Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 12, 2001
Amy Newman Challenging Art: Artforum 1962–1974 New York: SOHO Press, 2000. 560 pp. Cloth $42.00 (1569472076)

The text that comprises Challenging Art: Artforum 1962–1974 is, to borrow from Roland Barthes (writing around the time Artforum became an established art-world institution), not “a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning,” but rather “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture.”1 Consisting of fragments of interviews woven together to produce a narrative that chronicles the first twelve years of Artforum’s publication, this text is literally a “tissue of quotations.” Thus, the structure of the book reflects the discursive nature of this project’s source. As Amy Newman writes in the introduction, “An unruly group conversation was the prototypical social situation for the art world during these years…. In an attempt to recreate that texture, Challenging Art takes the form of a conversation” (15–16). Newman deftly reproduces that texture in a montage of interviews she conducted with a diverse roster of artists, critics, dealers, publishers, and art historians, including most of the key participants in the magazine’s formative years—Philip Leider, Michael Fried, John Coplans, Rosalind Krauss, Max Kozloff, Barbara Rose, and Robert Pincus-Witten, to name only a few. Although the authority that Artforum came to command during the late 1960s has sometimes been described in nearly theological terms, Newman’s book does a great deal to dispel the myth of the univocal character of its criticism. Instead, the book provides a rare opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation that included a wide range of voices, many of which continue to resonate.

The conversation begins with Artforum’s inauspicious genesis in San Francisco in the summer of 1962 and ends with its arrival—both literal and figurative—in New York five years later (with a brief sojourn in Los Angeles in between). This migration registers the shift from the founders’ initial desire for national recognition of west-coast art to the national, and eventually international, recognition of the magazine itself. The book thus tells the story of Artforum’s increasing influence within the context of the institutionalization of the art world that took place in the 1960s and early 1970s, suggesting that its ascendancy was constitutive rather than merely reflective of that transformation.

Phil Leider, Artforum’s editor from 1962 to 1971, plays a pivotal role in both Challenging Art and the destiny of the magazine. In fact, it is difficult not to think in terms of “during” and “after” Leider’s tenure; certainly the book’s structure lends itself strongly to this reading. Not a single dissenting voice is found that disputes the claim that Leider was the glue that held the magazine together during its first ten years, and it is no coincidence that Artforum became a force to be reckoned with while he was editor. To demonstrate the balancing act this required, Newman divides each chapter into two sections, “Isms” and “Schisms,” an organizational device that underscores the variety of art practices covered by the magazine as well as the contentiousness of the critical debate surrounding them.

Contention proved to be a remarkable asset to the early Artforum. Leider’s editorial decisions reflected his conscious opposition to the criticism and coverage of Art News, which was the predominant art magazine in the early 1960s. Leider further reinforced Artforum’s difference by adopting the distinctive square format of the magazine. Whereas Art News had become—by reputation, if not in fact—an apologist for second generation Abstract Expressionism, Leider refused to allow Artforum to act as a standard bearer for any particular style or “ism.” Yet, while Art News lived up to its name by covering everything, Artforum’s critics were advocates of selective art practices. In Leider’s view, not only did the comprehensive coverage that Art News provided imply that the magazine was undiscerning, it also undermined the critical function of the writing. As he put it, “What a critic can do is influence you as to what to look at—what to take seriously—and what not to take seriously” (128).

According to his own account, Leider’s original goal was to make the intellectual rigor of the criticism he published commensurate with the seriousness of the art, or—to use Michael Fried’s formula for judging modernist painting—to require that the criticism “compel conviction.” It is no surprise, then, that Leider felt an immediate affinity for Fried, who admits now that his early essays betray his conviction that “the writer’s response to important work ought to have something of the same energy and intensity and challenge to expectations that the work has” (187). Leider and the magazine’s early writers set themselves against the belle-lettres tradition of criticism that Art News favored, opting instead for the objectivity that formalist criticism putatively offered. It was perhaps less the appeal of formalism per se that attracted many of these writers to Clement Greenberg’s criticism than the fact that it provided a model of interpretation that seemed verifiable—a phenomenon that Irving Sandler associates with the rise of a new generation of academic critics. Leider’s project coincided with Fried’s insofar as they were both proponents of a “discipline” of art criticism that had not, in their view, existed before. The “Schisms” sections of the book, however, are primarily devoted to the “battle with Greenberg’s legacy” (13), and the united front these writers presented to other magazines belied the internal conflicts that were engendered by their disparate (and changing) allegiances.

Discussing his relationship with Frank Stella during the 1960s, Fried once remarked that “[in] a sense Carl Andre and I were fighting for his soul, and Andre and I represented very different things” (Hal Foster, ed., Discussions in Contemporary Culture, no. 1 [Seattle: Bay Press, 1987], 79). Arguably, Fried might be said to have waged a similar battle with Robert Smithson over Leider’s soul. Although Leider’s commitment to publishing Fried’s writing was unequivocal, he never allowed his partiality to affect the heterogeneity of the magazine’s criticism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the publication of essays by Smithson, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Morris in the same issue in which Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” appeared (summer 1967). That issue, the last published in Los Angeles, marked a significant turning point not only in the history of postwar American art but also in Artforum’s history, since Leider’s early devotion to Fried began to diminish when the magazine moved to New York. Leider met Smithson almost immediately after the publication of “Art and Objecthood,” and his increasing conviction of the importance of Smithson’s work would eventually determine his own fate as well as that of the magazine. The strength that Leider saw in the position of artists like Smithson and Donald Judd was their refusal to countenance Fried’s exclusivity: “…the idea that a critic can’t enjoy Andy Warhol and Kenneth Noland at the same time” (290).

The “9 in a Warehouse” show at Leo Castelli in December 1968 marked the beginning of the end of Leider’s Artforum. Leider’s dismay at the critics’ indifference to the show, and to the work he found increasingly compelling, signaled a shift in his priorities. In spite of the fact that many of the artists themselves were contributing to the magazine, Leider—and others who pointed out that artists such as Dan Flavin and LeWitt wrote for the magazine but were not written about in it—still believed in the legitimating role of the critic. In a sense, once Leider began to have a stake in what was covered rather than how it was covered, he lost his ability (or willingness) to remain impartial to the competing interests of the writers. The dispute over his soul was thus decided at the cost of his efficacy as editor, and Leider left the magazine in 1971.

In the penultimate chapter of the book, the conversation turns to the rapid deterioration of the contributing editors’ personal and professional relationships under the magazine’s new editor, John Coplans. It is easy to see that this transition was ill fated from the start (as Leider ruefully admits he had predicted); but what the discussion also reveals is that when Coplans took over, not only had interpersonal conflicts worsened within the magazine but the political and economic climate of the art world had also changed. Now firmly situated at the center of that world, Artforum could no longer elude the pressures of a burgeoning art market nor could it continue to act as a critical foil for any other magazine, which made it part of the institutional establishment that many artists had begun to interrogate.

The conversational structure of Challenging Art reflects the dialogue that took place within the pages of the magazine during the 1960s and early 1970s. Leider took on the role of mediator for critics and editors whose views were often diametrically opposed, holding them in suspension within the space of the magazine so that it could function as a forum for divergent viewpoints. Given the diversity of the voices Newman includes, the relative consistency of their accounts is often surprising. On further reflection, there is a certain logic to this since, from the interlocutors’ current vantage point, what was at stake now seems unambiguous. Nonetheless, Challenging Art fulfills its promise to recreate the texture of that moment, and Newman has provided a valuable resource by allowing the participants a chance to tell the story in their own words.

Mary Leclère
University of Virginia

1 Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977): 146.