PRINT September 2012

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Robert Pincus-Witten on photography and criticism

WE ARTFORUM CRITICS of the Philip Leider generation are now in our seventies, pushing eighty; a retrospective contribution to a future sixtieth-anniversary issue amounts to actuarial improbability. Even those of us who quarreled and ultimately broke with that original milieu still think of Artforum as basic to the understanding of contemporary art, though perhaps with less conviction than before, granting the diminishment of criticism, caused, no doubt, by the rise of postmodern relativism and, moreover, of an omnipervasive digital media—in short, the whole decremental slide into a mediocre culture, for all its fascinations and excitements. That grumpy “to hell in a handbasket” assessment—always linked to the twin bugbears of technology and spectacle—strikes me as the big if dispiriting art news of the past half century. But can one really ever know? One person’s Mannerism is another’s high noon.

Two crucial decades: the 1960s, when, in my contributions to the magazine, I campaigned for Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, and Bruce Nauman, eventually coining the term post-Minimalism to cover the many responses to a then prevailing high-reductivist abstraction. The sobriquet stuck. And the 1980s, years that witnessed the onset of celebrity culture and a disputed Expressionist revival. Think David Salle and Julian Schnabel in the United States and the vaunted heroes of the German Kulturkriege, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, spawn of Warhol, not to mention Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz wandering in the ruins of Germany’s shattered modernism and still-divided capital.

By the middle of that decade, neo-expressionism had been swallowed whole by postmodernism’s conceptual and deconstructive strategies—appropriation, simulation, commodity theory, the study of art as market or as exhibition itself. This led to an art—our advanced art—seemingly impervious to assessment since, at each successive instant, it so conscientiously resisted consensus standards. The art became, in this sense, “academization averse”—which itself is academy enough.

The hard-won prestige of abstract painting and sculpture was subverted. Photography (and, later, digitally derived imagery) moved from shadow to limelight. Did this transformation generate its own standards of connoisseurship? A reasonable assumption, one resulting in No Bad Shot and billions of them, all those pictures infinitely reproducible via the technology soon at hand, a digital nirvana wherein connoisseurship cedes pride of place to technical virtuosity. Linus-like Mozarts, wunderkinder genially improvising titanic Gesamtkunstwerke on their MacBooks: great cities destroyed by a tsunami, the eternal alien-earthling wars. In short, adolescent pop culture became high culture itself. How could poor abstract painting and sculpture ever compete?

The first cover of Artforum bore a photo of a work by the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely—though one is hard-pressed to recognize the kinetic sculpture in that grainy image engulfed in mustard fog. This was the modest first entry toward the cumulative effect of hundreds of covers and thousands of photographs, as Artforum’s square format was widely imitated as the ideal of contemporary-art reportage, seriously effecting a positive reception of what was perceived as cutting-edge art. When the issue debuted in 1962, I was in Paris doing research on Symbolism for my doctoral thesis. To supplement modest French fellowships, I found employment in the progressive galleries of the day, first at the Galerie Iris Clert on rue des Beaux-Arts. Iris was important, and not solely because she showed Tinguely: Yves Klein and Arman—the one, her Seurat; the other, her Signac—were her far grander figures. Next, I worked at Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain, Georges Mathieu’s haunt, which published Ring des Arts, a short-lived review edited by Julien Alvard; the publication comprised exquisite endorsements of painters he dubbed les Nuagistes. My final stop was Ileana Sonnabend’s gallery, situated on the quai des Grands-Augustins. I first met her in high school, through her daughter, Nina, whose father was Leo Castelli. Nina called de Kooning Bill. More than a half century later, at Ileana’s death, I returned to Artforum with a commemorative piece (January 2008), one echoed by my posthumous reflections on “The Merchant Prince” (May 2010). Castelli and Artforum: our two schools of Athens.

Clearly not holding “art dealing” in utter disrepute (as is often the case of advocates of the left), I returned to the galleries in 1988 after three decades of academic life. Nor did, or does, the “collector class” horrify me (particularly). The history of contemporary art is shaped by the fetish value conferred on art not only by critics but, of course, by collectors too. While the term bourgeoisie—that ever-curious, toe-stubbing tag—still reverberates with the Marxist inevitabilities of the class struggle, it was rather the Romantic aversion to the greed of any class immortalized by Balzac, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Apollinaire that determined the formation of my critical proclivities, not revamped versions of Marx or Freud. I knew the arcades of Walter Benjamin firsthand: the Atget-like reflections of mirroring shopwindows, the repetition of kiosk advertisements. The spleen of fin de siècle modernism seemed an apt expression of my growing belief in the validity of criticism in a burgeoning era of lens-based mediation numinous on the horizon.

February 1980. Ingrid Sischy’s first issue of Artforum under Amy Baker Sandback inaugurated a new trend favoring fashionability, but the champagne had gone flat after Avalanche, Art-Rite, File, The Fox, Heresies, and a dozen toss-away underground pulp newspapers. A few months earlier, October had debuted, serving as the edge on which teetered the old and new dispensations—synagogue and ecclesia. The journal was founded by Rosalind E. Krauss and Annette Michelson (with Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, who quickly withdrew), owing to conflicts at Artforum with John Coplans (who, following Leider’s resignation, had ascended to the editor’s throne) and Lawrence Alloway. I also left, joining Richard Martin at Arts Magazine, both person and publication now gone. October became a flash point at the City University of New York, where Krauss and I served as professors. Art criticism, in becoming its own legitimate focus, expanded the broadly shifting landscape of what constituted the proper study of art history itself; this, in turn, mirrored the growing ubiquity of media culture.

The training of my distant generation: formal analysis and iconography. Neither connoisseurship nor style were considered crude words meant merely to flatter bourgeois acquisition, as they came to be seen under “late capitalism.” Differentials in designating quality were permissible, indeed anticipated. By the ’80s this humming critical machinery had been destabilized by the Octobrist dispensation. The derision of the arts of the hand—as distinct from those of the lens—went far in scuttling our deepest, most primary notion of art as an encounter with beauty.

By contrast, Artforum’s glossy pages at least continued to project the backdrop of the art world at any given moment—its photographs showed art placed in exhibition spaces, its multitude of reviews and advertisements indexed the art world’s commercial activity. Still, the testimony of my eyes and experience spurred my exhibition reviews. And it—not photographic reproductions or a priori theories—still does. In the ’70s and ’80s at Arts, these reviews were adaptations of diaristic récits, blogs avant la lettre. I knew that art, for all its formal properties, emerges as a social interface, and that forbidden margin of effect was something I also cared to reveal. This ran a collision course with an inherited formalist view of criticism and a triumphalist Octobrism, providing, at this distant remove, the nostalgic sound of grinding gears and shattered glass.

Robert Pincus-Witten is a contributing editor of Artforum and was a senior editor of the magazine from 1973 to 1974.