PRINT March 2003

The Diarist: Robert Pincus-Witten

NOVEMBER 12, 1980: “THE EVENING ESSENTIALLY A HAPPY but disquieting one: it definitely marks the death of the ’60s,” proclaims Robert Pincus-Witten’s diary (as published in Arts) on the occasion of Metro Pictures’s opening party. “Henceforth, we of the ’68–’72 set, no matter our good will, are of another, older generation. In the juke box light of the dance floor . . . I could feel my laughing crow’s feet deepen into wrinkles. This is no plus ça change moment but a different era.” For a critic who had played a central role in defining the previous epoch, this clearly wasn’t just another night on the town. Still, after fifteen years on the frontlines of new art––an interval that could spawn almost as many generations of artists as fruit flies––Pincus-Witten wasn’t about to desert the new recruits. Instead, he plunged afresh into young artists’ studios and gallery openings, chronicling the emergence of the ’80s in a series of diary entries published in Arts from 1976 to 1990. Although today these writings are less remembered than his landmark essays on post-Minimalism, they remain among the most fascinating documents of the period, brimming with insight and local color, as well as the historical perspective and nagging doubt of a senior statesman confronting an “era” not his own.

By the end of the ’70s, Pincus-Witten—along with most of the art world—had tired of the post-Minimal and Conceptual art that he had so eloquently championed, but he wasn’t quite sure what to advocate instead. His 1979 “Entries” in Arts show a critic struggling to define a new set of priorities at the turn of the decade. After years of supporting artists who questioned the status of the singular art object, he appeared torn between that tradition and a secret passion for the salable commodity, poised to make an art-world comeback. “Then there’s me and that’s a problem,” he wrote in 1979, “my hedging, possessing as I do, both an extreme scorn for the traditions of the luxury object as well as a love of them honed by an appreciation of fine or prime examples of previous art, an art that, after all, never aspired to a conceptual basis.” For the moment, he held true to his soixante-huitard roots and resisted a return to “the goddamn visuality of art once more.” But given just a few months, the “object”—in the form of painting—proved impossible for him to ignore.

In the first few years of the ’80s, we follow Pincus-Witten as he schleps upstairs to the well-furnished lofts of one painter after another. A writer so instinctively garrulous he could use the word “Lunch” as a sentence, Pincus-Witten described these encounters in rich detail. Apart from the conversation and, of course, the art, we hear about David Salle’s “pair of pickled oak fake-Archipenko lampbases” and Eric Fischl’s origins (“Contrary to my snotty expectation, Fischl is not a Long Island Jew, but a cautious, taciturn 33-year-old Protestant”). In 1980 and ’81 alone, his columns made serious mention of Gary Stephan, Julian Schnabel, and Salle (whom he dubbed “Boonies” after their fashionable dealer), as well as Fischl and a few of the Italian painters still largely unknown in the States. These entries are marked by Pincus-Witten’s renewed interest in a medium that just a year earlier he had feared couldn’t “‘do it’ anymore,” but his enthusiasms are often tempered by a sprinkling of doubt. His May 1981 column provides a characteristic example: “What I like most about Schnabel’s work is not the work so much but his sheer o’er-arching, knock-your eyes-out folly. . . . Schnabel’s protracted-adolescent self-dramatization seems vivifying, ‘wow,’ risk-filled in a way that allows for a shared exuberance we are perhaps only too happy to lend ourselves to, a certain self-deluding collusive participation.”

Some readers might find fault with Pincus-Witten’s equivocation, his having a Dean & Deluca tart and mocking it too. Yet doubt proved a unique and useful tool in his critical arsenal. His willingness to acknowledge an artwork’s seductive powers while questioning aspects of its allure (and even his own judgment) is highly refreshing in the early-’80s critical context, prone as it was to the all-or-nothing modes of jeremiad and encomium. The occasional hedge was clearly informed by his generational perspective, as when he wrote in April 1980, “From 1968 on . . . the fundamental question of painting’s existence was addressed. Thus 1968 is a critical moment in the history of art, like 1912. Not because painting was defeated—it can’t, won’t and shouldn’t be—but its very questioning leads to big history. 1978 on merely accepts painting as a societal given. Well, that’s nice but it represents only a moment in the little history of art. To recognize this—even say it—does not close me off to the art of the moment.” Quite the opposite: Pincus-Witten proved highly susceptible to the zeitgeist and used his “Entries” to draw attention to artists who provoked his admiration, interest, and inexhaustible curiosity.

In a September 1980 column, Pincus-Witten explicitly defined this critical agenda in opposition to the new poststructuralist criticism proliferating most visibly in the pages of October. He professed some sympathy with the goals of the “October clique,” including Rosalind Krauss and his former student Douglas Crimp—authors of some of the period’s most provocative and penetrating criticism. Yet to Pincus-Witten, their theoretical bent smacked of formalism in “fine Post-Modern drag,” and he accused them of focusing on analytical methods at the expense of the best new art. For him, Krauss’s methodology, “as valuable as it is, has never been applied to elucidating the work of art or artists that were really new. Instead, it has become a form of joyless unemotional commentary.” He wrote defiantly: “A critic is not as good as his or her methodology. . . . A critic’s worth, instead, is measured by the art that he or she chooses to defend, provided the defense is early. . . . I see the critical task as being essentially that of pointing to the new.”

Never one to shy from a critical tussle, Krauss shot back in a letter to Arts published two months later. There she noted that Baudelaire’s criticism endured, despite his “uncertain gifts as a talent-scout” (after all, he chose the unremarkable Constantin Guys, not Manet, as “the painter of modern life”). Furthermore, she rejected Pincus-Witten’s claim that Greenberg’s gift was in choosing artists rather than in what Krauss saw as his “lucid analyses of the structural conditions of modernism, which will survive . . . his disastrous ‘pointings-to’ of the last decade and a half.” She continued: “In the vanguardist hustle of the present art world . . . we get a regular cross-fire of pointing. In all this there just might be some need for and some purpose to argument, that is, to an attempt to understand what a specific phenomenon portends.” Douglas Crimp, then managing editor of October, backed Krauss up in an accompanying letter, clarifying that poststructuralist critics were involved with a critique of formalism, not its defense. “But of course formalism plays much the same role in art critical and art historical circles nowadays as communism did in the . . . 1950s,” he wrote; “accuse someone of it and he’s guilty until proved innocent.” Pincus-Witten, in a vituperative and innuendo-laden reply, maintained their guilt and further charged Krauss with arrogance (“My, holier than thou and self-beautifying!”) and Crimp with conspiratorial collusion (“so manifestly is he His Master’s Voice”).

Of course, there are strengths to each position—the value of both “pointing to” the best new art and developing rigorous new critical methodologies and arguments. But what was at stake in the exchange was nothing less than the very function of art criticism, and (bracketing Crimp for the moment) it ironically transpired between two figures who ostensibly had much in common. Both Krauss and Pincus-Witten were academically trained art historians and CUNY colleagues who began their critical careers writing for Artforum in the mid-’60s. Up through the ’70s they had even advocated on behalf of many of the same artists. Yet the advent of the ’80s, with its various revivals, forced a polarizing of critical priorities. Pincus-Witten to a certain extent resigned himself to the “little history” that painting’s renewal to him implied, while Krauss, generally more hesitant to embrace the new, kept after the “big history” that an artist such as Sherrie Levine seemed to promise. At a time when intellectuals such as Krauss were interested in artistic “strategies,” not “styles,” Pincus-Witten clung to the latter term and regularly used his column as a laboratory in which to experiment with groupings of artists under the banner of new “isms.” (“Maximalism,” the title of a 1981 article as well as a later collection of his writings, although suggestive, never quite stuck.) Perhaps more divisive still, Pincus-Witten’s diaries demonstrated an almost Vasarian commitment to biographical detail at a time when Krauss and like-minded colleagues completely rejected such an approach, as her 1981 essay “In the Name of Picasso” made clear. “In some way, art is correlative to a set of episodes called biography,” Pincus-Witten maintained in an entry made the year before, but this belief made his diaries nothing more than a “gossip column” in the eyes (and words) of October’s editors.

This characterization was not altogether inappropriate, but it need not imply the intellectual bankruptcy or uselessness of Pincus-Witten’s approach. To the contrary, his diaries prove an absolutely indispensable source for historians today. They chronicle artists’ panels, conferences, exhibition openings, spirited conversations, and other fleeting but historically significant happenings for which there is ordinarily no textual trail. At a time when many critics worried over the renewed “commodification” of the art object and an all-powerful market, Pincus-Witten gave his readers a privileged peek at the egos and intrigue that invisibly and invariably shape a discourse, no matter how high-minded. Given the historical importance of these forces, it’s impossible to dismiss Pincus-Witten’s commentary on them as merely inconsequential “gossip,” but rather his reportage often illuminates the personal and commercial machinations that inevitably inform art’s checkered past and present. (Ironically, Pincus-Witten’s behind-the-scenes approach might be said to share something with the “institutional critique” of such October-friendly artists as Louise Lawler and Hans Haacke, though they would surely contend that he lacked their necessary “criticality.”) The fact that his chatty disclosures were interspersed with his often canny judgments on works of art only served to further blur the ordinarily well-policed boundary between genuine “criticism” and feature reporting on the world of art. Pincus-Witten recognized as much when, in 1984, he wrote with his usual candor, “We try to separate journalism from criticality, though I admit that even here my assertions are too often honored in the breach.”

Scott Rothkopf is an art historian based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.