PRINT Summer 2002


GENE SWENSON PACES ALONE ON FIFTY-THIRD Street carrying a blue question mark perched on a pole. He’s picketing the Museum of Modern Art and the guards have orders not to let him in, although he curated an exhibition at the institution little more than a year earlier. In a short time—from the fall of 1966 to the spring of 1968—Swenson went from being one of New York’s most influential critics to a bitter and paranoid outcast, prophesying the fall of Rome. “The art world is sitting on a time bomb of social revolution,” he wrote in April 1968, and within a year it would explode in a torrent of political questions aimed at social and cultural institutions alike. Yet by that time this pioneering champion of Pop art and outspoken enemy of formalism would be dead at age thirty-five. And before long, the art world would have all but forgotten the man fellow critic Gregory Battcock hailed as the “most controversial and talked about art writer of his generation.”

Gene Swenson was “brought up in a Kansas jerkwater, not even on a trunk line,” or at least that’s how he put it. From Topeka he headed to college at Yale, where he studied art history and classics, and in 1959 he landed in graduate school at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. The institute had just occupied the elegant Duke mansion on Fifth Avenue, and students of the time recall having the run of the place like kids left home alone. Duke House was populated by characters such as the eloquent German classics professor Peter H. von Blanckenhagen, whom Robert Rosenblum described as a “dapper, wildly gay, hideously deformed hunchback” surrounded by a coterie of admiring young men. Swenson was a favorite of the professor and for a time also his lover. Robert Goldwater, husband to the then little-known artist Louise Bourgeois, also exerted a strong intellectual influence on Swenson and the institute’s few fledgling modernists, through his work on primitivism and twentieth-century art. Swenson’s colleagues remember him as at first “overwrought” and high-strung, anxiously stuttering through seminar reports. But beneath his nervous, bespectacled exterior classmate Lucy Lippard recognized an “unashamed intensity and tremendous earnestness” combined “with an acute and restless intellect.” He never completed his graduate degree but instead dived headlong into the studios and galleries of New York’s most challenging young artists.

With a flair for politics and a midwesterner’s intuitive grasp of the American vernacular, Swenson immediately latched onto an emerging art of cars, cans, and comics, soon to be labeled Pop. From 1961 to 1965, he served as an editorial associate of Art News, for which he penned incisive early reviews on Robert Indiana, Andy Warhol, and Tom Wesselmann, among others. But of all the budding Pop artists, Swenson’s first and most enduring love was James Rosenquist. He visited the artist’s Coenties Slip studio in 1961 and described his life-changing collision with the paintings there as one of bewilderment and “painful confusion,” later writing, “they temporarily had defeated me, my training and my esthetic philosophy.” The young critic channeled this gut-wrenching reaction into his 1962 review of Rosenquist’s first solo show: “The viewer’s experience is . . . a sense of violence at seeing fragments of a billboard environment in actual, full-size proportions; we are not permitted distance with its numbing illusion of escape. . . . The elements of this impersonal Brobdingnagian world are pieced together with a ruthless clarity; it is profoundly disturbing and negative.” Such a deeply felt response would become a hallmark of Swenson’s criticism, which at its best betrayed his acute sensitivity to the emotional risks of the aesthetic encounter.

In September 1962, at the age of twenty-eight, Swenson published the first major synthetic appreciation of American Pop art. Though his stab at a group epithet, “The New American ‘Sign Painters,’” sounded a bit like the name of a spruced-up trade union, the eponymous article established key connections among works by Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, Indiana, Warhol, and Rosenquist, as well as Stephen Durkee and Richard Smith. Swenson was not the first to link many of these artists in print, a distinction belonging to Max Kozloff in his unsympathetic Art International article "'Pop’ Culture, Metaphysical Disgust, and the New Vulgarians,” a diatribe that called their work “sinister” and lamented the invasion of galleries by “the pin-headed and contemptible style of gum chewers, bobby soxers, and worse, delinquents.” Swenson himself almost seemed to concur, writing, “There is something impudent in these works, something so simple-minded and obvious as to be unexpected.” Yet his great critical insight was to recognize the “impudent” and “simple-minded” as potentially interesting aesthetic qualities. He concluded approvingly, “The seven young painters described here revitalize our sense of the contemporary world. They point quite coolly to things close at hand with surprising and usually delightful results.”

Swenson’s trailblazing advocacy of Pop inspired much of his finest writing and quickly earned him prominence on the New York art scene. Shrewdly articulating Pop’s affective qualities and its high-keyed response to a roiling American culture, Swenson became a quasi spokesperson for the “movement,” going so far as to write signed copy for the announcement of Warhol’s historic Brillo-box show at Stable Gallery. With a pithy turn of phrase, he often cut to the heart of an artist’s work, as he did when describing Lichtenstein’s painting as an “exposure of visual as well as social habits.” As writing on Pop ballooned, Swenson took it upon himself to clear the increasingly muddy critical waters by publishing interviews with the artists themselves in 1963 and 1964. In this pair of landmark articles titled “What Is Pop Art?” Swenson gave Warhol, Dine, Wesselmann, Lichtenstein, and others a chance to speak directly about their art. His interview style ranged from straightforward and earnest (“Why did you start painting soup cans?”) to oblique and provocative (“Is Pop esthetic suicide?”). The answers he recorded still form the basis for many discussions of the respondents’ work and include such now famous declarations as Warhol’s desire to “be a machine” and Johns’s insistent objection “I’m not a Pop artist!” Perhaps more important, Swenson’s articles helped pave the way for a contemporary resurgence in interviews and writings by artists at a time when they were often seen but not heard.

Because Swenson’s critical success depended so heavily on Pop’s rising star, his eminence threatened to fade as newer art cut short the movement’s fifteen minutes of fame. By 1965 Pop faced mounting opposition from a pair of ascendant trends: the emergence of Minimalism and the renewed vigor of modernist painting. Although these two developments were in many ways ideologically opposed, Swenson saw them as twin “formalist” enemies furthering the cause of abstraction at the expense of Pop’s hard-won figurative license. Even worse, the writing that spurred their advance—whether the laconic facticity of Donald Judd or the academic chic of Michael Fried—was anathema to Swenson’s delicately wrought metaphor and stirring folksy sentiment. To fight back, he launched a dramatic counteroffensive with “The Other Tradition,” an exhibition at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art. This groundbreaking show proposed nothing less than an alternative, “non-formal” history of twentieth-century art, tracing a lineage that went not from Cubism’s flattened picture plane to Color Field painting but from Dada and Surrealism to Pop.

“The Other Tradition” opened in January 1966, and word of the exhibition reached New York primarily through a slim black paperback catalogue that had the air of an illicit, seditious pamphlet. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who knew Swenson at the time, remembered the book as “radioactive material,” and even artists not included in the exhibition, such as Eva Hesse, were taken with its subversive views. According to the text, Swenson’s aims were: “1) seeing certain twentieth-century works of art which have been overlooked or neglected by art historians, and 2) suggesting alternative ‘intellectual’ rather than formal ways of dealing with those works.” To make good on his first goal Swenson assembled an idiosyncratic checklist comprising primarily Dada, Surrealism, Pop, and their descendants while eschewing iconic works of “high modernism” (Duchamp’s contributions numbered four, Magritte’s and Miró’s three each, whereas Picasso scored only one offbeat painting, and Cézanne, Mondrian, and Kandinsky didn’t even make the cut). As for his second objective, Swenson angrily rallied his readers against formalism’s biases with the preachy rhetoric of a political rabble-rouser: “How much longer will we rest content with our defective and infectious critical tools and our academic standards? How many more times can we see the words ‘picture plane,’ ‘modernism,’ ‘crisis,’ ‘new,’ and ‘literary’ without flushing?”

Today Swenson’s gamble on a Surrealist-based art history might not seem particularly courageous, but in the early to mid-’60s the movement suffered from a bad reputation in good criticism. Hard-core formalists treated it primarily as a “literary” curiosity or an eccentric sideshow to the history of modernism (Greenberg, for example, claimed it merely added new “anecdotes” to the visual arts). For a writer such as Swenson, however, Surrealism’s “literary” bent—its preoccupation with subject matter apart from painting itself—was its chief appeal. Still, he knew better than to attempt a wholesale revival of the movement, especially given the recent exhaustion of Abstract Expressionism’s putative soul-searching. Swenson instead proposed a sophisticated reappraisal of Surrealism through the cool lens of Pop. He downplayed the Surrealists’ focus on the unconscious of the individual artist while emphasizing their fascination with the rich emotional and psychological responses triggered by everyday objects—whether found or realistically rendered. For Swenson, such objects, plainly presented—in the form of Dada readymades, Magrittean dream pictures, or Pop commodities—could prick the viewer’s emotions or sexual appetites without raising the then taboo issue of an artist’s narcissistic introspection.

Swenson concluded his show with a mix of edgy Surrealism-tinged work by several of his young artist friends. He was particularly taken with the fetishism of Paul Thek’s Plexiglas-encased hunks of wax flesh and Joe Raffaele’s paintings of collaged, often erotic magazine photography. In their work Swenson recognized a potent “post-Freudian” cocktail of Pop and Surrealism that made them perfect heirs to “The Other Tradition.” But apart from their neat fit with his thesis, Swenson’s willingness to promote their art in his show and in his writing was particularly daring given their frank use of homoerotic and sadomasochistic imagery. At a time when naked bodies in art were nearly all of the fairer sex, Raffaele’s full-frontal pic of a muscle man and Thek’s encaustic self-portrait with pierced tongue stood out from the crowd of Great American Nudes. Swenson’s biography plays a part here, since his own taste for S&M was apparently not limited to art, and he ran with a predominantly gay crowd that included writers and artists Peter Hujar, Thek, and Raffaele, as well as his good friend Ann Wilson. Ultimately, though, his great white hopes for a “non-formal” future foundered in an art world that was obsessed with pictorial invention and that preferred not to mix paint and personal politics. Lucy Lippard confirmed as much in her Art International review of “The Other Tradition.” There she praised the show for sending off “vital sparks of perception” and expanding “the rapidly shrinking scope of criticism” but dismissed Swenson’s fresh picks as “warmed over” Surrealism. Lippard adapted his renewed interest in sex to suit a more formally palatable art she called Eccentric Abstraction.

Following “The Other Tradition,” Swenson embarked on a prolific series of articles and a second exhibition, making 1966 the most productive year of his career. He served as the first New York editor of the London-based magazine Art and Artists, launched in April by Mario Amaya (a friend of Swenson’s most likely remembered today for taking a bullet in the hip during Valerie Solanas’s modest shooting spree at Warhol’s Factory). Like Swenson’s, Amaya’s taste exceeded the limited formalist palate, and his magazine provided a temporary haven for Swenson’s musings, which culminated abruptly in issue five with “Heroic Immolation,” a strangely censorious account of Ingres. In the meantime, Swenson kept busy publishing interviews with Raffaele, Thek, and Mike Todd (another of his young “post-Freudian” fetishists). In these conversations he gave free reign to the erotically charged subtext of “The Other Tradition” by bombarding his interviewees with such racy questions as “Are your works sadomasochistic?”

If 1966 marked the height of Swenson’s career, the year also witnessed the start of his precipitous slide into mental illness and eventual art-world ostracism. In November the Museum of Modern Art presented his exhibition “Art in the Mirror,” a deeply personal selection of twentieth-century artworks that, according to Swenson’s brochure, “direct questions, insults and homages” to art itself. With works such as Duchamp’s LHOOQ, Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke, and Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, Swenson put a reverse spin on the formalist call for an artwork’s reflexivity while pointedly rejecting any art “whose subject is ‘pure’ paint or color or line.” Forward-thinking for its time, the show hit bumps in the planning stages when Swenson suffered a debilitating attack of appendicitis. The accompanying brochure was only a shadow of the essay he had envisioned, and his work on another MoMA catalogue further strained his relations with museum brass, who had reportedly been considering him for a permanent curatorial position.

The job never panned out, nor, according to art writer Henry Martin, did a number of grant applications and publication projects. These professional disappointments made Swenson deeply resentful, and he stopped publishing magazine criticism in 1967, just as the art he backed sank farther from the limelight. Peter Schjeldahl remarked, “The resentment that he felt about not being understood and accepted was the resentment of an unrequited lover. . . . In those early moments, he really did have a gift to give, but when it wasn’t taken the way he wanted, he got upset, and then he jumped the tracks.” Swenson himself explained the situation in a letter to Lichtenstein: “My experience in the art world has been heartbreaking and embittering—that is why I had to decide, absolutely, to leave.”

With his career on the rocks, Swenson was further shaken by his increasingly unstable mental health. Over the next two years he spent time in Bellevue and suffered from bouts of schizophrenia and severe paranoid delusions, which led him to regard a number of art-world figures with contempt at best and malice at worst. Henry Geldzahler, a precocious curator at the Metropolitan Museum and art-world gadfly, particularly piqued his jealous ire. Swenson notoriously sent the museum a funeral wreath bearing the name “Henry” and challenged the curator to a $10,000 riddle, but Geldzahler didn’t take the bait. On another occasion, Rosenquist remembers Swenson loitering outside a party thrown for Rosenquist at Rauschenberg’s studio by collectors Ethel and Robert Scull. Once invited inside, Swenson eyed a huge temporary chandelier and asked how many people it would crush if its ropes were cut; the alarmed hosts had him tailed all night in case he tried to find out. By this point, according to his friend Bill Wilson, “Gene had assumed the pathos of the creative person whose madness has ceased to be funny.”

Petty jealousies and professional disappointments aside, Swenson’s beef with the art world became increasingly motivated by an all-consuming moral and political zeal. As America plunged deeper into racial strife and Vietnam he was dismayed that his fellow writers and artists were unwilling to join him on the barricades. Although he had abandoned the insular debates of the art magazines, in the spring of 1968 he published four pieces in the liberal tabloid New York Free Press, newspaper home to Abbie Hoffman and Eldridge Cleaver. In articles such as “The Corporate Structure of the American Art World” and “Why Have None of My Fellow Artists Spoken a Word in Behalf of the Revolution?,” Swenson decried the funding of museums by “the economic dictatorship” and scoffed at handouts from “‘enlightened’ despots” while suggesting a guaranteed annual wage for artists. Taking aim at his colleagues’ political complacency, he wrote, “We of the art world have been wearing our responsibilities too lightly these days. This frivolity will live in the pages of history as The Shame of the Artists.” Privately Swenson gave Rosenquist the silent treatment for allowing his work to “serve the government” at the São Paulo Bienal, and publicly he accused his old friend of taking the “ostrich position.” In a particularly vicious swipe, he branded fellow critic Barbara Rose “our Marie Antoinette, with all that implies.”

Swenson supplemented his political writing with acts of public protest, including a fiery speech outside the Leo Castelli gallery, and he was arrested twice, which gave him great pride. In February 1968 he began his daily picketing of MoMA, carrying his blue question mark. Apparently out of fear that he might damage the art, museum officials banned his entrance. Swenson staged his last and most poignant act of defiance against the museum on the occasion of William Rubin’s exhibition “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage,” MoMA’s first comprehensive look at the movements since 1936. Rather than applaud his beloved Surrealism’s ascent into the ivory tower, Swenson railed against the museum alongside other critics, such as Nicolas Calas, who lamented the art’s symbolic castration at the hands of a formalist curator more concerned with his subject’s stylistic taxonomy than its seditious sex appeal. Swenson took out unsigned ads in the Village Voice “dedicated to the lost but not forgotten spirit of Dada and Surrealism” and invited readers to “join Les Enfants du Parody” outside the “Mausoleum Of Modern Art” on the night of the exhibition’s private preview. Nearly three hundred sloganeering demonstrators heeded the call to arms and gathered at MoMA’s entrance, which was guarded by crash-helmeted members of New York’s Tactical Patrol Force. On hand for the opening, Salvador Dalí wryly quipped to the New York Times, “I’m very proud of the hippies. . . . But, unfortunately, many of the young people today have no information. Dada was a protest against the bourgeoisie, yes—but by the aristocracy, not by the man in the street.” So much for radical idealism.

Paradoxically, Swenson’s art criticism and politics were quintessentially of their time and yet beyond it. His adult life neatly spanned the ’60s, and he was all too perfectly typecast to play the brilliant but sensitive victim of that brilliant but brutal decade—right down to the tragic 1969 car crash that killed him and his mother on his native Kansas soil. Like a biblical prophet, Swenson suffered greatly for the almost childlike sincerity with which he supported his often unpopular causes, many of which became gospel shortly after his demise. Only months before his death, Swenson addressed the inaugural meeting of the Art Workers Coalition, an organization that would soon pursue nearly every aspect of his political agenda, from protesting Vietnam to publicly demanding artists’ fair financial compensation. The AWC would also take up the questions he lobbed at MoMA and the Met, as would a generation of artists and critics who ironically made “institutional critique” a new art-world currency. His critical record, too, remains strong. Pop proved its staying power; art’s concern with sexuality and psychology endures; and the hegemony of formalism has definitively crumbled. In recent years even MoMA, Swenson’s Evil Empire, has reshuffled the formalist arrangement of its permanent collection and hung works from storage that would have looked at home in “The Other Tradition.” Swenson would surely have seen this twist of fate as a mixed blessing, part vindication and part domestication of his revolutionary ideals.

Scott Rothkopf is a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based critic.

In this occasional series, Artforum reexamines overlooked or neglected writers, critics, and historians who have made significant contributions to the visual arts.