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Cracking Up Talk -- On the Big Little

I am stuffed into the Storefront for Art and Architecture on December 9th with a subway car-load of smart, good-looking white people listening to three gods of October talking at the “Clip/Stamp/Fold Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X-197X” exhibition. Actually, as the exhibition, curated by Beatriz Colomina and a team from Princeton (see It’s Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois and Hal Foster.

A blonde with artfully tousled hair flirts the crowd from the front of the room with an austerely wanton eye. Columbia, Harvard and Princeton in the house – I’d like to say ducking oranges and cracked plastic wineglasses, but no, standing – a kind of voluntary privation – nearly squashed together in the famously pin-like Storefront space. Kyong Park the founder who got this enterprise going was in from Detroit and leaning against the wall. It’s the Storefront’s equivalent of a box seat. The speakers stand or sit. Hal Foster stands on a chair.

It was cute when he said, Carlo McCormick like, that he was stoned throughout the 1970s. Also cute when Bois revealed that Derrida’s gigantic manuscript sank his journal Macula.

Foster, many of whose students worked on the show (which is traveling to numerous venues for conversation before winding up at Documenta), was very well prepared, speaking smoothly and carefully from notes, warning of premature historicization and of dreary dissertations.

The big top egghead show for me was Rosalind Krauss. She’s looking well, abstractedly silent, brow knit but not glaring. The founding of the journal October, she said, “That is the assignment.” Founded by breakaway editors from Artforum, October is oddly counted as an architectural publication, with a spot in the beautifully conceived plastic bumps of the installation in the year 1974.

Krauss said Amy Newman had it right, in her oral history book (Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974; pub. 2000), about the editors of Artforum in the early 1970s. “We all hated each other.” Phil Leider was the editor of Artforum when the mag moved from California, a Brooklyn boy, seduced first by Michael Fried, and then, crucially, by Robert Smithson. “Phil always said” John Coplans who succeeded him couldn’t keep the contentious editorial board together. And sure enough, he couldn’t.

Krauss described a conversation she had with Lawrence Alloway, the UK curator and Independent Group member who named pop art. She said she was interested in defining aesthetic experience. He didn’t get it. Alloway was more interested in systems, like Jack Burnham, like ultimately Pierre Bourdieu. At this moment, he was peeved that his wife the figurative feminist painter Sylvia Sleigh was being ignored.

As Krauss told it, the final showdown was between Max Kozloff and Alloway. After she and Annette Michelson left Artforum to start October, Krauss said she heard Coplans was bragging he had “purged the formalists” from the magazine. And he had, but she said, “we were happy to go.” It was finally the ads, she said, which determined the content the magazine could cover. October would have no color in it, and no ads. October published its first, second and third issues because Jaap Rietman, the indispensable Dutch art bookseller in early Soho, advance ordered enough copies to pay the printer’s bills.

All this fascinates me, I’m afraid, since I worked at the magazine as an intern during the schisms. John Coplans used me as his torpedo, once against Michelson. Coplans was a South African who had commanded native troops in Burma during the war. For Coplans as for Debord, criticism was an ongoing game of war. When he told you to do something, you did it.


After a questioner raised the issue, Bois explained that in Europe “formalism” means the Russian literary theorists, “even Bakhtin.” In the U.S., of course, it’s Clement Greenberg, the apostate Marxist who suborned Kant, and especially Michael Fried who attacked the “theatricality” of new abstract sculpture.

Amy Newman defines the term as her interviewees discuss the Eva Cockcroft article, “Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War” published in Artforum in 1974: “Formalist criticism insisted that a work of art could be understood without reference to any history – personal, political, cultural – other than the history of the medium of the artwork itself” (fn, p. 383)

Krauss said she sought broad ideas that could be applied “across the board” to new art production. Like the video and narcissism idea, it’s not much more than observing that artists are using the video monitor like a mirror.

For Krauss the problem has always been her initial closeness to Greenberg, the mandarin whom Frances S. Saunders pictures laughing on Park Avenue with his pals who worked for the CIA-funded web of journals seeking to influence the independent left in Europe away from Soviet “peace” initiatives (F. Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, 1999). Charlie Cowles who published Artforum was Gardner’s son. Rockefellers ran the Museum of Modern Art. The artworld activism that arose during the Vietnam War definitively put an end to the genteel Ivy League tradition of intellectual “patriot” fronts – journals, books, conferences and exhibitions – intended to sway the “liberal,” or, independent left. That is, Cockcroft’s article took the lid off the liberal consensus of the ‘50s. During that period, of course, McCarthy was the big problem. As he and the yahoos tried to shut down the smarty-pants elite-oriented cultural propaganda initiative, CIA chief Allen Dulles finally shut down the Senator, Saunders implies. (There’s a street named after Dulles in Berlin.)

Finally Foster gave out that the formalism tag is one used by enemies. This is a Cold War echo, since “formalism” in Stalin’s world was a potentially fatal intellectual crime. In the sphere of the west it could mean collusion with the capitalist elites’ propaganda war. At the moment of October’s coming into being, their enemies were not Artforum but rather the Marxian critics of the Art & Language group, prolific and relentless. The Fox and its ilk, however, were not bailed out by MIT at the behest of Peter Eisenman. Charles Harrison’s only revenge is the Art in Theory series, and it is definitely room temperature.

All of this seems so quaint and over with. Except of course it isn’t. Art remains important enough, volatile enough, that it must be engaged by national intelligence services, and in ways we will never know about. Now, all the cold war eggs have ended up in the same omelette after all. I was charmed to note, however, that the Wall Street Journal reviewer of the Art Since 1900 text book experiment edited by Foster, Kraus, Bois, and Benjamin Buchloh – and very much a summa of the journal October’s progress – lacerated it. He called for patriots to withdraw their children from colleges which would presume to use this commie textbook.


Thanks for these remarks, would have loved to have heard these heads talk.

I reread Fried's "Art and Objecthood" recently, and read his newish Artforum piece on Douglas Gordon's Zinidine film. Fried's still hammering away at the same "problem": absorbtion, theatricality. I get a kick out of his stuff. Check out his lecture on Sugimota's photography at

Regarding formalism: yes, the term is nearly useless unless you immediately ask, "what precisely is to be formalized?" Greenberg might say that the medium is the form. Nicolas Bourriaud would say that the poles of a social relation constitute its form. Krauss (of sculpture in the expanded field) would say that logical oppositions that enable the differences between landscape and architecture are the form.

"Formalism" can be wielded as an epithet, but do the ones who hate it think they can do without it? I guess this means I'm a formalist as well.

And: "Art remains important enough, volatile enough, that it must be engaged by national intelligence services..." How right you are:


Krauss and Burnham

What did Krauss think of Burnham and his Systems Esthetics? Or was he simply too foreign for her to take seriously?