PRINT February 2008



Alvin Baltrop, untitled (detail), n.d., black-and-white photograph. © 2008 The Alvin Baltrop Trust. Used with permission.

FOR A MAGAZINE ostensibly devoted to the issues of contemporary art, there will always be the question of how history should function on the page. With any retrospective look there is inevitably the risk of nostalgia, of an Oedipal swoon wherein we merely rehearse the already widely held assessments of a given period and its work, or else unconsciously map the prejudices of our own moment onto the art of that previous time—quietly reaffirming, in every case, things as they are. To wit, the canonical might merely remain the canonical in our eyes, with its art and attending critical discussions seemingly set out at a distance from the world, insulated from all air of contingency. Art history, like criticism, is perpetually at risk of adhering to a certain decorous orthodoxy—an idea of what is recognized as proper—and this often comes at the cost of any sense of history as a volatile field, the stuff of lives lived.

At least, these were some of my thoughts last May when art historian and Artforum contributing editor James Meyer first asked that we consider an unpublished transcript from 1973, in which Lucy R. Lippard speaks with Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson about their friend and colleague Eva Hesse. How, I wondered, could anyone actually “read” such a text today? The explosion of literature and exhibitions championing Smithson, for example, to say nothing of the recent surveys of Hesse’s work around the United States, would be too powerful a mediating force for any such discussion to be looked at without bias or, worse, fatigue. The main players in the conversation, two of whom are still producing important work, would seem more like abstract (or romanticized) figures than actual people; and looking further into the matters of post-Minimalism might strike some today as less a question of rigor than of devotion. Indeed, if Lippard’s concern in writing about Hesse in 1973 was, as she recalls in her introduction to the conversation as it appears in the current issue, “how to concentrate on the art without denying the life, and without letting the life overwhelm the art,” then my own apprehension about Artforum’s printing her conversation was much the same—but with slightly inverted accents. Of greatest importance here is how to create a situation in which a conversation about art still doesn’t deny the life—understanding that it is now the life that is in danger of being overwhelmed by the art and its heavy burden of history.

Paradoxically, obtaining this dynamic balance meant keeping Lippard’s document truly historical—leaving the discussion, in other words, almost entirely untouched by the editorial hand. Rather than molding the conversation into a polished document, reorganizing and placing clear emphasis on what we today might deem its most significant thematic parts—making every element serve some specific function—we instead let the words take their original course. Keen observations are not made to seem uttered impromptu but rather are left to unfold, as they can in life, amid the somewhat vague and circuitous, or even unfinished, paralleling Lippard, Holt, and Smithson’s cautious navigation of the personal and public dimensions of their subject. The exchanges, in other words, provide a record of thought as process—of discourse’s origins, so to say, in dialogue. No doubt it is this vernacular quality that brings Lippard to call the text an “(embarrassing) time capsule.” Yet it is, I think, from such risk of embarrassment and disclosure that the document obtains its greatest value, with speculations about, say, Hesse’s dialectical sculptural forms appearing alongside passing comments about the women’s movement, babysitting, and Watergate. As the question of identity begins to seep into Hesse’s work, so it also seeps into her friends’ and colleagues’ critical perspectives, which arrive on the scene without the pruning typically done for the sake of art-historical presentability.

One might liken the dynamic to something Douglas Crimp, seeking to break down art’s relationship to its modern institutions, once observed of photography: that with its imagery, the “world outside” is necessarily allowed into what was hitherto considered the autonomous spaces of art, including, more specifically, that vessel of history, the art museum. This kind of generative intrusion has long been of interest to Crimp (who, speaking of embarrassment’s useful unsettling of the past, is noteworthy in his criticism for his willingness to go back to his earlier writings and openly question them, even on occasion labeling them “preposterous”). Yet the most poignant expression of this art historian’s pursuit might arise in his recent work on the largely unknown photographer Alvin Baltrop, a number of whose pictures taken on Manhattan’s West Side piers from the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s appear in the current issue, accompanied by Crimp’s discussion of the artist. Baltrop’s images will be immediately striking to any contemporary New Yorker, for whom the reality of such a daylight zone of sexual and social freedom—with both idyllic and violent consequences—where there is now high-priced real estate along the Hudson River can only trigger a deeply unsettling cognitive dissonance. (One gains a palpable sense of the city’s more arid cultural terrain today.) But, importantly, this destabilization extends to art: Consider Baltrop’s images that by chance capture Gordon Matta-Clark’s Day’s End, 1975, which, as it happens, was squarely situated among the piers. The photographs repopulate the canonical work’s immediate sphere, integrating it into social space, in effect—whereas most studious audiences of art know Day’s End only from images in which the piece stands alone, seemingly at a remove from the actual urban fabric. There was, clearly, another story to be told. And Baltrop’s pictures tell it, though it may well be that he himself had no idea Matta-Clark’s architectural cut was an artwork: The piece was invisible to his eyes if not to his camera.

This suggests a divide much greater than the one made by Matta-Clark in the physical wall. But, as Crimp—who is taking up Baltrop’s photographs in a memoir that will no doubt complicate the critic’s view of his own life, lived for a time only a few blocks from the piers—has written previously: “What any of us sees depends on our individual histories, our differently constructed subjectivities.” Creating new possibilities for sight is, obviously enough, a decidedly contemporary matter.