The Mirror of Fashion

By Mcconathy, Dale | Artforum International, May 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Mirror of Fashion

Mcconathy, Dale, Artforum International


ON THE FACE OF IT, "THE CRYSTAL LAND," THE EARLIEST OF Robert Smithson's magazine texts, is a charming travelogue: a recollection of a visit to an abandoned quarry in New Jersey. That Donald Judd is among the "guests" along for the tour seems an incidental detail, until it becomes apparent that Judd's work has become fodder for the author's capacious imagination. The flat, descriptive prose is strikingly suggestive of Judd's "placid but dismal" style, and Judd's pink Plexiglas box is compared to a "giant crystal from another planet." Nor does Judd himself escape appropriation. The Judd of Smithson's account is a fellow geologist and would-be earth artist. The formidable author of "Specific Objects" has become a narcissistic reflection of Smithson's interests. In the Smithson tour, the Pied Piper of Entropy always leads the way.

The first of Smithson's famous travel narratives, "The Crystal Land" reveals much about the artist's investment in Judd (who later complained in Artforum that "Smithson is not my spokesman"). Yet unlike so many of Smithson's texts, which found their way to influential if small-circulation art magazines, "The Crystal Land" appeared in a most surprising venue. Smithson's essay was published in the May 1966 issue of Harper's Bazaar, in the "Scene and Not Herd" column, wedged between ads for Kotex tampons and Prince Matchabelli eye makeup.

In this sense the Smithson text was no anomaly. In the July 1966 Harper's Bazaar, articles on Pop and the artist Chryssa vied for attention with Annette Michelson's "Surrealism or the 'White-Haired Revolver,'" whose description of surrealism as a recurring attitude and set of formal strategies, rather than a movement that had come and gone, has proved prophetic. A portfolio of artists' portraits by Diane Arbus that captured the vitality of the local scene filled more pages. The Oldenburgs, Claes and Pat, are pictured clowning around in the faux-leopard Bedroom. Lee Bontecou is reserved, Roy Lichtenstein, serene. Frank Stella sports a shit-eating grin. The successful painter, cigar in hand, is revealed to be nearly toothless; under Arbus's dangerous lens, his smile becomes vampyric, grotesque.

A subsequent spread shot by Francesco Scavullo depicts male artists accompanied by their wives or female friends modeling the latest fashions. A dapper Ellsworth Kelly posed with "Miss Judith Heidler of the Sidney Janis Gallery," the latter attired in a stiffly geometric dress whose crisp contours evoked the artist's reliefs. Judd crouches awkwardly beneath his wife. The two artists are presented as the master couturiers of a new aesthetic of ostentatious simplicity--a "minimal look." A few pages later, an article by Smithson titled "The X Factor in Art," which included quotations by the likes of Robert Morris, Ad Reinhardt, and Alain Robbe-Grillet, lent an intellectual pedigree to the "miminal" Zeitgeist. During the 1966 season, it seemed, "austerity" was the final word in chic. The aesthetic of monochromy and reduction marked by such exhibitions as that spring's Jewish Museum "Primary Structures" show and the Guggenheim's "Systemic Painting" in September found immediate affirmation in the pages of Bazaar, which touted the structured suits of Courreges and Jantzen's "Hard-Edge" knits to its readers. That autumn, reports of Truman Capote's notorious Black and White Ball broadcast the new look to a mediatized public.

The presence in Bazaar of writings by Smithson and Michelson, and photographs of Kelly and Judd, was no accident but the handiwork of Dale McConathy, the magazine's remarkable literary editor from 1966 to 1969. A native of MacAlester, Oklahoma, McConathy exemplified a type of media figure that exists to this day. He was one of those countless college graduates who descend on Manhattan every year like migrating birds, eager to work for a magazine that, furtively perused at the drugstore back in Oshkosh, promised a glamorous future.

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