TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 2012

TRANSFORMER: GREGORY BATTCOCK

Gregory Battcock at the release party for Andy Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again), New York, September 10, 1975. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images.

IN APRIL 1970, Gregory Battcock appeared in his underwear on the cover of Arts Magazine, the publication he would briefly lead as editor some three years later. Like “Andy Warhol’s Travel Piece,” the three-page spread it announces, the cover’s design, credited to Warhol, looks unfinished. Battcock is pictured in a Polaroid photo, its black jacket still attached, which has fallen at an informal angle on the gridded layout form used for the magazine’s pasteup. In the midst of this arch disarray, the critic—a notoriously handsome, sexually voracious bon vivant who was particularly fond of travel (on ocean liners if possible)—perfectly occupies the position of gay icon. He wears white briefs and a sleeveless T-shirt and is seated with his legs splayed, sexy mustache dominating what’s visible of his backlit face (cut off, in the photograph, just above his eyes). Here we have the writer as malleable object, sponsored by Warhol to travel to Paris with fellow critic and intimate David Bourdon for the express purpose of producing a project for the magazine (though without any explicit agenda for their stay). Indeed, Battcock had already experienced Warhol’s laissez-faire direction as a player in the film Horse (1965) and as the star of Eating Too Fast (1966), a “remake” of the better-known Blow Job (1964).¹ But Battcock’s appearance on the cover of Arts is perfectly consistent with his writings within its pages—it epitomizes “criticism without apology,”² as he once described the writing of Village Voice critic and lesbian activist Jill Johnston.

Can exhibiting your well-shaped legs in the same magazine that recently published your analysis of Herbert Marcuse’s theory of anti-art really qualify as criticism? Or, does the frank display of male eroticism break down textual communication altogether by soliciting a gape as opposed to theorizing a “gaze”? These are questions I think Battcock considered carefully. In the late 1960s and early ’70s he regularly contributed chatty, amusing, and very smart columns on art and life for such underground tabloids as Gay and the New York Review of Sex, and in 1977 with Ron Whyte he launched his own zine, Trylon & Perisphere, a delirious mash-up including criticism, satiric accounts of actual New York galleries, and soft-core eroticism: It showed promise of being well subscribed before it ceased publication after just a few numbers.³ In the inaugural issue, it was not Battcock himself, but Neftali Medina—his companion at the time, who would later be a suspect in the critic’s unsolved and gruesome 1980 murder in San Juan, Puerto Rico—who appeared on its cover as a gay icon, dressed in a tiny jockstrap, tight cutoff T-shirt, and hard hat.

It is perhaps important at this juncture to emphasize that Battcock was no marginal figure in the art world, but a prominent operator who by 1970 had made a name for himself publishing the first three in a series of successful Dutton paperbacks that anthologized critical writings on new tendencies in art. The topics of these books would range from Minimalism to Super Realism and eventually span several media including video, cinema, new music, and performance. When one recognizes that Battcock’s New Artists Video came out in 1978, just two years after Rosalind E. Krauss’s now canonical essay “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” was published in October, and that it included, in addition to Krauss’s essay, a rich collection of alternate theories and counterarguments about the meaning of video, it becomes clear how creative and prescient Battcock was in quickly identifying tendencies in “new” media and delineating their contours. His first anthology, The New Art, published in 1966 and revised in 1973, was reported to have sold an astounding 160,000 copies.⁴ I, like many of my generation, learned the history of postwar art by reading Battcock’s collections in college. Part of the frisson generated by his Arts cover lies in the incongruity of encountering a serious anthologist posing as a queer exhibitionist: We tend to think of gender outlaws as those people who explode canons rather than found them.

WHAT RECONCILES this apparent contradiction is Battcock’s consistent effort to broaden the circulation or distribution of information in and around art. For him, Conceptual art had not yet devolved into the rather arid semiotic scholasticism so common today, which, whether descriptive or more ambitiously deconstructive, tends to focus either on Conceptualism’s creation of new kinds of objects (albeit “dematerialized” ones) or on its philosophical demonstration of the artwork’s unstable discursive foundations. From either perspective, though, what is at stake is the reification of communication—or what Benjamin H. D. Buchloh brilliantly diagnosed as Conceptual art’s aesthetic of administration.⁵ Battcock, like many other critics of his era—and unlike the majority of critics in our own—was more interested in broadening communication than in defining it. His anthologies were intended to make difficult art practices accessible and intelligible to a general public, and his columns in the underground press not only addressed audiences beyond the art world but also developed a writerly voice that dispensed with standard forms of morality, just as the “new art” moved beyond normative models of objecthood. His Arts cover blithely collapsed the boundary between these related but distinct practices, making Arts into Gay just as Battcock’s columns sought to make Gay into Arts.

Cover of Arts Magazine (April 1970). Cover design by Andy Warhol featuring Polaroid of Gregory Battcock. Photo: David Platzker/Specific Object.

Indeed, mobility—whether the discursive mobility involved in doing or saying the wrong thing in the right place (as Jacques Rancière might have it) or the physical mobility of heading to Paris at Warhol’s behest—was fundamental to Battcock’s philosophy as a critic. For him portability was what made a new medium: Sculpture arose when the archaic Greek figure was liberated from architecture; painting became a medium in the Duecento when it detached itself from the wall, gaining a back side; and finally television—through the portability of information it enabled—opened a new era of art.⁶ As he put it in his contribution to the book that grew out of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1974 “Open Circuits: An International Conference on the Future of Television”: “It appears that visual media come into their own when they are set free from architecture and become transportation, even though they may be a form of still transportation. . . . There will be a shift in esthetics from attention toward the art object to attention toward the receiver. The distinctive condition of television sets . . . is that the sets are not themselves art objects and represent a liberation of the observer from the tyranny of the object.”⁷

Battcock’s tactic of genre bending is explicitly announced in the first of two articles he published in 1969 reflecting on Marcuse’s theories of art, as espoused in a lecture at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, “Art as Form of Reality.” In this talk, Marcuse claimed that an authentic avant-garde must comprehend “reality as only Art can comprehend—and negate it.”⁸ In response, Battcock writes, “One new form that may be considered at least partially a genuine ‘anti-art’ agent may be the new underground ‘sex’ papers that have recently emerged upon the newsstands to confront the ‘intellectual’ imagination. . . . The newspapers . . . are ‘anti-art’ because they (or perhaps their principles) cannot be accommodated with the existent criteria for serious journalism. Indeed, they actively DISRUPT those criteria. Yet they are serious newspapers.”⁹ Note that the critic’s intention is not to “deconstruct” the nature of art in an ontological tour de force but rather to expand what art can do and with whom it can do it. In other words, Battcock promotes a kind of intellectual promiscuity, which, in the Arts cover, assumes the look of sexual promiscuity. Here is an exhortation to disregard the distinct authorial voices one expects to find in Gay and Arts and to instead allow them to migrate from one location to another without a hint of censorship. This is a labile practice of the voice, which refuses to abide by the moral imperatives proper to different occasions of communication.

Another word for such slippages is misinformation, a term Battcock polemically introduced in response to MoMA’s now legendary 1970 “Information” exhibition, a show whose unusually international group of artists contributed often highly politicized works using text, photography, video, and other “new” media. In his review in Arts, the critic makes two moves that may seem superficially contradictory. First, he argues that in art there can be no negation. Actions that appear “destructive” (Battcock mentions “destruction artists,” in what seems to be a reference to the 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium) and those that appear “constructive” are structurally identical, since what matter are the effects of an aesthetic act rather than the moral values (or, in our day, the semiotic analysis) manifest in an object. Artworks, therefore, cannot easily be evaluated through recourse to either their capacity for affirmation, on the one hand, or their power to critique, on the other: “If we believe in positive action we must, automatically, believe that certain actions are negative. . . . However, if we believe that there is no such thing as a negative action we would then be liberated from the tyranny of positive thought and behavior. The new Conceptual and Anti-Art artists are on the verge of this discovery.”¹⁰ Soon after this passage, Battcock introduces the concept of misinformation: “Perhaps it would have been preferable if [exhibition curator Kynaston] McShine had entitled his show ‘Misinformation’—not because that’s what it is but because that’s what it should be.”¹¹ What Battcock means by misinformation is piquantly demonstrated by his Warholian assertion of Richard Nixon’s bona fides as an artist: “President Nixon, his advisors and ministers are important modern artists because they have helped dramatize if not widen that gulf between what is and what should be. The bulk of the works in the big ‘Information’ exhibition are not nearly abusive enough toward their frame of reference or cognizant of their power vis-à-vis it. The intentions of the artists are serious; their works are serious too. But that means nothing.”¹²

Cover of Trylon & Perisphere (November 1977). Neftali Medina.

Apparently, Battcock was against seriousness but in favor of the kind of posturing—or travesty—he staged on the cover of Arts. Putting his body on the line as a critic, he both supported positions and assumed poses. Battcock, along with Johnston and others of their milieu, shifted in voice from confession to gossip to criticism with astonishing ease; he unapologetically asserted that the art world was biopolitical and that art itself should not remain limited to mere objects but expand to encompass this world. We see such strategies everywhere today—not only online but in contemporary art, from the dandyish posturing of painters such as Michael Krebber and Merlin Carpenter to the politically charged impersonations of Sharon Hayes and Andrea Geyer or the operatic productions of Matthew Barney. While this diverse sampling is united by very little in terms of aesthetics, market sector, or politics, all of these artists do apparently agree on the importance of striking a pose. Battcock’s dismissal of seriousness—his declaration that it “means nothing”—indicates a shift in values from objects (as reservoirs of artistic intention and semiotic complexity) to situations (characterized by ephemeral, and often flamboyant, open-ended communication). This shift is inseparable from a massive historical influx of media into art production: As Battcock argued with regard to television, art objects have become receivers. And this aesthetic of reception fashions the broader underlying conditions of a global economy, characterized by multifarious flows of transaction, translation, and misinformation into art.

Let me propose a formula by way of conclusion: If seriousness = objects = ownership = stasis, then posing = travesty = live communication = mobility. One is “caught” in a pose: Its form incorporates and communicates a continuous dynamism that precedes and follows its temporary stillness. Art objects now perform similarly; they are temporary halts or arrested conjunctions of information flows. Such is the real legacy of Conceptual art. Battcock not only knew this—he acted on it.

David Joselit is Carnegie Professor of the history of art at Yale University.

NOTES

1. For an account of this film, see Douglas Crimp,“Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 17–19.

2. Gregory Battcock, “Introduction to the 1971 Edition,” in Jill Johnston, Marmalade Me, revised and expanded edition (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998), xviii.

3. Although I didn’t make a thorough or quantitative study of the subscription records I saw in Battcock’s archives at the Archives of American Art in Washington, DC, I was surprised by the number of individuals and established magazines that requested review copies.

4. See David Weinberg, “Blood of a Critic: Gregory Battcock’s Rise to Stardom and Fall from Grace,” Soho News, October 13, 1981.

5. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (Winter 1990): 105–43.

6. Battcock outlined this genealogy in several publications. See, for example, Gregory Battcock, “The Greening of Televideo and the Aesthetics of Boeing,” Domus 509 (April 1972): 51–53.

7. Gregory Battcock, “The Sociology of the Set,” in The New Television: A Public/Private Art (based on “Open Circuits: An International Conference on the Future of Television,” organized by Fred Barzyk, Douglas Davis, Gerald O’Grady, and Willard Van Dyke for the Museum of Modern Art, New York), ed. Douglas Davis and Allison Simmons (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977), 22–23.

8. This lecture was published as “Art as a Form of Reality” in On the Future of Art, ed. Edward F. Fry (New York: Viking, 1970), 123–134, 132.

9. Gregory Battcock, “Marcuse and Anti-Art,” Arts Magazine 43, no. 8 (Summer 1969): 17–18.

10. Gregory Battcock, “Informative Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art,” Arts Magazine 44, no. 8 (Summer 1970): 25.

11. Ibid., 25.

12. Ibid., 27.