PRINT October 2000


Challenging Art: Artforum 1962–1974

“THERE'S NO LEGACY from art magazines. I don't think art criticism is much of an endeavor in that sense. It's not lasting. Nobody reads Ruskin . . . . I don't think Artforum has any legacy, and I don't think art criticism has any legacy. Although Ruskin did write one good sentence. He said, 'Everything Velázquez does can be considered as absolutely right.'”

These sulky words conclude 450 pages of commentary excerpted from interviews with key Artforum insiders, as well as other critics and historians, conducted and edited by Amy Newman in Challenging Art: Artforum 1962–1974. Uttered by Philip Leider, who served as editor from just after the magazine's inception until 1971, they stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the book—to what others have to say, as well as to what Leider offers elsewhere when in better spirits. Indeed, as remarks throughout the volume make clear, the one thing that united the early Artforum team, at least after 1965, was a profound distaste for, even loathing of, statements as apodictic and oracular as Ruskin's on Velázquez. What was to be fought at all costs was the moody prose published by Art News, a form of art writing modeled on the French belletristric tradition of the poet-critic; what was needed was a discourse that was descriptive, analytical, “verifiable.” This thirst for positivism after an overdose of poetic hyperbole explains in great part the hold Clement Greenberg had over most of the early editors (we learn that by the late '50s he had almost dropped out of sight; the magazine in no small measure contributed to his reemergence in the next decade). It took some time for Leider et al. to realize that Greenberg's “hard” facts were no less partisan than the pronouncements of early Artforum bêtes noires Thomas Hess and Harold Rosenberg, but the editors always maintained a Greenbergian faith in the seriousness of the art-critical enterprise and in the necessity of close reading.

Artforum radically transformed the rules of the game, and did so by the mid-'60s. This lively book, in which gossip becomes oral history, records how and why. The interviews are fragmented, then arranged according to the chronological unfolding of events in the life of the magazine (its various relocations, the special issue on Surrealism in 1966, the change in editors, etc.). The result is a story told by different voices in rapid succession. The subsequent Rashomon effect can at times be cruel—Leider's comments disparaging his writers, for example, are found alongside their consistently worshipful reminiscences of him—but the general tone is generous (Robert Pincus-Witten in particular gets a medal on that score). The internecine struggles that plagued the early history of the journal and led to Leider's resignation in 1971, and to the departure four years later of then–associate editors Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson, are evoked at great length. However, interviewees, out of nostalgia for a lost epoch, perhaps, have buried the hatchet and are often willing to admit mistakes.

Newman, a former Art News managing editor, should be commended for having teased so much information from Artforum's early contributors (the comments of passersby such as Brian O'Doherty, Lucy Lippard, Carter Ratcliff, David Rosand, and Irving Sandler, whether or not they contributed to the magazine, are far less interesting and add little). Not that all of this information is new, at least to readers of my generation (as an exchange student, I discovered Artforum by pure chance in July 1969 at a Hanover, Pennsylvania, newsstand), but the book clarifies many aspects of the magazine's formative years that up to now had been foggy to everyone but insiders.

First, we learn a lot about Artforum's flimsy beginnings, the role of serendipity in its formation (Leider, for example, simply wanted to edit a cultural journal, regardless of its angle, and had no previous involvement with art), and the original plans to focus coverage on the California scene. We also learn about the eye-opening role of Walter Hopps, and of Irving Blum, who provided a link to the New York art scene (it's interesting to note that Artforum's office, once it moved from San Francisco to LA, was located above Blum's Ferus Gallery). But everyone interviewed agrees that it was with Michael Fried's arrival in 1965 (along with contributing editor Sidney Tillim and Michelson, he was brought to the magazine by Barbara Rose) that Artforum began to take off. Leider is the most forthright on this observation: “The idea of creating a discipline of art criticism, of raising it to a certain level, starts the moment I met Michael, or the moment we started publishing Michael.” The interviews recount the close relationship between the two men, who were, as Fried puts it, “as different intellectually as two people probably could be.” Peers recall Fried's missionary zeal (one could even say messianic zeal; in his own words, “nothing less than the future of Western civilization was at stake”). But even though Leider remarks on Fried's art-critical “exclusivity,” he insists on the fact that the author of “Art and Objecthood” “never criticized a single thing I did in the magazine,” despite Artforum's significant investment in covering Pop, Minimalism, and post-Minimalism. The only time Fried exerted editorial pressure was in 1968, when he threatened to leave if Krauss were added to the masthead, and Leider is particularly touching in his regrets for having yielded to Fried's ultimatum. (Incidentally, we learn not only that it was Fried who had brought Krauss to the magazine, but also, according to Krauss, that it was Frank Stella who encouraged Leider, after a year's delay, to override Fried's veto—she was named to the masthead in November 1969; Fried did not resign). These morsels of information are not of the type to change the world, of course, but they do give shading to an area often remembered as defined by black-and-white positions and clear-cut allegiances and antagonisms. For example, being reminded that Hilton Kramer was Michelson's first New York editor (at Arts), and that he commissioned pieces from Leider for the New York Times, ranks high on the surprise meter.

Fried was in many senses Leider's sole intellectual mentor until Robert Smithson appeared on the scene, and Fried and Smithson formed an oppositional structure (with Leider as the middleman) that gave the magazine its special force: The Fried/ Smithson cocktail was simply explosive. Leider saw Fried and Smithson as equally matched antagonists: “I thought that the magazine earned its pay just by publishing Michael and Robert Smithson.” And, long after the fact, Fried concurs: “I completely underestimated Smithson . . . . I wish I'd known him, because he was obviously very, very sharp. His main response to ‘Art and Objecthood,’ ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind,’ remains by far the most intelligent and interesting article written against my position.” Leider saw Smithson (and the position he represented), rather than the Color Field artists defended by Greenberg and Fried, as the true heir to the modernist tradition that extended from Cézanne to Pollock. Ultimately, it was Leider and Fried's sharp disagreement on that score that would cause a definitive rift in their relationship (Leider's despair after bringing Fried to the 1968 Robert Morris–curated “anti-form” exhibition “9 in a Warehouse” is poignant: “I couldn't believe his response. I couldn't believe that he saw nothing”). Their failure to see eye-to-eye also played a part in Leider's growing discontent with the journal and the numerous compromises he had to make in order to keep his rowdy team together.

I would need much more space to do justice to Challenging Art and can only point to a few of its riches. First, the book contains a vivid portrait gallery in which many unjustly neglected figures, mainly female, are given their due. The paean several interviewees pay to Michelson, who was instrumental in importing a certain kind of theoretical discourse into art criticism, is particularly welcome: “The role of Annette Michelson is enormous,” says Pincus-Witten; he's seconded by Barbara Rose (who receives her own tribute): “Annette was the brains behind everything.” We also get a more complex view of the cast of characters, learning, for example, that many of Artforum's early contributors began as painters (though only Coplans, Pincus-Witten, and Max Kozloff had gallery shows).

Second, we realize that what brought the magazine to a suicidal crisis was the repression, so to speak, of the market issue. While Leider made sure his writers would never feel any pressure from advertising galleries, one senses that he became restless from the growing demands made on the journal by dealers. He is adamant in insisting that Artforum was immune, refusing to acknowledge, for example, that its 1967 move from Los Angeles to New York had anything to do with commercial necessities, and, against all evidence, that putting an artwork on the cover had any impact on the market. The fact that a greater number of contradictory statements are registered on such issues than on any others is a good indication that the market was a sore spot. And, as the interviews make clear, the amazing episode of Lynda Benglis's November 1974 advertisement showing the artist naked, oiled, and brandishing a dildo—which prompted a furious letter of protest signed by Krauss, Michelson, Kozloff, Lawrence Alloway, and Joseph Masheck, the only time these writers would ever band together—can be read as a return of the repressed. In hindsight, it is hard to believe that the signatories did not see Benglis's provocation as a brilliant J'accuse against the growing collusion between commerce and criticism. In fact, though they felt offended to see their magazine compared to porn, some of them, not so long after the affair, at least unconsciously agreed with Benglis's sharp diagnostic. When Michelson and Krauss left a year later to found October, described by almost everyone in the volume (including Robert Rosenblum, who is usually nothing if not antagonistic to this last journal) as the true successor to the early Artforum, one of their first decisions was to eschew paid advertising, a policy Leider himself had campaigned for at the dawn of his publication.

The book's third revelation is how difficult it is to edit a magazine like Artforum. In many statements Leider expresses his doubts regarding his capacity to hold together the disparate mix of writers he had assembled. He also reveals that he knew beforehand that John Coplans would fail as editor and that he passed the baton to him in a moment of fitful exasperation. As Krauss remarks: “I think this is what Phil figured out about John: that he was not able to understand that he was there as a sort of group therapist. That he was there to mediate between all these warring factions. Since they were simply the expression of a lot of different voices, these arguments shouldn't have threatened him. But they did threaten him.” Of course, the difference between the two is that Coplans was far more engaged in the practice of critical writing than Leider (even though, he readily admits, writing did not come easy, and he was always grateful for Leider's editing of his pieces). Coplans's batteries rapidly discharged and after his departure in 1977 the magazine went even further downhill through the '80s until, in my book, . . . well, that's a subject for Artforum: The Sequel.

Yve-Aiain Bois is a contributing editor of Artforum. He has written for the magazine since 1992.


Amy Newman, Challenging Art: Artforum 1962–1974. New York: Soho Press, 2000, 559 pages.