Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974 by Amy Newman (560 pp., Soho Press, $42).
The writers never got paid. What we did was keep a record of what we owed them. And we never paid them anything, ever, ever. Nothing. No one ever got paid.... But mostly everybody wrote because most of them were seeing their names in print for the first time. And I'm sure you know that everybody including me would write just to see his name in print.
Philip Leider, founder and editor of Artforum, 1962-1971.
And what are your dearest dreams for old age? Perchance you want no more than someone who loves you to rub precious salves on your liver spots and change your bedpan. Or rather, you might just be like many of us who wish for history to treat our memories with enough regard that we can close the waning years of our mortal folly without a crushing sense of utter obscurity and neglect. That some time past we were not so completely clueless, that our brief tenure at being au courant in the great flux of culture will have been so timely and true that those pathetic haphazard scrawls we made will be preserved and pondered as if we had truly made our mark.
Even if you've given up all hope of history, wouldn't it be nice if your particular season in the sun ultimately shines with enough of an aura to warm you in the dusk of destiny?
Artforum magazine, some 38 years since it first stumbled blind and belligerent into this world, has certainly had more than a few seasons to remember. And as much of its original cast has been relegated to irrelevance by the sensibilities of successive generations, their arch positions ossified as their arteries hardened, we know that they deserve the attentions of a writer with the commitment and insight of Amy Newman, and a reminiscence as dear as Challenging Art.
By relating the complex narrative of Artforum's formative years through the neglected and often misunderstood genre of oral history as epitomized by the likes of recent books such as Edie and Please Kill Me, the punk rock memoir, Challenging Art is able to embrace an array of conflicting opinions and divergent memories with a remarkable clarity and evenness.
Newman shows not only a rare talent for editorial concision (a primary prerequisite for constructing a functional oratory out of the raw material of endless interviews) but a special social adeptness that is far less tangible in terms of getting through the self-consciousness of personal recollection to the heart of intimacy, honesty and even self-deprecation that everyone offers here.
Asserting an ambition to distill "a narrative that maps a broad cultural panorama," Amy Newman does far more than simply track the particulars of Artforum's evolution from a small and insignificant Cali-centric regional art publication to a major international venue for critical inquiry, radically new creative expressions and powerful art market indicators. The understanding she allows us is that the growth of this magazine as well as its primary contributors is inseparable from the simultaneous and symbiotic emergence of a vital, truly American art and art market.
From its opening chapter on the situation "Before Artforum," in which the magazine's founders articulate not only the void they sought to fill but the particular tenor of the times that made for such fertile possibilities, to its closing section "Legacy," in which all are called to speculate upon that most difficult assessment of their impact and influence on contemporary culture, Challenging Art affirms an important model of history as continuum rather than allowing the easy snapshot of events.
There is a quality of such familiarity and directness to the major voices that comprise Challenging Art that it is hard to imagine that these are by and large the very same writers of such difficult and obtuse texts as made early Artforum so nerdishly sexy. Beginning with the presumption that the magazine was, in the words of publisher Charlie Cowles, "initially published in San Francisco by several people who knew nothing about art or the art world," we follow the evolution of its esthetic juggernaut as a matter of such conviction that its founder and editor Phil Leider must regret the way he systematically attacked "the nicest guys in the world... whereas the ones we were championing were really terrible people." From San Francisco we get to their brief tenure in Los Angeles and inevitable move to New York, a perfect picture of the promise and pathos of that West Coast province always on the verge of artistic significance.
Beginning in 1967, with Artforum's arrival in New York, we get to enjoy the full cast of irascible ideologues that made up this seminal generation of criticism. My God, what a crew. Robert Pincus-Witten, Barbara Rose, Max Kozloff, Annette Michelson, Rosalind Krauss, Sidney Tillim -- Artforum may get praise for establishing critics as real personalities with distinct voices, but in retrospect they would no doubt have similarly asserted themselves if they were all working in a shoe store.
Challenging Art involves careful consideration of the ideas shaping the culture and this magazine, but it is hardly so much about the ideas as the sheer force of personalities attached to them. In doing so it provides a remarkable portrait of how ways of thinking can be so strident as to replace character and substitute for emotion.
And these ideas, each a conflict, about the nature of art, culture and criticism itself, provide a valuable insight into a rare moment well worth remembering. It is amazing how each of these writers carried a total sense of absolute authority. They actually believed not only that there is a certain and discernible hierarchy of artistic value, but that it was they who had the taste and intelligence to make such judgments and state such opinions as a matter of fact.
In the wake of Greenberg, this lot of his heretic disciples certainly understood how such an incredible presumption is essential for a critic's voice to become valued currency. Yes, it may have been detailed and scholarly analysis, but always with a dramatic air of hyperbole that forced each author to take and hold ever more extreme positions.
These positions would soon come to polarize and rend Artforum apart. In the light of today's art world, however, one can only marvel now at the immense integrity and stubbornness of purpose, and the degree to which their professional commitment required personal sacrifice. They were each so caught up in the moment at hand, so driven by their need to advocate the artists they believed in, that so many better and more lucrative opportunities were passed up for the meager rewards of being a part of this dysfunctional Artforum family.
As some super-group of strong talents, incompatible personalities and immense egos, the real surprise is neither that they split up nor still speak ill of each other, but that they ever got together. Challenging Art ably handles the impossibility of this dynamic convergence by dividing each chronologically based chapter into two parts: Isms and Schisms.
With all the ugliness that can come with ideological infighting, the latter of these sections reveals the subtle ways in which opposition works as a tool of self-definition. The ongoing arguments meant that these critics were really writing for one another, in very specialized hermetic address that paid little heed to any notion of a general lay-public. Nothing like having a rich dad picking up the tab for so brazenly non-commercial an enterprise.
The attitude that Artforum struck was utterly irresistible. What killed the golden age of Artforum was never its failure but its success. The immense power the magazine attained, the increased forces of the market coupled with the egos involved, is what ultimately pulled it asunder. And if this lot could be vindictive and cruel to artists -- perhaps the most unforgivable position for any critic to take -- it was nothing in comparison to the violent hatred they could manifest towards one another.
As the painter James Monte, one of Artforum's founding editors, recollects, "You really had art war going on. It wasn't esthetics, it was politics. It was power. It was money. It was everything.
Amy Newman, in due reverence to art history, gets to the heart of this story with such candor that Challenging Art is more than just an important work of research, it is a hilariously scandalous read. These people, with the rare exception (like Irving Sandler), reveal themselves as they frighteningly are, and this bit of bitter malevolence is their true legacy.