Documents of 1960s Art

Article excerpt

Amy Newman. Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974. NewYork: Soho Press, 2000. 560 pp., 17 b/w ills. $42. Alexander Alberro and Patricia Norvell, eds. Recording Conceptual Art: Early Interviews with Barry, Huebler, Kaltenbach, LeWitt, Morris, Oppenheim, Siegelaub, Smithson, Weiner by Patricia Norvell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 177 pp., 39 b/w ills. $55; $19.95 paper.

The published interview is a special kind of document, one that has proven both invaluable and troublesome to historians of recent art. Situated somewhere between written and spoken language, interviews combine the vicarious pleasures of eavesdropping with the virtuous pursuit of edification. interviews are compelling, in part, because they convey such idiosyncrasies as speech pattern and sense of humor, allowing us to glimpse someone's personality And yet, as in the case of Andy Warhol, this perception of immediacy can be misleading, for interviews are, in fact, highly contrived public performances, providing ample opportunity for self-promotion and blague. Interviews are often heavily edited for publication, and their sense of spontaneity may well be as false as that of a posed photograph. Nonetheless, such conversations remain an indispensable resource for scholars, as affirmed by two recently published books of interviews. Not only are these documents entertaining to read, but they offer information that differs qualitatively from other kinds of texts, emphasizing the distinction between talking and writing that defines the interview situation and accounts for its unusual status among historical records. Because they rely on the forms peculiar to spoken language, such as non sequiturs, anecdotes, and digressions, interviews make unique contributions to knowledge and provide unexpected insights into history.

Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974 by Amy Newman tells the story of the establishment of Artforum magazine through the voices of publishers, editors, critics, art historians, and artists who were key during its formative years. Among the protagonists we meet are Philip Leider, Rosalind Krauss, John Coplans, Michael Fried, Barbara Rose, Lucy Lippard, Peter Plagens, Max Kozloff, Annette Michelson, Robert Morris, and Mel Bochner, to name just a few of the more loquacious participants. The individual interviews, conducted by Newman between 1993 and 1999, have been painstakingly excerpted and rearranged to approximate a kind of roundtable discussion-a format that, according to Newman, is meant to capture something of the intensity and liveliness of the critical discourse that defined the magazine during those early years: "Sitting around someone's living room, loft-raw, unlike today's boutique spaces-or in a bar, the participants pulled no punches and argued from their brains backed up by their guts" ( 16).

This conversational format provides narrative coherence to the surprisingly eventful early years of the magazine and has the additional benefit of allowing contrasting opinions to be juxtaposed, so that we hear several different sides of an issue in succession. While they may quibble over the details of the past, however, the interviewees do not come across as petty or acrimonious. They were allowed to edit their words for accuracy but were not permitted to read others' interviews. On the whole, the tone is generous and self-reflexive-more concerned with exploring the historical import of the magazine in the present than with airing any festering grievances. Inconsistencies do emerge, however, as recollections vary. To the question of the ultimate significance of Artforum and its legacy the book's reply might best be summed up with the inconclusive truism: it meant many different things to many different people. Such a lack of consensus is part of what makes this story so engrossing. We come away feeling both that we know what happened and that we don't quite-and with a heightened appreciation for the subjective experiences and memories that inhabit the impersonal facts of history. …