PRINT January 2004

Peter Plagens

Peter, the jejune and sensitive wuss of an introspective painter. John, the hardened, battle-scarred colonel of the war over whether Minimalism would hold the ground it had won from Pop (which had previously blown up Abstract Expressionism) or lose it to the molten-lead throwers and grainy-video makers trying to storm the fort. That’s the way it felt back then—say, the late ’60s through the ’70s—and that’s the way it still feels. Even during the last few years of John’s life—when, in spite of his sought-after-by-museums-everywhere status as a photographer, he was fighting (at least in conversation) a fatiguing rear-guard action against an art world that had become a smart-ass fashion scene, and I was bopping all over the place as art critic for Newsweek—he seemed to me still the insider, me the outsider.

Not that John ever did anything to discourage that perception. Au contraire, he reveled loudly in the idea that art—that is, modern art, contemporary art—is a battleground. The best artists are those who win the battles, whose work seizes from defeated artists first the edgiest gallery spaces, then the opinions of the headiest critics, and finally museum shows and catalogues. When I’d encounter John in his curatorial lair at the Pasadena Art Museum or at the contentious old Madison Avenue offices of Artforum or during a boisterous dinner party at his Cedar Street loft, it was as if Clement Greenberg had donned the helmet of General Patton. I demurred . . . somewhat. If the battle was everything, I used to argue, what did it matter whether the struggle was over cars, Hollywood movies, or the exhibition program at the Museum of Modern Art? Didn’t the fact that art is art—expressive, beautiful, peaceful instead of merely strategic, mighty, and martial—change anything? What about, I asked him once, the painter who simply stays in his studio, makes the best paintings he can, and derives satisfaction from just that? “Kienholz goes out in his pickup truck at night,” he said, “to find them and run them down.”

In the end, of course, John was right. History is written by victors. While today’s trendoid Chelsea gallery flashes and biennial-in-Bratislava agents provocateurs aren’t guaranteed slots in the pantheon (i.e., MIT monographs or $750,000 reserves at the fall auctions), no artist who hasn’t been either one of those things is going to get a shot. How could it be otherwise, unless curators are telepathic and can see through studio walls? As a friend of mine used to say, “There are no Great American Novels lying around in dresser drawers.”

Those are pretty depressing thoughts. Eventually, they probably depressed even John. And therein lies the reason, I think, for his ultimately returning to being an artist. Sure, to his last breath he got out there and elbowed, as Barnett Newman put it. But in the end, his main satisfaction came from staying in his studio, making the best photographs he could, and deriving satisfaction from just that. This unreconstructed wuss salutes you, John.

A contributing editor of Artforum and the magazine’s associate editor from 1974 to 1976, Peter Plagens is art critic for Newsweek.