PRINT Summer 2002


Eric Banks on Artforum, June 1962

As Artforum turns forty this month, senior editor Eric Banks looks back at the magazine’s inaugural issue, launched in San Francisco by founding editor-publisher John Irwin as a medium for the “free exchange of critical opinions.”

ARTFORUM IS AN ART MAGAZINE published in the west—but not only a magazine of western art. We are concerned first with western activity but claim the world of art as our domain.” With this declaration of manifest destiny and a blurry, mysterious, uncaptioned cover image—a shadowy Jean Tinguely thingamajig that looks like a Jurassic Park escapee in repose—Artforum came into being in June 1962 with a forty-six-page issue weighted heavily toward exhibition reviews, which bookended a feature section titled “Forum.” The design was a bit quirky—heavy-stock burnt orange dividers literally segregate the parts of the magazine—but the Pisani Printing Company’s foray into art publishing had begun.

Say what you will about turning forty; we’ll say a lot about it in the coming months as Artforum celebrates its fourth decade in existence. Founded by John Irwin, a salesman for Pisani, the magazine reflected its mission statement in its modest debut (the new publication was in fact nearly christened “Art West”). An article comparing American sculptor George Rickey and the Swiss-born Tinguely all but turns them into precursors of the California Light and Space movement. A feature on the most significant Northwest Coast artist at the time, Mark Tobey, begins, “The West Coast looks over the Pacific and beyond to the Orient-and so a West Coast magazine of art begins by honoring Mark Tobey.” In an interview, James Johnson Sweeney, a former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, grasps for a connection between Northern European painting and what he saw as the “frontier” experiences reflected in Bay Area art. “I began to wonder: how about northern Europe? How did this almost Oriental character develop in its expressionist painting? It was the northern influx of nomad peoples from the Orient. They had carried this running, zooamorphic [sic], animal pattern of design across northern Europe, to Ireland where it had influenced the Irish illuminated manuscripts up to the Carolingian time.”

Notwithstanding a certain fixation on “the Orient” and the rather extravagant ethnographic postulation, the drawing card of Artforum no. 1 is the issue’s extensive if largely regional set of reviews. Although the back cover hopefully boasts “NEXT MONTH: . . . Mexico City joins the reviews section with a letter from Toby Joysmith,” the first number kept close to home. Correspondents checked in from Dallas and Seattle, Portland and Phoenix (the droll Dr. Harry Wood begins his lengthy review of doings in the last city with “Arizona, a natural paradise of exotic beauty, has always drawn artists from everywhere—much better than artists have drawn Arizona!”). But dominating the reviews section are San Francisco and Los Angeles, the metropolis to which the magazine would relocate in 1965. To read those reviews—pithy, often one-paragraph notes that collectively cut a swath across the two locales—is to get an impression of early-’60s West Coast gallery culture.

In LA the talked-about show was a Robert Motherwell exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum (“He is more of an idea man than an executioner and his powers of executing things without conscious reasoning seem limited,” wrote Arthur Secunda); and Edward Kienholz, already bigger than life locally for his scabrous sculptural tableaux vivants, showed up with an exhibition at Ferus Gallery (an “unreservedly tasteful and sophisticated replica of a 1943 American house of ill repute”). San Francisco is represented by a whopping twenty-nine reviews, ranging from an extended treatment of MoMA’s traveling “Art of Assemblage” exhibition, then at the San Francisco Museum of Art, to John Coplans’s curiously dismissive short notice of a survey of Matisse’s late gouaches at the same institution, to succinct write-ups of shows featuring San Francisco artists like Bruce Conner and the momentarily fashionable sculptor Wilfrid Zogbaum. Judging by the pages of material on the Bay Area alone, Art West may not have been such a bad choice of name after all.

Twenty-six years after the magazine’s debut, Ingrid Sischy concluded her tenure as editor by publishing a theme issue titled “Age,” which included a bound-in reprint of the June 1962 Artforum. Among the interviews Sischy ran in her February 1988 swan song was a conversation with Sidney Geist, whose “On Criticism” had been the first feature to appear in Artforum. In the early ’60s Geist’s magazine Scrap played a role analogous to that of the young Artforum. (Of the short-lived Scrap, he says, “Part of the reason [to create a forum for criticism] was our objection to a certain silence around art: We wanted to open a discourse. . . . It’s just not true and not possible to have art without words.”) Artforum outgrew its San Francisco roots to become a national magazine, but however much the publication’s mission changed, Geist’s testament to critical writing could have served as the editorial creed of the magazine in 1962 or 2002. As he put it, “There is no danger of saying too much. There is always the risk of saying the wrong thing; the danger is only of saying nothing.”