TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 2001

THE MIRROR OF FASHION: DALE McCONATHY AND THE NEO-AVANT-GARDE

On the face of it, “The Crystal Land,” the earliest of Robert Smithson’s magazine texts, is a charming travelogue: a recollection of a visit to an abandoned quarry in New Jersey. That Donald Judd is among the “guests” along for the tour seems an incidental detail, until it becomes apparent that Judd’s work has become fodder for the author’s capacious imagination. The flat, descriptive prose is strikingly suggestive of Judd’s “placid but dismal” style, and Judd’s pink Plexiglas box is compared to a “giant crystal from another planet.” Nor does Judd himself escape appropriation. The Judd of Smithson’s account is a fellow geologist and would-be earth artist. The formidable author of “Specific Objects” has become a narcissistic reflection of Smithson’s interests. In the Smithson tour, the Pied Piper of Entropy always leads the way.

The first of Smithson’s famous travel narratives, “The Crystal Land” reveals much about the artist’s investment in Judd (who later complained in Artforum that “Smithson is not my spokesman”). Yet unlike so many of Smithson’s texts, which found their way to influential if small-circulation art magazines, “The Crystal Land” appeared in a most surprising venue. Smithson’s essay was published in the May 1966 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, in the “Scene and Not Herd” column, wedged between ads for Kotex tampons and Prince Matchabelli eye makeup.

In this sense the Smithson text was no anomaly. In the July 1966 Harper’s Bazaar, articles on Pop and the artist Chryssa vied for attention with Annette Michelson’s “Surrealism or the ‘White-Haired Revolver,’” whose description of surrealism as a recurring attitude and set of formal strategies, rather than a movement that had come and gone, has proved prophetic. A portfolio of artists’ portraits by Diane Arbus that captured the vitality of the local scene filled more pages. The Oldenburgs, Claes and Pat, are pictured clowning around in the faux-leopard Bedroom. Lee Bontecou is reserved, Roy Lichtenstein, serene. Frank Stella sports a shit-eating grin. The successful painter, cigar in hand, is revealed to be nearly toothless; under Arbus’s dangerous lens, his smile becomes vampyric, grotesque.

A subsequent spread shot by Francesco Scavullo depicts male artists accompanied by their wives or female friends modeling the latest fashions. A dapper Ellsworth Kelly posed with “Miss Judith Heidler of the Sidney Janis Gallery,” the latter attired in a stiffly geometric dress whose crisp contours evoked the artist’s reliefs. Judd crouches awkwardly beneath his wife. The two artists are presented as the master couturiers of a new aesthetic of ostentatious simplicity—a “minimal look.” A few pages later, an article by Smithson titled “The X Factor in Art,” which included quotations by the likes of Robert Morris, Ad Reinhardt, and Alain Robbe-Grillet, lent an intellectual pedigree to the “miminal” Zeitgeist. During the 1966 season, it seemed, “austerity” was the final word in chic. The aesthetic of monochromy and reduction marked by such exhibitions as that spring’s Jewish Museum “Primary Structures” show and the Guggenheim’s “Systemic Painting” in September found immediate affirmation in the pages of Bazaar, which touted the structured suits of Courrèges and Jantzen’s “Hard-Edge” knits to its readers. That autumn, reports of Truman Capote’s notorious Black and White Ball broadcast the new look to a mediatized public.

The presence in Bazaar of writings by Smithson and Michelson, and photographs of Kelly and Judd, was no accident but the handiwork of Dale McConathy, the magazine’s remarkable literary editor from 1966 to 1969. A native of MacAlester, Oklahoma, McConathy exemplified a type of media figure that exists to this day. He was one of those countless college graduates who descend on Manhattan every year like migrating birds, eager to work for a magazine that, furtively perused at the drugstore back in Oshkosh, promised a glamorous future. In the 1959 film The Best of Everything, that dusty fable of the New York publishing world, the ambitious Girl Friday played by Hope Lange rises from the steno pool to supplant the aging, embittered editor played by an aging, embittered Joan Crawford. I imagine that McConathy, during his salad days, was no less enterprising than Lange’s chipper ’Cliffie. Joining the masthead of Bazaar as an editorial assistant in 1965, he replaced his boss, the magazine’s longtime literary editor Alice Morris, in little more than a year.

McConathy was ambitious but not narrow. After a stint at Betty Parsons Gallery, he moved into editorial positions at Bazaar, Vogue, and Time, became founding director of the sculpture garden Artpark, and headed the arts management program at NYU before his death in 1988. The author of a book on cultural policy and essays on Gorky and Smithson, he also turned out such tomes as Best of Friends: The Dog and Art and Hollywood Costume: Glamour! Glitter! Romance! (with Diana Vreeland), and an exposé on Lady Bird Johnson titled “Wife-Power” (“Lyndon kept leading me further . . . ; somehow I had the courage to follow him”).

McConathy’s catholic taste extended to the social sphere. A friend of Kelly and Reinhardt, he was equally at home with Fifth Avenue matrons and fashion mavens. “His eclectic and talented circle of friends is the chief ornament of his Spanish Harlem brownstone—the sagging shelves of books and art-crammed halls reflecting his wide-ranging interests,” as the April 1967 contributors page of Bazaar described him. This little glimpse of the editor—most likely written by McConathy himself—is a Holly Golightly fantasy of Bohemia on the Hudson (or East River), a New York of low rents and madcap friends, of smoke-filled cocktail parties and late-night conversations: a New York that was yesterday, to use Gregg Bordowitz’s felicitous phrase. In truth, McConathy was a Sunday Bohemian. During the week, he left East Harlem far behind.

He emerges from the subway, a deli coffee and doughnut in hand. He rushes though skyscraper corridors at a fast clip. He turns onto Madison Avenue, home to ad agencies and media conglomerates—the nerve center of the “spectacle”—and enters a tower. It’s time to go to work.

There was a magazine to turn out. But in the days before focus groups and micromarket research, a young editor could take liberties. Ensconced in his offices at Hearst, McConathy inserted texts of the most recondite character in what was, after all, a fashion magazine. The middlebrow offerings of Mailer and Updike favored at gentleman’s journals, or the polite New Yorker fiction published by his predecessor, would not do. Only the most difficult, the most opaque, sufficed: poetry by Francis Ponge, Paul Bowles, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, and John Ashbery; prose by Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Robert Musil, Raymond Roussel, and Samuel Beckett; projects by emerging artists like Smithson, Dan Graham, and Sol LeWitt. In McConathy’s conception, bohemia and commerce were not discrete, but intertwined spheres. High art and fashion could exist on the same page. They were each components of the same zeitgeist, and he was equally interested in both.

Certainly, the dialectic of fashion and high art is a constitutive fact of modernism itself, as Thomas Crow and T.J. Clark, among others, have suggested. It was a connection that McConathy instinctively understood and embraced. Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life is a locus classicus of this idea, and it is hardly surprising that McConathy published an excerpt from this text, “In Praise of the Cosmetic,” in the November 1967 Bazaar. If Naomi Wolf has argued that beauty is a myth foisted on the guileless consumer, the author of Les fleurs du mal counters that the cosmetic, as pure artifice, is more authentic and more alluring than an unadorned face. (“Carefully survey and analyze everything that is natural . . . and you will find nothing that is not horrible,” the poet advises.) Baudelaire’s encomium to makeup and luxury forges an unlikely alliance between an art of pure form and a culture of consumption at modernism’s outset. Only a representation unhinged from the burden of denotation, the poet argues, is able to capture the fleeting sensations of the bourgeois city—the pleasurable sighting of a raised hemline, or whether “hat-brims have grown wider and chignons have been lowered.” For Baudelaire, the rapid line and flowing ink washes of a Constantin Guys sketch are far more evocative of such transformations than a photograph of the same scene; similarly, his poetry evokes the sensual experience of Paris through allusive means. Is it any wonder that McConathy, a disciple of the great poet, also favored an art of opacity, an art of the signifier, even as he sang the praises of couture?

This dialogue between art and fashion is historically contingent and shifting. A decade and a half before McConathy’s Bazaar, Pollock’s abstraction manifested the impossible hope that it could remain opaque and thoroughly “unusable,” even though the patronage of the fashion-minded heiress Peggy Guggenheim helped to foster Pollock’s inventions, and his drip canvases were used as backdrops for fashion shots in Vogue. During the ’60s, the inventors of the Minimalist cube suffered similar delusions. Although Judd and Morris devised an art so plain as to be utterly devoid of aesthetic appeal, the advent of the “minimal look” confirmed that even the most reduced forms could be used to sell ready-to-wear. The commissioning of magazine works by McConathy marked a further shift in this relation, for now art could directly enter the space of advertising, could appear literally on the same page as a fashion ad.

McConathy saw no conflict in this interaction; on the contrary, he endorsed it. An essay by the young editor published adjacant to Baudelaire’s “In Praise of the Cosmetic” makes this plain. Titled “The Mirror of Art” after an unpublished tome by the poet, McConathy’s text is a glowing history of the magazine itself. McConathy recounts Bazaar’s origins as a staid source of dress patterns and bland reportage and its transformation during the ’30s into a fabulous glossy under the editorial team of Carmel Snow and Alexey Brodovitch, who commissioned photo spreads by the likes of Man Ray, Dalí, Cartier-Bresson, and Dahl-Wolfe. It is this cross-pollination of spheres, this imbrication of high art and fashion, that McConathy celebrates.

Naturally, McConathy did not work in isolation. The writer Mary Peacock, his editorial assistant at the time (and later cofounder of Ms. magazine), insists that McConathy could not have pulled his avant-gardist stunts without the cooperation of Bazaar’s editorial team. “Dale did not parachute down into the desert of fashion and import all this stuff. There was a context for what he did.” That context already existed at Bazaar, and indeed at other fashion magazines (Clement Greenberg, for example, was a contributor to Vogue). The Bazaar of the ’60s appealed to a female reader of uncommon discernment, a reader apparently as concerned with advanced aesthetic matters as with the latest hemlines. Even within this sophisticated ambience, however, McConathy’s practice was unusual. “He was determined to do something above and beyond the glitz that the magazine was known for. He wanted to make it into a more serious journal,” Sol LeWitt observed. McConathy’s contacts fostered unusual interventions, and during his tenure, he played a small but not insignificant role in the fortunes of the New York avant-garde. More precisely, the former poet and gallery assistant did not shirk projects that explored the terrain between the visual and textual. LeWitt recalled: “Dale felt that a deeper understanding of literature could encompass art as well. A lot of art at that time began to invoke writing, or words, and could be considered ‘literature’ in a broader sense. Dale was there at the moment.”

After Smithson broke the ice with “The Crystal Land” and “The X Factor,” McConathy invited his friends LeWitt and Graham to develop projects for the magazine. LeWitt’s illustration of a Beckett play, Come and Go, was published in the August 1969 Bazaar, sandwiched between a spread of all-silver “Star Trek Jewelry” (during the summer of the moon landing, an Aquarian theme prevailed) and a portfolio of up-and-coming male actors and models. Beckett’s script narrates the interaction of three gossips, who enter and exit, exchange seats, and cross hands in serial combinations. LeWitt, who once did layout for Seventeen, employed a pattern of rotating squares in order to suggest the systemic “logic” of Beckett’s absurd choreography. Not many years later, Rosalind Krauss made Beckett’s Molloy the interpretative key to the irrational meaning of seriality in LeWitt’s work; the persuasiveness of her account is suggested by the little-known Bazaar project.

Within the annals of conceptualism, the magazine works devised by artists like LeWitt, Graham, Smithson, and Mel Bochner are often seen as a pivot point in the invention of an idea-generated art. The best-known magazine projects, such as Graham’s “Homes for America” and Smithson’s “Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan,” we are told, presented an alternative to the commodity art form, a democratization of the means of production and distribution of the work of art. Published in the pages of art magazines, these inherently multiple works superseded a gallery apparatus predicated on the sale of art commodities. If, as Graham suggests, it is the art magazine that establishes the commodity status of an artist’s work, then the appropriation of this very site by a conceptual project of negligible value is perforce a reversal of the convention.

Yet a consideration of works published in nonart venues like Bazaar suggests a more complex understanding of the magazine project. Consider Graham’s “Figurative,” a shopping receipt from a Five and Dime store reproduced in the unlikely context of the March 1968 Bazaar. Interpreters of this work have argued that Graham’s publication of the receipt exposes the final stage of the cycle of consumption, the sale, within the space of the ad, where the desire to purchase is conceived. However, if we consider the actual circumstances of Graham’s piece, a more contradictory reading emerges. Like Smithson’s and LeWitt’s projects, “Figurative” served its context well. Graham’s receipt was “the most out-to-lunch thing that we ever published,” Peacock recalled. “I thought to myself, we’re really going to get fired for this one.” In fact, the project gave Bazaar a sexy edge precisely because it was not easily understood. The resistence of “Figurative” to its setting is confirmed by reproductions of the work in exhibition catalogues, which present it alone, lodged between ads for a bra and tampons. But the bricolage effect contemporary viewers of the work now find so captivating was entirely programmed by the needs of the magazine itself. (Graham himself has noted the lack of control he had in the placement of “Figurative.”) Unlike Smithson’s or LeWitt’s commissioned interventions, which were granted full editorial spreads, “Figurative” was added at the last minute on a partial (three-quarter) page after the issue’s ads had been laid out. A few pages later, a poem by the Viennese Concrete writer Ernst Jandl—whose paratactic arrangement of the word “film” suggests the progressive frames and temporal flow of the cinematic medium—was also lodged in a leftover vertical space next to a lingerie ad. The resemblance of Jandl’s project to Graham’s confirms that the placement of “Figurative” was no accident. As McConathy noted, the experience of reading Bazaar was meant to induce surprise: bricolage was an intended effect. The avant-gardist projects published by McConathy had no obvious role to play in a context devoted to the merchandizing of fashion. Yet the blatant discordance of these works in this very context only enhanced the “edgy” image the Hearst-owned magazine sought to project.

In Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger draws an influential opposition between the historical avant-garde movements of the ’20s and the “neo” avant-garde developments of the postwar years. Bürger dismisses the latter as a pseudo avant-garde, incapable of shock or social transformation in an era of spectacle. Benjamin Buchloh has characterized the neo–avant-garde venture in more complexly dialectical terms, suggesting that there is no position of outsideness, of unalloyed critique, that a practice may occupy: The work can only illuminate the contradiction of the position itself. Certainly, the projects by Smithson, Graham, and LeWitt published by McConathy inhabited a conflicted space. The blatant difficulty of these interventions, their sheer awkwardness, opposed the seductive language of fashion copy. But “difficulty” also had a place in a context dedicated to the consumption of the new. Simply by opposing the transparent aims of the ad, these projects gave Bazaar a certain prestigious tone. At the endpoint of modernism, modernist opacity was instrumentalized; the far-out could sell. The avant-garde was allowed a foot in the marketplace, elevating fashion through proximity; obscure artists benefited from the publicity. A Geoffrey Beene looked more transcendently elegant next to a poem. You could wear Balenciaga by day and read Beckett at night. “The cultured man wears beautiful clothes. The woman who wears beautiful clothes but does not read, is not chic,” Peacock summarized McConathy’s attitude. To his thinking, the most rarified cultural knowledge proferred a higher distinction, a more exalted elegance, than clothes alone could provide.

The magazine projects commissioned by McConathy marked a certain dissolution of the modernist association of fashion and the avant-garde. As McConathy must have seen, the expectation of cultural literacy within Bazaar’s imagined audience would now itself become obsolete, as market research determined that the pretense of high art and literature was no longer desirable in this type of magazine, and, coincidentally, the women’s movement dispensed with the problematic premise of “cultivated femininity”; publications like Ms. and Cosmopolitan would appeal to a different reader. At the same time, the upbeat art scene documented by Arbus only a few years before had itself undergone a transition. On the one hand, a second conceptualist wave became dissatisfied with the subtler operations of an earlier neo–avant-garde, and the dialectical posture of the magazine project gave way to an explicit naming of the “system” by artists like Hans Haacke, Adrian Piper, and Martha Rosler. (In Rosler’s work, the ideology of taste of the women’s magazine was itself made perspicuous.) On the other hand, the appearance of Andy Warhol’s Interview in 1970 suggested a revised conception of “magazine work.” The Warhol of the ’70s did not betray the purportedly critical Warhol of the early ’60s, as is often claimed. The publisher of Interview fulfilled the practice of “ruthless affirmation” that Buchloh has identified as the binding logic of the Pop artist’s activity. McConathy’s belief that the avant-garde could still matter, that “difficulty” still had a place in a simulacral culture, was trumped by Warhol’s unapologetic embrace of the spectacle; in this sense the ’70s Interview was not simply the obverse of the ’60s Bazaar but its negation. Suffice it to say, in the wake of McConathy’s departure from Bazaar, the constellation of factors that fostered the interventions of Smithson, LeWitt, and Graham had shifted. It would not be repeated. As LeWitt observed: “We were all feeding on one another, and it was a crucial time. Dale caught it right on the wing.”

James Meyer’s Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties appears next month from Yale University Press.