PRINT Summer 2002




To the Editor:
While I was interested to read Mike Kelley’s comments regarding R. Crumb, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul, and H.C. Westermann [“Obscured Visions: ‘Eye Infection,’” March 2002], I was startled by his characterization of Nutt and Saul as not “primarily ‘figurative.’” He does acknowledge that Crumb’s work is rooted in figuration. but in Kelley’s mind figuration is connected with narrative and in particular with the comic-book form. In truth, as great an artist as Crumb is, he has very different fish to fry than do Nutt and Saul, who are clearly not cartoonists but rather painters. What is astonishing in Kelley’s remarks is his inability to see Nutt and Saul as wonderful figurative artists and formalist picturemakers at the same time. “Figurative artist” for Kelley must conjure up all sorts of negative associations (one never knows where one might find Greenbergian modernists). And his idea that abstraction in painting (presumably privileging the mind) precludes artists from using the body as a point of departure is patently ridiculous: Precisely what has been so great about Nutt and Saul all along is their fierce abiding commitment to the body, no matter how odd and grotesque it may be. Indeed, their unique ability to swallow the world whole and spit it out again could be argued as their animating principle—they bring an amazing formal imagination and subtlety to the radically corporeal. The fact that Mike Kelley cannot comprehend Nutt and Saul's integration of form and “figurative” content clearly says more about his own art practice than it does about theirs.
—Mark Greenwold
Albany, NY



To the Editor:
I would like to call your attention to what I think is a misrepresentation of Thomas Hess by Yve-Alain Bois [“From Here to There and Back,” March 2002]. Restored to its context, the sentence Bois quotes is not “philistinism,” nor is it dismissive. It occurs in the following review (Art News 49, March 1950) of Barnett Newman's first one-man exhibition at Betty Parsons:

Barnett Newman, one of Greenwich Village’s best known homespun aestheticians, recently presented some of the products of his meditations. . . . These are large canvases painted in one even layer of color (scarlet, yellow, blue, etc.) and on which runs a vertical line (or lines) of white or a contesting hue. There were some terrific optical illusions: if you stared closely at the big red painting with the thin white stripe, its bottom seemed to shoot out at your ankles, and the rectangular canvas itself appeared widely distorted. It is quite like what happens to a hen when its beak is put on the ground and a chalk line drawn away from it on the floor. However, very few spectators actually become hypnotized. But then there was no interest here for the average spectator. Newman is not out to shock the bourgeois—that has been done. He likes to shock other artists.

Commenting on the review, David Craven, in his essay “The ‘Critique-Poésie’ of Thomas Hess” (Art Criticism 1, Spring 1979) writes:

It is a more funny and witty review—highly ironic if unpoetic—than Hess had previously written. The allusion to the “homespun” character of Newman's aesthetics of the sublime—in fact derived from a grandiose European tradition which had nevertheless become intellectually passé, hence provincial—subtly undermines it. Moreover, Hess’s reference to Newman as an aesthetician was ironical, in view of Newman's well-known low opinion of aestheticians. He recognized that Newman, who was sometimes profound, but more often clever, sought to give art an ahistorical, ontological basis—an effort for which many aestheticians have been justifiably refuted. . . . By seeking to locate art beyond the cavils of aesthetics Newman's conception of the sublime also attempted, implausibly, to put his art outside the historical process. Not surprisingly, this desire for theoretical, cultural, and formal simplicity—all of which were viewed “unsynthetically”—was hardly the type of art which Hess would have extensively admired.

It seems clear that Hess’s appraisal of Newman was judicious and subtle rather than “asinine.”
—Donald Kuspit
New York

Yve-Alain Bois responds:
Donald Kuspit and I obviously have different definitions of the words “subtle” and “context.”

If find Hess’s hen metaphor heavy-handed, it is precisely because I place it within its historical context: that of an emerging stream of disparaging articles of the “emperor-has-no-clothes” type, which Has, who was in a position of authority, largely helped shape (there was only one favorable review of the 1950 show, written by Aline Loucheim in the New York Times, and that lone show of support was derided by Peyton Boswell in Art Digest). Hess’s review of Newman’s second one-man show (Art News, June-July-August 1951) is just as superficial as that of the first (“Barnett Newman again wins his race with the avant-garde, literally breaking the tape. This genial theoretician filled a gallery with stripes and backgrounds—a thin white line surrounded by white; a red line surrounded by nothing at all,” etc.). For Newman’s third show in New York Hess had one of his lieutenants, Hubert Crehan, do the ax job: “For me the matrix out of which these paintings come is a motley and complex set of influences, and Z have never been impressed by their originality or how they might reshape our visual sensibility.” (Note that one of the “influences” named by Crehan is Josef Albers, whose invocation Hess most probably suggested in order to irritate Newman.) Frustrated by the fact that Newman had not sent one of his “letters to the editor” to protest the review (he had done so a year earlier to defend Loucheim in Art Digest), Hess himself wrote in, praising Crehan’s article and signing his letter with the pseudonym H. Rumbold, a fictional character out of Joyce’s Ulysses. Deeply hurt, Newman fell into the trap and responded, which allowed Crehan to mock the painter once again, in part for having failed to identify Rumbold (Art News, May and Summer, 1959).

The point that Hess’s 1950 review was “highly ironic” is well taken, but speaking of Newman as an “aesthetician” rather than seriously considering his work as a painter was cruel in this context, and in no way original, for this is precisely the response he got from his peers, with the notable exceptions of Pollock and Tony Smith.



To the Editor:
Thank you, Artforum and Charlie Kaufrnan, for introducing me to the boundary-shattering paintings of Rin Tashmoor! [“Top Ten,” April 2002]. But please, where can I see more brave work on the order of I Swallow Coins? I have searched everywhere for this artist and for the Karsten Ekqvist Gallerie—without luck. Can you help? And again, kudos to Mr. Kaufman for daring to look beyond the shopworn.
—Alexandra Noah
Washington, DC

The Editors respond:
April I saw our front desk deluged with queries from other art-hungry readers. Curiously, we too have had trouble contacting the forward-thinking folks at Karsten Ekqvist. Please alert us if you get through before we do, so we can share the contact with the rest of our readers.