PRINT September 2012

_ _

Thomas Crow on Philip Leider’s “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”

Michael Heizer, Double Negative, 1969. Virgin River Mesa, NV. From Philip Leider’s “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” Artforum 9, no. 1 (September 1970).
 Click here for Philip Leider, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” September 1970

A SNAPSHOT taken of Artforum in 1965 would have yielded a split and contradictory image. In the recollection of New Yorker Mel Bochner, the upstart Los Angeles publication had undergone a palpable shift in tone over its short period of existence: “They were no longer, by that point, about younger California artists,” he recalls thinking. “It was more about the ‘scene.’ I remember one feature, Dennis Hopper photographs, of Jasper Johns, Henry Geldzahler and Andy Warhol. They were almost like fashion magazine photos.”¹ While the style of the piece and the identity of the photographer may have said Los Angeles, the portrait subjects recalled by Bochner say New York. Indeed, in the mind of Artforum’s editor at the time, Philip Leider, the magazine’s attention was no longer on the West Coast at all: As he told Amy Newman for her oral history of the publication, Challenging Art: Artforum 1962­–1974 (2000), “Around ’65 I shifted the emphasis to New York very consciously, very deliberately.”² But his intention was in no way to scatter Hollywood stardust over the Manhattan art world; he had in view an East Coast cohort of bookish young writers, whose fragile coalition he imagined as remaking Artforum into a byword for ambitious critical thought, the first American art periodical one could expectantly buy, as Chuck Close put it, “for the whole magazine.”³

Given the variety of temperaments involved in the project—which included Barbara Rose, Michael Fried, Rosalind E. Krauss, and Max Kozloff—Leider expected the move to be a short-lived experiment. As he wrote to Fried early in 1966: “From the moment I decided to shift ARTFORUM away from the hopeless task of making a West Coast art magazine toward becoming a vehicle for the group of younger people like you, Barbara, Max, la Krauss etc., I knew that the days of such a venture were limited by the volatile nature of the personalities involved, and that I could expect a year, perhaps two, during which I could hold the mixture in some kind of suspension, after which it would explode into its incompatible, irrevocably hostile elements.” One of those years, he reflected, had already expired, “and all the signs are that I will be lucky to manage the second.”⁴

The prediction of volatility and interpersonal drama came to be amply borne out, as Newman’s candid informants confirm, but it was in the end their solidarity in the face of Leider’s own need for change that propelled him away from the magazine he had done more than anyone else to define. By 1969, he felt that he had discovered on his own a compelling new body of art, one that demanded recognition in Artforum’s pages but in distinctly different terms and with a different vocabulary than the cohort of ’66 would or could deliver: “There was a scene happening, unexpected, unpredictable and unpredicted, but there and real,” he would later recollect. “The scene was the emergence of a coherent group of very, very good artists at the core of which were [Robert] Smithson, [Richard] Serra, [Michael] Heizer, [Alan] Saret, [Keith] Sonnier. They were connected with something new in film—Michael Snow—and something new in music—Philip Glass. It was very exciting, and I couldn’t get any of the writers I cared about to get interested in it.”⁵

Not only was there fresh territory to be explored, the geographic boundaries of which were expanding across the hinterlands of the continent, but there had also emerged a new model of cultural journalism exemplified by Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone. In that magazine’s late-1960s, San Francisco heyday, its stable of writers condensed the transformational social ethos of the West Coast counterculture and the rock world into long-form personalized narratives, heavy on vivid reportage, light on intellectual decorum. Leider singled out for praise Michael Lydon, a Yalie mainstream journalist turned hippie convert whose main beat at Rolling Stone was immersive road dispatches from the carnivalesque tours of the newly anointed rock aristocracy. Lydon’s reporting reached a summit in the massive piece he filed for the more politicized, likewise San Francisco–based Ramparts: “The Rolling Stones—at Play in the Apocalypse,” his close-up view on the zombie march toward Altamont.⁶ “I was so taken with that essay,” Leider recalls. “I so badly wanted that element, that quality, that hip, lively quality.”⁷

Artforum’s staff writers of the day being suffused with a mandarin aversion to popular culture, Leider held little hope that this new model would register in their ranks, any more than would the new art that excited him. That left no one to undertake the task but himself. So in the summer of 1970, he stepped out of his normal arbiter’s role to chronicle a cross-country trip to his old Berkeley home, a base from which he would launch pilgrimages to Smithson’s and Heizer’s grand and remote workings on the western landscape. When he returned to New York, he wasted no time in publishing his first-person account of these adventures in the September issue, under the slightly manic title “How I Spent My Summer Vacation or, Art and Politics in Nevada, Berkeley, San Francisco and Utah (Read About It in Artforum!).”⁸ Leider consciously modeled his essay on “the hippy stuff I was reading in Berkeley that I was very impressed by[,] . . . the stuff I had been reading in Rolling Stone.”⁹

GONZO ART CRITICISM remains, to this day, an unfulfilled promise. But by the second paragraph of “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” as Leider recounts the drive to Nevada in the company of native Californian Richard Serra, he says of his companion that “ideas explode in his head with the regularity of Dexedrine spansules popping.” And the two of them soon have the political theatrics of Abbie Hoffman (descended from Allan Kaprow’s Happenings) tangled up with Michael Fried’s strictures against contaminating the exclusive sphere of art’s inherited conventions. But such strictures rapidly shrink to a vanishing speck in the rearview mirror, and the first sight of the road trip’s goal, Heizer’s Double Negative, 1969, tips them into near-psychedelic disorientation and release: “We were all yipping and yowling as if Matisse had just called us over to look at something he was thinking of calling Joy of Life. The sun was down; we wound up slipping and sliding inside the piece in the dark. . . . The piece was a new place in nature.”

Despite this being a first report to the magazine’s readership on these brand-new works of Land art, Leider pays no more attention to their formal details than Michael Lydon would have devoted to the chord changes of “Street Fighting Man.” His essay concludes with an even more elliptical encounter with Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, one he finds so fraught with larger implications that he neglects to speak at all about the matter and form of the monument beyond a worm’s-eye observation concerning crystalline encrustations. Having reminded himself that Smithson “gets into conversations with Mexican gods,” Leider allows his concluding thoughts to migrate from Rozel Point, Utah’s naturally red waters to the vortex of escalating mayhem in the West Coast counterculture: “Altamont and Manson. . . . The [Berkeley] Tribe printed a letter from a girl named HN drumming Manson out of the hip community, and devoted its center page to Manson’s answer. Tom Hayden called the Weatherman the Id of its generation, because it supported Manson (there is violence and there is Violence). The ever-deepening spiral of politics.”

WHERE, THEN, TO TURN for some stability or precarious place of rest? Despite his deep affinity with the new wave of artists emerging in New York, Leider had given up hope of finding it among them. “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” was, as he put it, “a good-bye essay and people who were hip, knew.”¹⁰ Bookended by the two accounts of desert travel lies the true heart of the essay, a parable-like report on another sort of site in his old East Bay haunts. Leider knew the sculpture of David Lynn from early coverage in the magazine but now finds him in self-exile from fine art, building eccentrically crafted dwellings in an unincorporated encampment on the eastern slope of the Berkeley Hills, which its residents simply call Canyon.¹¹ He finds Lynn in the process of building a four-story house that snakes up through the tree canopy, framed with discarded timber from old piers and with no regard for the building codes that dictated the cookie-cutter construction of nearby subdivisions: “The corner beams kept the original shape of the trees intact: they were not even planed,” he marvels. “We didn’t talk about sculpture at all,” he continues, but “it seemed pretty clear that as far as Lynn was concerned, every sculptural idea he ever had was in his building.” Leider departs with foreboding over Canyon’s future under a state regime that has just rained lethal force on the protesters at Berkeley’s People’s Park.

Looking back at his farewell to Artforum, Leider reflected that he had simply become “more interested in the people in Canyon, California, than I was in the East Coast art world.”¹² In practical terms, that meant turning over the editorial reins to John Coplans, moving back to the East Bay, and taking a job (which entailed a hefty commute) as a lecturer in art history at the new Irvine campus of the University of California. But this return can also be understood less as a reversal of direction than as a resumption of the track he had been on before its temporary interruption in the second half of the 1960s.

When Leider “consciously shifted” the magazine’s focus to New York, he was not so much choosing as he was being chosen. On his forays to New York, he had been aggressively courted by the group of younger writers, spearheaded by Barbara Rose, whose fractious intensity he had detailed in his letter to Fried. An undeveloped and malleable magazine offered these ambitious critics, whose skills had been honed in Ivy League art history seminars, an outlet that gave them a scope and freedom unavailable in the established publishing venues of New York. Their skills in argument and self-presentation dazzled Leider, as did the art they favored (just for a start, Rose was married to Frank Stella, who was Fried’s friend and Princeton classmate). “I finally learned what superior art looked like,” he has recalled;¹³ but what he was learning could be redescribed as the effects of rhetorical framing at a level and with a ferocity he had never before confronted.

The New York writers, however, were ambivalent about Artforum actually moving to New York, which did not transpire until 1967. They professed concern over the corrupting effects of the art world’s financial and social pressures, but it makes more sense to view their ambivalence as a fear that other voices and points of view would attract their editor’s attention: While he stayed in Los Angeles, they had him all to themselves. After 1967, such apprehensions proved amply justified, as Leider found himself drawn to less categorizable artistic tendencies and new debates that diverged from those his previously favored writers found comfortable. Whether he consciously recognized it or not, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” tacitly recanted the confident pronouncements he had made just a half decade before, when he held the Los Angeles art world in disdain for exhibiting characteristics closely akin to those he came to admire in Lynn and his Canyon compatriots. By 1970, the counterculture and the antiwar movement had made morally compelling the dispersion of art into freshly improvised forms of everyday life, but this pattern long preceded the enterprise of a Dave Lynn and, in Leider’s absence, had gone on shaping the apparently incorrigible character of art in Southern California.

Edward Kienholz, Five Car Stud, 1969–72. Installation view, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2011. Photo: Tom Vinetz.

THE DISTINCTIVE GEOGRAPHY and economic development of the region had long put the practice of art in a special sort of competition with other activities of a similarly undirected and aestheticized character. The wide distribution of technical skills across the Los Angeles population—which arose from the craft side of the entertainment business, but even more out of the mass of engineers and ex-military techs who had settled in the region since 1945—found expression in such demanding and charismatic recreational pursuits as surfing, motor­cycling, and custom-car design. Negotiating these last pockets of the western American frontier required physical equipment of exceptional refinement, dependent on the industrial technology of the region but nonetheless accessible to the expertise and personal embellishment of the amateur enthusiast. A coterie location like Venice Beach, with back-alley mechanics, Bondo and lacquer masters, board shapers and glassers at every hand, put artists in a rivalry with these peers in combining maximum utility with maximum formal elegance.

Artists working in this milieu—painters like Robert Irwin, Ronald Davis, and Billy Al Bengston; sculptors like Ron Cooper, Ken Price, John McCracken, Fred Eversley, and Helen Pashgian—thus faced an implicit vernacular challenge, unknown in other art centers, to the distinctiveness and prestige of their art. Seen from a perspective fixated on normal art-professional inventories (if the picture plane is all that matters, why should Stella finish off his edges?), this first wave of Los Angeles art registered to external observers as overplayed in its object status and perversely complete to the point of “finish fetish.” But those pristine material attributes—high-gloss lacquered surfaces, luminous cast resin, vacuum-formed Plexiglas, chrome-plated steel, glass coated in mineral vapor—rather than naively reinforcing the autonomy of the work, coded instead its embeddedness in an invisible network beyond the sphere of art.

A number of these artists not only were attracted to the vernacular crafts manifested everywhere around them but regularly invested a commensurable portion of their own identities in the active pursuits of their non-artist neighbors, cultivating the same skills and submitting to the same demands and risks in the surf lineup, at the drag strip, or on the dirt track. And this remained the case among the cohort that followed, a self-transformed Irwin in the lead. Despite its members self-consciously refusing the older Venice contingent’s emphasis on discrete objects, they reinforced their predecessors’ assumption that art could be no more than part of a total way of life demanding fulfillment in multiple domains beyond the confines of a strictly professional art career.

For Irwin protégés Douglas Wheeler and James Turrell, for example, that expanded sense of vocation meant continually testing their abilities in flying. And, as matters of perceptual acuity can be matters of life and death for pilots, it stands to reason that each of these artists would go to extraordinary lengths to draw the viewer into a similarly heightened state of awareness. If such ventures seem to lack the political edge that Leider extolled among the Canyonites, it is worth pointing out that Turrell’s graduate work at Irvine had been curtailed in 1966 when the FBI targeted his counseling of prospective conscientious objectors (he had been one himself), indicting and convicting him on a charge of encouraging draft resistance.¹⁴ Following the successful exhibition of his first light projections at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1967, Turrell spurned entreaties from major galleries in order to pursue a new series of nonportable (and nonsalable) works based on the controlled release of ambient light into his bare, darkened studio—titled the “Mendota Stoppages,” 1969–70, after the previous identity of his Ocean Park studio building as the Mendota Hotel.

Willoughby Sharp, as he was challenging the privileged status of Artforum with Avalanche (cofounded in 1970 with Liza Béar), came away impressed from a California visit by that arm’s-length attitude toward the art profession, writing in 1970 that “Turrell’s refusal to show after invitations from Nick Wilder and Leo Castelli, and vague reports of works with natural light constructed in the walls of his studio have made him a heroic figure for a younger generation of Los Angeles artists.”¹⁵

Even the unsentimental Bengston, whom no one would ever have mistaken for Whole Earther Stewart Brand, had by this time made a bid for self-sufficiency, opting out of the gallery system against which he had always chafed (the feeling being heartily mutual). In its place, he withdrew to his own Venice building—not far from Turrell’s Mendota Hotel—which he restyled simply as Artist Studio, endlessly altering its internal architecture as a communal place of exhibition for the work of his friends as much as for his own.

In 1969, Edward Kienholz began to channel his aptitude as a jack-of-all-trades, fashioning Five Car Stud in the parking lot of printmakers Gemini G.E.L. The resulting monumentality of the work’s environment, real cars and grotesque humanoids, allowed visitors no escape from immersion within America’s internal reign of terror against its African-American population. Shortly after the piece was unveiled at the 1972 Documenta (only to disappear until 2011), Ed and Nancy Reddin Kienholz moved to Germany themselves, forsaking the American art world and its dealer system altogether for a life divided between Berlin and their Idaho family compound on the remote shores of Lake Pend Oreille.

“Altamont and Manson. . . . The ever-deepening spiral of politics”: Did those watching Five Car Stud take shape—its black victim mutilated and murdered for being found in the company of a white woman—think for a moment about Meredith Hunter, the eighteen-year-old African American set upon by Hells Angels at the Stones’ free concert, dying under the gaze of his white girlfriend? The young man’s body, in Lydon’s words, “was battered so badly . . . stabbed, kicked, and beaten by Angels right before the stage while the Stones were playing . . . that doctors knew, the moment they reached him, there was no chance to save him.”¹⁶

The West Coast artists whom Leider once belittled had in his absence widened their ambitions and complicated their work to a point that surpassed the self-limiting preoccupations of his critical colleagues in New York (where he remained less than five years). And younger figures like Bas Jan Ader, Michael Asher, Chris Burden, Jack Goldstein, Allen Ruppersberg, and William Wegman—not to mention John Baldessari and Bruce Nauman in the more senior ranks—were already expanding on these precedents, forming as strong an artistic cohort as existed anywhere at that moment. It had never mattered that the eyes of critics had been elsewhere, that no edifice of impressive verbal paraphrase had yet grown around them. Leider found himself worrying whether Dave Lynn “wasn’t an artist any more or whether he had undergone that complete redefinition of what an artist is and does,” but these artists in Los Angeles had captured cognate territory by expanding art rather than leaving it behind or altering it beyond recognition. Scorn the critics, however, and there is a price to be paid: To this day, the record of the remarkable flowering of art that transpired in Los Angeles in the 1960s and ’70s remains only half emerged from an elusive web of witnessing and memory.

Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Artforum.


1. Mel Bochner, quoted in Amy Newman, Challenging Art: Artforum 1962–1974 (New York: Soho Press, 2000), 139.

2. Philip Leider, quoted in Newman, Challenging Art, 139.

3. Chuck Close, quoted in Newman, Challenging Art, 216.

4. Leider to Michael Fried (March 1966), quoted in Newman, Challenging Art, 159.

5. Leider, quoted in Newman, “An Art World Figure Re-emerges, Unrepentant,” New York Times, September 3, 2000.

6. Michael Lydon, “The Rolling Stones—at Play in the Apocalypse,” Ramparts (March 1970): 28–52.

7. Leider, quoted in Newman, Challenging Art, 228.

8. Leider, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation or, Art and Politics in Nevada, Berkeley, San Francisco and Utah (Read About It in Artforum!),” Artforum 9, no. 1 (September 1970): 40–49.

9. Leider, quoted in Newman, Challenging Art, 271.

10. Ibid.

11. On the renegade history of Canyon, extending back to the timber camps of the nineteenth century, see John van der Zee, Canyon: The Story of the Last Rustic Community in Metropolitan America, 2nd ed., (Kensington, CA: Grizzly Peak Press, 2010).

12. Leider, quoted in Newman, Challenging Art, 271.

13. Leider, quoted in Newman, Challenging Art, 138.

14. See David Pagel, “Turn On the Light,” Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2007.

15. Willoughby Sharp, “New Directions in Southern California Sculpture,” Arts Magazine 44, no. 8 (Summer 1970): 37.

16. Lydon, “The Rolling Stones,” 52.