INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM S. RUBIN

By Frederick Gross and George Hofmann

New York, NY,  Jan 27, 1999

(Preface)

This interview took place in Prof. Rubin’s office and apartment on a high floor of a building on the upper East Side of Manhattan situated on land much further east than what is the norm in Manhattan.  The island widens unexpectedly there and the apartment faced south, so that the view from the large windows was of the East River, itself very wide in this area, coming towards one – a most unusual sight in New York. Tiny boats sailed up the river. 

Prof. Rubin later describes how he came to live there.

 

The room was decorated in a high modern style, simply, elegantly, and unforgettably, with Picasso drawings, a Frank Stella painting and a large Pre-Columbian head sitting on the low table.         

SIDE A

GH:  This is an interview with William Rubin with Frederick Gross and George Hofmann, January 27, 1999, in New York City.

WR:  I’m happy to talk to you.  You’ve got to ask me questions, because I don’t right off the bat see that there’s a great deal I could tell you, but I’m glad to answer any questions I can.

GH:  Great.

Note 

The first part of Prof. Rubin’s interview concerned itself with his first teaching position at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York; this short piece was lost in a faulty recording. Following is a synopsis of the conversation:

At Sarah Lawrence students took two courses in Art History, and Prof. Rubin remembers quite clearly his juxtaposition of ancient and modern art, pointing out, in perhaps hour-long discussions, parallels and similarities, differences of approach and style, and contrasts illuminating both the old and the new. He reprises some of the description of his teaching in the subsequent portions of the interview.

As a student of Meyer Schapiro’s at Columbia, Rubin was versed in the ancient, medieval and Renaissance periods, describing the “young Turks” of the time, including Howard Davis (who later taught at Hunter College) and Norris Smith, the latter being instrumental in bringing Rubin to the attention of Edna Wells Luetz, chair of the Art Department at Hunter.

He described the structure of his courses at Sarah Lawrence, which were fully articulated within themselves, but completely open in content. 

GH:  So, there was this course… and you were teaching it?

WR:  Yes.  And there was… the principal… was therefore… this sort of constant back and forth between modern art and ancient art, which sometimes…how should I say…directly, and sometimes only indirectly, argued the fact that we see with modern eyes, and that tends to emphasize certain things and de-emphasize others, and so forth and so on.  Anyway, that set-up at Sarah Lawrence did not offer any opportunity to do anything but modern in depth.  The modern part of my course was not just in the conference sections, but let us say every fourth lecture or so, instead of dealing with ancient art or wherever we were in the chronological force of things, I would intersperse a lecture about another modern artist, starting with Monet as the first one, and then giving them, you might say, every fourthly or thirdly, a stage in the history of modern art.  Then Modernism , taken as a complete thing in the comparisons.  It was an intricate thing, and the readings were very different from the readings in a normal art history course, because there was no text book.  When we did early medieval art, they read extensively from the Bible.  One of the things that I find incredibly lacking in the graduate students I later had was any real knowledge of the Bible.  I mean that’s…

FG:  …questions of iconography…

WR:  Yes…  if you’re studying Renaissance…or Medieval art, how can you not…you know…know what the literary sources of the imagery are.  But by the same token they also read Egyptian texts, and some background reading on the Egyptians, not from textbooks, but from great books about…what was his name…Henri Frankfort on the Egyptian mentality and so forth.  In any event, it was partly an attempt to make the readings not just be the usual art historical drudge, but to develop some of their literary and historical…see, I have an MA in history and had been involved in both musicology and cultural history before I even got into art history.  I was a musician, and my honors in my own college graduation were in Italian language and literature, and in musicology.  So… I took a wide ranging view.  Now, as I say, one of the things, however, that I missed was that with the exception of Modernism… like there might have been five lectures on Medieval art, but that is hardly the deep penetration that we want… was a whole course on Medieval art which I would have liked to give.  Now, two years after I got to Sarah Lawrence, one of the young professors at Hunter, whose name was Norris K. Smith… somehow I think Norris tragically died.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Is he still alive?

GH:  Don’t know.

WR:  You mean you don’t know who was teaching art history in those years?

GH:  You mean was teaching then?  His name is not familiar to me as a Hunter faculty member.

WR:  Oh, he was very much present in those days.  He had endless, torrential arguments… friendly arguments… with Bob Motherwell..  He was much more there than I was, because he was a full time Hunter teacher.  Now, I started… I was half time at Sarah Lawrence.  Teaching undergraduates at Hunter was so easy, and they only had nine hours teaching time, that when Norris invited me to join the faculty in 1954, and it was that nice lady who was chairman…

GH:  Edna Luetz.

WR:  Yes.  And… she had a certain freshness and wanted to bring in young people, and people who were vanguard mentalities and so forth.  But she herself was kind of old-fashioned.  In many respects she had the right instincts.

FG:  Did you know Motherwell at this point?

WR:  I had met Motherwell a few times before that.  So by the time I saw Bob at Hunter, I knew him.  Not well.  I got to know him better over the years, but Hunter was already sort of getting off on something interesting, when I joined in ‘54…in other words, when did Bob start there?  He had been there for a few years.

GH:  1952.

FG:  1952.

WR:  1952.  Well, it’s that two year period that they must have gotten things started.  You’ll make a big mistake if you overlook Norris K. Smith, let me tell you.

GH:  How did he know you?  What was…

WR:  Norris had taught at Columbia, where I got my PhD, and he was friendly with…and in fact, there was another teacher there who committed suicide, who was quite brilliant, a brilliant guy, whose name I can’t even remember.  He was one of the most brilliant lecturers I ever heard.  And he was teaching art history, but I have to tell you, it flew above the heads of most of the kids. 

FG: In what way?

WR:  Well, he had such a marvelous vocabulary, that I didn’t know one out of six words that he used, you know.  But I looked them up, and they were the mot juste, absolutely right for what he was saying.  The fact is that this man was a phenomenon, and he and Norris and I were really the art history part of the department…  And Norris did the history of architecture and all the period courses in architecture, and he… I think… he later went out to…like only after many years.  He was at Hunter for a long time, but it seemed to me at least 8-10 years, and had been teaching there.  I think he started with Bob in ‘52, moved over from Columbia, went there.  And then he went to George Washington University, I think, in St. Louis, years later.

GH:  You mean Washington University?

WR:  Washington University, yes.  That’s when…by that time, however, I was at the Museum of Modern Art… I don’t remember when it was that he moved over there, but it was late in the day.  He was one of the best.  He never published anything much…but he was one of the best critics of architecture that I ever knew, and he could tell you, if he was still alive… and he may be… I just somehow, somewhere had the sense…I hope that I’m not just reading beyond George Collins, who is also an architectural historian (inaudible…at Columbia, and who did die a few years ago, and Norris Smith and George Collins were part of…with Howard Davis…of the young generation of Columbia professors who sprang up under… let’s say the next tier… under Meyer Schapiro and Millard Meese (Sp?) and people like that.  They were the next tier, and they were the young Turks when I was in graduate school.  Norris was probably, if he’s alive today, he would be 75-6 years, a few years older than I am, and I’m going to be 71.

GH:  Was Meyer Schapiro at Columbia then, when you were?

WR:  Yes.  Meyer was my doctoral sponsor… and Meyer Schapiro was…embodies… personifies, I should say, my reasons for going into art history.  I had always painted, just like Meyer I drew and painted for the hell of it, but I never thought of teaching art history until I went to Meyer’s lectures, and….

FG:  Did your choice of dissertation topic in some way reflect Schapiro’s early work on St. Denis?

WR:   It did in a broader sense, in that my studies in Medieval art with him and other studies (inaudible)… had made me think a lot about the relationship of painting to religion.  And, in the period in which I was in graduate school, the late forties and the very early fifties, one of the things that was happening was that, as the result of what had been a temporary coming together of the left wing of the Catholic Church, namely the Dominican movement in France, and modern artists, mostly inspired by Father Couturier, whose efforts had led to the Matisse Chapel, among other things… the church at Assy, which has big Leger mosaics, alter pieces by Bonnard and Matisse, Roualt stained glass windows… all these things… and other churches… (inaudible)…there are Leger stained glass windows… Corbusier’s church at Ronchamp.  This whole thing… all these events took place between 1949 and 1956, and that’s sort of a period.  After that… what drew the left wing of the church together… had been… with these modern artists… had been largely stamped out by the Vatican.  Pius XII was a very conservative Pope, and they considered that the French church in general, and the Dominicans in France in particular, had gone off…there was a big cultural war between Rome and France, and Rome and the Dominican movement in particular, which ended, as all wars within the Catholic Church have to end, with the Pope saying, okay, boys, the gig is up…

GH:  Settle down.

WR:  And so…you know, the funny thing is, 20 years later the Vatican opened a museum of Modern Art, and many of the things that they had criticized the Dominicans for would pop up in Rome.  But I mean, that’s the nature of human history, in a sense, and what happened was that… while I was in graduate school, I thought this was very interesting, because it raised the question:  can there be a modern sacred art?  Because, after all, one of Schapiro’s great articles had been about… on the aesthetic something in Romanesque art… aesthetic attitude… in Romanesque art.  He pointed out that the great sculptures on the cathedrals weren’t all made by men who were deeply religious, but they all lived in a deeply religious culture.  So whether they individually were more or less religious didn’t really matter because it impregnated the entire life of the culture.  Whereas, in modern times, if you’re deeply religious, you’re the exception, not the rule, and you live in a fundamentally scientifically oriented culture.  So, Schapiro had sufficiently raised the question, you see.  I thought well, it would be an interesting thing to test this… to say… take one of the few monuments of this movement.  I settled on the church at Assy in France, precisely because it had a variety of different artists.  And also because, as it was an entire church, and not a chapel like Matisse’s, it involved such questions that immediately arise in a Byzantine church or a Gothic church, and that is the relationship of the iconography of what is shown to the place in the church… something which is in the transept is going to be different from the apse, whether it’s close to the altar or further from the altar, and so forth and so on.  So this was a church of sufficient size so you could talk about the relationship of liturgy to the artistic program.  And since it was put together by Father Couturier, who after all was a Catholic priest, and obviously had a relationship at every point to Catholic religion… did it have the same kinds of relationships that traditional, sacred art had… or would there be, as it turned out they were, various numbers of things would be skewed because these things either were forced into strait jackets or whatever… would an altar piece by Bonnard tend to look different from another kind of picture?  And so forth.  I mean, a thousand interesting questions came out of that.  I divided the dissertation into two parts.  One was a history of the chuch of Assy… which had, of course, never been written, which showed how it came about, who were the artists, what were the subjects, what were the choices and discussions that led up to it, and so forth.  And the second half was an analysis of the works by the contributing artists in relation to all these problems.  Then there was a final chapter on the viability of sacred art in the modern world, where the history of what had happened to sacred art from the Council of Trent…a very thumbnail… brief history up to this time… so as to situate where this was and whether it could even logically be called a chapter in the history of sacred art.  Well, the answer to these questions are never simple, but I think I gave answers to them, and that dissertation was a book, because…that is, it was printed as a book because it won the prize for the second best dissertation of the year.  That is, there was a prize for the best dissertation in any department.  There were like 600 PhDs and there was a prize for the best dissertation.  I don’t remember what that happened to be, but there was also a prize that was the also-ran, the guy who almost got …the best dissertation… and I got that.  And while there were no bucks associated with that, though there were with the others, part of what you got was automatic publication by Columbia University Press.  So my book…the dissertation, slightly shorn of some of the unnecessarily elaborate historical notes, but with the benefit of some nice color reproductions and a little bit of new information which had become available… was published (inaudible)…The Church of Assy and Modern Sacred Art by Columbia University Press …in .. somewhere in the early…it must have come out in ‘56 or something like that, yeah.  It took a couple of years between the time that it was received as a dissertation and the time that they published it.  Be that as it may, I got to know, while I was at Columbia, all of the young Turks who were teaching there, and Norris Smith, who was a quite wonderful Southerner… or Midwesterner… I mean he was not a very typical New York type fellow… but wonderful man.  Norris invited me…he must have had Mrs. Luetz’s approval… to join the faculty.  Now, because there were only 9 hours teaching, because the girls…they only had a half time program which they did in two days, two full days… at Sarah Lawrence…  you went up and you taught two full days.  I discovered that I could just really teach four half days and juggle them around, and that I could do 9 hours at Hunter without any problem, and have two jobs at the same time.  Which…I mean… the money didn’t hurt.  It was much higher money at Hunter than it was at Sarah Lawrence, for the amount of effort required. And on top of that, teaching was a way of educating myself, and sort of hammering home…you learn a lot when you’re a graduate student, some of which, as you begin to teach, you realize is crucial, and other stuff falls away, and as I say, there was this opportunity to teach ancient architecture, which I did…I taught medieval art.   I mean, they wanted me to teach modern art, so I had to teach that, but the point is, I also could teach anything I wanted at Hunter, and I did.  And… I’m not aware that, aside from Norris and this brilliant guy who committed suicide, that any of us taught… art history…that anyone else taught art history, except Norris and me and this guy who committed suicide.  And, we all had to teach some sections of a sort of humanities art course… like, you know,  the Parthenon, the this… twenty great monuments in the history of art, which… you know, it sounds so conventional and awful, but if it’s taught in the right way, can be a wonderful introduction of art to people, and so we all had to do a certain number of hours.  In fact, let’s say, out of your 9 hours you might have 3 hours of that and then you would have two 3 hour courses, or something like that.  And inasmuch as I was very busy teaching in two places, I didn’t really hang around much at Hunter.  Hunter then had a campus at Lehman College.

GH:  It was Hunter in the Bronx, actually.

WR:  Hunter in the Bronx.

GH:  It later became…

WR:  Lehman College, right.

GH:  Yes.

WR:  And part of my teaching was up there.  So I arranged it… like that would be the morning there, and that would get me halfway to Sarah Lawrence, you see, and then I would park the car in a parking lot, get out, and go the rest of the way to Sarah Lawrence for the afternoon.  I mean, that was in a huge auditorium … I only taught…I think maybe Lehman only gave the introductory course, that’s it.  That was a mass production kind of thing.  And most of my teaching, through the years, was at Park Avenue.  But, whereas I always had the feeling that Norris, who I know used to have these long things in the bars and… having coffee with Motherwell… arguing about things… they were much more there, so one of the reasons that I felt that I couldn’t tell you very much is that I never got to know the students that well.  There were a few students that I got to know a little bit, and who I since have seen, like one of our curators at the Museum of Modern Art was a Hunter student, who was a student of mine, and no doubt of Motherwell… there were a few others.  There’s a quite well known singer, Robert White, who is… concertizes a lot with (inaudible) and is a specialist in singing classical songs and Irish songs and so forth and so on.  He is the son of the man who was famous when I was a kid and had a fifteen minute radio…

SIDE B

WR:  So, where was I?  Oh yeah… the Silver Master Tenor … the point I was making is that I had gotten to know some of the…one girl…what is her name?  A tall, gawky-looking girl, but very smart, very interesting, became an art critic.  The girl was in my class, and she became an art critic, and then became the mistress of the painter Magritte, and moved in with Magritte and his wife… for Magritte’s last years.  She’s written a book on Magritte. I don’t know how…  I’m getting kind of…I was always…I was always a bit absent-minded – not while I lectured, but in general, and particularly for names.  I had a problem… got worse now.  What is her name?  But she was …there was a generation of people at Hunter where there was a very talented artist named Schmer who I followed for a few years after the college.  They would call me in once in a while for a crit.  I only remember doing about six or seven of those, maybe it was annual event, and I would do what their painting professors would have done regularly, you know… just… to get someone from the art history end of things.  But I thought that there were some very talented and able students in the department.  Well, you know… what’s his name was in the department.  That was sort of the latter part, and he was already…

GH:  Huot?

WR:  Not Huot.  I was thinking of …Bob Morris.

GH:  Oh, yeah.

WR:  Now, it seems to me Morris was a student before he…

GH:  He was.  He did his MA there.

FG:  He started out painting like Pollack.

GH:  I guess he did.

FG:  He started out doing Abstract Expression painting. 

WR: Yeah…well, all those guys… that was the new thing when you were young.  It was like… when I was in…Meyer Schapiro…well, the year I began at Sarah Lawrence, ‘52 or it might have been ‘53, Meyer Schapiro gave a seminar in Modern art.  He’d never done that before.  And for this seminar, he had many artists he knew – Ad Reinhardt, Gottlieb, Barney Newman, and so forth, came up to talk to the seminar.  And he asked me – I was already teaching at Sarah Lawrence, but I hadn’t gotten my degree yet.  I had finished my credits.  He said, Bill, would you come up and be in this seminar, because I want to be sure that we have enough people who are already well into this subject.  It was a seminar on Abstract Expressionism, and I remember that one of the members of the seminar was a critic for Arts Magazine, named Don Judd.  Another was a philosophy student named Alan Kaprow, and…

GH:   (inaudible) interweaving.

WR:   Now, Don Judd…some day someone will figure out why this is so, and that it has some connection with Minimalist aesthetics.  But Don Judd drew as his subject the Jackson Pollack subject.  And the nut of Judd’s thesis was that Pollack was a wonderful painter in everything he did up until he began pouring these all-over pictures.  Then again, at the end he was wonderful.

GH:  (inaudible)

WR:  But in the middle, terrible.

GH:   Sort of the reverse of what Greenberg said.

WR:  Yes, exactly the reverse…and in everybody else’s opinion.

GH:  Yeah.

WR:  And it’s also the reverse of what would have any logic with Minimalism, because it was the sort of holistic character and instantaneity of the classic Pollack, which has an affinity with the oneness of Minimalist art.

GH:  Yeah.

WR:  So I can’t tell you… I’ve never figured out…but that was the case.

GH:  Bad boy, I would call it. 

FG:  Was it somewhat rhetorical because of the predominance of what Rosenberg said on the one hand, and what Greenberg said on the other.

WR:  Well, I don’t even know that it was much bound up to that Rosenberg-Greenberg thing, which I think was not in the air quite that early.  See, I think that it was …that the general take among people who liked Pollack’s work… was that the classic, all-over pictures were what it was really about, and the most Pollackian, and where his… however, what he particularly liked… he liked those black pictures of ‘51, which are some of my… (inaudible)… quite extraordinarily good.  But, they’re not as daring, as good, as unique in their equilibrium as the classic ones.  He went big for the black Rohrshachy pictures of ’51, ’52, and the late thing, and the pre-1947.  So in a sense, it was a reaction to prevailing taste, not to the prevailing taste of the public… (inaudible) but of the cognescenti taste, put it that way…

GH:  Right, put it that way…

WR:  … which was that, if Pollack’s great, this is where he’s great, you see.  And here’s this guys coming along and saying, you’re all wet, guys.   He’s great!  But that stuff is shit…  So that was…Kaprow, who at the time, as I say, was a philosopher.

GH:  Right.

WR: … and one of the things that I think is yet to be written, and I’ll certainly…I’ve dreamt a couple of times about writing about it, but…

FG:  …(inaudible)

WR:  …I’ve never gotten my act together… is how it was… that with Minimalism, the university entered the history of modern art.  You see… that is: if you look at the make-up of the Pollack generation, a couple of those guys went to college, a couple of them even taught at colleges, like…well, Motherwell was, of course, young and well educated, but still taught at a college, still had an MA.  But most of the artists at that time were more like Pollack, Kline and DeKooning.  They were people who had a minimalist education and their culture was…they were cultured in the sort of smelling-the-Zeitgeist sense, you know, Jung, Freud…  But they didn’t have an academic background.  They didn’t have a college education, and they weren’t, above all, theorists.  Now, something happens around 1950.  You have a bunch of guys in college who are very interested in art, but they’re in philosophy… and in this and that… whatever.  And some of them drifted into art criticism, and art history.  But others of them drift into art, and the style… one of the styles they create… is Minimalism, many aspects of Post-Minimalism. 

FG:…(inaudible)

GH:  Don’t you think 1950 is a little early for that?  Maybe a little later?

WR:  No, wait a minute.  They’re in school…

GH:  Yeah.

WR:  They don’t flower until 1960-2.

GH:  Right.

WR:  It takes them…I mean, Judd, for example, who was in this seminar… he was a young critic writing for Arts magazine.  He had graduated college, he wasn’t, to my knowledge, making art himself at the time, certainly he didn’t ever represent himself as such.  He began making art in the late fifties, probably not long after he graduated.  For all I know, Judd may have seen Barney Newman and Gottlieb and these guys in the flesh, and said Jesus, I can be an artist, too.  For whatever reason, these guys all started…I mean, Kaprow, who of course had no manipulative artistic sense, was completely ideation.  But Minimalist art is partly ideation.  Happenings… is sort of a mixture of art history… its Schwitters… Schwitters  describes things that were happenings… just never did them, you know.  All this.  But it represented education, and theory, which may have been the doom of modern …(inaudible).  

GH:  But they weren’t necessarily studying art, these people.

WR:  Well, some of them were…  No, they were mainly studying other things.

GH:  Yes.

WR:  I mean, Kaprow was mainly studying philosophy.  But Meyer Schapiro was known as a great teacher, and many people who weren’t studying art history took classes with him.  Now, for all I know, Kaprow would say well, I was still a philosopher, but obviously I was involved with certain people, that’s what made me take Meyer in the first place.  But I mean… Kaprow was just another guy in the class, he was no more an artist than I was.  I painted pictures… (inaudible)…  Kaprow then became the great “Happener”… and so you see, all these sort of things are going on.  Guys like Norris are in the graduate school here.  Bob Motherwell…

FG:    To what extent do you think that had to do with the awareness of there being a next step after Pollack… like look… in terms of the sort of formalist progression, the cause and effect progression of Modernism?

WR:  I think that Modernism, from its inception, has been thought of by the artists as a matter of a constantly growing tradition with a vanguard… that is, that art history was now not an exact replica of its moment, but it was always in advance of its moment, so that the art of the 1860s that we would consider Modernist art… Monet and the Impressionists of the 1860s and 70s… wouldn’t be appreciated widely. That was not the case with Giotto or with Rembrandt.  You know …that artist who started out with the assumption that what they were doing so challenged taste that it would be 20 years before they would be appreciated.  But that was the basic modernist idea, and indeed it was 20 years before a lot of these guys were appreciated.

GH:  So they were continuing…

WR:  So there was this… what we could call the vanguard tradition, and it was always assumed that wherever the vanguard was, there was always another step.  Now, if you took the right step, and history showed that you were in the direction of this mysterious soi-distant goal out there, then you would become a great artist.  On the other hand, if you stepped over that way, or that way, and nobody followed you, you would be a footnote, or less.  By the time the university guys got into this, this was like big time politics of…you know, penis measuring.  And that was also inherent.  You might call it the sort of sexism of Abstract Expressionism, the tough guy saying… of De Kooning and Pollack and Kline and so forth… the rough logger thing.  Here you’ve got some of them, like Motherwell, who really, you know… nevertheless …the Marlon Brando thing… there was this thing…that was the style of the day …the flavor of the day, and I would say in Motherwell’s favor, that he gave in to that much less than other people, but be that as it may, the university, being so competitive to begin with… they were especially well cut out to sort of psych it out, figure out ahead of time historically – remember that this is the height of Marxism.  Marxism never claimed that Russia was a communist nation.  Yes, communist on one level, but Communism in its pure (inaudible)… was still a goal, was way in the future, but they were only in the socialist thing.  But the whole thing was that it was based upon a kind of historical progression… as it were… dialectic, of the way in which history moves forward.  It had a teleological quality to it, an inevitability.  In the end there would be Communism, therefore everybody who was in the right line, that passes from Socialism, then it goes on toward Communism, will be the happy, the saved, and the others who veer off here as capitalist tools, they will be the damned, and so forth and so on.  You could… see a lot of  young, smart guys looking at Cubism and other things and they’re saying… isn’t there a line here, isn’t there a dialectic allowing for thesis, antithesis and synthesis?  The Hegelian dialectic within this framework… like Cubism: thesis, Dadaism: antithesis, the painting of Picasso in the late twenties or thirties, which had those Surrealism … Dadaist…

FG:  Were these guys discussing Adorno and Walter Benjamin at this point…  Frankfurt School?

WR:  Nah… they really had become heady in the seventies.  The Frankfurt School, I think, has yet to have its full impact, but I would say it was already showing its face in the circles of the magazines like…what’s the great magazine…(inaudible).  The magazine that had a lot of good art articles in it too, for which Clement Greenberg was an editor.

GH:  The Partisan Review…

WR:  (inaudible) yes, Partisan Review circles were into this, but I don’t think the artists, by and large, paid much attention.  That is brought into artistic circles by an increasingly well educated next generation of artists, and it’s the difference between the  Ab-Ex artists, who are basically like the early pilots, flying by the seat of their pants, not much theory.  To see where you are, you looked out the window and looked down to know what the weather was.  You sniffed the humidity, you know.  You weren’t, you know,  twisting the dials and figuring it all out.  These Ab-Exers were in the line of Picasso and Monet, and, you know,  what modern painting… painters had been, all along… there were always intellectuals like Max Ernst… but fundamentally your modern painter was not a college grad type of fellow.

GH:  Yes.

WR:  But suddenly, especially in the United States…

FG:  Like Gorky?

WR:  Yes, Gorky is your typical painter.  Suddenly in the United States there was this wave of people, who entered at the end of the fifties and who had been college educated.  Some of these guys had even studied art, not just art history, and, from their art historical studies, they would watch Cubism responding to Post-Impressionism… and this to Cubism… and this to this.  They would begin to get ideas about a dialectic, and there’s no question that dialectical thinking had an enormous role on Judd’s art, and on Frank Stella as well.  Frank Stella… there is a dual interview given sometime around 1961, I guess, by Frank Stella and Don Judd, which is a very famous one where Stella says, what you see is what you see, or something like that.  And Judd is arguing essentially a Minimalist thing, and it’s like he’s saying, look… all this other stuff… its… gonna disappear.  This is where art has to go.  We are already going.  I mean, that was part of the argument.

FG: Hmm…

WR:  Where we are going is where it had to go, and this is all written the way Communism is written, this kind of thing.  There has been a much more disturbing kind of thing that has happened in the universities on the art historical side, but that is much more recent, which has to do with the total politicization of art history, and that is part of the larger thing, which, broadly is described as Political Correctness. The idea that the purpose of all of this is to transcend the disciplines… and has to do with… everything is political and ethical in the end.  You get… in art history, unbelievable distortions, so-called feminist art historians writing essays about the Demoiselles d’Avignon… where they create constructions about what Picasso was thinking, or meaning.  They’re utterly, utterly bone-headed, but it follows what you would expect under the circumstances. 

(It’s late enough so that I can put these blinds up a little and we can have a little more light)…

then I moved up here…  while this was under construction, and when I happened over here, there was no floor, they weren’t up to the 48th floor yet, but the steel structure was up, and there was an elevator, a worker’s elevator, that went up to the top.  So I asked to see what the view was like.  That’s when they gave me a hard-hat, and I stepped out on nothing but a few wooden boards… out there.  But I looked at the view, and I said, I’m taking it.  

GH:  I’ll take that!

WR:  It was a rental at the time.  When it went cooperative, the deal that was offered by the owner was so bad that only something like 12-13% of the renters would take it, so that he was not allowed to go cooperative in the usual way, which forces you to either buy your place or get out, but he took the route where if they get 10%, they can make it optional, and you become a statutory rental tenant, which is what I remained.  

(Note:  Here some personal financial information has been excised.)

GH:  You thought you had nothing to say!

WR:  Well, I had something to say, but I don’t know how much of it is about Hunter.  A lot of it is obliquely related to Hunter, but…

FG:  I think that’s the most interesting thing about it though.. is that…

WR:  Hunter is part of an interesting story.

GH:  It is very much.

WR:  And you know that there were present at Hunter… these and these people, students and teachers… makes it an interesting thing.  There are very few schools that you could have said that about.  Maybe some that had… a huge place like Columbia… there were such people, but certainly very few places, ordinary colleges, where you would have had people who had this active role in the arts.  I think Sarah Lawrence was, interestingly enough… not when I was there, but previous to that, on the art side of things, they had briefly David Smith teaching up there for a while.  They had had Rene D’Harnoncourt, who was then president of the… director of the Museum of Modern Art.  Rene began his career in America teaching at Sarah Lawrence.  Some sort of introductory course on the arts, and they also had Bradley Walker Tomlin teaching up at Sarah Lawrence.  They had a lot of people. 

 So… where were we in our…yes, the business about the university, university training, Frank Stella and…now, you see, Frank went to Princeton.  He came into town, saw all the new things going on.  He went to see Jasper Johns’s first show.

FG:  At the Jewish Museum?

WR:  No, his first show at Leo Castelli…

FG: Oh, his first gallery show…

WR: … in ‘58, and was immensely impressed by the “Flags” in particular, and the “Targets”… and I think Jasper had an immense influence…as I’ve written  in books on Frank, and Frank is the first one to say it.  Frank also had the good luck that, one of the men who became a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who was probably the most art-world oriented art historian for the time…what was his name?  I have this problem with names.

GH:  Of what period?

WR:  Of the fifties.  Bill Seitz.

GH:  Yes.

WR:  BIll Seitz was teaching at Princeton when Frank went there.

FG:  Agee as well.

WR:  And Bill Seitz brought a lot of…see, there would be these different  migrations that were feeding into the art scene.  But I do think that with the sixties, you got a definite shift, not simply in art criticism… which became very theoretical…you had had  periods before..but it became more so.  But the art itself became more theoretical, and I even had the feeling every once in a while that certain critics and art historians, such as Michael Fried… who was teaching at Harvard as a young fellow, then went down to Baltimore… that Michael’s essay on three contemporary artists…that it had a kind of perfection as a thesis, a completeness and closedness, which is something… which is an attribute not of life, but of art.  You see what I mean?  That is, the art object differs from life precisely by its equilibrium, its perfection, its wholeness, it’s closedness.  And when I looked at that, I said to myself, this guy has pushed theorizing about the painting to the point where he’s virtually making it the way these other guys are making pictures, you know?  And that… in a way, he’s wasted writing about art.  He ought to go out and make pictures.  In any event, it was certainly a closeness that developed between the critical world and the world of active artists that took place in the sixties.  Right off the beginning of the sixties.  And Frank was one of the pioneers, in doing his black paintings in ‘58.  I think Johns was another kind of pioneer, but he wasn’t a Minimalist… you know what I mean.  This minimalist thing, which Frank was related to in his early work, was certainly…after all, what’s his name, the sculptor who makes the plaques…

GH:  Carl Andre.

WR:  Yes, Carl Andre, who has made some quite wonderful things, but was a very narrow artist in the end.  Carl Andre was with Frank at Princeton, and it was Carl who told Frank the solution to the black paintings.  Frank was troubled by the fact that when he made…he would put this governing design on…  it left (inaudible)… depending on the design, it left these pieces about which you could not say what you could say about every other (inaudible) in the picture.

GH:  Right.

WR:  And Carl said, why don’t…

(Interruption – tape runs out, session ends)

New tape, new session

GH:  On our last tape, there were two points that we …that you…that we left hanging, because the tape ended, and you were in the middle of a thought…as it happened we ran out of the tape, and our time was up…

And that thought was about Michael Fried, and the …what I guess I would have to characterize as the perfection of criticism…I think you were beginning to speak about that. 

WR:  Well, I think Michael Fried represented … the purest form…now, that was at that time, because he later began to be very deeply involved with iconography…

But in his writing on contemporary art, it represented the purest form and most elaborately developed in terms of vocabulary, of words… that he used to describe vanguard painting and sculpture…of the purely Formalist approach.  And, I think it had, in the early sixties…late fifties and early sixties… a very great importance. Most of these things were published in Artforum magazine. Gradually, Michael stopped writing about these things…about the artists that he had written about…

seemed to undergo a major change in the direction of his historical… 

(telephone interruption)

GH: So, back to the thought of…Michael Fried’s development in criticism; do you think that he unconsciously strove to emulate the art…?

(telephone interruption)

WR: What I probably said was that the theorizing of Michael struck me, personally,  as aiming for a kind of completeness, a kind of consistency, a kind of self-woundness, which, on some level, was a…you might say, an idealization of something that he associated with the subjects he was criticizing.  He wanted criticism to have the same qualities as a successful painting, as it were…and, there was a great deal of kind of criticism that was more subjective, more impressionistic, more purely historical, like Rewald, more psychological…more everything that didn’t fit into that mold, and didn’t have to, because his mold was very narrow, and very focused.  As far as it went, I think it was the best of its kind, but , my own makeup, which is really dependent on having studied with Meyer Schapiro, was to not start with any a priori notion of what criticism is… and not to attribute, above all, any kind of wholeness to criticism. The wholeness may be in the object, but the criticism should be used wherever and whenever it could throw any meaningful light on the object, and should be pulled in from any area

which would seem appropriate  for that object. Now, the next object might not seem to warrant psychological criticism, or biographical criticism, or God knows what, you know?  Now, the problem that one has with theories of criticism…and you see this in the way in which the … linguistic types, like…what’s her name, who had this terrible accident… up at Columbia…Rosalind Krauss…approaches Cubism …there is this highly developed, highly complex linguistic theory approach, which I think does reveal some worthwhile things about Cubism. It however, only tells you one dimension of Cubism. And, what one finds is that you can’t really apply that mode of criticism to a lot of other things.  So, I think, in a way, proven 

that…of all the different forms of criticism that exist … one should draw in any one that throws ANY light… and say that.. even a little light is better than no light, and every kind of light, even contradictory light… we assume that we can never…never wholly  understand a work… Anyway, criticism is not a whole thing, really, and it… And that we only see certain things about the work, and we should use what seem to be the proper critical tools for those things, and say as much       of meaning as we can, and not start with blinders, and say ‘this is how we are going to organize criticism. 

GH:  Right.

WR:  Now, that said, Michael seems, in his later work, to have gone in very different directions…on Monet, and other people… he’s a brilliant fellow, and I notice that he’s had considerable dialogue with this guy…what’s his name…out in Berkeley…who has just published a book of his essays called “Goodbye to an Idea”…. he’s a Marxist… he’s a British art historian, and Marxist critic….

GH: Doesn’t ring a bell…     

        

WR:  Well, he’s probably the best all-around late nineteenth century critic that’s functioning, art historically. He’s recently done texts on Pollack, for the Museum’s catalog, and he’s gone into the twentieth century, and Cubism as well, but his real forte is the late nineteenth century, and well, in any case, he and Michael have had quite a dialogue, and I’m now reading his book, and there are a number of citations of his friendship with Michael, and Michael’s ideas on certain things…which are very far from what Michael was involved in in the days of Artforum, but  are not necessarily worse or better – you know what I mean? 

Its just different. So that, in a sense, whatever I was trying to say then, it had to do with this confusion where critics were virtually becoming artists. The reason why that was important is because there was a real change in the nature of the artist’s community at that time, with the replacement of the fellows who basically had high-school educations and maybe a little piece of college, and were brought up in art-school backgrounds , whom lived in a strictly artistic kind of world…they were replaced by guys who went to college, were in philosophy classes, like Allan Kaprow, who wasn’t even…when I knew Allan he was in Meyer Schapiro’s seminar on Modern Art. Now, Allan was then in the Philosophy Department.  There was no idea that he would ever be an artist. A few years later, he became…the Happener.  And, in that same class of Schapiro’s  was…what’s his name…one of the best of the Minimalists…

GH:  Don Judd.

WR:  Don Judd was in that class; Don was, at that time, not an artist either. Don was a critic for… It was a magazine that’s gone belly-up…Art… Art Digest. 

He was writing for Art Digest, and so…and then, he and Frank published a kind of piece together, or they were interviewed together, or something…and, all was about flatness and edge and so forth, and…what you see is what you get, and all that stuff…and that was when he had begun to move into sculpture, and…so, you had these new types…Carl Andre was a Princetonian…Frank Stella was a Princetonian, though he never looked like one, but he was…these sophisticated college grads, and any number of the people who were Conceptual artists were highly educated people. You might almost say Conceptual art was the final attempt to turn criticism into art.  Because Conceptual art, really, frequently, had little or no aesthetic value.  It had to be interpreted intellectually, with words, and ideas, and that was normally considered the province of philosophy, or languages, or what have you. Certainly not of the plastic arts. 

GH:  Right.

WR:  So, there was this interesting coming –together, and Michael, of course, never went any further, in that way. But I remember when I read his essay “Three American Artists”, that it seemed to me that everything had to fit into this beautiful theory, and one of the big failures in “Three American Artists” was something very interesting. In his article on Frank Stella, in dealing with the early striped paintings …they came even before the black… and then with the black, he attributed influences to Barney Newman, and various other things, that struck him in terms of his idea as… When, in fact, we know…and I dealt with this in my second book on Frank… at the Museum… we know what the influence was immediately and directly…it was the flag paintings of Jasper Johns. Just putting out those lines. Now Jasper did something else, that… you might say, he made the first shaped canvas… by identifying the motif, exactly with the field in the flag, he was making a shaped canvas – even though it’s still a rectangle. You know? So that, there were lots of ideas that were present in Jasper Johns that Stella was  able to take in another direction, but it had nothing to do with Barney, even though Frank liked Barney…now, you see, that was because, in the Formalist thing which Michael had set up for himself, Jasper John, whom Clem abhorred…that was considered Neo-Dadaist frou-frou.  You see what I mean? So he missed a completely important source there, as a result. That is often the problem with self-wound theories: they look for what fits into the theory. Rosalind is very much like… Instead of getting down and dirty and looking for what may have been the original thing…or letting their mind wander over a lot of possibilities…you know? So, in some sense, that was what I was probably trying to get at: that idea of the critic as artist, in some way, and the different forms that it took, the displacement of the old type Ab-Ex artist, who was from a different social background,  and everything else…by the college-educated art-historical artist. The art-historical artist had a tendency to see himself as the next step in a long thing. Most earlier artists went by the seat of their pants, you know?  These guys are like jet pilots… they know all the dials, and… So there’s something…there was a definite sea-change that took place there, and that prepared, in some way, the artist who was no longer a Modern artist. That is, Warhol could only have really emerged in that period  in which the nature of the artist was undergoing serious changes.  Now, it wasn’t, in his case, a … bound up to this intellectualizing thing at all. Warhol was a seat of the pants flyer, but he was flying in the world of fashion and media, and his art really had little or nothing to do with the Modernist tradition. He might put a lot of Coke cans together, and it might remind you of all-overism, but it had nothing to do with the all-overism of Pollack, or anything like that. It really had to do…for…with something that … something that Pop art brought back, and that was alien to the Modernist tradition, which was art…well, I won’t say alien to the Modernist tradition…it was alien to the Modernist tradition insofar as…unlike the art of the Renaissance and Baroque in the past, which celebrated the major institutions of the culture, Modernist art generally only celebrated certain revolutionary aspects of the culture, such as the picnic, or vacation culture of Impressionism, which in a Victorian society was a very radical kind of thing.

GH:  Yes.

WR:  But, by and large, Modern art was implicitly critical of the culture in which it found itself. The posture of Modern art differs from that of Ingres, David, of the Renaissance artists and the Baroque artists precisely in that it is a reflexive art, and it subjects certainly turn away from all the great cultural binding orders: government, history, mythology…portraits, religion…portraits of the great men, and so forth and so on, and… these things which had been the meat and potatoes of art really don’t interest Modernist painters. When Monet makes a portrait of his friend…what’s his name who was the Prime Minister of France … It doesn’t look like an official portrait, and…  

GH:  It’s a friend.

                             

WR: It’s a friend, you know?  And… now: in some way,  though it’s not one of the binding things in American culture, the 54th Street …Studio 50, whatever it was…the whole world…

GH:  Oh, the nightclub…

WR:  Yeah, the nightclub…that world and all the things in it represented a world that he celebrated…that Warhol celebrated, and, in a larger sense, he celebrated the world of the media…the newspapers, the news photograph, the appearance of news… magazines…down to the very purposeful way in which his color registration was often slightly off, you know what I mean?

 

GH:  Done deliberately…

WR:  Yeah..and he got all that because his own background was not as a painter, but as a designer. And, the image that he makes into all… as a painter…is essentially a layout picture, rather than a composed picture.

GH:  That’s right.

WR:  And, the Modern artist was still composing. He is doing a layout…like this Barbara…whatever her name is, that does the big slogans…Barbara Krueger…it’s layout art. Now, the thing is, that that popularization of the culture, which is the counterpart of, you might say, of the film “Greed” for Wall Street… you know, young people today love the culture in which they’re being brought up in. There isn’t, as there was… at the turn of the century… where is your revolution today? You know? Very few… I mean: yes, the thing goes on for blacks, and  schooling, but all of that is understandable and realistic in this culture, but the kinds of cells of Socialists that you found in Barcelona in Picasso’s youth…which were found in every city in Europe… the Revolution, so to say…has totally petered out.  And, it was always part of the Modernist thing, you know?  Though the painters  didn’t think in those terms…they thought in terms of artistic revolution, as a kind of symbol of that. These guys aren’t  thinking in terms of revolution.  At all.

GH:  Not at all.

WR:  And, I think that, in that sense…

GH:  In fact, the very absence of that is part of the problem…of younger…

WR:  Yeah, yeah … well, the point is, I think that painting has… I am now gathering ideas for a big article called “Modernism and Post-Modernism”.

In which I am going to argue that, while people formed in Modernism can go on making good Modernist pictures, though they aren’t going to lead anywhere new, in the way in which Picasso or Pollack might have lead to something, the younger artists…those who were not formed in Modernism, those who had not found their style by, say 1965 or 1970, are really not interested in painting. There are very few decent painters. They’re interested in all the other arts, and in mixing sometimes painting sometimes with them, but there’s much more genuine interest in photography, and, in fact, the photography that is being done is much better than the painting that is being done.

          

GH: Absolutely!

WR:  And they’re also interested in all sorts of theatrical modes, which involve a real space that has no connection with the pictorial. So that, in some sense, Modernism…see, all Modernism was generated, ultimately, by painting: the sculpture, the architecture, all of that was generated by ideas that made their appearance first in painting. 

GH:  What an interesting thought…

WR:  And that’s the thesis that I’m… you see, that …look: if you take… 

GH:  Revolutionary thought…

WR:  … if you take all the sculpture that is made in Modern times, with the partial, the partial only, exception of Brancusi, who was very influenced  by tribal sculpture, and by his native traditions, and so forth and so on… all sculpture comes out of painting and drawing . In many cases, the best sculpture – Giacometti, Picasso, Miro, and so forth, is made by painters.  And those who were sculptors, like David Smith, either began as painters, or maintained…

GH:  … seriously interested…

WR:  And the thing is, that all modern sculpture can be said, within the framework of sculpture, to be pictorial.  Almost all of it, is designed to be seen 

From a particular point of view, and lays itself out, in that sense, pictorially. 

So, my argument is: it is the death of the pictorial instinct which mark the death of Modernism, and that nobody, for reasons that we don’t fully understand, is doing anything with painting now.  And Post-Modernism can be …

GH: Now, that’s not quite true…

WR:  Well…

GH:  There are little…murmurs…

WR:  Well, that may be. There are always murmurs, but the question is…what… in order to proclaim that we are back in an era in which painting 

Is a live art, you’ve got to have a half a dozen major figures and at least three big 

Big painters, who work acts as a magnet to that of other artists. We don’t have anywhere…

GH:  We have nothing like that. 

WR:  Anybody who has lived through Abstract Expressionism knows what a ‘scene’ is when you have a real scene.

GH:  Yes.

WR:  And…they don’t have it in Paris, they don’t have it any… The world is making art from everything but painting, you know?  And… well, I don’t want to give away all the stuff of my article, but the point is…

GH:  … is wonderful… generating …

WR:  But you see, if … in every culture, different arts have been more important or less important.  In the Gothic period, architecture was the dominant art.  Painting was not the dominant art.

GH:  No, that’s right.

WR:  And… painting fit into architecture…took its cues from architecture, and architecture took its cues from painting in this Modernist period.  In any event, we’re not talking about Hunter now, and I’m going off…

GH:  No, no, no… 

WR:  So, I …I just… I would say that that’s what I was trying to get at. 

GH: You went very much into the second point that we had …not fleshed out, which was the… these college graduates and the Minimalists…

WR:  Yeah, yeah…

GH:  And,  as you were talking about it now, I thought, we.., it’s a chicken and egg question. But in a way, maybe it isn’t, because… The academy spawned them, in a way….

WR: There’s no question. You see, what happened is, that they could look back on the history of Modernism, which is what they were fascinated by, art historically, and see that there was  a certain logic to the development, and that they could therefore try to psyche its development, so that, at the time they made that interview, Frank and Judd really believed that any three-dimensional thing, you know, in a picture… flatness was in.

Well, be that all as it may, the thinking about painting between Picasso and Braque was much more vague when they defined Cubism, and there wasn’t a vocabulary which others were sharing… you know what I mean?  It was a different kind of thing…

GH:  More intuitive…

WR:  …than the … yeah, much more intuitive than the discussions between Stella…

GH: Totally laid out…

WR:  Yeah,  well, they were in the spirit of the… sort of… I won’t say simple-minded, but the insistently bare argument that they were laying down…

Now, we’d better get back, if there is any more on… Hunter… because I’m sort of fading… I’ve got to get dressed to…

GH:  I just… its  a good moment to go back.  Looking back, since you’re in this unique position, you were young but completely educated and ready to face the world in what seems to me to have been a wonderful time… when you…

WR:  It was, because I got … I began teaching in 1952,  I was in graduate school from 1949 on… I … No, wait a minute… yes, graduate school… I got my BA degree in ’49, and… the new art was Abstract Expressionism. And then, years later came sort of the new abstraction, and Pop, and Color Field, and so forth and so on. But, it … all these things were felt clearly to be of an order with what had come before.  Only Pop Art introduced the new idea… Leo Steinberg said it was “instant art history”.   And it’s an interesting observation… most art was made … had to be around for a while for people to get… you know what I mean?  It had      

GH:  Oh, and you didn’t need…

WR:  Yeah, yeah… with Pop Art, it was accepted to be the newest thing the day it was shown. 

GH:  One could get it…

WR:   One could get it… 

GH:  But do you feel, looking back, that that was an extraordinary…

WR:  Oh, I… look, I think, to be present during Ab Ex was an extraordinary moment…  also, it was an extraordinary moment because, if you were art historically inclined, there was a great deal of material that could be seen … that  was German Expressionist, and … the art market had … was much smaller than it is now, and there weren’t these incredible prices on everything, you know…

Even when I got to the Museum in ’66, I was able to buy, at what today would be considered ludicrous prices, pictures by Matisse and Picasso and things like that, which… you know… what… can even afford to buy these things… you know, they have to get some guy worth millions to lay it out for ‘em. 

So, that’s where we are… 

GH:  Well, thank you very much… it’s been very elucidating.

WR: Now, the only thing I would hope is that someday, when it’s all redacted, that I could just have a photocopy of the thing.

GH:  Absolutely. 

(End of Interview)