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A Radical Change: An Interview with Irving Sandler

The art critic and historian Irving Sandler was a regular contributor to ARTnews and other magazines in the 1950s and 1960s. He is best known for The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (London: Pall Mall, 1970) and its follow-up, The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties (New York: Harper and Row, 1978). Born in New York in 1925, Sandler turned 91 years old on July 22.

He and his wife, Lucy Freedman Sandler, a historian of medieval art and an accomplished author in her own right, are CAA life members. Both scholars have a long involvement with CAA spanning several decades: Lucy served as president of the Board of Directors from 1981 to 1984 and organized the 1978 Annual Conference with her husband. Both have spoken many times at the conference; they have organized and moderated numerous panels and sessions as well. In addition, Irving was part of a group of CAA members who introduced a new format to Art Journal, back in 1979.

Sandler’s second book of memoirs, Swept Up by Art: An Art Critic in the Post-Avant-Garde Era (Brooklyn: Rail Editions, 2015), follows his first, A Sweeper-Up after Artists (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003). Christopher Howard, CAA managing editor, visited Sandler in May 2016 at his New York apartment to talk about his recent book and about his involvement with CAA over the years.

CAA: Let’s start with Art Journal. In the late 1970s you and a handful of others—Anne Coffin Hansen, Ellen Lanyon, George Sadek—got together to reinvent the publication.

Irving Sandler: That is pretty much it. We took the journal, which had become pretty moribund—it was sort of run by an old guard—and we turned it into something much more interesting by doing thematic issues, and also getting interesting editors to do it. It’s still working more or less that way.

Yes, it is. Editors have three-year terms—but they get a longer time span to take it over. You even produced one of those early issues, in Winter 1980, yourself.

Yes, I did. This issue was, to my knowledge, was the first issue on modernism and postmodernism, indicating the change that had been taking place in art, and in the art world as well. That was a very good issue.

You and your wife first joined CAA in 1954. How has the teaching of art and art history changed over the last sixty years?

Well, one of the things—the primary thing I believe—that’s changed would be the introduction of contemporary art into curricula. That simply wasn’t done. In places like the Institute of Fine Arts, you couldn’t write a dissertation on an artist who wasn’t dead for a century. And suddenly, not only do you have contemporary art, but the primary emphasis, in our art-history programs now, is on the contemporary. That’s a radical change to the entire approach to art.

When I first started working at CAA, Renaissance and Baroque were the leading areas in which graduate programs produced PhDs. Now it’s modern and contemporary art. But you were studying contemporary art, when teaching and writing your first book.

When I was hired to teach art history, it was generally to studio people, both at New York University and particularly at SUNY Purchase, where my primary classes were composed of artists. SUNY Purchase was the school of the arts for the state university system, so we got the best of the art students there. They also have a major museum [the Neuberger Museum of Art] of which, for a period of time, I was director. So that was my stoop.

I enjoy going to that museum. I looked up your conference history: the sessions that you presented in, that you chaired, that you were a discussant or moderated. It’s pretty impressive. The earliest one I found was “Tradition and Innovation in Abstract Expressionism” (1966). Through the seventies you talked about “Politics and Current Art” (1973) and “Alternative Systems for Artists’ Visibility” (1975). In 2003 you participated in the session “Advocate or Intruder? Critics in Artists’ Studios.” These are all diverse subjects.

One of the reasons why I wrote a second memoir was because I didn’t deal with the seventies as much as I would have liked to, or should have, in the first memoir. There was a radical change in art and the art world that occurs in the early seventies where the modernist agenda gets played out, and art becomes totally pluralistic. I wanted to deal with that, or use that, as one of the bases of the new memoir, this change that has taken place. And also the change in the art world, where in 1973 there was an auction, the [Robert] Scull auction, which raised about two million dollars for Mister Scull. This was literally the first time that contemporary art was worth something, enough to come up at auction. That opened up this entire new market, and I’m interested in dealing with that change in this second memoir of mine, Swept Up.

Did you see changes at the CAA conference related to those changes? The conference is academically oriented, of course, but it was also a meeting place for artists in the seventies.

Not particularly, no. Artists came either looking for jobs or because they were on panels. The same with young art historians—CAA has been the proving ground if you were looking for a job. You got yourself a talk at the CAA, and people would come hear you to determine whether they thought your teaching skills were adequate. But I didn’t see particularly any changes.

What about you? You weren’t there looking for a job; you more interested in the dialogue.

Yes, and in the association, too, but mostly I was interested in the dialogue. There were always new things brought up at College Art Association, where young curators, young historians, or young artists would bring their issues. You could learn things you didn’t know about your own world at CAA annual meetings.

What was the debate about postmodernism like at the CAA conference? You chaired a session on it, called “Post-Modern Update,” in 1982, and you also produced the Art Journal issue we talked about earlier.

Well, we were trying to find out what postmodernism was. People like myself who stayed very close to what was happening in contemporary art sensed that change was taking place. It was not only taking place in contemporary criticism and contemporary writing, but also in art history. The essay that I wrote for the Art Journal issue had interesting quotes from H. W. Janson on the situation of modernism and postmodernism.

But we were trying to, at every stage, critics like myself and many others, at any moment trying to figure out what the situation was. I know back in the Abstract Expressionist days in the fifties, one of the most popular topics that was debated over and over again at the Artists Club was, “Has the situation changed?” Even back then, at the height of Abstract Expressionism, there were worries about it, particularly in the late fifties, when the issue was, even then, within our group, “Has Abstract Expressionist become academic?” That was a hotly debated issue.

Abstract Expressionism was still influential for artists a decade later. I remember reading art magazines from the late sixties in which Robert Smithson and others revered Pollock and some of the other painters, in the way their process affected the way their work turned out. For some Conceptual artists, there wasn’t the typical avant-garde attitude of “shove the old people out of the way; let’s do something new.”

Well, what had happened—I think you very much got your finger on that point—was that we were arguing, “What’s the avant-garde?” We had people who were the Minimalists, people like Judd and Robert Morris, who were arguing that the new Minimal sculpture was the avant-garde, and painting was more or less dead. Then you have people on the side of painting, like Michael Fried, who are saying “No, no, no, no. We’re still very much alive. We are the avant-garde.” That controversy went right through the seventies. Even today the idea “Is painting dead?” doesn’t get too much controversy, but it’s still talked about.

In the book you mention that your original positions on Minimalism and Pop were unfavorable, yet over time, they changed. How important is it for people to recognize that a critic can change his or her mind, years later, or even decades later?

In my own life these changes were much more dramatic. When Frank Stella showed those black paintings, my response to them was, “If that’s art, then anything I believe is art has got to be something else, and vice versa.” It was that much of a reaction. The same thing happened when Warhol showed his first paintings, and even Lichtenstein, who I was more sympathetic to. At one point I couldn’t understand why I was carrying the flag for Abstract Expressionism, because this newer art, including the work of Stella, struck me as more and more interesting. In The New York School, I treated Stella as the decisive influence on the radical change that takes place around 1959. It was an absolutely radical change when Stella’s work appeared. I couldn’t see why I was carrying this flag anymore, and I believe I wrote an article about this around 1965 or 1966 when I began to treat this new work—Minimalism, Pop—as the new art of the sixties. I suggested that it actually replaced Abstract Expressionism because it’s the art of its moment, as Abstract Expressionism was the art of its moment. Although I must admit that my first and greatest love was still De Kooning. And Pollock, Kline, Guston—those are the guys who changed my life.

Many of those people were your friends, too.

Yes, acquaintances and friends. The art world back in the fifties was very small, no more than two hundred artists. You could get to know them all. I did know them all. Part of my mission as a critic, as I look back, was to gain recognition for the New York School. I became the champion of these artists. But even more important, in order to write my early histories, there was little information. The only way to generate information was to go to the artists, which I did and therefore befriended many of them, just looking for what had gone on, back in the forties and fifties. Sometimes I was lucky—I worked for the Tanager Gallery, which was an artists’ cooperative from 1956 to 1959. My next-door neighbor was Willem de Kooning. I saw him pretty much every day. He was the artist who we all revered more than other artist back in the fifties.

You’ve been involved with the Brooklyn Rail for a long time. Is that a reason why you decided to publish this new memoir with them?

Very much part of the reason, out of the great sympathy I feel, and friendship I feel, for Phong Bui. The idea of working with him within an art situation rather than within a publishing situation—I found that attractive. It worked out for me because he is a great enthusiast and one of the best things that’s happened to the New York art world. I’m constantly amazed that this Vietnamese immigrant could have come here without the language, learn the language, master the culture, and then make this amazing contribution to the art culture, and to the culture generally. He’s absolutely an amazing man.

One thing I noticed while reading the memoir is that, it struck me as being more of a professional memoir and less of a personal one. There was a lot of your activity and interactions with artists, but not so much biography. When people think of a memoir they think of family, personal stuff, that sort of thing.

That’s the one thing I didn’t want in my writing. I couldn’t care less about who’s sleeping with whom. I don’t know what it contributes to the art. My memoirs are more about what was out there, and my perception of art and artists out there, rather than my own life. If I came in the story, it would be as a response to the art, particularly to an artist. That approach I find even more in the second memoir. It’s more about what’s happening in art as I perceive it, rather than anecdotal material. I’ve lived a reasonably boring life. I’ve been married to the same woman since 1958. I haven’t had any horrendous diseases, breakdowns, or anything. What’s been interesting about my life is what’s out there, in art and in the art world.

What does a critic need to do to be successful, and how would you define success in that regard?

That’s really a tough question, because criticism can be so many different things, from advocacy to “I like it, I don’t like it” to “It’s great or not great” to an art-historical survey. It depends on a critic—his or her ability to write well, to put ideas across. Sometimes you can be a remarkable stylist like, say, Peter Schjeldahl is, or provocative like, say, Dave Hickey is. I don’t think there’s any single way that a critic can achieve success, except by the quality of criticism. I, for example, read criticism to tell me where to go. If you can trust the taste and dedication of a critic, that’ll help you to go see what you should be seeing.

How do you see the place of an organization like CAA in the art world and the academic world today?

I should point out—and you probably know this—soon after Lucy’s presidency, the nature of the organization shifted, more to advocacy, more to multiculturalism, to feminism, to African American. That was a radical change that occurred, but this was after Lucy left the presidency. That tendency within the organization still continues. There are people who think that the organization should turn back to academe, to academic subjects, rather than what they think is too much emphasis on advocacy positions. It’s interesting that this tension does exist in College Art—and probably should exist.

I think there’s room for everybody under the CAA umbrella. The tension is nice to have and can be productive. How did you see the position of women change in the art world?

That’s a really interesting question. I would go back to the very beginning, at least of my career. My book The Triumph of American Painting has fifteen artists—all male. These artists more or less chose themselves, and they didn’t choose women, partly because it was a macho situation. That changes in the early fifties with three leading painters who are the strongest painters of the decade: Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, and Helen Frankenthaler. You couldn’t overlook their contributions anymore, particularly because both Helen and Grace were as tough or tougher than the men. I once asked Grace Hartigan, “Has any male artist ever told you you painted as well as a man?” And she said, “Not twice.” You couldn’t do that anymore in the fifties, although it still remained very much a macho scene. Then it opens up in the sixties, in many and all directions. I should point out the role of Elaine De Kooning was critical, because here you had a creditable artist married to the leading painter of her time—beautiful, brilliant, her criticism is still the best of the 1950s. She was very much on the scene. And you didn’t do any macho stuff with Elaine.

At a recent talk, Rob Storr described Louise Bourgeois’s scene in the art world. It seemed as if she didn’t advocate women, that she wanted to be part of the boys’ club.

Louise was a good friend. She was part of an entirely different generation, the Surrealist generation. I don’t think her idea was joining the boys. There was an attitude—very strongly held by someone like her or Helen Frankenthaler—that she didn’t want her art limited to her sex, to her gender, and she refused to join any feminist cause because it was a limitation on her. Some African American artists also feel the same way.

To have to declare their minority in order….

Yes. On the other hand, the scene really was very alcoholic and very macho. In fact, the occupational disease of the Abstract Expressionist generation was alcoholism and paranoia.

[Shared laughter.]

I’m laughing at the paranoia, not the alcoholism.

Originally published on the CAA website on July 29, 2016.