Twelve Years That Shook the Art World

They were so young, so committed, and so smart — according to themselves. But shouldn’t we add self-deluded, pompous, and ruthless? The evidence is all there in the self-serving statements, contempt for others and general viciousness of the editors and writers of Artforumas recorded in Amy Newman’s breathtaking Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974. It’s now in paperback and a good beach-read even when it’s too cold for the beach. I cannot count how many times the word hate is used. The vendettas are hilarious and sad.

Here are some sample quotes:

Philip Leider, editor of Artforum from 1962 to 1971, on art critic and film historian Annette Michelson: “She lived in Paris for a really long time. And when nobody knew what in the world structuralism was, except Annette, she gave a talk on the subject at the Guggenheim. You either followed her or you didn’t. And she never lowered her standards to even my level. I never understood what she wrote.”

“Why did the writing become impossible to understand?” asks art critic Barbara Rose, whocalls Earth Artist Robert Smithson’s writings for Artforum “campy.” “Annette, after all, lived in France for so long her syntax is French. Max [contributing editor and critic Max Kozloff] was never a clear writer. Opacity was maybe unintentionally part of his style. Later it had nothing to do with a reserve about communication, it made it all look very deep and profound and it confused people and it was a way to keep people out, which was not the intention to begin with at all.”

“I remember having this big argument — it was when I realized how deeply I hated Lawrence Alloway — about whether or not there was such a thing as an aesthetic experience,” says critic Rosalind Krauss. (Alloway was the British-born critic and curatorwho coined the term Pop Art.)

Michael Fried (art critic) on a lecture by everyone’s hero Clement Greenberg: “I don’t remember much about the lectures. But they were Clem at his most apodictic. Naturally he didn’t show slides, he didn’t believe in them, and besides he despised art history lectures and the apparatus that went with them. So you had Clem talking, making absolute pronouncements, and of course we were very pro-Clem.”

Oh, Rosalind, Barbara, Michael, and Annette et alia, how foolish and arrogant you all were. Some of us knew it then, but now it is confirmed in your own words. The second batch of Artforum writers, when the late John Coplans was at the helm, was equally contentious butless tyrannical, perhaps because Greenberg was no longer a model or father figure. Kozloff, no stranger to the art wars, acquits himself well. Alloway had already passed on when these interviews took place, so we miss his wit.

To construct this art world bodice-ripper, Amy Newman interviewed all the editors and contributing editors — and many of the writers — in and out of the mix. The subjects were allowed to read and alter the transcripts, which is not good journalistic practice but one that art historians allow: it’s for the record, and we want to get it right. Ifthe “speakers” look foolish, they have only themselves to blame.

Chunks of the interviews were woven together chronologically and then thematically: 1962-1967, 1967-71, and 1971-74 are each divided into “Isms” and “Schisms” sections. These are further separated into subtopics. For instance, the 1971-74 section mines topics ranging from “Rocky transition / The new regime / Cabals of hatred” through “Culture wars II: Modernist imperialism” to “Less like ‘Artforum.’ ”

The result is like a marathon, no-holds-barred panel discussion that might have taken a week or so, but would have had graduate students hanging from the rafters and everyone else convulsed with laughter or in a stupor of boredom. Of course, after a certain point most of the “participants” could not stand to be in the same room, never mind on the same dais. “Over my dead body” would likely be the operative phrase.

What blood was spilt! What spleen was spewn! (Or whatever you do with spleen.) And it continues. But who now cares? It just makes a good, mean story. Some may wax nostalgic for a time when a handful of people called the art-world shots, but I don’t. Did we really want Fried and Krauss deciding what great art was? Someone had to be the opposition, so Earth Art could emerge. As we see, it certainly did emerge in the person of Robert Smithson. Smithson, as several report, somehow managed to rescue Leider from the clutches of Clem.

Unlike any magazine now, Artforum was the art-world Bible, but the art world changed and it all fell apart. The gatekeepers couldn’t handle the gate. Under Leider, Artforum was a powerful force, mostly for Greenbergian formalism. Read this poignant summary, by the talented Maurice Berger, once a student of Krauss:

A few years ago, I received a dissertation proposal on the so-called Minimalist movement from a doctoral student. Two of the four artists she was working on — Bob Morris and Eva Hesse — I wrote extensively on. My work, of course, is revisionist. I read this young woman’s proposal and it’s ‘Michael Fried this and Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson that.’ She is writing in 1994 about Minimalism and she doesn’t mention any of the revisionist texts on Minimalism written over the past fifteen years. This is my student and she doesn’t even cite my own work on Minimalism, including my first book — and the only monograph — on Robert Morris. She’s still so obsessed with the Artforum moment that she doesn’t even mention the writing that has superseded it. I insisted that she a least acknowledge this other generation of writers.

There are a number of things to learn from the “Artforum moment.” To have power, an art magazine must appear to have a position. It must have writers who, even if they cannot write, are passionate. An art magazine cannot be fair; nor can everyone be allowed to play. An art magazine needs the present-day equivalent of the $60,000 a year that Artforum got from publisher Charles Cowles’ family to give him something to do. An art magazine has to be able to build up a huge debt and yet be able to refuse ads that do not meet its artistic standards.

It’s all there. Did Leo Castelli pull those ads? Why did Greenberg threaten to sue? Did all the art magazines agree on an antiwar cover? Why were certain galleries always on the inside covers? What art magazine was notorious for selling its front covers? Why did an ad by artist Lynda Benglis, wearing a dildo, cause both Krauss and Michelson to resign?

And when the party is over and everyone has married well, founded another art magazine, gotten tenure, or merely been turned out into the storm, all the writers and editors should be required to give nasty, self-incriminating interviews.

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On a more serious note:

What is my ideal art magazine? Let’s put aside for the moment that it should always publish whatever I want to write, with only line edits and no content or style edits, illustrated with the images I choose, and with my headlines, for the minimum grand fee of$5 a word. This is what an ideal art magazine needs:

1. Twelve smart writers who can write what they want every two months.

2. Beautiful color illustrations.

3. To keep collusion under control, no advertisements for galleries, art spaces, artists, museums, or art books. Only national ads: cars, booze, furs (no, we had better not have furs), fashion, luggage, what have you. Then there’s restaurants, framing shops, real estate … travel agencies, escort services, law firms, insurance companies.

4. Why not publish the Ideal Art Magazine for free on the web? No, that won’t work. The pictures will not be big enough and, according to Rockefeller’s rule, if it doesn’t cost anything, no one will take it seriously. The old man actually said that when asked if admission should be charged at the then-new Museum of Modern Art. So let’s have an art magazine that takes no ads at all with a cover price that covers what it costs to produce, divided by the number of copies printed. If it costs $500,000 to put out each number, sent to a modest 5,000 subscribers, then each issue should be sold for $100. Any takers?

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