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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Mark Grotjahn. Untitled (Circus No. 1 Face 44.18). 2012. Oil on cardboard mounted on linen. 8’ 5 1/2” × 72 1/2” (257.8 × 184.2 cm). Collection Donald B. Marron, New York. Courtesy Mark Grotjahn. Copyright Mark Grotjahn. Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio

This two-part post deals primarily (though not exclusively) with the 103rd annual conference from February 11 to February 14 of the College Art Association. The first part replaces the April 9 post in which I discussed a show of contemporary painting & the first session I attended at CAA: I revised this post, condensed it & then added my experiences of the next three sessions I attended, all of which dealt with art-historical topics. The contemporary art is here because I think that it, more than anything else, determines how art history is seen & taught.


On December 19, I paid my first visit to “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” at the Museum of Modern Art (closed April 5). It was the first large show of contemporary painting that MoMA had mounted in about 30 years. It had about 90 paintings – mostly sizable -- by 17 artists, in a show organized by one of MoMA’s curators, Laura Hoptman, with Margaret Ewing, curatorial assistant.

According to Roberta Smith, in The New York Times for December 12, the artists in it were “all known, mostly market-approved entities familiar to anyone who follows contemporary art even casually.”

I guess I don’t follow contemporary art even casually (or maybe that it’s just that my tastes differ from Smith’s). I recognized the work of only three artists in this show.

One was Julie Mehretu, whose little black scribblings on large white canvases look a lot like the work of Cy Twombly (with a more distant resemblance to that of Jackson Pollock, who also seems to have inspired Twombly). I've seen Mehretu’s work in at least one Whitney Biennial, probably two.

A second was Mary Weatherford, who sutures glowing neon tubes cribbed from ‘60s Keith Sonnier onto feeble imitations of ‘60s Frankenthaler stain paintings. I’d seen a show by this artist at a Lower East Side gallery in 2012 when it had been favorably reviewed by Smith.

A third was Nicole Eisenman, whose cutesy monster heads are situated somewhere between Iberian-period Picasso and that whole school of borrowings from comic strips that gained its chokehold on high art in the 60s, largely thanks to Roy Lichtenstein.

None of the pictures by these three artists in “The Forever Now” did it for me. Most of the rest of the show was not much better.

It wasn’t the frequency of the artfully disheveled workmanship that dismayed me so much as the color—or rather, the lack of it, with the hues in nearly every work screechy, dull, muddy or just not there.

One painter new to me (and, I gather, to many other viewers) was a “participatory” artist named Oscar Murillo (b. 1986). (“Participatory” art appears to be popular just now.)

Murillo had three crude, ersatz-de Kooning abstractions hung on the wall—and eight more in a crumpled pile on the floor, where visitors were being encouraged to pick them up and handle them. When I say, “encouraged,” I mean literally: a guard was exhorting visitors to “participate in the democratization of art.”

Not everything in this show was equally discouraging--just most of it. Among the few exceptions was the 18-foot-tall triptych of three vertical canvases painted red, yellow and blue by Matt Connors. Although it didn’t send me up the wall with delight, it was less objectionable than the other work in the show.

While the description on its label related it to Barnett Newman‘s “Red, Yellow and Blue,” I saw it as far more directly derived from minimalist work by Ellsworth Kelly.

I liked much better three large, mostly abstract and reasonably pleasingly-colored panels by Mark Grotjahn, with swinging, swooping cable-like shapes. The titles on these paintings were meant to evoke associations with “Le Cirque” (1890-91), by Seurat, but the paintings themselves looked much more like the Futuristically-inflected paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge done in 1919 and 1939 by Joseph Stella.


What did all of these paintings – good as well as bad -- have in common? The answer seems to be that they were chockablock with quotations from earlier artists, imperfectly synthesized so that their source material was obvious. Put another way, they downgraded synthesis & elevated pastiche.

To MoMA, this was evidently awesome, the reason that Curator Hoptman put these artists together. All illustrated her thesis that this is – and must be -- how the most significant painting IS right now--because we are living in an “atemporal” moment when art from all periods and styles is simultaneously available.

As she sees it, the contemporary artist who wishes to epitomize this particular moment has no choice but to borrow from and adapt the art of the past—but isn’t this just a little bit familiar? Haven’t we gone this way before?

Wasn’t this notion of “derivative is the new original” also the principle of “appropriations,” back in the late 70s and the 80s?

And wasn’t it even already with us in the 60s? I asked myself these questions in December 2104, as I sat on a bench in the MoMA lobby, looking over my notes.

At that moment, MoMA was also staging a retrospective for Elaine Sturtevant (1924-2014). She made her first splash in the 60s, with copies of work by other artists—maybe a tiny something different from their originals, but otherwise so similar that nobody could mistake them for anything but copies of work by other artists.

Hadn’t I even written something about Sturtevant and other artists who imitated other artists, back when I was on Time?

I couldn’t remember exactly, and at that point I wasn’t interested in refreshing my memory, as I didn’t want to review “The Forever Now.” It wasn’t only because its premise of “derivative is the new original” had whiskers on it.

It was also because most work in the show had impressed me negatively—and I would far rather celebrate what I like than pan what I don’t. In fact, I see a critic’s primary purpose in life as pointing readers in the direction of good art—and, if necessary and/or possible, helping them to see why it is so good.

This doesn’t mean I ignore what else is going on, or bypass shows that I have no advance reason to expect that I’ll like. I never know when I may not be pleasantly surprised. Besides, I believe that if you haven’t seen it, you can’t knock it—and knocking overrated art is the second of those two important services that I as a critic can perform.

This doesn’t mean landing on every unworthy show that I see. Rather, I feel that I am performing a service for my readers by sparing them from wasting their time & money only when I see that a show attracting more attention than it deserves.

The time I first saw “The Forever Now,” I hadn’t heard that it was attracting any sort of attention, so I simply thought that this isn't a show that I have to review.


Another thing that made me put “The Forever Now” aside was a feeling that has haunted me for some time, a feeling that maybe I wasn’t doing the artists I do admire any favors by dumping on the ones I don’t.

I was wondering whether I’d been acting wisely by following the precedent set by Clement Greenberg, with his dismissive attitudes towards pop and its allies. Over the years, I’ve been aware of how partisans of such art have been trying to discredit him in turn. And I’ve wondered if such warfare isn’t a matter of cause and effect.

Is it possible that if Greenberg hadn’t come down so hard on what he called “novelty art” he might not have been attacked himself? Is it possible that if I muted my complaints about shows like “The Forever Now,” critics might be more willing to pay some attention to those artists whom Greenberg admired?

Haunted by this thought, I went to the first day of the College Art Association conference at the New York Hilton.

At that point, I still had no desire to write a review of “The Forever Now,” though I’d now learned that it had stimulated talk and further reviews. All sorts of artists had gone to see it, not least some from the little subculture that I inhabit—possibly because it was such a novelty to have MoMA doing a show of contemporary painting, as opposed to the diet it normally gives us of computer art, videos, performance art, and the like.


For those who have never attended a CAA conference, it goes from Wednesday through Saturday. Its core is the “sessions,” each with speakers who deliver 10-to-20 minute “talks” or participate in panel discussions.

In the morning and afternoons, the sessions run 2½ hours and have at least four, maybe five speakers. During the lunch hour and in the early evening, shorter sessions are held, often sponsored by satellite organizations instead of CAA itself.

In addition, there are committee meetings, the “meat market,” advice-giving panel discussions, alumni reunions, exhibits of new books and artists’ supplies, together with open houses or receptions by local galleries and museums.

All told, the official program this year listed 238 sessions, committee meetings and panels for the four main time slots, or an average of 17 events going on simultaneously. Topics covered every quarter of the globe, and every period in art history.

Wow. I couldn't sample more than a fraction of this banquet--and my observations must be taken as only one observer's impressions.

Besides the program, conference-goers can get a booklet with one-paragraph abstracts of all talks that were prepared in advance. I took notes, but I’ve also relied on the written evidence provided by the abstracts in compiling this report.

As my primary interest is 20th and 21st century painting and sculpture, I looked for panels and sessions dealing with these subjects. However, as postmodernist art dominates the contemporary scene, and mostly chooses its ancestors from the backwaters of the past, the number of talks on modernist artists I admire was infinitesimal at CAA this year.

Some sessions offered interesting side angles to these periods, though, and I got to a few of those. In all, I got to eight sessions (though not always in their entirety), as well as two alumni reunions and the exhibit hall.

Five sessions that I looked in on took me back to those placid days when I was in graduate school, and still felt at home within the profession; the other three had me on an emotional roller-coaster.


The first session that I attended, during the Wednesday lunch hour, was a panel discussion sponsored by the U.S. chapter of the Association Internationale des Critiques d ‘Art, which is headquartered in Paris and known for short as AICA.

AICA sponsors panels at every CAA conference, and, as I am longtime member of the organization, I always attend. Usually, they’re painless and often quite illuminating. This year was something of an exception.

The topic was “How Dare We Criticize? Contemporary Art Critics on the State of Their Art.” It was well attended, and had four participants (no published abstracts). One speaker was the chair, Barry Schwabsky. He is chief art critic for The Nation, but has published widely elsewhere, with many articles in art magazines.

The other three were David Pagel, a critic for the Los Angeles Times; Lloyd Wise, a contributor to (and staff member of) Artforum, and David Cohen, editor-in-chief of artcritical.com. Pagel was part of the original lineup; Wise & Cohen had been called in to replace people who had canceled out.

Although the participants made opening statements, most of what I remember followed these statements. It began as a question-and-answer period, but evolved into a conversation, with the members of the audience offering their own comments.

I was trying to take notes, but often couldn’t tell who said what—with some exceptions regarding remarks by the speakers on the dais. Thus, I can’t offer a narrative of the proceedings. I can only summarize some of the remarks.

Near the beginning of the session, an attempt was made to answer the question posed by its title: how dare we criticize?

Phrased another way, the question was, what qualifications do critics have that give them the right to record their responses to art, and to be read with respect?

David Cohen argued that a critic has a better eye because he uses it more, and the more he uses it, the better he gets. Greenberg would have agreed, I believe.

At any rate, I can recall Greenberg suggesting that his (long) experience of looking at art had taught him to distinguish between the best art and lesser art – or words to this effect (throughout this report on the CAA, take everything I write as qualified by “or words to this effect,” unless I put a word or a statement in actual quotation marks).

The implication of Greenberg's observation was that anybody who looked at as much art as he had would come to the same conclusions on which was the best. I wish I could share this optimistic belief.

Alas, I know of too many critics who lived to ripe old ages and still persisted in preferring lesser art over greater. I give Cohen credit for trying to model himself on Greenberg, to the extent that he suggested that a critic has to have “an eye” (though he didn’t mention Greenberg in connection with this idea).


Another phase of the conversation came about when somebody – maybe Schwabsky --- asked everybody what they thought their criticism was worth. I believe he meant this in a philosophic sense, and there may have been some philosophic discussion, but what I find in my notes is how David Pagel answered the question in a more concrete sense.

Though I didn’t get down everything he said, the gist (as I recall it) is that he was getting something like 50 to 75 cents a word for his writing in the Los Angeles Times, $2 a word for writing for non-profit institutions (like museum catalogs), and $3 a word when he was writing for commercial galleries.

This confirmed my longstanding suspicion that writing catalog essays for commercial galleries pays much better than writing reviews and even articles for art magazines. Until now it’s only been a suspicion, as I don’t do catalog essays for galleries myself.


The next subject that appears from my notes to have surfaced was the question of for whom does the critic write. One person on the dais (my notes don’t say who) said that one person he could always count upon to read his review was the artist, so that was who he wrote for.

Somebody on the panel added that he himself lives for the moment when an artist whom he has reviewed says you put into words what I have often thought about.

A further question that seems to have arisen in this connection was, is the critic’s opinion influenced by the advertisers? Everybody who spoke publicly on this subject insisted that he wasn’t.

The audience evidently didn’t want to leave this subject of who the critic writes for, because I find another question in my notes: who is your audience?

Cohen responded, “Different outlets have different audiences.” The other panelists agreed.. Pagel said that when he wrote for the LA Times, he was writing for the non-specialist, for the “curious person” who is “interested in culture.”

Wise said that he was writing for the artist, and beyond that, for the “knowledgeable art public.” Schwabsky (at a later moment) said that he had one audience when he wrote for The Nation and another when he wrote for the art magazines. He tailored each review to the audience of the publication, but both were “self-selected.”

Cohen said he wrote for “an imaginary person.”

For a while, the art market came into the conversation, with Cohen arguing that to some extent, the market is what defines art. Schwabsky told an anecdote about Jerry Saltz, of New York Magazine, finding a young artist he wanted to write about -- only to learn that Gagosian was already sending a truck to pick up $50,000 worth of his art, even before any critic had written about him.

Schwabsky and Cohen (if I read my notes aright) were more or less in agreement that the market and the critics might be at odds. Cohen compared the enormous amounts of money that go into monuments for malls and airports with how younger artists with well-reviewed gallery shows might still be penniless.


The conversation veered toward negative reviews, and the general feeling of the gathering was against them. Cohen took the lead here, making a distinction between what he called "demolition” and “deconstruction.”

“Demolition” meant reviewing an entire show negatively, and is, he said, “untenable” in our “pluralistic” culture.

“Deconstruction” was okay—one could say things like, this is a poor example of the artist’s work, or “I just don’t get it.”

This last rejoinder, I gathered, is allowed in the “Review Panels” that Cohen stages at the National Academy Museum. A panelist there can say, I just don’t understand.

The implication here is that if the critic doesn’t like the show, it’s the critic’s fault, not that of the artist. This reminds me of how courts in the bad old days handled rape cases, by blaming the victim. But I get ahead of myself.

The meeting ended with Cohen comparing Schwabsky to John Ruskin, the 19th century English critic, as a man not afraid to bring larger moral values into his writing. Schwabsky responded that he was pro-Whistler, in relation to the lawsuit that Whistler brought against Ruskin for criticizing one of his paintings. Schwabsky considered himself an esthete, he continued, and these were the last words of the session.

He may even have said that he preferred esthetics to sociology. At least, I have a reference to “sociology” in my notes, but I can’t be sure he said it. Maybe I put it in, because even saying that one’s an esthete these days is to take a controversial position in an art world where so many exhibitions are devoted to art with a sociopolitical message of some sort.

It’s almost as though “esthetics” were to be the next code word for “formalism” or “modernism,” and art itself, comparable to pornography in that the only acceptable art is art with “redeeming social content.”


Reflecting upon all of this, I’ve found myself thinking about my journalistic background – how it differs from that of all the panelists in the AICA session, and how – in a strange way – it resembles that of Greenberg.

Before I ever became an art critic, I worked for a mass-media magazine, Time, and in several sections (including business news).

I first wrote about art in the mass media climate of Time, and only after I left did I begin to publish in the art magazines (thereby discovering a whole new world and a whole new way of going about things).

Most art critics I know anything about have had the reverse experience: they started on the art magazines, and (sometimes, not always) progressed to publications with varied subject matter and a cross-section of readers. Even if they made this transition, they may still have been only part-time employees, as opposed to being on staff. And, if they are only part-time employees, they knew that their chances of placing an article were far, far better if it was a favorable article instead of a slam.

Greenberg was an exception. His initial publishers were Partisan Review and The Nation. PR was a “little magazine,” and The Nation, a “journal of opinion.” Neither had circulations anywhere near as large as Time, but they resembled it in dealing with a range of subjects and appealing to a range of readers. Like Time, they could be called “general interest” magazines.

Thus they could be more detached about the art world, and do in their art columns what critics on such publications normally do with other cultural beats: write reviews for readers in their capacities as consumers, not creators (or vendors) of the work involved.

Time, PR and The Nation were alike in this. Whether it was paintings, books, movies or plays, the critic told his audience whether or not the work under consideration was worth spending their time and/or money on. This is still true at The New York Times, in its reviews of books, movies, and theater. You can even get hints of it in its art coverage.

Another type of publication is the trade magazine. Most readers of such publications—and the great majority of its advertisers -- come from the business or industry it covers. Though it may sound rather inelegant to describe them this way, the art magazines are the trade magazines of the art business. And – like other trade magazines -- they mostly accommodate themselves to their industry.

Trade magazines are primarily interested in praising new products. And, in recent years, the art magazines have pretty much behaved like the trade magazines of other industries in this respect.

Everybody on that dais at the AICA panel, and indeed the overwhelming majority of its audience (as nearly as I could tell) had started out on the art magazines, and only later (if at all) graduated to publications with more varied readership and content.

Perhaps this may help to explain why Greenberg and I are in such a minority with our negative criticism. Not that I ever went in for negative criticism much when I was at Time—mostly, I preferred to use the very limited space I had available to write about art I admired, or at least considered “newsworthy.” But I was perfectly free to criticize if I wanted to – and I occasionally did.

Even the art magazines haven’t always behaved like trade magazines in their unwillingness to publish negative criticism. Back in the 60s, 70s and even the 80s, controversy was allowed. Most of the time, to be sure, the targets were popular targets, by which I mean targets that were already unpopular within the art world: Whitney Biennials, The New York Times, Greenberg and/or art admired by him.

Still, even the in the 60s, and as late as the 80s, Greenberg and writers who sympathized with him were allowed to fire back, originally in Artforum, later in Arts Magazine (now defunct).

What has happened since? Why does the current scene so much resemble a police state in the degree of dissent that it permits?

True, dissent from the status quo may not make the dissenter popular. Artists, of course, only rarely try to learn from criticism. Dealers just don't like it, no more than most editors, many readers, and (I suppose) some of the more thin-skinned museum personnel.

Still, nowhere have I seen it written that the ability to win popularity contests is part of a critic’s job description.

And if that critic knows how to both praise and critique, in time s/he may earn a little more respect than is accorded those critics who praise everything in sight.

Such accommodating critics may be loved initially, but who can trust their judgment when all they mete out is praise? And how long are they really remembered?

All of which brings us back to Greenberg. Here is a man who's been dead for 21 years, and he's still remembered.

In fact, he was referred to three or four times in this CAA session.

Only one of those references was favorable (to that oft-quoted passage in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” where Greenberg wrote that an “umbilical cord of gold” binds the avant-garde artist to an “elite” of the ruling class).

The other two or three references – all from members of the audience--were too fleeting for me to jot them down verbatim, but when I thought about it afterwards, I realized that none had even hinted at any real knowledge of Greenberg’s writing, and that all had been negative. And this, too, in a session where everybody claimed that they were opposed to negative criticism!

Apparently, the sole target one is allowed to be negative about is Greenberg.


The effect of all these digs on me was cumulative—by the time the session was over and I was reviewing my thoughts about it, I realized that I was pretty angry myself.

What it boils down to, I thought, is that it’s okay to use Greenberg as a punching bag because he engaged in negative criticism--and that’s all that these younger people, raised in a postmodernist environment, are aware of: the fact that he targeted their heroes.

Still, even in those later years, he’d speak of artists he admired, and, back in the 1940s, he reviewed -- in very positive language-- most of the greats of the first generation of abstract expressionism— before any other critic was taking them as seriously.

That's the real basis for his reputation: positive reviews, not negative ones.

Have all these anti-Greenbergers at the AICA session forgotten these reviews?

Or are they so young and so poorly educated that they never even knew about them?

Or do they not know (or care) about those first generation abstract expressionists?

It may be all of the above--but with one very important additional factor, which is that the postmodernist enterprise (or establishment, or academy) now—more than ever before--needs somebody to attack it.

It needs a bogeyman with which to scare -- or rather, enthrall -- up-and-coming postmodernists.

Postmodernism needs somebody to attack it and therefore certify it as genuinely radical and “avant-garde.”

Never mind that it is now more than a century old -- if one dates it (as an art historian like myself does) from the "Bicycle Wheel" of 1913.

Or it's more than half a century old, if one dates it (making another art-historical reference) from Rauschenberg's 1951 "White Paintings."

In other words, to those who care enough about art to study its past, postmodernism is now in something of a geriatric phase—but it still needs to believe that it is young and revolutionary -- and the myth that Greenberg is only now attacking it serves to perpetuate the myth of its own youth.

It is so old and creaky that it is recycling some ideas for at least the third time – specifically the notion that “derivative is the new original.”

This poetic conceit formed the basis for the mustache on the Mona Lisa, Andy Warhol's copies of the designs on Campbell's soup cans, and Roy Lichtenstein's imitations of the comic strip style of Milt Caniff.

Decades later, it has become the premise for “The Forever Now.”

Is it possible that postmodernism senses how stale and familiar its ideas are, and fears that as a result, it has become so fragile that it's destructible?

Is it afraid that with one mighty whack, the whole edifice might collapse?

Is this the real reason there has been such a clampdown: fear?


Personally, I have always welcomed criticism--and learned from it. That's one reason I don't understand this insistence on sweetness & light. The other is that I don't think postmodernism needs to worry about collapsing.

I view the hordes of art-lovers thronging into all the Manhattan museums that feature contemporary (postmodernist) art. I read daily about how all of these museums are beefing up their holdings and displays of this same art still more.

At the AICA panel discussion, somebody observed that even students are becoming more interested in taking courses on contemporary art than in the art of the past. All of these students are swelling the market for postmodernist art.

I see astronomical prices at auctions for postmodernist work. I see tourists flocking through Chelsea.

All or most of these people appear to be enjoying themselves by looking at, listening to or manipulating mostly figurative postmodernist work.

Some may be knowledgeable observers, but many must be neophytes--people who want to enjoy an upper-middle-class pastime, because they have gone to college and think of themselves as belonging to the upper middle classes.

Art is a white-collar pastime, specific to students, college graduates and professional people. These segments of the population (and of the economy) are growing at a faster pace than the population (and the economy) as a whole.

In other words, the art business is what we used to call a “growth industry” when I was in the business news section of Time.

Some of these newcomers to the art business are educated about it, if only to the extent of having taken a few courses about art in college.

But for many more, I suspect, going to museums and more especially galleries is a novel experience. They are exposed to what they may never have seen before.

True, if they remain (at the Met, say) in the galleries devoted to the representational art of ages past, they will most likely to be able to relate to it.

And, when confronted by newer art, they won't have much difficulty relating to those forms of it that are closest to their out-of-museum experience. Here I would include performance art and participatory art (which resembles the interactive displays a natural history museums, and the fun and games of their own making), videos (especially music videos, though all kinds of videos are just like the movies), conceptual art (which, like books and the web, incorporates written messages), even giant installations (which will remind them of the walk-in sets of rock concerts and their high school plays).

They may have more trouble with abstraction, especially modernist abstraction.

So, as I say, I do not look for the collapse of this gigantic bubble of postmodernist entertainment any time soon. It is firmly entrenched because it answers to a need.

But even assuming that one swift kick could cause the bubble to deflate, modernist abstraction would not repeat NOT rise Phoenix-like and uncontested from its ruins.
After decades of immersion in postmodernist esthetics, even those more sophisticated people who like abstraction today may not (or cannot) relate to modernist varieties of it.

Such people have learned instead to love what might in earlier and more innocent times have been called an oxymoron: postmodernist abstraction--which ranges from what I would consider some very appealing to some very unappealing work.

These new sophisticates are more likely to find a painting by Friedel Dzubas thin and prefer a thicker abstract painting --- by somebody, say, like Gerhard Richter. That was the preference expressed by one younger gallery-goer whom I ran into on April 9, as I was going down in the elevator from the Dzubas opening reception at Loretta Howard.

When I asked the reason for her preference, she explained that she liked Richter's emphasis on process, the way that the viewer can see how he made his work. And this woman said that she likes abstraction! She said she’d looked at a lot of it.

So much for Greenberg's argument that anybody who looks at enough art will learn to distinguish between the best and the less good.

I hope that eventually, in the case of this young woman, his prophecy will come true, but there must be many other art-lovers like her, and reaching them may require a different approach—one that escapes me at the moment.

All I will say here is that, after studying and thinking about the possible dangers of negative criticism, I decided that it wouldn't adversely affect either the postmodernist enterprise or those younger artists whose work I admire.

Therefore, it was safe to go back to my notes, and write the most negative review I could of “The Forever Now.” It’s what led off this post--not total demolition, but (I like to think) a bit beyond deconstruction.

I didn’t pan all of the work in the exhibition, and will add that it was courageous of MoMA to stage a PAINTING show. Putting it together must have seemed like stepping back into the Middle Ages for some of their younger staff members.

Maybe a few of them realized in the process that painting may still be the best way of making a truly personal and individual statement.

Since I attended that AICA session at CAA, I've visited “Sturtevant: Double Trouble” at MoMA (closed February 22). It was just as full of imitations of pop icons from the 1960s as I’d anticipated.

I looked up the story I wrote for Time in 1969, on what I’d then called “Art for Art’s Sake.” It’s much longer than I’d remembered, and documents (with two pages of color illustrations) how “derivative is the new original” was already hot then. Artists I cited, besides Sturtevant, included Richard Pettibone, John Clem Clarke & Iain Baxter.

I searched online for the school of “appropriations” that flourished from the late 1970s through the 1980s. There I found plentiful documentation for this second go-around of “derivative is the new original.” In that reincarnation, it was principally propounded by Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, Ashley Bickerton & Jeff Koons.

Earlier in this posting, I asked whether Greenberg and the art he admired might not have been attacked if he hadn't come down so hard on pop and its friends and relations.

After this AICA session, and my subsequent thinking about it, I concluded that if he'd kept silent, it wouldn't have made the slightest bit of difference.

He and the abstract art he stood for would still have been targets, because they had been targets from the beginning.

The pop artists (Warhol & Lichtenstein), and the neo-dada artists who preceded them (Rauschenberg & Johns) were out to upstage abstract expressionism, long before Greenberg ever opened his mouth to attack them. In this, they were repeating Duchamp's campaign to upstage what he called "retinal painting," and by which he meant the near-abstractions of Analytic Cubism (which seemed to most people like pure abstractions at the time).

All this being the case, I see no reason to pull my punches. Any negative criticisms I write won't make me loved, but maybe someday I can hope (like Rodney Dangerfield) for a little respect.


That afternoon, I attended my first full panel, dedicated to “The Studio History of Art.” Evidently the notion that artists over the centuries had worked in studios failed to titillate conference-goers, for the ballroom in which this session was staged held a relatively small number of viewers. I was entranced by the images of truly beautiful ancient Greek and Roman sculptures offered by Jean R. Sorabella, the first speaker of the session, and even found something to like in the sparser illustrations offered during the next talk, on James Northcote, an 18th century British portrait and history painter.

The third talk was the one I’d come to hear. Offered by Marek K. Wieczorek, it was titled “Mondrian’s Studio Utopia,” and led off provocatively with the image on the screen of an early draft of “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” the second major essay on art by Greenberg, eventually to be published in Partisan Review in 1940. Greenberg had originally mentioned Mondrian in this essay, and suggested that he and other abstract painters had abandoned subject matter because all subject matter had become “tendentious.”

I found this interesting. It suggested to me that he'd been reading “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca” (1927), by T. S. Eliot. In this essay, Eliot contrasted Dante’s using medieval Thomism as the basis for “The Divine Comedy” with Shakespeare using “the mixed and muddled skepticism of the Renaissance” in “King Lear.” Eliot argued that although the philosophy underlying Lear was inferior to that of “The Divine Comedy,” the art was no less great – because the greatest poets are those who best express the “greatest emotional intensity” of their own time.

In like manner, Greenberg was saying that in the 20th century, there was no longer any consensus as to the nature of external reality, and, since it had become “tendentious,” the artist could only remain true to his period by abandoning it. As I say, this was interesting, but it developed that this whole passage – including the reference to Mondrian – had been cut from the final essay.

Next, Wieczorek showed images of Mondrian’s Paris studio, and – as nearly as I could tell – attempted to defend it as a masterpiece of interior design. The way he played around with photographs showing the same interior at different moments was very familiar: it resembled the way that artists whom Greenberg was critiquing in their studios used to shift their paintings around, to see which way worked best.

Still, I didn’t buy what appeared to be this scholar’s contention that Mondrian was really only into interior design. As I see it, Mondrian was a man of his own era, and always saw himself as an easel painter who wanted his abstractions to hang in other people’s homes and eventually, museums. It was just that, in the 1920s and 1930s, he sold so few of these abstractions that he was forced to make sappy little flower paintings for clients back in The Netherlands (his catalog raisonné has a sizeable selection of those).

I was still more irked by Wieczorek’s conclusion, when he maintained that Greenberg hadn’t understood Mondrian. He was condemning Greenberg upon the basis of words Greenberg never published! This to me hit some kind of new low.


The next day, Thursday, I attended two (relatively) soothing sessions. The first was “Handwriting and American Art,” co-chaired by Mary Savig, of the Archives of American Art. This session was a spinoff from an exhibition that Savig staged at the Archives in 2013, of letters and other handwritten documents from the AAA’s capacious files. One of her exhibits was a letter from Abraham Rattner, my primary dissertation topic, so she asked me to write the label for it, and a paragraph about it to be included in a book that she’s planning to publish, based on the show.

Savig had also invited me to submit a proposal for her session. It wasn’t selected, but the three talks she did select were moderately worthwhile—especially the first on the list. The last two concerned artists from the 1960s: H.C. Westermann, a maker of somewhat surrealist small wood constructions whom I wrote about in Time, and Sister Gertrude Morgan, new to me but a minister and outsider creator of religious paintings.

The first talk – by Asma Naeem -- was by far the most revelatory. Its jaw-breaking title suggested that it, too, was about handwriting, but if the talk itself included even one sample of the handwriting of Thomas Eakins, the artist under discussion, I missed it.

I do remember a revelation of another kind: namely, that many of Eakins’s best-known paintings, genre scenes as well as portraits, were based on photographs. I’d always assumed that they were painted from life – or at least from drawings after nature.

True, I’d long known that Eakins was a camera buff--if only from all those photographs that he made of beautiful young nude men in bucolic settings, later in his life. I’d also thought that his 1880 painting of “The Crucifixion” was based upon photographs, but as to the rest of his paintings, their style is so individual that they don’t look like photographs. This is unlike the far more literal styles of photorealist painters from the 1960s and 1970s like Richard Estes & Robert Bechtle. The style of such photorealism is generic, while Eakins’ paintings look like Eakins and nobody else.


The next (relatively) soothing session that I attended, on Thursday afternoon, was on “The Meaning of Prices in the History of Art.” This quite-crowded session was committed to the interface between art history and technology, so it might have been called “Excel gone wild.” You never so many charts & graphs in your life!

In the introductory remarks, one and maybe both of the session chairs voiced the hope that research into markets and prices might enable us to determine a relationship between market value and “value” value -- presumably esthetic. Lots of luck! From all I’ve seen & read, Adam Smith already knew the answer to this one in 1776, when he published “The Wealth of Nations.” He said that market value is determined by supply & demand (barring government interference or monopolies). Remember?

If more people want something and/or fewer can supply it, the price goes up, and vice versa. It doesn’t matter what’s for sale, as long as somebody wants it—and, when they stop wanting it, look out. This has been demonstrated over & over again, with everything from tulips to subprime mortgages. Esthetic goodness? To paraphrase Mae West, one of the all-time hotties, “Goodness has nothing to do with it, dearie.”

Nevertheless, I stayed through the session, hoping against hope to find that old Adam was wrong. Nothing I heard caused me to doubt him, but I did hear one very solid talk and one rickety one.

The solid talk was by Jeroen Euwe. His talk was titled “The Dutch Art Market during World War II: A New Art Price Index Using Hedonic Regression.” The meaning of “hedonic regression” still eludes me, but Euwe’s stark historical drama was illustrated by many excellent charts and graphs.

As he told us, all through World War II, an art market thrived in The Netherlands, with the blessing of the occupying Germans. To show what happened on this market, Euwe had created a database covering more than 11,000 pictures sold between May 1940 and May 1945 at Mak Van Waay, one of the two premier Dutch auction houses.

The database covered all kinds of paintings, mostly grouped in three categories: Moderns (work made since 1850), Romantics (1750-1850) and Old Masters (before 1750). Some buyers were Germans; they fell into three categories. One was Nazi officials. Two was dealers who wanted to re-sell the work they’d bought in Germany, and three was German collectors, who’d been kept out of the Dutch market prior to the occupation because of a currency freeze.

Some buyers were Dutch, and they fell into two categories, both brought into being by wartime rationing. With ordinary Dutch citizens, there was full employment (working, I suppose, for the Nazis) but nowhere else to spend their money—and terrified to save it, for fear of inflation. They were buying the art as a hedge against inflation.

The other type of Dutch art buyers were the black marketeers. They were selling unrationed, illegal and therefore high-priced foods and other goods to people who couldn’t get by on the rations they were allowed. Since all the money these black marketeers were making was illegal, they were using the art market to launder it.

Between 1940 and 19455, the market continued robust, but the Germans – since they were losing the war – became less and less able to buy. The ordinary Dutch folk were getting poorer and poorer, too, so by the end of the war, it was principally the black marketeers who were supporting the market.

It was a tragic but gripping tale. Just the thought of all those sad Dutch burghers desperately buying art until they couldn’t afford it any longer makes me unhappy. At the same time, it was curiously inspiring. Whatever the mundane reasons these people may have had for buying paintings, one hopes they also took pleasure from contemplating their acquisitions & thereby escaping from their grim reality, if only for moments.

The rickety talk was provided by Titia E. Hulst, who recently completed a dissertation for NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts on Leo Castelli. She told us how Castelli put over Rauschenberg, Johns, Lichtenstein & pop art as a whole in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These are not my favorite artists, but I’d still maintain the primary reason that their art has gone over so well has more to do with the art than with its dealers.

Quaint as it may seem, I still believe it’s the artists who make art history. The tendency among postmodernist art historians to credit dealers and/or critics and/or collectors instead doesn’t say much for their confidence in the art they celebrate.

In Hulst’s talk, I heard little if anything about the role played by the artists in the 60s art world. It all seemed to be Castelli’s doing. She claimed that he made collecting contemporary art into a he-man’s pastime. Not only is this claim sexist, but at most it contains only a modicum of truth.

Another thing that irked me was how Hulst emphasized that Castelli kept his prices democratically low and insinuated that dealers selling abstract expressionist paintings with higher prices were catering to an “elite” market. Doesn’t she know that younger artists, just starting out, typically get lower prices than older, more established ones – just as authors starting out get lower advances than older, established ones?

One thing I would agree with her about. When I was preparing that chapter in my memoir on the reception of abstract expressionism in the 50s, I too found that there was just as much figurative art around in the 50s as there was in the 60s.

Still, I may know a bit about that period that she doesn’t. The charts she showed were said to be based on 20,000 art purchases from New York galleries between 1946 and 1969. However, one chart had a box in which were listed five or six galleries who were apparently the basis for it. Among them were Castelli (naturally) and Betty Parsons, and the chart was supposed to show how Parsons lost business to Castelli.

The problem is that while Parsons may have lost some business to Castelli, she lost a lot more to Sidney Janis. Specifically, she lost Pollock & Rothko to him, probably her two biggest stars. When pop art came along, Janis in some ways did more to promote it than did Castelli. Not only did he take on Tom Wesselman, Claes Oldenburg, Marisol, George Segal & Jim Dine, but he also staged the first group show of what he called “New Realists,” in the fall of 1962.

That show, which got monumental media coverage, did more to put over pop than any one of Castelli’s exhibitions—yet there’s no reference to him in Hulst’s chart. What’s that old computer expression—GIGO, standing for garbage in, garbage out?

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