Critic Barbara Rose died this past weekend at age eighty-four. To celebrate her memory, we are sharing an interview that originally appeared in our October 2015 issue.
Published in Art in America 50 years ago this month, Barbara Rose’s “ABC Art” takes stock of a “new sensibility” evident in the work of artists ranging from Yvonne Rainer to Andy Warhol. In the sprawling piece, Rose extols the importance of the “empty, repetitious, uninflected art” then being produced by dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors and poets in New York. More than a survey of art-world trends, “ABC Art” is an attempt to define a zeitgeist that had given rise to expressions of “blank, neutral, mechanical impersonality.”
A precocious critic, Rose was in her twenties when she penned the essay. The New York art world was small back then—a handful of galleries, a few curators clued in about contemporary art, a couple of bars where everyone met—and Rose was in the center of it. She appeared in a Warhol film, studied art history at Columbia with Meyer Schapiro and contributed criticism to every important art magazine, from Art International to Artforum. The artists she discusses in “ABC Art”—and to whom she is obviously sympathetic—comprised her community. One senses that her analysis was sharpened in conversations after Rainer’s performances at Judson Memorial Church, with Warhol’s crew in the booths of Max’s Kansas City, during openings at Leo Castelli Gallery and at home with her then-husband Frank Stella.
Reading “ABC Art” today, it can seem as if Rose elides self-evident aesthetic divisions, such as the one between Pop art and Minimalism. But the essay is really about a broad generational shift that cuts across the now-familiar art historical categories that have since been codified into received wisdom through countless grad-school seminars. Rose’s essay describes, above all, the wholesale collapse of the values that had sustained the Abstract Expressionists. “One might as easily construe,” she writes, “the new, reserved impersonality and self-effacing anonymity as a reaction against the self-indulgence of an unbridled subjectivity, just as one might see it in terms of a formal reaction to the excesses of painterliness.” A correction was happening in a culture that had for two decades fetishized heroic manifestations of “unbridled subjectivity” until they had become clichés rendered in increasingly mannered smears of paint. What made this correction hard to parse—leading other critics to lazily describe “cool art or idiot art or know-nothing nihilism”—was that its arrival was accompanied by few declarations of triumphalism or fireworks of any kind: “It was almost as if, toward the Götterdämmerung of the late Fifties, the trumpets blared with such an apocalyptic and Wagnerian intensity that each moment was a crisis and each ‘act’ a climax. Obviously, such a crisis climate could hardly be sustained; just to be able to hear at all again, the volume had to be turned down, and the pitch, if not the instrument, changed.”
Rose cites a few older artists who anticipated this shift, opening the essay with a discussion of Marcel Duchamp and Kasimir Malevich, figures who “reject and exclude from their work many of the most cherished premises of Western art in favor of an art stripped to its bare, irreducible minimum.” According to Rose, the rationalism of Duchamp and the austere mysticism of Malevich were later synthesized in the work of Ad Reinhardt, whose “irony, aloofness, independence and ideas about the proper use of art, which he has stubbornly held to be non-commercial and non-utilitarian, are precisely the qualities the young admire.”
“ABC Art” also points to a healthier moment in art publishing. Though the art market was anemic, publications like A.i.A. were thriving—buoyed, Rose now believes, by funds supplied by the US government to promote avant-garde art as Cold War propaganda. It’s hard to imagine a writer today pitching a piece like this, and many editors might hesitate before green-lighting a sweeping proposal to synthesize such topics as “the yearnings of Malevich’s Slavic soul” and the “so-called contentless novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet.” The audacity of Rose’s brief is even more remarkable considering that the young historian had few vetted treatises of art theory to guide her in this pioneering effort and scant authorities to cite and reference. Instead, her argument is bolstered by a patchwork of quotations from a pantheon of literary heroes and cult philosophers: Robbe-Grillet, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Interspersed within Rose’s text are pages containing images of the work under discussion paired with extended artists’ statements. The layout balances Rose’s analysis with the artists’ own words. Or maybe it puts the two kinds of writing in competition. Either way, it is an appropriate format for representing a group of artists known for their incisive use of language, a trait inspired perhaps by what Rose calls Reinhardt’s legendary writings “handed down from the scriptorium.”
When I spoke with Rose in her Manhattan apartment in late August, she suggested that there was something distinctly American about the work she discussed in 1965, which may have made A.i.A. an appropriate venue for the piece. She wasn’t seeking to identify a “triumph” of American culture; on the contrary, the distinctiveness was related to a feeling of raw negativity.
The Vietnam War escalated rapidly over the months she composed and edited the essay. During the spring and summer of 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder, a massive bombing campaign, was initiated and the first battalions of US combat troops landed in Da Nang. In the US, Malcolm X was assassinated, the Civil Rights movement was reaching a crucial stage, and Watts was set on fire. Though Rose did not address this upheaval directly in her article, the implicit sense of refusal and protest is there. The piece ends darkly, with a discussion of the morbid speeches Rainer delivered in the midst of her dances and Robert Morris’s proposal to build a massive gravesite.
WILLIAM SMITH How did this essay come about?
BARBARA ROSE None of my friends could sell anything, so it was really propaganda for their work. That was a large part of the impulse! And, of course, I was interested in bigger issues. It was a zeitgeist article. It was about the spirit of the times, or at least my perception of it. The reason I wrote for A.i.A. was Jean Lipman, the editor at the time. Jean and I were friends and she would basically publish anything I wrote. And it wasn’t like she gave me an assignment; I wrote about what I wanted. This article could have been called “Art Barbara Likes, Books Barbara’s Reading, Movies Barbara’s Seen, Music Barbara Listens To.”
SMITH Who decided on “ABC”?
ROSE Jean came up with the title. I first saw it when the article came out in print; I have to say that I cringed a bit.
SMITH Would you have preferred something related to Minimalism?
ROSE Not at all. The artists didn’t think they were Minimal artists. I didn’t think they were Minimal artists. Once the article came out, the journalists decided this was a movement and they started talking about Minimalism. Journalists need a nice little slot to put things in. For example, Abstract Expressionism never existed. It didn’t fit anybody. It was the New York School, which includes the de Kooning gestural side, the Newman Color Field side and then Reinhardt’s push toward the monochrome.
SMITH So what did bind the artists that you discuss in the piece?
ROSE You mean, what made it possible for a group of artists to have a dialogue and to take huge risks at that time? A lot of it had to do with the fact that there was a real community. None of these people made a living from their art; not one of them. The people I wrote about all knew each other, and I knew them. We were friends. We just showed up at each other’s apartments, often at dinnertime. We borrowed money from each other. We’d all go to the same openings. We all would go to La Monte Young’s Dream House. We all went to Judson Memorial Church to see the performances there. We all went to Happenings.
Frank Stella and I lived off Union Square, in what was basically a slum. Two streets up were Don Judd, Jo Baer and Yayoi Kusama, all of whom lived and worked in the same building. Don has to get credit—and this would surprise everybody—for supporting women artists. He was the biggest supporter of Jo and Yayoi. Don would say if you’re coming to see me we have to go to Jo’s studio and to Yayoi’s studio. I loved Jo’s paintings—the white field and black borders—but I didn’t understand how they worked. I’m now beginning to understand them; it’s taken me a lot of time.
SMITH It sounds like a small world.
ROSE I remember Bob Motherwell saying that the art world is only one hundred people. It was, maybe, during the New York School era. By the time I wrote “ABC Art,” maybe it was five hundred people, including the dealers. There were no collectors, really. You’d have to be crazy to buy this stuff. The materials people were using for the work in this article were junk! I think I illustrated the first fabricated pieces Judd was able to make. Before that, he was making things out of wood. Morris made all of his work by himself out of plywood.
SMITH What was the state of art publishing?
ROSE The first criticism I wrote was in Spanish. I had been on a Fulbright to study in Spain, and I ended up writing “La Crónica de Nueva York” for a magazine called Goya. Then Michael Fried, who was Frank’s friend from Princeton, introduced me to Art International, which was based in Switzerland. Michael was writing the “London Letter” and I ended up as their New York correspondent around ’63. Art International was an important magazine. I published one of the first articles on Pop there. Annette Michelson wrote quite a bit for them, too, when she was still living in Paris. Around the same time, Max Kozloff, who was also a graduate student, called me and asked if I wanted to write for this new magazine in San Francisco called Artforum. Max and I eventually became contributing editors.
SMITH You were also a contributing editor at A.i.A. by 1965.
ROSE That was based on my relationship with Jean, who was an incredible editor and very enthusiastic about my work. A.i.A. has a different history, which I only found out ex post facto. The magazine was funded largely by the CIA.
SMITH I don’t believe that.
ROSE It was during the Cold War. I didn’t know this at the time, but the real money came from the US Information Agency. Serge Guilbaut documented similar cultural funding schemes in How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art . It was a propaganda effort to sell American art abroad. The idea was we were free; they were in chains. Look at our great art. Look at our great culture. Look at all of the wonderful things we do. And then look at the horrible Russian propaganda. There was no directive from the government about what was going to be published. The magazine was supposed to represent a flowering of American culture. They had a lot of money to spend, and they spent it.
SMITH Does that mean you could make a living as an art writer?
ROSE The pay was much more than what you get now. I was paid $1,000 per article, in 1965. [The equivalent of $7,600 today.]
SMITH You are fairly critical in the essay about the excesses of the New York School. But given that the art world was so small, they must have had some influence on you.
ROSE Two of the New York school painters really liked young people and helped us all a great deal. I can remember Barney and Annabel Newman taking Frank and me to dinner; food was a really big deal because nobody had any. But above all, Ad Reinhardt was supportive. His studio was on lower Broadway. All you had to do was show up. And he loved it when you did. He would paint while you were there, talk to you, and keep painting. I used to visit often, and so did Bob Morris. I know Judd knew Newman quite well. I’d say Judd is a Newman person and Morris is a Reinhardt person.
SMITH What about Clement Greenberg, who was an important mentor to peers of yours like Fried and Rosalind Krauss? Did you discuss your article with him?
ROSE Everyone was connected to Greenberg because Clem would have his little Maoist sessions in his apartment. He loved young people, but in retrospect I realize he was looking to brainwash disciples. At a certain point I thought, “Wait a minute! This is nonsense.” You had to denounce certain people and agree with Clem. One was Al Held and the other was Reinhardt, which left me conflicted. Clem would go: “Ad’s a stinker, right?” And everybody would repeat: “Ad’s a stinker.” And I’d say, “No, Ad’s not a stinker.” And this would go on. Clem was a father figure; he was much older, and he’d been right about a lot of things. He had no interest in the artists I wrote about. Either he didn’t know about them, or it simply wasn’t the work he cared about.
SMITH Many of the artists you discuss were also writers.
ROSE If you had something to say you’d publish it, and the critics who knew each other and the artists would all get together—at Max’s Kansas City, usually—to argue about these things. Don wrote a lot for Arts Magazine. Bob Morris wrote a great deal as well. Writing was the only thing that paid back then. You have to understand, most of the people I am writing about here—they are intellectuals. Claes Oldenburg, who I should have included in the piece, went to Yale. Stella went to Princeton. Judd went to Columbia. Morris had an MA in art history.
SMITH You could have called the essay “Ivy League Art.”
ROSE It wasn’t really that. It was just people who were educated, who took the time to read difficult texts like those by Wittgenstein and to actually respond to the ideas in these substantial philosophical positions. Everybody went to Beckett plays and Antonioni films. Everybody was reading Ernst Gombrich on Gestalt psychology, Merleau-Ponty on phenomenology . . .
SMITH And Gertrude Stein.
ROSE I was interested in Gertrude. Gertrude Stein was the writer who first articulated an idea about writing based on simple sentence structure, repetitions—anti-Rococo. She was also interested in pragmatism, which is an American philosophy. There was an interest in American culture on every level. I now realize that we were looking at Native American art a lot—the abstract imagery, the geometric design. We thought the Indians should have won and not the cowboys. We were dealing with this cowboy mentality that took the form of imperialistic aggression. But even still there was this interest in American culture and how it was different from European culture. There was a very conscious effort to make American art. It seems kind of strange now.
SMITH But you start the essay talking about two Europeans: Duchamp and Malevich.
ROSE Well, remember, Duchamp was still alive and in New York. We knew him. He went to the Happenings, and you’d see him at certain openings—basically shows of the Pop artists. Constructivism was more obscure then. It was a bunch of Commies, after all. But in fact Alfred Barr had bought some Constructivist art and it was on display at MoMA. In 1962, Camilla Gray published The Great Experiment, which was illustrated, and that was one of the first books with Constructivist art that we saw. Russian Constructivism was important because it was new to us. We wanted to get away from Cubism. That was old; it was French and contrived. Surrealism was a big no-no. We had no time for anything that was related to fantasy, dream life. No, we were interested in the concrete, the real. We didn’t want illusions. We wanted a real object with real properties, a physical thing in a physical space.
SMITH But there are some mystical aspects to the work in this article. La Monte Young’s, for example.
ROSE His work would put you in a trance state. The performance at Dream House was continuous. There were mattresses on the floor. I remember Frank and I taking our child—we took her to all of these things. I was the only person with a child who was involved in Dream House. The mystical tendencies in Young’s drone music can be related to Transcendentalism. And they are linked specifically to Zen, which had a big resurgence in New York thanks to John Cage. Reinhardt approached this idea also when he started making the black paintings over and over again. It was a statement that there was no progress—no political progress, that’s for sure.
SMITH You describe the work in “ABC Art” as negative.
ROSE It was negative. It was a rejection—a philosophical rejection. It was informed by Wittgenstein’s philosophy, which was very critical of the idea that someone could communicate his or her emotions. Well, you couldn’t. We knew that. We thought all of Harold Rosenberg’s talk about “Action Painting” was rhetorical nonsense.
SMITH It’s interesting that the art is mute even as it’s being made by vocal political activists.
ROSE The zeitgeist was defined by the Vietnam War. All these artists were involved in the antiwar movement in one way or another. There was an artist brigade, led by Judd and Reinhardt, in the anti-Vietnam protest marches. Jasper Johns made the poster, the moratorium flag, which reversed the colors of the American flag. It’s a symbolic way of saying that America had turned into the opposite of what it was.
SMITH You end the article on a dark note, citing Carl Andre’s solution for war: “Let them eat what they kill.”
ROSE In the beginning of the ’60s everything was wonderful—we were going to change the world. It was utopian and progressive. Then Jack Kennedy was assassinated. I remember the day. Frank and I were pushing our baby carriage down Fifth Avenue toward his studio in Chinatown. We noticed that all the flags were at half-mast. I asked someone about it, and they told us the president had been shot and that he was dead. Frank turned to me and said, “Well, it’s all over.” I asked him, “What? What’s all over?” He said, “America.” He was right. Everybody kept working, pushing forward, but once you had the assassinations in ’68 it was really over. That was also the year Andy was shot. That was the crucial year, when it all fell apart.
SMITH Do you think the kind of community that you survey in “ABC Art” could still exist today?
ROSE I think there is a history of art, of which most people today—the artists I talk to—have no conception. The MFA programs used to invite me to give lectures. But I stopped giving them once the questions were all about, “How do you make it? How do you get a career? What’s the strategy?” Anybody who’s thinking about a career or making a living out of art is already not an artist. Get a day job. Really. If you really want to be in New York—which is also problematic at this point—you have to find some other way of making money. Contemporary art is about taking risks, experimenting and making something that you are obsessed with.
This article appears in the October 2015 issue, pp. 96–103.