PRINT February 2003


Artforum, February 1973

Lawrence Alloway’s consideration of the work of Sam Francis ran in Artforum thirty years ago. Senior editor Eric Banks reassesses the career of the once-influential postwar critic.

THIRTY YEARS AGO THIS MONTH, Artforum published a five-page feature on the career of Sam Francis on the occasion of the artist’s retrospective at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in Buffalo. Marked by the rather harsh judgment of its author (“Francis is a far less subtle painter in the ’60s than he was in the ’50s and similar declines can be proposed . . . in the cases of Noland, Stamos, Stella, and [Raymond] Parker”), the article was written by Lawrence Alloway (1926–90), a critic who had become a familiar presence in these pages. Over the previous year alone he had contributed studies of Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, and Smithson, covered Documenta 5, and written the essay “Network: The Art World Described as a System,” a prescient attempt to examine the distribution of art from the standpoint of consumption and the mass media. He would continue to submit lengthy essays on topics from artists’ writings to the unionization movement in museums until he left the magazine in 1976.

If ever a figure were ripe for reassessment, it is Alloway, who, despite being one of Artforum’s most public faces (as well as art critic for The Nation) in the ’60s and ’70s, has faded from critical view. Perhaps this has to do with his ecumenical tastes—an openness to the full experience of postwar mass culture that he cultivated in the decade leading up to his arrival at Artforum in March 1963 as the author of a rancorous consideration of Arshile Gorky’s oeuvre. The difficulty of systematizing his ranging thought—and his own resistance to doing so—is a further reason his words are today less known than his name.

In 1961, Alloway moved from Great Britain to the United States to become senior curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (he would remain there until 1966). This move was the geographical fulfillment of his enthusiastic commitment over the previous decade to American visual culture of all stripes—whether New York painting of the ’40s and ’50s or the pop onslaught of science-fiction pulp and B movies. For he attempted to take the full measure of what colleague Reyner Banham gleefully christened the “Detergent Decade.”

“A work of art may be made of bus tickets or it may look like an advertisement. It may be an ad,” Alloway wrote in 1956. In his various positions with the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London—under whose auspices the young artists, architects, designers, and theorists who met informally as the Independent Group would flourish—he pursued an ambitious program astonishingly contemporary in its purview. He helped organize the incendiary visual manifesto “Parallel of Life and Art” (1953), which juxtaposed gloomy technical photographs of missiles and tumors, examples of art brut, and a reproduction of Hans Namuth’s famous image of Pollock from Life magazine. He screened westerns at the institute and invited filmmakers and other outside speakers, including high school chum David Sylvester (who held forth on Marilyn Monroe). He sponsored or cosponsored panels on sociology, cybernetics, and logic, as well as a series of talks by advertising and television executives. And in 1956, he led the curatorial effort behind “This Is Tomorrow,” the clarion call announcing the birth of Pop.

After his resignation from the ICA in 1960, Alloway wrote steadily for magazines in the United States both during and after his tenure at the Guggenheim, where he organized Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross” exhibition in 1966. But if he never really swayed from his calling as art critic, neither did he abandon his affection for mass culture or his sense of the complex matrix of art’s reception. Even his first effort for Artforum, published against the backdrop of William Seitz’s Gorky retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, testifies to his keen interest in extra-formal influences. Militating on behalf of Gorky’s portraits of the ’30s, Alloway indecorously raises the question of the artist’s influence on painting at the time of the exhibition, chalking up Gorky’s significance for the living to the fact that he was “the first painter of the ‘New York School’ to die. . . . The survivors were reminded . . . of the limitations set to their own art within the brief span of life.” Alloway always played the contrarian, and here his sights were set on another critic (as was frequently the case in his writing), in this instance Harold Rosenberg, in particular on his reading of the artist’s career as “a succession of dialogues with artists living and dead.” Alloway demurs, arguing that Rosenberg “makes the impersonation and parody the mainspring of Gorky’s life and art. Thus, the art of Gorky results from his attempt to be an Artist.”

Not everyone appreciated Alloway’s taking target practice at other writers’ words, and perhaps that trigger-happiness went hand-in-hand with the critic’s topical promiscuity to help effect his relative future obscurity. Which is too bad: There is much on offer in Alloway’s grapeshot criticism. In the Francis piece, he wrote: “One problem seems to be the difficulty of sustaining a reductive art. . . . The problem for the second-generation field painters . . . seems to be how to develop without resorting to more entertainment.” For a writer who eschewed a reductive stance at every turn, Alloway himself faced no such dilemma.