PRINT November 2013


Artforum, September 1969

Cover of Artforum, September 1969. Robert Smithson, Yucatán Mirror Displacements (1-9) (detail), 1969.

MY LUNCH PERIODS IN JUNIOR HIGH were rarely spent in the cafeteria or out on the playground. The quiet library was the preferred destination (along with the reedy woods behind the football field, where I discovered other loners, stoners, and perverts.) Just shy of thirteen in September 1969, I came across a magazine I had never seen before, Artforum, and was struck dumb by the cover: mirrors wedged into piles of rocks, sand, and dirt on a scrubby ground. It didn’t look anything like the other art magazines in the library, such as Artnews (not very exciting, but it was there), Popular Photography (ditto), a crafts magazine (I wasn’t yet ready for adventures in basketry), and Studio International (English, its large format declaring its importance). I distinctly recall a 1970 issue of Studio with a double-page spread by Gilbert & George—photo portraits of the artists captioned “Gilbert the Shit” and “George the Cunt”—censored, though just barely. I was immediately hooked on G & G, seemingly prim and proper but with mischief lurking below that beaming, tweedy surface. Even so, Artforum provided the bigger hit, and I eagerly awaited each new issue.

Looking back, I appreciate how the cover image must have registered at the time, connecting me to the sorts of things that I and my teen partners in crime would do as we tripped around those woods—turning over rocks and watching what would crawl out from under, holding shards of glass up to the sun, flashing glints of light at one another. An unconscious recognition of the format is also clear now. Held squarely in both hands, the magazine reminded me of an album (I bought records almost every week). That image might have been an album cover for Rare Earth, Mountain, or Captain Beefheart—who gave us “Son of Mirror Man—Mere Man.” Once inside, I discovered that the photo was by Robert Smithson, and accompanied an article that he himself had written, “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatán.” I didn’t know who Smithson was, or that artists contributed essays to magazines. The writing seemed vaguely scientific, measured but stoned. I thought he had probably been high when he sat down to write:

A horizon is something else other than a horizon; it is closedness in openness, it is an enchanted region where down is up. Space can be approached, but time is far away. Time is devoid of objects when one displaces all destinations.

Smithson had an influence, although I can’t imagine what teachers made of the papers and book reports I turned in that fall. I felt freed up, and my grades, which had begun to slip in the previous term, soon rebounded. The other piece in that issue that I read, or tried to get through, was Jack Burnham’s “Real Time Systems.” Just as I hadn’t previously encountered the concept of “mirror-travel,” “real time” was equally new. The accompanying pictures had me baffled: a chicken hatching from an egg (Hans Haacke in his ecological period), an anonymous stretch of park lawn (one of Robert Barry’s radiation pieces), a nondescript coffee table and black sofa in an otherwise empty room (Seth Siegelaub’s “exhibition” of conceptual works by Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner). I couldn’t help but wonder: Where is the art? Even if One Ton Prop (House of Cards), 1969, didn’t resemble anything I had ever seen before, it still looked like sculpture. This was reproduced in Robert Pincus-Witten’s essay “Richard Serra: Slow Information,” which I don’t recall reading back then. Same with Theodore Reff’s “Manet’s Sources: A Critical Evaluation.” Along with a double-page ad for a Parke-Bernet auction of “Seven Highly Important Impressionist & Post-Impressionist Paintings,” Manet and Serra provided a when-worlds-collide moments to be sure. I understood how someone would buy a painting by van Gogh. How mirrors and rocks were to be sold was another matter. Though I can only articulate it after the fact, this new information began a process, forcing me to rethink what art could be, and to consider the ways in which eras overlap, even as our own seems connected to, unmoored from, and rejecting the past and its values. Today, of course, we know that absolutely anything can be bought and sold, and faced with the love-hate relationship that is contemporary art, forever bound to its markets, a critic may feel like an accountant who can never quite balance the books.

The September 1969 issue is a slender affair, with forty-four editorial pages and just under thirty for ads. In the late ’60s the magazine was actually portable, and portability was a central feature for much of the advanced art of the time. In a notebook entry dated May 8, 1969, Lee Lozano proposed Throwing Up Piece: “Throw the last twelve issues of Artforum up in the air.” Today, this would be a near impossibility—a clear sign of the current weight of commerce and how it has tipped the scales in recent decades. Yet let’s not forget that House of Cards is Serra’s subtitle for One Ton Prop. Delving into Artforum’s archive, I couldn’t resist a look back at the first issue I ever wrote for, April 1993, and was surprised by how similarly slender it was, a mere 128 pages. But then, the ’80s had just come to an inglorious end with the near collapse of the art market, and most magazines were not exactly engorged with ads. Despite its recent bland museumification (a cheap holiday in other people’s history?), 1993 didn’t seem particularly worth revisiting.

While my contribution to that issue, coauthored with Michael Corris, appears ever so slight in retrospect, it does come to bear twenty years later on the current state of painting, or un-painting, as it were. Our title, “Punishment and Decoration: Art in an Age of Militant Superficiality,” could easily be reanimated in this shallow time, for today a certain type of abstraction occupies the space of painting and is afforded its status, often without recourse to paint, canvas, or brush, representing what may be termed painting as a service industry. “Painting” in the guise of art by design reminds us that new forms of presentation for art in the late ’60s descended into yet another style: art as bureaucracy. Among those who are adept at managing office/studios, making art less of an experiment than a means to an end, this is nowhere more visible than in the latest return to abstraction, whose modus operandi is entirely recognizable. We’ve been there before, but without the shine. Incidents of Mirror-Travel in Chelsea? With “real time systems” in mind, a distinction should be made between art and work, and these days one is in far greater supply than the other. This very industriousness is also a reminder of the endless abuse of the term conceptual, particularly in official museum language. Luckily for us, the revival of failed and co-opted modes of “work” eliminates any potential lapse into nostalgia. Now as then you have to refuse the club that would otherwise claim you as a member. At the Open Hearing of the Art Workers’ Coalition on April 10, 1969, Lozano’s statement concluded: “I will not call myself an art worker but rather an art dreamer and I will participate only in a total revolution simultaneously personal and public.”

The year 1969 was pivotal for art and culture and society, and for kids in junior high. Against the backdrop of a war, and a war at home, everything shifts dramatically after your mind has been blown. Burnham’s article ended with before-and-after images from People’s Park in Berkeley, California, though he doesn’t explain their significance, either due to editorial apprehension or because it was a current topic of debate. Four months earlier, the park had been the site of a tragic confrontation. The University of California had originally claimed the land through eminent domain, but with years elapsed and nothing built it had become a dumping ground, a blight on the neighborhood. Community activists and students planted trees, bushes, and flowers, transforming the neglected site into a park. The university subsequently fenced in the property and denied public access, the sort of response common today among institutions whose real-estate deals are made in the name of higher education. On May 15, the standoff blew up when then governor Ronald Reagan seized an opportunity to crush student opposition to the war and to his authority, and—perhaps playing to greater political ambition—sent hundreds of police to disperse three thousand protesters. By the end of the day, police had killed one bystander and wounded hundreds, many sprayed in the back with buckshot as they fled. Reagan declared a state of emergency, and for two weeks the city was patrolled by the National Guard. On May 30, a march by thirty thousand, nearly a third of Berkeley’s population, served notice that they wanted their city back, and their park. Burnham relayed none of this, yet his article refers to the Art Workers’ Coalition as “politically inept,” and he rather oddly concludes:

Art is becoming a matter of ecological insight. The Berkeley People’s Park is a real time work of art. Even as a decimated cyclone-fenced lot, it challenges societal norms in the most fundamental way. As thirty thousand people marched from the People’s Park Annex for the Memorial Day protest last May, dozens of grass plots appeared on concrete and asphalt. A loudspeaker played “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” In a country of 100,000,000 vehicles, what better gallery could you find?

From Earthwork to rock fest? If “real time systems” merely deliver us back to a gallery system en plein air, how far have we come? In 1969, as Smithson and others had shown, the white cube was already a non-site, its “neutrality” no more than nonsense. Burnham turned out to be prophetic in ways that he himself may have been distressed by, or not—anticipating the institutional embrace of a professionalized class of amateurs offering endless distraction on a modest budget, and the pretense that there are no boundaries between art and life, or at least what appears lifelike. “Space can be approached, but time is far away. Time is devoid of objects when one displaces all destinations.” Relatively speaking, the gravitational pull of cheap spectacle makes resistance all but futile. In general relativity, this is the point of no return.

Had I never come across that issue of Artforum oh so long ago, I might never have arrived in this moment. Then again, couldn’t that hour have been passed just as happily in the woods?

Bob Nickas is a critic and curator based in New York.

See the September 1969 issue of Artforum.