyed by where (or if) they choose to pursue their MFA.

Thomas Lawson and others assert that there are “close to ten” art schools in Los Angeles, as if to say I should have given equal coverage to each. Such an effort would require an entire special issue of Artforum entitled “Arts Education in LA: Past and Present,” a project that Mr. Lawson, having written for Artforum “back in the mists of time,” should know would be both tiresome and unwarranted. My editors sent me to LA to test a rather playful hypothesis: Are UCLA and Art Center as “hot” as their hype suggests, and if so, how did they arrive at their current prominence? The bulk of the letters imply that I should have composed the authoritative family tree of LA arts faculty, 1970 to the present, a document that would only satisfy (and interest) those discussed therein.

Both Mr. Lawson’s and Mary Kelly’s letters contain blatant misreadings, which, in a chorus of griping over errors of fact, cannot be ignored. Mr. Lawson claims that I placed Cal Arts’ inception “exactly twenty years ago,” when in fact I merely said that “the eyes of the art world” were on the school at that time. Ms. Kelly, seizing on a Dennis Cooper quote comparing UCLA to Seattle and my description of the Warner building as “grungy,” seems to think I portrayed her students as swamped in flannel and Mudhoney. In scolding Mr. Cooper for his “fashionably exposed ears” and me for my tin ones, Ms. Kelly is eager to educate us that grunge is indeed dead at the Warner building. Instead, she informs us, sounds and visions both “transambient” and “dubby” now dominate the UCLA studios. Ms. Kelly is obviously displaying her own hearing problems. “Transambient,” I assume, is her conflated mishearing of “trance” and “ambient”—two discrete strains of electronica clearly not found in her own CD racks. Likewise, “dubby” must refer to “dub,” a mutation of reggae that continues to fascinate electronic musicians. My “critical hemlines” may be short, but I recognize the abuse of slang when I see it.

As for Sande Cohen’s complaint that I failed to provide an exhaustive list of Art Center faculty, the piece was a survey, not a course catalogue. Bruce Hainley’s tenure at Art Center was indeed mentioned, in introducing one of his quotes, and Chris Kraus does not exactly want for publicity. I myself had the pleasure of deflating Ms. Kraus’ pomo puff pastry of an event—the Chance conference—in the January ’97 edition of Artforum.

For those who stated or implied that I “trashed” Cal Arts in the service of “promoting” the other schools, it should be noted that of the thirty students I spoke with at UCLA and Art Center, hardly any applied to Cal Arts’ MFA program, so whatever “damage” my article could inflict on Cal Arts’ reputation vis-à-vis applications seemingly has already been done. Furthermore, all the gallerists I interviewed in LA and New York were given a nonleading opportunity to assess their interest—and the art world’s—in current Cal Arts students and graduates. Their responses were uniformly on the cool side of lukewarm.

I’m well aware that those operating under the radar of mainstream discourse tend to grant the vicissitudes of their “scene” the gravity usually reserved for geopolitical power shifts, but really, people, aren’t we taking this a bit too seriously? This is a tempest in a teapot, and a rather small pot at that.