Shaking a Legacy

A funny thing happened on the way to 'Artforum.'

Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974, by Amy Newman. Soho Press, $42.

While reading Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974, I was reminded of writer Jeanette Winterson's ideas of memory. "Don't rely on the facts, the pattern, the meaning," she opines. "Time changes everything."

The players in most narratives stack their memories vertically, musing nostalgically on a linear past, clawing their way to the present and pontificating on some vague future.

Despite its own chronological ordering, Challenging Art reveals how there are, in the end, only simultaneous layers of reality, arranged horizontally. Nearly three dozen players tell a part of the narrative--some overlapping and others flagrantly opposing the story of an institution's beginnings.

Amy Newman has collaged a massive tome. She's more editor than author. In compiling interviews of 32 artists, critics, editors, curators and academics who were involved in this mammoth literary icon of the art world, she's lured us down circuitous roads. In more than 500 pages of first-person accounts from now-famous contributors of artspeak (Robert Morris, Rosalind Krauss, Annette Michelson, Max Kozloff, Phil Leider, Lucy Lippard, Peter Plagens and John Coplans, to name a few), we voyeurs/readers consume the polemics of those who carried out this audacious experiment.

Artforum began as a journal dedicated to serious art criticism of West Coast artists. This in itself riled the prevailing notion that there is no real art west of the Hudson River. Arguments about the mainstream and the fringes raged within the magazine's scruffy offices--first housed in literati-laden North Beach, then going south for the alleged art-money of L.A., and finally, in 1967, settling into its current cultural cornerstone in New York. With its unique square format and hyperbolic opinions, Artforum eventually evolved its focus to artists on both coasts.

The founders were consummate intellectuals. Editor John Coplans admits, "I'd never been to university and I really didn't know art history in any structured manner. I was merely curious." To their own amazement they succeeded in upending the conventions of art criticism, which had previously been the purview of buttoned-down suits--the art historians of the post-war era. Artforum squirmed its way into a world already domineered by a handful of elite art magazines.

At this point, I must admit a few things. First, I am a veteran of two graduate seminars of that early soporific art criticism, forced to ingest the saltine dryness of Clement Greenberg's formalism and Harold Rosenberg's "something-or-other-art-trend." I tried to stay awake through a slew of incomprehensible articles dissecting the aesthetics of the 20th century.

It's the art I remember, not the criticism. If Amy Newman's odyssey had been available to us, I'd have suggested it (despite its heft) as a companion reader to our arid desert of art critical jargon. The memory of critical shifts is always more interesting than the criticism itself. Revealing those shifts is where the strength of Challenging Art lies. I don't resent Greenberg's omnipresence nearly as much now that he's been humanized by a dozen writers who, as critic Robert Rosenblum aptly remembers, "were all swept up in their own desire to usurp Greenberg of his throne."

My second confession? I don't read Artforum. Its off-putting glossiness reflects too much of the contemporary commodification of art. It covers too much of the mainstream (visual arts) and not enough of the fringe (time-based, performative work). Thanks to Challenging Art, I now chuckle at the story of disgruntled Annette Michelson--then a contributing writer--who stormed out of the offices when her suggestion to change Artforum to exclusively cover performance was summarily denied by then-editor Coplans. Their dueling arrogances are revealed in recollections of this thunderous falling-out.

Challenging Art delineates more than just the development of a magazine. It offers a heaping dose of the opinions of prickly, eccentric, egotistical and brilliant people who birthed new ways of talking about art. Remembering critical shifts as well as magazine politics from a 30-year distance is indeed a layering of simultaneous reality. Newman captures the passion very well.

Reading this book is like reading a volume of selected letters. It's been edited, but its rawness draws you into the angst of the time: the swiftly changing art world of the '60s, the politics of Vietnam and feminism, questions of elitism and art as commodity. It could have been a shorter book, indeed. But this "unplugged" coverage of Artforum's early years offers a legacy of the magazine. Newman concludes that it willed us a new kind of art criticism, one that was finally distinguished from mere art appreciation. Her interviewees claim the magazine's bequest lies in its shift in position as radical upstart to mainstream art institution itself. Once again, those simultaneous layers of reality collide.

I prefer co-founder Phil Leider's always contentious words--in this case, the last ones of the book: "There's no legacy from Artforum or art criticism at all." After 500 pages, so there.