Sue Bitney was a Northern California artist who’s work was generally classified as “funk”. Her work became quite popular in Europe, and Kurt von Meier contributed a commentary about her art for a 1967 catalog produced by Studio Marconi, in Milan, Italy. In his commentary, he wryly notes “In general, funky art wasn't nice. So all the nice-nice people around San Francisco who use art as a convenient commodity with which to shore up their own social and cultural pretensions tended to turn their backs. Somehow funk art just didn't look right in the marble museum halls of Mammon's minions.” A thank-you note from Sue to Kurt is included in this posting.
Kurt’s time teaching in at the Elam School of Fine Arts in New Zealand was a mixed experience. On the one hand he enjoyed a measure of celebrity as an American art historian, but on the other, New Zealand’s cultural scene in the early 1960s was not terribly appealing. In this lengthy article, he writes, “New Zealanders prefer to import most of their cultural pretensions tinned or pickled, ready to serve, and the feast on a season's fare courts an aesthetic ulcer annihilating all future appetite...the popular level of aesthetic taste ascends to the heights reached by Sunday school pictures or gazelles sand-blasted in the front door glass.”
Nonetheless, Kurt established relationships with the island’s young, upcoming artists (and today, accomplished), and found plenty to enjoy: “In contrast to this, however, are the bright prospects of a new movement in the fine arts. Its youth and impertinence both serve as motivating forces and protective devices.” An opportunity to hone his skills in writing art criticism, this essay presages his later work for Art International and Artforum magazines.
Many of us today have experienced New Zealand as the spectacular setting for Hollywood movies. Kurt spent two years teaching at the University of Auckland in New Zealand in the early 1960s, and it left an indelible impression on him. He continued to follow "The Blacks" rugby team for the rest of his life. His two years were not without controversy, however; his newspaper article criticizing the new fine arts building at the University's Elam School of Fine Arts made him enemies, and he returned to the United States where he taught for one year at Princeton before moving on to UCLA. This article, prepared for a talk he gave while in New Zealand, probably raised a few eyebrows as well. Kurt takes it upon himself to make a series of critical suggestions to insure that New Zealand's native Maori art remains accessible and ways to insure that New Zealand's art history program develops properly as an academic discipline.
Here's a short, hand-written essay by Kurt which appears to have been drafted while in attendance at or not long after his graduation from Princeton University. As such, it's as an early gesture in his direction of art criticism, an activity which would occupy his talents as an art historian in various publications for the rest of the decade. His theme anticipates the thrust of his later, more sophisticated, articles-- he writes, "...in approaching the 20th century, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out works of art as “masterpieces”...New standards of selection should be introduced which enable us to consider the complete oeuvre of a painter as an entity." No typewritten version of this essay has been found in his archives.
In 1969 Kurt published an interview with sculptor De Wain Valentine in Artforum magazine, and prepared a longer article with commentary about Valentine for Art International magazine. That latter article never went to print, but a copy of Kurt's commentary remained in his article files. Kurt, naturally, explores more than Valentine's work; "...with the refinements and sophistication of art historical thinking, particularly within the last half century or so, in some ways we are better able to explain aesthetic ideas and stylistic elements in terms of traditions within the fine arts. At the same time, however, the ground seems to be slipping out from under our feet."
The grand exhibition of sculpture of the sixties assembled by Maurice Tuchman at the LA County Museum of Art in 1967 earned an equally grand essay by Kurt in the Summer, 1967 edition of Art International magazine. Predictably, Kurt combined admiration for the effort with criticism of the outcome. "Tuchman's sculpture show probably will be the most important project of its kind in the country because of the number and scope of problems it raises." Those problems, Kurt wrote, include "...the pompous inadequacy of the Museum's architecture. The anti-human, neo-authoritarian flavor of the exterior intimidates even the largest of works. Maybe the only way to get even would have been to install a Boeing 727 in place of the silly little fountain out front...."
Artist Michael Morris (1942-) took up residence in Vancouver, Canada after emigrating from England. Kurt recognized his talent, favorably mentioned his work in his December, 1967 Los Angeles Letter in Art International magazine, and in 1969 Kurt penned this critical essay about Morris' work. Published in Artscanada (August, 1969), it's among the last of Kurt's published art criticism essays. After he left Los Angeles in late 1969 and moved to the Napa Valley, Kurt largely abandoned writing for art magazines. It is an informative and engaging essay about an intriguing artist, and after all these years deserves to once again see the light of day.
This article from 1968 was published in the pages of artscanada, a magazine in which Kurt frequently appeared. He explores the events and figures leading up to what he terms a "revolution of Popular art" wherein past distinctions, categories and criticism no longer apply. "A more finely-focused view discovers that neither is there any longer a precise sense of differentiation between the various "media" within the realm of fine arts. Nor, in terms of a much more general view, have the clear-cut separations between art and life been able to function with quite the same surety as they did, say, before the beginning of the century."
As an art historian and writer of critical essays, Kurt found himself challenged by the inadequacy of past conceptions of the methodology of art criticism. "...the truly relevant and exciting art of the "recent present" can no longer be contained by the exclusive concept of precious-object-in-a-scarcity-economy. Nor is it any longer possible to make sense writing about art as a commodity," he offers, adding "Attempting to understand even some of the most basic postulates of contemporary art with a mentality conditioned by exclusively pre-1960s experience is like trying to repair a computer with hammer and nails and a roll of bailing wire." This essay is from the Christmas 1967 edition of Art International.
The changing nature--and place--of art in America is the subject of this article by Kurt which appeared in the April, 1967 edition of Art International magazine. "...it comes as no surprise," writes Kurt, "that our attention and energies are shifting from painting (associated with our visual, literate, mechanical world) to sculpture, music and architecture (associated with the tactile and auditory modes of total, instantaneous perception characteristic of our electric/electronic age)." He sees this McLuhanesque shift in the work of sculptor Carl Andre, with whom he begins his essay, but then moves on to matters of art theory and the work of Iain Baxter.
These "working notes" from 1994 include Kurt's thoughts about the disciplines of aesthetics and criticism, and what students need to master in order to prevent such disciplines from becoming merely subjective exercise. He writes, "It is misleading to think of senses as clear-cut subdivisions of our psyche, however practical & useful for analytical purposes. This warns us about taking our modes of analysis to be characteristics of that which we are supposed to be examining." He goes on to include a lengthy list of published resources attendant to the topic. A earlier variation of these notes is also available, for the same class in 1993.
In this short essay, a book report if you will, Kurt writes about casting the I Ching and two books on his work table at that time, Kenneth Rexroth's More Classics Revisited and Wendy Steiner's The Scandal of Pleasure: Art in an Age of Fundamentalism. He gathers his comments together under the umbrella of "unity and alienation," a recurrent theme in his writing and teaching, and a set of feelings that spurred his personal interest in esoteric practice.
In his article for the October, 1967 edition of Art International, Kurt begins with lyrics by singer Chuck Berry and then proceeds to critique the "spray painting" work of Jules Olitski, and the catalog text accompanying an exhibition of Olitski's work. "Since an ambitious case has been made for Olitski in the history of color handling and spray techniques, it is worth pointing out that he wasn't that early, nor has he proven to be that influential. It may also be that he just isn't that good." Kurt then goes on to discuss an exhibition of works by Roy Lichtenstein; "One of the strongest formal motivations for the so-called comic-book style, is its great sense of immediacy and total impact."
"Perhaps we need a radical approach to history now, at this time, to make some sense where other worn-out and irrelevant historical approaches manifestly fail." So Kurt von Meier begins his exploration of the "inter-realm" between painting and sculpture. "The more we begin to challenge our own simple-minded propensity to file away works of art into one or another air-tight category, in practice the more we tend to discover about values and meanings the work might contain." This essay, which appeared in the March, 1968 edition of Art International magazine, was a feature article, as opposed to his regular Letter from Los Angeles.
In this article for Art International, Kurt von Meier reviews an exhibition of the paintings of Henri Matisse at UCLA in 1966, and covers the exhibitions at a range of galleries in the Los Angeles area. He also makes note of the impact of public opinion on exhibitions, stating, "There appears to be a slow but distinct shift in the function and status of professional people in the world of art. Directors, curators, installers, art historians and critics are all having their positions modified, for better or worse, by the expanding power and influence of the patron and, in both the good and the bad sense of the term, the dilettante."
Kurt's 1991, 500,000 word masterwork about a sculpture by Marcel Duchamp (edited down to a mere 350,000 words by Clifford Barney) required a life-time of study and three years to write; it was not published (online) until 1997. This document from 1991 presents the preliminary working title of the book (later changed), and in typical fashion examines the words and structure of the proposed title itself. It also anticipates and encourages the concept of hyperlinked books and resources online, of which this website is a current example.
The May, 1966 edition of Art International contained another of Kurt's "Letters from Los Angeles," in which he explores the growing influence of Los Angeles on America's fine art scene. In discussing the landscape paintings of artist Alan D'Arcangelo, Kurt notes, "Any traditional landscape image could now be made to look perhaps more natural for Americans by running a four- or six-lane divided highway down its middle." His criticism of the Los Angeles Museum of Art is more pointed: "...unless the entire structure and outlook of the Museum's non-professional directors and controllers change radically, it will become just another house of death-of-the-spirit and archive of pretty things."
This article published in the May, 1966 edition of Artforum, reviews an exhibition at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX. The works in the exhibition were created by six artists, all chosen by the contemporary composer Morton Feldman. It's a straight-forward critique touching on the subject of Abstract Expressionism: "The Abstract Expressionist artists," says Kurt, "were sort of like heroic rats, trying to fight their way out of the maze of Fine Art.
The Peace Tower created in 1966 in Los Angeles, the collaboration of over 300 artists opposed to an escalation of the Vietnam war, is the lead subject of Kurt's article from April, 1966 in Art International magazine. "When art is removed from the irrelevant sanctity of the gilt frame, the anaesthetic atmosphere of the academy, or the marble museum's hallowed halls of death, and is set down in the middle of life, it is inevitably more vulnerable to destruction than are all the visual atrocities found so tolerable by the vulgar," states Kurt, and he goes on to explore "the interpenetration of Art and Life."
In this article for Art International magazine from December 1966, Kurt critiques and widely praises the work of sculptor Harold Paris and a wide range of sculptors working in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. It was, in fact, at the opening of an exhibition of Harold Paris' work that Kurt staged a "happening" at UCLA, featuring five rock bands (including Frank Zappa) and light shows, all taking place simultaneously and generating considerable press attention.