PRINT November 2000




To the Editor:
In crediting the influence of Clement Greenberg for the change of art writing from the “moody prose published in Art News” to a more pragmatic style, your reviewer of Amy Newman’s Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974 [Yve-Alain Bois, “Phil Said, They Said,” October 2000] is mistaken (at least in my case). I was the most widely published writer of articles in Artforum up to 1970, and I was well aware of the Magazine of Art edited by Robert Goldwater from 1943 to 1953 and his antipoetic approach to art writing. In addition, I was an admirer of Lawrence Alloway’s many wide-angled articles in Art International and elsewhere in the late ’50s, which were also written in a pragmatic style. I did not regard myself as a critic but as an artist who wrote on artists I admired for the benefit of the art audience. (Nor did I write only on art; I was coauthor with Robert Bell of a book on cybernetics.)

Furthermore, from the very beginning of my writing for Artforum, I was wholly opposed to Greenberg’s aesthetic prejudices. Again, it was Alloway’s influence in the ’50s at the ICA in London, where he propagated the idea of the coexistence of styles in many discussions with artists.

Philip Leider had one agenda. It is important to note that I had a different one. When Artforum started he was poorly informed on art and shied away from personal contacts with artists whom on the whole he disliked. It was only much later that he became friendly with Frank Stella and Robert Smithson. I have stated that I admired him as an editor. This admiration was based on the fact that he published everything I wrote, whether on Abstract Expressionist ceramics, Pop artists such as Lichtenstein, Warhol, Thiebaud, and Ruscha, or abstract artists ranging from those using light (James Turrell, Robert Irwin) to Mondrian, Albers, Stella, Kelly, Noland. I wrote as well on Monet, Jawlensky, Duchamp, Cornell, and Wallace Berman.

It should also be noted that I was not a paid staff member of Artforum until I took over the editorship in 1971. I frequently wrote as West Coast correspondent for Art News, Art International, Art in America, and Studio International. I still admire the freedom Leider gave me to publish what I liked in Artforum. The question of my disagreement with his admiration for Michael Fried’s criticism never arose because I avoided discussing it with him.

Whatever I think of him as my editor, however, I am scornful of his personal behavior. I was living in Los Angeles and he invited me to come to New York to take over the editorship of Artforum. Yet he states, in Challenging Art and elsewhere, how much he despised my writings and believed that I would soon destroy Artforum. At the same time he was aware that Gardner Cowles, father of publisher Charles Cowles, would no longer financially support the magazine. Thus it was virtually bankrupt. I cannot conceive of Leider as anything less than malicious in placing me into this financial morass.

Finally, to clear up a matter raised in Challenging Art: Rosalind Krauss speaks of me as a South African and questions my right to discuss American art. I was not and am not a South African citizen. I am British. It is true that for health and professional reasons my father went several times to South Africa for short periods, and consequently as a child I attended a number of schools in Cape Town and Johannesburg. However, I left South Africa when I was seventeen, and at eighteen was commissioned into the British armed forces. Of my eight years of service, dose to seven were spent in the Kings African Rifles when I was seconded from my British regiment. I spent the major part of this service in a Ugandan battalion. This being so, Professor Krauss will no doubt also make me a citizen of Uganda.

John Coplans
New York, NY

Yve-Alain Bois responds:
I never ascribed the distancing of early Artforum writing from the belletristic style of Art News to the “influence” of Clement Greenberg (I try never to use the word). Furthermore, having read many of John Coplans’s essays, I certainly know better than to think of him as a “Greenberger,” to use Donald Judd’s disparaging epithet. I said that the opposition of Leider and “most of the early editors” to the poeticizing tendency of Art News, and their desire for a more positivist way of writing, explains in great part why they respected Greenberg so much and contributed to his reemergence. (To be honest, I had not realized that Greenberg was out of favor by the late ’50s: This fact is something that comes out several times in the interviews conducted by Amy Newman.) Certainly, the publication of Art and Culture in 1962 was one immediate source of his reemergence, but many essays published in Artforum had the effect of turning the magazine into a sort of benevolent echo chamber for Greenberg for several years. Once Smithson hit Leider’s radar screen, there was a radical change in Artforum’s tune.

I did not discuss the issue of Artforum’s solvency to which Coplans alludes because I had no way of checking the facts. Leider does state in Challenging Art that he passed the baton to Coplans “out of petulance and malice and without any regard to the consequences,” but he says nothing of the financial aspect. I thoroughly enjoyed the hilarious passage in which Coplans recalls that, after daydreaming of himself as Old Man Rockefeller, he became a fanatical Scrooge, finding all kinds of ways to cut the magazine’s expenses. (Concerning Leider’s “personal behavior,” I hope I made clear that I disapprove of the constantly cutting remarks he directs at his writers—which are all the more striking in Newman’s book, as his derogatory comments continually contrast with his authors’ adulation; the magazine’s current editorial stuff discreetly referred to this in titling my piece “Phil Said, They Said.”)

As for Rosalind Krauss’s mistakenly attributing a South African nationality to Coplans, I think the context in Challenging Art makes clear that she was mocking her own nationalistic prejudice during her early years as a die. I quote: “I remember feeling incredibly angry when I realized that my relation to Artforum was over because of course I had cathected onto the magazine. I was emotionally invested in Artforum, and I also had this really dumb kind of chauvinist thing about this being an American magazine and what was this South African doing dictating to us about what should happen? It was a very childish reaction that somehow I was being exiled from what I had a right to. Of course, John had been on the magazine just as long as I had. Longer.” In any event, the record is now straight—that’s what “letters to the editor” are for.


To the Editor:
Thank God for Hilton Kramer. Jeff Weinstein appropriately bookends his review of Alice Neel’s retrospective at the Whitney [September 2000] with Kramer’s assessment of her paintings, as nothing between Kramer’s words holds together. Only Artforum could unironically avail itself of Chuck Close, Susan Sarandon, and the lovely Linda Nochlin as footnotes to Neel’s exhumation. Fortunately, Kramer is still on the job, and still right.

G. Gibbons
Seattle, WA