PRINT February 2000


the editor's note

Barry Schwabsky on the Editor’s Note

I didn’t know Richard Martin well, but then I suspect not well is exactly the way he preferred being known. My first inkling of this came in 1984, when (on John Yau’s recommendation) Richard gave me the go-ahead to write my first piece of criticism for Arts Magazine, where he had been editor since 1974. Having turned in my copy, I anxiously awaited his judgment. I kept expecting to hear what needed more work, what should be cut, and so on. Nothing. After a while I started to get worried, so I called the Arts office. Richard wasn’t in. Next day, the same thing. The third day, the voice on the other end said, “Well, you know, Richard never comes in during normal business hours. Only at night and on the weekend, and then he never answers the phone. But if you leave a detailed message, I’m sure he’ll return your call.” So I left my message and the next day Richard called: “I liked your piece and it’s in the next issue. I hope you’ll write for us again.”

From then on I wrote something every month, and with each article I enclosed a note saying what I would write about next. The articles were always printed, just as I wrote them, without even the most minor editorial intervention. As I soon discovered, this was Richard’s modus operandi with everyone. (Later I heard that his way of ditching a writer was just as understated. People would keep turning things in for months before realizing that nothing more would be published, and they’d never find out why. Even Clement Greenberg told me he’d experienced something of the kind.) Richard was the most laissez-faire editor who’s ever existed. The results should have been a disaster, and they were certainly uneven, but the fact remains that under Richard’s editorship Arts richly reflected the New York art community’s vaunted pluralism. It was the place to cut your teeth as a new critic, and among the writers who first found their voices there were New Museum curator Dan Cameron and the Times’s Holland Cotter, to mention but a couple of the better-placed alumni. Especially notable was Richard’s continuation of the old Arts tradition of being the place where artists became writers: Peter Halley and Stephen Westfall were just two of the regulars among the artist-critics.

Later, after I succeeded Richard at Arts in 1988, his spirit of openness remained a model. I always remembered something he’d said to me when, after I’d been writing for him quite a while, I finally met the elusive man face to face over lunch. He asked me what I thought could be done to improve the magazine, and, with the bravado of youth, I told him the quality of the writing was too uneven and that some of the writers ought to be canned. He asked for an example, and I named a Greenberg epigone who’d just written a review explaining why a certain second-string Color Field painter was better than Monet. “Yes, it’s true that he hasn’t worked out the way I’d hoped,” Richard reflected. “I was interested in his writing because he loves everything that I just can’t stand.” That kind of curiosity still strikes me as an essential—perhaps the essential—quality for a magazine editor.

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.