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The death of art criticism has hurt and helped America's preeminent
art magazine

By Jenni Wu


In the 1960s, art critics were more than just opinionated writers. They were kingmakers, preachers, the last-line defenders against the collapse of culture—especially, it seems, if they wrote for Artforum magazine. As founding editor Philip Leider told chronicler Amy Newman in Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974, “In many ways I accepted the position that, to some degree, if the culture went sour it was going to be our fault.”

Newman’s book resounds with this impassioned, self-important language: “I thought that nothing less than the future of Western civilization was at stake,” said critic Michel Fried of his 1967 article “Art and Objecthood,” a now-iconic tirade against minimalist art.

Artforum so closely reflected the artists’ perception that it was understood sub rosa that Artforum really was the voice of the legitimate art world,” explained critic and curator Barbara Rose. Others testify that the magazine made artists’ careers, sold pictures, and functioned like a bible for the rising generation of young art historians.

I first became aware of Artforum in college. Growing up in Iowa before the internet age, there weren’t many ways to learn about contemporary art. In school, we concentrated on Grant Wood—our one homegrown talent—and at the public library, Andy Warhol still represented the outermost edge of the avant-garde.

When I discovered Artforum in the painting studio of my Iowa college campus,it was simultaneously seductive and impenetrable. From the unsmiling black-and-white contributors’ photos to the delicate footnotes containing wisps of untranslated foreign languages, everything about Artforum insinuated that it was important, weighty, and difficult. It was not for the bashful, bumbling me who had never been to SoHo or Chelsea, much less Paris or Berlin. If I did everything right, however, it could be for the me of the future.

A semester of classes on Immanuel Kant and art critic Clement Greenberg imbued me with the romantic, didactic notion of art criticism that inspired my application to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Upon arriving in New York and getting a first-hand look at the art scene, I was shocked to hear that criticism was in crisis and that Artforum was both maligned and ignored in the art world.

In a neighborhood bookstore, I found a copy of What Happened to Art Criticism?, a slim 2003 book written by James Elkins, an art history professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “Art criticism is in a worldwide crisis,” he wrote. “Its voice has become very weak, and it is dissolving into the background clutter of ephemeral cultural criticism.” Instead of separating the good art from the bad or enlightening the public, criticism was falling into the categories of promotion or reportage, providing rising art stars with clips for their files and helping to fatten the wallets of enterprising art dealers (sometimes renamed “gallerists”). Elkins was not alone in his morbidity.

This December, speaking at the CUE Art Foundation in Chelsea, the maverick art critic Dave Hickey gave an informal farewell speech to the art world. Outfitted in monochromatic black—which he later topped with a New Zealand All Blacks rugby team cap—the antiacademic, MacArthur-certified genius described how the unprecedented commercial strength of the contemporary art market had eliminated the need for criticism. Auction prices had usurped critical value judgments as the primary marker of an artwork’s worth.

“I wrote my last article for Artforum five years ago,” Hickey said. “Now it’s all interviews with Belgians. There’s no more art criticism anymore.” What exists, he continued, is a talent contest. Critics are asked to anoint the “best five young sculptors” or pick out rising art stars. “I don’t work at a race track,” he sneered. “I write about art.”

One would think that the death of criticism would be bad news for Artforum. However, thanks to the rivers of money flowing from billionaire collectors into the galleries whose advertisements then flood the pages—and fill the coffers—of magazines, Artforum has bucked its long history of financial trouble. It is printed in full, vibrant color on luxuriously heavy paper. It has, in the words of the Nation’s art critic, Arthur C. Danto, the opulent presence of Vogue and the heartening “heft of a phone book.” By contrast, the Artforum of the 1960s had a rushed, anemic quality. The magazine’s first issue, printed entirely in black and white, is largely a series of brief reviews.

Still, from the remarks I have heard at parties, where young artists confess to buying Artforum “for the ads only” and gallerists imply that all art magazines are lame ducks, it would be easy to apply Elkins’s diagnosis of art criticism and conclude that, beneath its healthy veneer, Artforum is in a state of decline.

“Art magazines have no effect on anything,” said one longtime dealer who did not wish to be named. While most people still recognize Roberta Smith of the New York Times, Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine (and formerly of the Village Voice), and Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker as influential critics, today’s supercollectors are well traveled, internet savvy, and not terribly interested in intellectual pursuits like reading.

Critic Tyler Green, who authors the popular blog Modern Art Notes, said: “I challenge you to find three people who care about art magazines. They’re tools of commercial galleries. Look at who advertises in Artforum, who gets written up, and what they write. It’s symbiotic.”

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Leafing through an issue of Artforum makes it easy to see Green’s point. In the front of the magazine, editorial content rarely breaks up the parade of full-page ads for prominent (mostly Manhattan-based) art galleries. “It does make one wonder why we even have the pages that are text,” said a former Artforum contributing editor, Thomas McEvilley. “Couldn’t it just be a compendium of ads?” Though his subsequent confession to “actually liking the new Artforum” was issued with questionable sincerity, McEvilley is no cynic when it comes to criticism’s worth in the current art world. As his position as the chair of the School of Visual Arts’ new graduate program in art criticism and writing would seem to indicate, McEvilley sees hope for the future of criticism.

Does this hope hinge on a future moment in which art will disentangle itself from commerce? “I don’t predict about art, I just follow it,” he said. “If it leads into an era of disgusting decadence, that will be interesting too.”

Compared with McEvilley’s somewhat mystical attitude toward Artforum, contributing editor Katy Siegel’s defense of the magazine smarts of pragmatism. For Siegel, an associate professor in the art department at Hunter College, the ads testify to the quality of the magazine’s editorial content. “Gallerists want to spend their money in Artforum because it’s so rigorous,” she said, adding that the huge amount of advertising prevents any one gallery from acting like a domineering patron. Though she acknowledged that, like any business, Artforum must consider and accommodate a variety of divergent interests, she said, “It’s not as straightforward as ‘write about the people with the biggest ad.’”

One of the magazine’s three publishers, Knight Landesman, has no patience for Artforum’s detractors. Flipping open an unbound copy of the then-forthcoming March issue, he asked, “What’s promotional about twenty-five pages on [philosopher] Jacques Rancière?” He called bad attitudes toward the magazine “sour grapes” from artists who aren’t covered, galleries that can’t afford to advertise, and writers who aren’t invited to contribute.

Artforum began in San Francisco in 1962, but it boldly eschewed regional pigeonholing by claiming, in its original statement of purpose, “the world of art as our domain.” True to its name, it promised to be a forum for “a lot of divergent and contradictory” opinions. Yet the words “Artforum mafia” are sometimes used to describe Leider’s primary stable of writers: staunch formalists like Michael Fried, Annette Michelson, and Rosalind Krauss, who strongly championed their chosen artists and ignored everyone else.
For Krauss, in whose mind some of this century’s most original thoughts about art have been formulated, Artforum never recovered from Leider’s bitter departure in 1971. Speaking in a leisurely, offhand, and predictably regal way, Krauss pinned the magazine’s problems on Leider’s successor, the late John Coplans, and his cronies—her exact word for them was “idiots”—Lawrence Alloway and Max Kozloff, who she felt had harped unproductively on the notion of art as a political tool.

Coplans’ subservience to gallery advertisers was another factor that led Krauss and Michelson to leave Artforum and found their own magazine, October, in 1975. Two years later, when publisher Charlie Cowles fired Coplans, Krauss rejoiced. “I remember that I was incredibly happy and I went dancing around my loft in celebration,” she recalled, “because I thought Coplans was a disaster.”

What about Artforum’s editors through the 80s, Ingrid Sischy and Ida Pacinelli? “They were disasters too,” Krauss said. Though a fuzzy memory prevents her from issuing specific criticisms of the Sischy-Pacinelli period, Krauss unwaveringly yawns it off as “uninteresting” and “utterly unambitious.”

Of course, Sischy was not without her admirers. Janet Malcolm’s 1986 New Yorker profile of the young Sischy portrayed her as plucky and heroic. (Malcolm also displayed pathos for Coplans and even more fearful reverence of Krauss.) Art critic and journalist Carey Lovelace further contextualized Krauss’s criticism of Sischy, painting the latter as a daring vanguard figure in what spiraled uncontrollably into a much larger cultural trend toward vapidity. In the 80s, Lovelace explained, criticism started to lean heavily on French theory, borrowing its style and terminology to create a vacuous cloud of words. “Critical language was showy and multisyllabic,” she said. “People stopped reading critical writing—it became a decoration for artwork.”

In September 1992, new editor Jack Bankowsky announced Artforum’s return to scholarship, proclaiming his contributors to be the drafters of art history. “Our turf,” he wrote in his inaugural issue, “is the ferment that has yet to be canonized as a proper object of study.” Through his consistent focus on philosophers and theorists, current editor Tim Griffin has maintained this academic tone—although the grinning, smooth-faced young man of Midwestern origin strikes one, on first meeting, as being like the wizard behind the curtain of the magazine’s prickly and pompous reputation.

Sitting in his office where towering piles of rainbow-colored art books lean threateningly toward chaos, Griffin spoke with disarming sincerity about his editorial mission. “I thought that it would be a terrible thing if at the end of my ten-odd years as editor, I made the careers of some five artists,” he said. “The hope was to get people interested in having an actual, critical, analytical conversation about art.”

Does he get tired of hearing people insist on Artforum’s enslavement to the commercial art world? Griffin barely shrugged and said, “It used to upset me but now I realize that when people say that, they’re just not reading the magazine.”

Griffin holds the March issue especially close to his heart, and reading it (reading, not just paging through or skimming), makes one skeptical of Artforum’s detractors. Yes, there are many advertisements, and yes, the unapologetically difficult language is occasionally staid. But the magazine has moments of being fascinating, engaging, and even funny. This is particularly evident in David Joselit’s too-brief article comparing Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian with the camera phone footage of Saddam Hussein’s hanging; or Tony Conrad’s humorous essay on his Yellow Movies—screen-shaped black rectangles painted on large paper sheets that were meant to yellow and age over time; or the well-considered chunk of Rancière.

 
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Edouard Manet. The Execution of Emperor Maximilian. 1868–69. Oil on canvas, 99 3⁄16 x 118 7⁄8" (252 x 302 cm).

Perhaps the present-day Artforum can no longer aspire to be the platform from which dynamic pronouncements of correct culture are made. (And what magazine could without becoming an instant object of ridicule?) Perhaps in an irrevocably diverse art world accessible to anyone with an internet connection, the Artforum mafia’s reign of terror will never return. Certainly the magazine is not the sacrosanct fortress of my college imagination. Nor is it just an oversized advertising circular. But perhaps it is proof that one should not buy into those obituaries of criticism just yet.

 
 

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