The New Art Examiner, an independent magazine of art and cultural criticism, was founded in Chicago and published there between 1973 and 2002. The magazine is not only a significant part of the history of art and criticism in Chicago, it made important contributions to the larger history of art and cultural criticism in the United States by promising—and delivering—an often sharp-edged critique of:
the definition and transmission of culture in our society; the decision-making processes within museums and schools and the agencies which determine the manner in which culture shall be transmitted; the value systems which presently influence the making of art as well as its study in exhibitions and books; and, in particular, the interaction of these factors with the visual art milieu… (from the statement of purpose adopted in 1971 by founding members of the Chicago New Art Association, publishers of the New Art Examiner, and featured in every issue of the magazine).
Born out of the seismic cultural shifts associated with the late 1960s-early 1970s, coming of age in the hyper-inflated art world of the 1980s, and, in its maturity, embracing its role in the global re-theorization of art practices that characterized the 1990s, the New Art Examiner was a sensitive barometer of almost three decades of art world change.
I. American Art and Criticism Come of Age
A new artistic tendency towards emotional, universalizing themes rendered through gestural and expressive manipulation of materials commanded almost immediate critical attention when it emerged in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. Discussions of Abstract Expressionism, (as that tendency is known today), and its various legacies would dominate art world discourse for much of the second half of the twentieth century—and ensure America’s post-war artistic preeminence. Yet it is also true that there was disagreement from the start about the meaning and significance of this movement. American art criticism as we know it began as a debate between the two most formidable commentators of the period, Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg. Greenberg had been writing about the need for a resurgence of abstract painting since 1939, becoming a particular champion of the work of Jackson Pollock after the artist’s first solo exhibit
in 1943. But it was Rosenberg’s “American Action Painters,” an analysis of the existential drama and commitment of the new art, published in ARTnews in 1952, that marked the first attempt to theorize the scene (“The painter no longer approached the easel with an image in his mind,” Rosenberg wrote, “he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter . . . what matters always is the revelation contained in the act”).
Greenberg rose to the challenge, responding to Rosenberg’s polemic in the Spring, 1955 pages of Partisan Review with “American-Type Painting,” a celebration of the artists’ formal and technical innovations (“advanced art,” Greenberg asserted, “persists in so far as it tests society’s capacity for high art . . . by testing the limits of the inherited forms and genres, and of the medium itself, and [this] is what the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists, the Fauves, the Cubists, and Mondrian did in their time. If the testing seems more radical in the case of the new American abstract painting, it is because it comes at a later stage”).
Such lofty rhetoric was made possible, in part, by the silence of the artists themselves. Disillusioned with the literalism and base propagandizing of the realist art of the 1930s, many were notoriously reluctant to offer explanation (Pollock’s oft-quoted, somewhat inchoate, “I am Nature,” was his only response to the painter Hans Hofmann’s 1942 query as to whether or not he worked from nature; the phrase itself was first uttered for publication purposes by Pollock’s wife, the painter Lee Krasner, several years after her husband’s sensationalized death in a single-car accident in 1956). However, the political backdrop of Cold War cultural machinations guaranteed that the stakes of critical discourse were high. By the time the survey of Abstract Expressionism organized by the Museum of Modern Art, The New American Painting, made a triumphal tour of Europe as a kind of cultural arm of the economic Marshall Plan c. 1958-1959, art criticism, a discipline rooted, at least in the United States, in more generic forms of journalism, had been entirely transformed. In 1951, the cover of ARTnews had yet to catch up with its innovative interior features. Artforum, a collaboration of idealistic artists and a printing firm looking to showcase their cutting-edge technology, made a bold statement in 1967.
No single journal was more representative of, or instrumental in, this transformation than ARTnews. Originally published as Hyde’s Weekly Art News, it was the first American newspaper devoted exclusively to art when it debuted as a single-sided, one-page “broadsheet” on November 29, 1902. Containing neither critical reviews nor illustrations, this somewhat primitive trade journal gave little indication of the art world powerhouse it would become under the editorial leadership of Thomas B. Hess, 1949-1972. Among his innovations was a series featuring contemporary artists photographed at work in their studios, an approach Hess adapted from the photo-essay format of such popular magazines as Life and Look. The best-known of these is undoubtedly the May, 1951 feature on Jackson Pollock, “Pollock Paints a Picture,” text by painter and critic Robert Goodnough, and illustrated with the iconic photographs of Pollock painting taken by Hans Namuth for Portfolio magazine. Such is the cult status of the essay that it is next-to impossible today to find an unvandalized copy of that issue (the one in NIU’s library collection is no exception)! (“Jackson Pollock Paints a Picture,” by Robert Goodnough. ARTnews, May, 1951.)
Still, the stature assumed by ARTnews as house organ for Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s was supplanted in the 1960s by a younger generation of (largely) academicallytrained critics writing in New York for the West-coast transplant, Artforum. With its obstinately square format and dizzying graphic effects, Artforum quickly became the mustread choice of an increasingly officious and hierarchical art world. Artforum’s contributors uniformly rejected the existentialist poetry of Harold Rosenberg and ARTnews in favor of the logically-positivist formalism associated with Clement Greenberg, better suited, perhaps, to the technologically-driven optimism of the minimalist and conceptualist movements championed by the new magazine. The clash of two Greenberg disciples, Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss, defined the cerebral and principled Artforum approach: after Fried’s 1967 “Art and Objecthood” fingered with disdain the quality of “theatricality” in the new art of minimalism, calling it symptomatic of a debased interdisciplinarity, Krauss’ famous reply, “A View of Modernism” in 1972, declared the bankruptcy of a critical paradigm that, she argued, refused its own logical consequences. (“Art and Objecthood,” by Michael Fried. Artforum, Summer, 1967.)
II. “Without Fear or Favor,” 1973-1979
The art world of the 1970s roiled in the heady brew of optimism and discontent that had buffeted the political milieu for much of the previous decade. Initiatives of the so-called “War on Poverty,” including the Equal Opportunity Act, a host of educational and health care reforms, consumer and environmental protections, and support for the arts and humanities and for public broadcasting, followed closely such legislative achievements as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The success of the civil rights movement and of opposition to U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam fed activism in other areas: attitudes towards sex and recreational drug use were revolutionized; women, Latinos, and gays began to demand their civil rights; rock concerts including Woodstock celebrated the confluence of “peace and music.” Yet this was also a period overshadowed by war, by high-profile assassinations, by controversy over the conduct of the campaign to re-elect President Nixon—and his subsequent resignation—and soon, by a world-wide energy crisis and runaway inflation.
The genealogies of art created and cultivated by curators and critics began to splinter. The dominant paradigm that insisted on seamless transitions from Abstract Expressionism to Post-Painterly Abstraction to Minimalism and Conceptualism was challenged by competing histories of Pop, Neo-Dada, Performance, and New Media. The 1970s would be “pluralist,” not purist—the irony being that it was the ultimate purist, critic Michael Fried, who, despite his efforts to hold back the tide, in fact ushered in the new paradigm with his polemic against theatricality (earthworks artist and theorist Robert Smithson was perhaps the first to point this out, in a letter to the editor of Artforum written in response to Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” essay: “Every refutation is a mirror of the thing it refutes—ad infinitum. . . What Michael Fried attacks is what he is”).
III. Redefining Regionalism, 1980-1992
The 1980s opened with the promise of a much higher national profile for Chicago artists, part of a renewed enthusiasm worldwide for expressionist art. A number of exhibitions explored this phenomenon, including the Whitney Museum of American Art’s New Image Painting and ‘Bad’ Painting at the New Museum, New York, both in 1978. These efforts spurred interest in outsider forms of Expressionism by self-taught or graffiti artists as well, even as critics began to discuss the impact of a European Neo-Expressionism on both the American art market and the work of some younger, conceptually-trained artists. It was in this context that the national (i.e., New York) art magazines “discovered” Chicago in the early 1980s, with essays celebrating America’s Midwest as a land whose bounties included “breathing space” and a refreshing absence of orthodoxy, and with critic Peter Schjeldahl’s casual reference in the Village Voice to the “Chicagoization” of New York. Buoyed by a speculator-driven economic bubble and the spectacular commercial success in May 1984 of the relatively new Chicago International Art Exposition, the Chicago art market was primed for growth. Soon, a clutch of loft-type galleries had sprouted in a former industrial neighborhood north of the Chicago River and west of the city’s Michigan Avenue shopping district. An early themed issue, “Art and the Occult,” November, 1980.
The 1980s opened with tremendous promise for the New Art Examiner as well, as its founding editors Allen and Guthrie struck out for Washington, D.C., to open the magazine’s first satellite office. Many such offices would open in rapid succession— Philadelphia, Richmond, VA, Boston, New York, and eventually come to include the farflung locations of Los Angeles, Houston, and London. The number of regional editors grew exponentially as well, as the magazine fielded contributions from correspondents throughout the country and abroad. Managing editor Michael Bonesteel produced the first thematic issues in 1980 (on art and the occult, and on the emerging punk/new wave scene in Chicago, respectively). Under his successor, Ann Markovich, the “Speakeasy” (in which a “well-known, or not so well-known, art world personality” was invited to contribute an essay on a topic of his or her choice) and “Art Press Review” became regular features.
Following Jane Allen’s appointment as fulltime art critic for the Washington Times in 1982, the position of managing editor took on added authority—wielded for the greater part of a decade by longtime contributor Alice Thorson, assisted at first by Paul Krainak, former director of N.A.M.E. Gallery, and, after 1984, by the art critic Jim Yood.
The NAE shed its tabloid format in October 1984, a nod to both the demands of national distribution and to its more mainstream stature. However, the magazine continued with pride on its historic mission to “instigate and encourage intellectual analysis of art world issues” (editorial, Summer 1985). Among many such examples from this period, a few stand out: the report on “Sandinista Arts” by the politically-engaged muralist and educator John Pitman Weber (October 1985); Jane Allen’s comparison of the new “supercollectors,” including Charles Saatchi, to stockbrokers (June 1986); and Suzi Gablik’s impassioned call for a spiritual “re-enchantment” through the arts (December 1987). Clearly, the return of Expressionism had raised difficult questions about humanism, romanticism, historical progress and even representation itself. As the latter-half of the 1980s took a decidedly theoretical turn, the NAE turned with it. From the New York office, Eleanor Heartney wondered if the success of “Neo-Geo,” or simulationist art at mid-decade was due to its inherently decorative (i.e., decorous) qualities (September 1986); her colleague in the mid-Atlantic office, Grant Kester, cast a similarly skeptical eye on the theories of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (November 1987). But soon Kathryn Hixson was reporting with far greater sympathy on a new group of “simulationists” recently emerged in Chicago (“Cool, Conceptual, Controversial,” May 1988).
In a decade as excessive and, ultimately, as censorious as the 1980s, “instigation” was not always appreciated. Already sizeable, the number of letters to the editor became enormous (pointed exchanges often continued over several issues, providing some of the magazine’s most entertaining reading). Funding from the Illinois Arts Council (on which the magazine had come to rely) was reduced in 1982, leading to a plea for donations in that summer’s issue.
Then, in October 1985, an editorial reproduced two letters from the National Endowment for the Arts for fiscal years 1983-1984 and 1984-1985: the first indicated a recommendation that annual funding for the NAE be reduced because of “inaccurate reporting”; the second recommended no funding at all (on the strength of the observation that the NAE produced “news” rather than criticism and theory). Finally, at the height of the so-called “Culture Wars” that raged between liberal artists and academics, and conservative members of the religious right in the late 1980s, the National Endowment rejected the NAE’s application again in FY1989. Hemorrhaging staff and funds, the NAE retrenched, closing one regional office after another under the careful stewardship of managing director Allison Gamble and acting publisher Howard-Yana Shapiro. In an effort to accommodate the demands of increased distribution and to raise print quality, the NAE went from a tabloid-sized newspaper of 11 x 17 inches to a more standard-sized magazine of 8 x 11 inches in October 1984.
IV. Down and (eventually) Out, 1993-2002
The end of the 1980s was either The End of History (when the Berlin Wall fell) or the end of the line as the art market contracted dramatically—symbolized nowhere more vividly than by the 1989 fire that destroyed the six-story complex of buildings that once housed much of Chicago’s “SuHu” gallery district. The gap between artistic haves and have-nots widened, and, faced with the reality of diminished funding, alternative galleries tried to reorganize on a more corporate model and/or to enhance their relevancy through social action and community outreach. Ultimately, the model provided by the successful rebranding of performance art as theatre (see Jeff Abell’s NAE article of March 1987), led a quartet of entrepreneurial young artists to try and capitalize on the theatricality inherent in the most unabashedly unmarketable art. Their loose coalition of four low-budget galleries—known collectively as Uncomfortable Spaces—opened with great expectations in the early 1990s, all proudly run for-profit (see Michael Bulka, NAE, December 1992). This DIY ethos would reinvent the Chicago art world.
Having come perilously close to bankruptcy in the early 1990s, the NAE found itself in a rebuilding mode as well. Under new editors Ann Wiens and Kathryn Hixson, the magazine became a bit narrower in its partisanship—but also quite a bit deeper. One outward sign of this shift was an increase in the number of themed issues, such as the April 1994 special issue on Beauty, which looked critically at the role of quality in art, at historical ideas about the sublime and the beautiful in painting, at beauty and the representation of women, and at the relationship between the beautiful and the overtly political. Another sign was the several issues focused on art in once marginal locations, including in the new South Africa, in Cuba, and in Eastern Europe. Single issues devoted to “Outsider Art”— a term Wiens contrasted consciously with an older paradigm of “Folk Art”— and to the postmodern condition in arts education (January 1995) and a reconsideration of the work of Marcel Duchamp (March 1995), also pointed towards a more serious engagement with new paradigms. As it turned out, Kathryn Hixson’s appointment as Chief Editor in September 1996 (following Ann Wiens’ decision to devote more time to her studio practice) would make her the last to hold that position in the magazine’s history. Under Hixson, the NAE entered its 25th year visually cleaner and boasting an infusion of cash from the National Endowment for the Arts. Its streamlined and sophisticated mission was exemplified in the December 1996-January 1997 issue by new contributors Polly Ullrich, a studio potter with an M.A. in art history from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and author of an essay exploring the use of tactility in recent art, and critical theorist Maureen Sherlock, whose essay on the efforts of artists to effect political change made a provocative pairing with Ullrich’s.
Where once the magazine had set its sights on making visible the hidden operations of institutional power, it was now equal parts poetry and politics—focused relentlessly on demonstrating the instability of meaning within rapidly transforming social structures. At its most principled, such critical theorizing may seem like nihilism; thus the letter of “apology” from art historian Martha McWilliams published in full in the December 1997-January 1998 issue explaining in vivid terms the author’s inability to write anything “honest and, at the same time, art-critically respectable” about art in New Mexico or Cambodia (two subjects she had proposed to Hixson). Under the banner of such spare yet resonant themes as “Lolita,” “The Comic Impulse,” “Americana,” “Heavy Emotion,” and “Generosity,” the NAE in the late 1990s and early 2000s showcased criticism as self-conscious as the art it referenced. A final relaunch in May-June 2001 pulled out all the stops. Designed by Jason Pickleman, et al, of JNL graphic design, it was bigger, glossier, more colorful, with many, many, pages of advertising (“Congratulations,” wrote Chicago sculptor Dennis Kowalski, “The new format is a definite improvement, even though it’s similar to Artforum”). With exquisite irony, each new issue’s editorial page met its match in a brief excerpt captioned “Ten Years Ago in the New Art Examiner” (a longtime feature) and chosen for its uncanny relevance to the present. The magazine’s last editorial, written for the May-June 2002 issue by senior editor Jan Estep began, “I’ve been thinking about nothing lately. . . ” though it continued in a matter-of-fact tone that betrayed no sense of imminent demise.
A redesign introduces more white space, March, 1996. To the end, the NAE was, indeed, Chicago’s “independent” voice, but that was perhaps a better editorial agenda than it was a business plan. For twenty-nine years the NAE fought the good fight, even—or perhaps especially—with itself. Successive editors shared an impulse to embrace the minority report and contradictory view (more than once the author of a scathing letter to the editor in one issue would appear on the masthead as a contributor to the next). Focused always on enlarging the debate and raising the stakes, the NAE championed new media and overturned old hierarchies. It was, in its own way, Chicago’s art newspaper of record, and thus it seems fair to judge it now by asking not only what difference the magazine made to Chicago, but also, what difference it makes now that it’s gone?
V. Other Criteria
The 1970s witnessed a veritable renaissance in small but feisty art publishing, much of which was based, like the NAE, outside of New York. It even witnessed the rise of some of the first periodicals to focus exclusively on women in the visual arts, including Feminist Art Journal, published 1972-1977. The mainstream also experienced a rebellion from within. At Artforum, contributor Max Kozloff, whose May 1973 essay, “American Painting During the Cold War,” was an opening salvo in a decades-long revisionist project, assumed the position of executive editor in 1975. Objecting to what he described as a “dehydrated formalism that attributes an immaculate autonomy to art,” Kozloff advocated instead a criticism “interested in the world in which art is situated. . . [that] illuminate[s] the dilemmas with which artists and viewers are entangled.” Longtime contributors Rosalind Krauss, Annette Michelson, and Joseph Masheck resigned in protest when Kozloff’s editorial vision emerged in full force in the December 1975 issue. Together with Michelson, a professor of cinema studies, Krauss, whose 1972 “Farewell to Modernism” had announced her own break with ‘dehydrated formalism,’ would found the journal October—the name a reference to the innovative Soviet silent film made in 1927 by Sergei Eisenstein—which aimed to analyze culture with an approach borrowed from structural linguistics. Masheck returned to Artforum when Kozloff left in 1977, to practice his own brand of structuralist criticism as editor from 1977-80.
The 1980s were unquestionably the decade of October, from which emerged a series of ground-breaking essays, many by Krauss herself (“Notes on the Index,” 1977, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” 1979, “Post-Structuralism and the Paraliterary” and “The Originality of the Avant-Garde,” both 1981), in what would soon be recognized as the discourse of postmodernism. With few images and thus a much lower budget, October could and did focus on content. Meanwhile, a reactionary rear-guard of anti-Marxist, anti-feminist, and anti-postmodernist criticism was championed at the New Criterion, co-founded in 1982 by former chief art critic of the New York Times, Hilton Kramer, and the pianist and music critic Samuel Lipman. Editor Ingrid Sischy, who came to Artforum as a relatively inexperienced 27-year-old in 1980, put the magazine back on the map in an image-obsessed era with a new, trashy-glam aesthetic (Sischy left Artforum in 1988 to become editor of Interview magazine).
Globalism was the watchword of several of the most widely-read journals of the 1990s, many of them European. Prominent among these were the Milan-based Flash Art International and London-based Frieze. Also, the bi-monthly international academic journal, Third Text was founded in 1987 to “develop a common platform for those who are positioned as marginal by the dominant culture.” Subsequent frustration with a waning engagement with contemporary art in the pages of October prompted the founding in 2000 of Grey Room, a cross-disciplinary journal of architecture, art, media, and politics.
Well into the new millennium, the relevancy of art criticism has come into question. As James Elkins observed in his 2003 book, What Happened to Art Criticism? the practice is both “massively produced and massively ignored.” In 2008, the genre-bending efforts of author and filmmaker Chris Kraus won her the College Art Association’s Frank Jewett Mather award for art criticism—an example of what many now term the more inclusive, “art-writing.” Online platforms emerge at an extraordinary rate; in Chicago, podcasts like Bad at Sports and the network of websites assembled at chicagoartmagazine.com, are among the most consistent sources of information and critical analysis. “Pee Wee Hermeneutics,” by Glenn O’Brien. Artforum, Summer, 1987.
The internecine politics most closely associated with the New Art Examiner’s history do not begin to account for the magazine’s true significance. Far more important was its expansive notion of what was art in Chicago: its championship of feminist art and new media;
its rehabilitation of the idea of regionalism; and its commitment to leveling traditional hierarchies between art and craft (Janet Koplos guest-edited the first themed issue on textiles in Summer, 1980). In its exploration of the art world’s most enduring binaries—men/women,
centers/regions, traditional art/new media (/outsider, /craft)—the NAE always championed the subordinate term.
The NAE strove to provide a conceptual space beyond market considerations from which artists could act and critics could comment. This was no easy task. Commercial galleries exert their influence on the art press through their advertising dollars. Though the national and regional arts endowments were created to counterbalance this reality, they all too often are beholden to the same interests. Consider, for example, that the explanation offered by the National Endowment for the Arts for defunding the NAE in 1984-1985—that the magazine “reported” rather than criticized or theorized—is not much different from the logic that led the Guggenheim Museum to cancel their Haacke show in 1971. Despite pressure from the Chicago art establishment, the NAE chose not to follow the paradigm set by art criticism in New York (Greenberg and Rosenberg may have disagreed on the details, but both rooted for the local team). This meant the magazine was ideally positioned as the purism of the 1950s-1960s became the pluralism of the 1970s. In New York, fractured allegiances produced the polarities of Max Kozloff’s short-lived neo-Marxist Artforum on the one hand, and Rosalind Krauss’ post-structuralist October on the other. By contrast, the NAE created community by refusing a partisan-line and encouraging discourse, often rancorous, yet always holding out the possibility of future consensus.
Unfortunately, the culture wars of the 1980s left the NAE with limited resources. As Maureen Sherlock observed, in the context of her review of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Art in Chicago, 1945-1995 exhibition, the decision of the Reagan administration to both privatize support for the arts and the insistence that all institutions receiving public support follow standard business practices . . . [was] the death knell for more spontaneous . . . responses to the issues of the day [and] led to a vast system of both internal and external institutional censorship (February 1997).
The chilling effect of privatization is perhaps behind the coded, highly aestheticized language that the NAE spoke in its last incarnation. The magazine’s failure in 2002, however, did not make unreflective boosterism a viable alternative. If art matters, then we need a place to say how and in what ways. And if it doesn’t matter, we need a place to say that, too. This publication was produced in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name presented at the NIU Art Museum from November 29, 2011 through March 10, 2012.
The exhibitions and programs of the NIU Art Museum are sponsored in part by the Illinois Arts Council, the Friends of the NIU Art Museum and the Arts Fund 21. Additional funds for this publication and project came from the Art History Division of the NIU School of Art.
Copyright © 2011 By the Northern Illinois University Art Museum and Barbara Jaffee.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without prior permission from the Museum or Author. Curator and Essayist: Barbara Jaffee, Associate Professor, Art History Division, NIU Designer: Sophia Varcados, Media Services, NIU Printer: Document Services, NIU Printed in DeKalb, Illinois Northern Illinois University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action institution and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, marital status, national origin, disability, status based on the Victims’ Economic Security and Safety Act (VESSA) or status as a disabled or Vietnam-era veteran. Further, the Constitution and Bylaws of Northern Illinois University provides for equal treatment regardless of political views or affiliation, and sexual orientation.
NIU Art Museum November 29, 2011 – March 10, 2012The New Art Examiner:
CHICAGO’S “INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS” 1973-2002 Northern Illinois University
Northern Illinois University Art Museum, DeKalb, Illinois
November 29, 2011 – March 10, 2012
Exhibition Essay and Curation:
Associate Professor, Art History Division, Northern Illinois University