Philip Leider, the editor-in-chief of Artforum from 1962 to 1971, was reading Rolling Stone. Artforum had by then relocated from California, saturated with high-gloss finish and Plexiglas, to a new position within the more established New York scene. But San Francisco was quaking with activity, the countercultural epicenter as it was, and Leider drew inspiration from the frenetic energy of the art in production there, the “movement,” the spirit of political activism, and the youthful, stylized coverage chronicling it. Taken in by this style of journalistic narrative, he sought—intentionally or not—to expand the horizon on visual art coverage the way Rolling Stone was pushing the boundaries of music journalism.
“I so badly wanted that element,” said Leider in an interview with art historian Thomas Crow, “That quality, that hip, lively quality.”
So in the summer of 1970, traveling with artist Richard Serra, Philip Leider undertook to write perhaps the first work of gonzo art criticism. Published in Artforum‘s September 1970 issue as “How I Spent My Summer Vacation….Or, Art and Politics in Nevada, Berkeley, San Francisco and Utah,” it recounts Leider’s journey to Michael Heizer’s Double Negative earthwork in Moapa Valley, Nevada, travels to Canyon in Berkeley, to San Francisco, and finally to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake. Emulating the long-form narrative of Rolling Stone journalist Michael Lydon, it flips between conversation, quotation, observation, and internal monologue.
The result is a scattered, diaristic account more concerned with the work’s visceral imprint than initiating a critical examination. Yet Leider nevertheless succeeds in recreating a brief flash of zeitgeist long expired, contextualizing the negative space in which these pieces existed. Doing so preserves not the sight, but the way of seeing, the way a person growing up among the devastation of World War II and the disillusionment of the Vietnam War might respond to the monumentality of a mesa with a man-made trench.
It was the first of its kind for Leider, and the last. Rather than becoming a new manifesto for art criticism, historian Glenn Adamson cites “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” as Leider’s goodbye letter to Artforum. He soon retired in 1971 and moved back west, leaving a question his piece inadvertently posed—is there room for Gonzo in art criticism?—to hang in the air.
As Thomas Crow wrote, in the 50th Anniversary issue of Artforum, “Gonzo art criticism remains, to this day, an unfulfilled promise.”
Continue reading » what are GONZOs, p2
This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.