Ted Coe, James Speyer, and Wayne Thibaud discuss art exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago
BROADCAST: Apr. 26, 1965 | DURATION: 00:57:12
Interviewing Ted Coe, James Speyer, and Wayne Thibaud : Jurors of the 1965 Art Institute Show. They discuss art exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, visual arts, and art critics.
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Studs Terkel The 68th Annual Exhibition of Artists of Chicago Vicinity opened April 30th at the institute, Art Institute, and runs through the month, through most of the month, through May 23rd, and a couple of the jurors are here. The choices are most fascinating, too, I understand and that very few known celebrated Chicago artists are among the winners, and of course, this always raises a point, the point of a controversy today concerning art of today and traditional art, and people wonder about standards, and we have, we're fortunate to have with us the curator of modern art, the man responsible for the exhibition, in Jim Speyer, you may recall his marvelous -- The Corbusier one was yours, wasn't it?
Jim Speyer Yes.
Studs Terkel Peter Blake was in town to talk with you about it at the time and two of the jurors are here. One is Ralph "Ted" Coe, who is the director of the William Rockhill Nelson Museum of Art, isn't it, William Rockhill Nelson?
Studs Terkel And Wayne Thiebaud, who is a popular artist, celebrated artist on the West Coast, teaches at the Davis branch of the University of California. Where do we begin with this? Suppose we begin aside -- How -- What might be good is the criteria in choosing the winners. What do you -- This might be a good way to start. It's an elementary question.
Jim Speyer Well, I think the thing that should be emphasized is that the Art Institute does not itself choose the entrants in this exhibition and we have 12 to 15 hundred and sometimes 2,000 works submitted, and these are chosen by a jury, which in turn I do select with my director. We, we at the Art Institute, the staff of the Art Institute, get together in the choice of the jury, and the jury go through all of the work very exhaustively and several times back and forth. And once the exhibition is chosen, then the work is installed, and the jury comes back to judge and give prizes. And the reason we have them come back is because we feel that the exhibition offers itself in a way that the jury -- Well, offers itself in a way that the jury can really use to determine the best work. Whereas if they chose it in the shipping rooms of the Art Institute or in hallways where it was not properly displayed, they couldn't award the prizes as well. But the jury, and two of them, the two of these are here, are responsible. And if we have a chance I will tell you what happened to some of the others.
Jim Speyer Well, you know we had five jurors picked. And in addition to Wayne Thiebaud, and Ted Coe, and and Elmer Bischoff, who couldn't come this afternoon because he had to fly back to California, we had Larry Rivers and Elmer Higgens. And Elmer Higgens, in the beginning, when the exhibition was first chosen, wasn't here on the morning that we were ready to start to work and I called the hotel. He hadn't checked in. So I called Philadelphia, where he came from or comes from, and he answered the telephone and he said that he couldn't come. He had never called. We never heard that he wasn't coming. But it seems that his wife committed suicide a number of months ago and he was left with a housekeeper and a baby. The housekeeper quit the night before and this is his story. He simply could not come. So we were four jurors. On this prize award this morning, the three jurors arrived--Bischoff, Thiebaud, and Coe--and when Larry Rivers didn't come, I called up the hotel. He was not there, the same thing went through again, I called New York, Larry answered the phone and said, "Oh, I can't come," you know. Not that they bothered to telephone. And Larry stated that he had had a plane wreck in a private plane last Friday and was so emotionally disturbed that he simply couldn't travel. So we had only three jurors to award the prizes, which is unfortunate from one point of view, on the other, I think the three were perfectly --
Studs Terkel It's good in a way and that puts the burden of proof upon them, or not burden of proof, burden of explanation, you know, in case there is controversy about it, there, that can't be the shifting of the buck, is that right?
Ralph "Ted" Coe This seems to be the year for jury defections as we, we've gotten into this. I had exactly the same experience with a similar show that I chairmanned in Kansas City, Missouri at the Nelson Gallery. I had an absolutely top-flight curator from the East Coast who had agreed to come out, and first of all, he insisted on changing around the jury schedule, and to accommodate him, although I didn't really think it was necessary, we did accommodate him and we changed the whole thing around for him. And on the day of the jury he just sent me a telegram saying he wasn't coming. So if this juror wants to get a loan of a painting from the Nelson Gallery for a show, he'd better think twice, that's all I've got to say.
Studs Terkel Tell us about "The Irresponsible Arts"--let's name a book here--perhaps we can quote from that in a moment, and in the form of, not challenges to our guests, but provocative questions that William Snaith, who wrote this book, asks. Here are some of the questions: What are the criteria? What standards are used? What do you seek in judging which of the paintings are the prize-winners, which are the work?
Ralph "Ted" Coe If you put it that simply, we just say this, a standard of excellence. 'Cause you ask us, you know, a question that's got a big curve. So we just have to answer with a big generality, but actually, Wayne, it goes much further than that, you divide down way beyond that.
Studs Terkel Wayne?
Ralph "Ted" Coe I think the dogs go out easy. I think that's, you start with the lower end and an amateur painting's an amateur painting, and is just going to have to go out, and you eliminate, don't you?
Wayne Thiebaud I think we invent a lot of phrases and lots of terms, lots of standards of rational premises that we work out of all the time, but it occurs to me more and more that what you're really responding to, more than anything else, is a kind of gut reaction, you know, how it suddenly feels for you as a picture, as a thing, in terms of its visual power or whatever. So on. And then I think after that, after you're affected strongly, you are able to get your gumption together and get some sort of explanation which logically tries to sketch out what it is and why you selected it, and then it usually bases itself more or less on a kind of historical evolution of aesthetic. You say, well this is in the tradition of a painter and because of that it's a relatively good painting, and what you're really saying is that what he, what he has intended to do he has done or not done in a certain way, with a certain style, with a certain kind of aptness.
Studs Terkel The reason I ask this question is, it concerned music, a certain hoax was pulled by the BBC recently and mentioned in this book and it was part of a conversation that will be heard on this station forthcoming dealing with music at BBC. One of the members of the music department, Hans Keller, in trying to make a point that there's hardly a difference between a non-work and a bad work. He and his colleague just beat some drums together without any particular purpose. They invented electronic tape. It wasn't, they just whistled at them, and then they offered it on BBC and there were all sorts of reactions to it. It was in a program with Webern and with another avant-garde man, Boulez or someone like that, and some musicians liked it and some of the critics panned it as a bad work. And the big point Keller was making is, it is a non-work, you see, and this is, but we said it's a bad work, he says that's not the point, it's a non-work. Now, does this often arise in the visual arts, this particular controversy?
Ralph "Ted" Coe We had one in this local show in Kansas City, regional show that we really haven't even quite put up yet. We're in the process of hanging it, it's some of the way you do it, we take several weeks to get it up, and we have on the museum staff a workman who's an excellent maker of furniture and he put his own palette into the exhibition with a frame around it, a beautifully made frame. And I don't think he was trying to make a point. I think he really just wanted to see what would happen. It was not intended to be, you know, a hoax as such. And I noticed that the picture got into the first pile, the first go-around, the preliminary run-off it got into a hold pile, but when they went through it, you know, four or five times after that, really, and the second time around it went out just as being bad. And we never explained to the jury a thing about it, it just went out on its own merits.
Wayne Thiebaud All that proves, all that proves is that it's, that art is still an open situation. That's all that a hoax proves, that you can pull a hoax in a discipline means that that discipline is willing still not to have made up its mind, which makes, you know, is the standard of freedom in the arts.
Studs Terkel Well, but the point raised by Snaith in this book and by the BBC man Keller, was the fact that these hoaxes today are more frequent, that is, that the kind of hoax he pulled could not have been pulled in the time of a Mozart, and I'm wondering if in visual arts this isn't so. The kind of hoax that may be pulled today could not have been pulled in the time of another century.
Wayne Thiebaud I think this a sign that we're much healthier in that sense and one from one standpoint. Whenever you lose, whenever you lose something in the arts, you also gain something. When you lose the standard of excellence which is based upon a very narrow tradition, then you gain something else, you gain a kind of freedom and an exploding number of possibilities. And this by the nature of its action eliminates the, perhaps, high echelon of excellence in one area, but it broadens the field so that more possibilities are proliferating.
Studs Terkel Could I raise this -- Pardon me, can I raise this point of the artist's responsibility? This is all -- What is the responsibility of an artist, and our friend, Mr. Snaith here, who is, can be your gadfly, says "The artist in his abandonment of human experience," prior to this he says we have become sort of dehumanized, he says, "in his abandonment of human experience as a motivation has come to rely heavily on technique."
Jim Speyer Well, he's intellectually sloppy, because he's saying, in a sense, that the artist is, if he's irresponsible, then he wouldn't, it would naturally follow that he would also be nihilistic, cynical, non-active, and finally to follow that through, he would not be operating, but instead of that the artist takes a moral, very moral position in the sense that he says, "Look something is worth doing. And however I do it, in whatever intensity I do, this is what I put my reputation and my own moral obligation on the block for," and this is responsible, this is a responsible action.
Wayne Thiebaud The important thing for an artist to do is to have an idea, and if the artist has the idea, and we hope he has the means to implement the idea, he has a good chance of creating a work of art.
Ralph "Ted" Coe But I don't think that he himself has to be a moralist. I worry, I worry about art critics that are trying to find sort of messages in works of art everywhere they go. You know, a painting's a painting, dog-gone it --
Ralph "Ted" Coe
Jim Speyer No, the morality I'm referring to has to do essentially with the idea that art itself is a moral action. In other words, that the idea that you take the, you take on the challenge of art which is already in itself a kind of built-in responsibleness because, you know, the idea is to make something, to spend time on it, to make it as good as you can, keep making it until you make it better and better. Which is in a sense a kind of moral action not from the sense of any kind of moral didactic, probably --
Studs Terkel No, it's not a question of message with capital M, but isn't this something the artist himself has to, something he wants to say. He has a statement to make, does he not? I mean, this sounds like a --
Jim Speyer It isn't a didactic statement. It's something he feels, it's something -- He doesn't have to be able to say it, he doesn't have to be able to articulate it in words, he's implementing it by his particular means of sculpture or painting or graphic work.
Wayne Thiebaud See, maybe you can face it this way, the artist can work for all kinds of, some of the most terrible reasons in the world, you can work because you want to paint a girl because you want to sleep with her, or you can paint a girl because you really want to, trying to find the beautiful girl ideal.
Wayne Thiebaud You can approach it from the standpoint of an absolutely negative point of view. It absolutely -- You know, it doesn't matter in the sense that the artist's position of what motivated him, the fact is he is motivated, and then you move into another category of art whatever that is, and we still don't know, where he places his article or his externalization of himself in reference to all other art products and this is what he makes. This is when he becomes moral in the sense that he's trying to make it as good as he can make it.
Studs Terkel What does matter does not -- The element now of communication. If we can just use this jumping-off point as something else now. The matter of, where does the responsibility of an artist end? I realize he is making his own particular comment, no matter what that purpose might be, a motive might be that's his. Now we come to communication, the element of incomprehensibility might enter the picture here.
Wayne Thiebaud The trouble with the idea of communication in the sense that it's used so frequently is that the artist is already beaten to death. He's already got, you know, he can't win. Because Madison Avenue can out-communicate the artist on a one-to-one basis without him even having a chance. In other words, like "Buy Beans" means you can do that with a very straight, direct kind of process. But when you walk in to see a Corot, small Corot painting, it doesn't communicate in the sense of that at all. It's a kind of strange and very complex multiplicity of possibilities which depends all of a sudden on both the communicant and the communiquee, and both of those are responsible to that painting in the sense of what it does in a very wide broad sense. And so there, so you finally get the point of, well what does Corot communicate? You know, and then it can be everything or nothing.
Jim Speyer Well, don't you think it's really a matter in painting, in looking at painting or sculpture, of becoming involved? The artist is capable of involving the spectator and the spectator has to keep looking. It's not a matter of immediate realization. I think one looks and looks, and the more one looks, the more one sees, in something which is really worthwhile. I think that bad painting you don't look very long, any of us can judge a bad painting like that, you know, very quickly, but --
Wayne Thiebaud Because it's like Jim says, that if it can be communicated too much, then we already have a suspicion it is sort of dull, it's too predictable. But when you say "Hamlet", and you say "What does he communicate? What is Shakespeare communicating?" everybody says, well you know, we don't know yet. We still don't know. He does, what he, what you do get in a literature class is so damn dull we don't care anymore.
Jim Speyer Just
Ralph "Ted" Coe as a painting can. Goya once said that "Time, too, is a painter." I think that each generation reinterprets these things in different ways. In 1947, people thought about the late Monet in a rather negative way, and in 1965, we think the late Monet is very beautiful. These things change. And it is all relative. So I think the painter has to be left alone to a certain degree. I remember when Richard Diebenkorn was on our jury in Kansas City and he got into an argument with a person, an art critic, who is no longer with us in Kansas City who I think was totally irresponsible, and didn't like many of what we would consider to be the more creative aspects of modern painting, and he attacked Diebenkorn unmercifully during the whole evening. Finally, Diebenkorn turned around and said to him, "I basically paint for my own values." I'm not, I can't quote him directly, but it was something like this. "And I do not have a responsibility to the whole public. But you do, and you'd better learn something." I think that was a real --
Ralph "Ted" Coe To the public beyond a certain point. In other words, the public can take out of his paintings what they want to. He's a painter, but a person who is interpreting them, the critic, he does have a responsibility in writing.
Studs Terkel But doesn't the artist have, I'm coming back to the artist again, Diebenkorn or anyone else, doesn't he have a -- I don't mean a moral, I don't mean now a moral responsibility, an aesthetic responsibility.
Wayne Thiebaud It's
Wayne Thiebaud You either believe in a kind of collective self or collective unconscious or a self as a -- You know, the self is such an abstract word, is like the word "nothing," or the word "something," it's just, you know, it's just a, you had a school of thought that said, well, the self is just a collection of everything he's ever been. So you say responsibleness to the self means a responsibility to everything I know, see? Or you could say no, it's really a distinct self which has some sort of even supernatural intervention in the sense that he's gifted or something very special and no one understands and therefore is in an isolated position. Those are both extreme positions, but when you say responsibility to self, you're not saying which of that you mean, see, which you're referring to.
Studs Terkel Coming to the matter that, no man, I'm assuming the artist, Diebenkorn, you, any other artist says, "I've got something to say and I want to say this as well as I can." He knows in his mind what he's saying, it's quite clear to him.
Wayne Thiebaud No.
Jim Speyer No.
Jim Speyer And you know, the best artists I know don't try to talk about what they're doing. They can't. To the degree that they're commercially oriented, to the degree that they're trying to push themselves, they write articles, they write legends, which are like books, and this is all terribly tedious. You know, I think that when you talked about criteria before, one of the criteria which is the most important is for any of us who have the sophistication of having looked at art a great deal to feel that something is serious, because to the degree that we realize that it is not serious, we cancel it out. You know, the minute I see something that I feel is not serious, something which is either too slick, something which is pretending to be something it isn't, something which is outright plagiarism, something which is playful rather than really hard work, I just discount it. This is a personal idea. Don't you feel that way to some degree? I just think being unserious is the end in art. You've got to be dead serious. I don't mean by that that you can't have humor. Steinberg, for example, Saul Steinberg is, we were talking about him at lunch, he's a caricaturist but he transcends caricature at times, and he's terribly funny, you know. There are others.
Studs Terkel Now, I was thinking of the audience, again that's a bad word to use, that's because the audience is a combination of many individuals, but we're told, this again the comment of critics of what has happened today is that the irresponsibility of the artist as in certain cool jazzman now and then turning their back to the audie-- this happened in the field of jazz, in which I am better acquainted. The cool jazz guys who are playing for themselves. The audience have difficult times, in other words, didn't hear them at all, and some of the traditional jazz men was trying to tell the younger men, "Look, what you're doing must have an element of communication in that sense. Somebody else must hear." And so with the visual arts. I'm not talking now about Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, "I know what I like." I'm talking now about people who really are involved aesthetically and want very much to understand what is being said. What is their criteria? What is it that would move them? What does the artist say to them?
Wayne Thiebaud Well, looking, probably, mainly if it's a visual art, you have to look at a great amount of, you know, you develop some visual sophistication like you develop any kind of sophistication. You learn to look variously and with insight, with -- You look at complexity to understand subtlety, to know when something looks easy and is really hard, all those sort of brutally complex relationships of tightrope walking, to understand the notion of the artist's willingness to take chances. As Jim points out, to know when someone attempts to carry a painting all the way to black or white or whether it's Rembrandt or Ad Reinhardt, it's essentially the same kind of daring, the same kind of pleasure of looking at the artist in his trouble, in kind of anxious position and the ability to be brave. That's one, the other is -- Has to do with the problems that in the same way the art of the problem that the artist may set in the way in which he may solve them or not solve them or in some cases even the kind of glorious failures. You know? There are others, only it's just sort of lengthy, but anybody -- I mean, the point is that there's a real, there is a real visual feast available to anyone who wants to take it, the banquet is there, all you have to do is develop the appetites.
Ralph "Ted" Coe Studs, let me get at something here about the other side of it. The, you ask what the person should bring to the work of art. You are what you know. And I've had this experience with working with young people in Kansas City. There simply aren't enough collections there for them to really get a criteria. And it's amazing to see them, these younger group we work with, see them grow visually. We've taken them to St. Louis to see some of the great private collections there. Last spring we took them to Chicago, where people were very gracious, and they would walk into a great living room here in Chicago and see superb paintings, a Van Gogh, and they'd come back to Kansas City and say, "Why didn't Daddy do that?" The awakening, that there are possibilities, that they could actually have lived with these things. The next year they're much more liberal. Each year they get more interested in buying things themselves. They started really basically with practically nothing. And at what point they should really be accepted as judges of art, that's a relative thing, too. So that's why I think the artist has to be left something alone on this because any one of these young people could have judged let's say Wayne Thiebaud to any point. And finally after two exposures, two visits to collections in other cities, one of them bought one of Wayne's paintings. And I think that this exposure thing that did it, now they love this.
Studs Terkel Taste itself developed. Ruth Draper's comment way back, I think, probably is quite appropriate here. She merely offers a suggestion as the audience must itself offer something, she makes the audience come alive, that is, she will not draw them a diagram when she offers a vignette, rather they themselves must as you say --
Jim Speyer Well, the really, the only work they have to do at its most primitive level at this at the beginning at the simplest point, is to look, and if they keep looking, and for example, people in Chicago have every means to look in the Art Institute of Chicago and in private collections, private galleries too, those who are luckier, than go to the private collections, everyone can go to the galleries. But if they look enough they are going to expand their repertoire, their repertory of knowledge just as my colleagues here were talking, and I think that it's a very naive and reprehensible idea that many of the public, the uninformed public, and by the uninformed I mean the people who don't look enough to inform themselves have, namely that they are experiencing a hoax in something of contemporary art which they do not in italics understand. I think that this is what I meant by seriousness, that I simply don't believe in an artist who is not serious. Therefore, I know that any artist in whom I believe is to the best of my knowledge not perpetrating a hoax. And I had a great problem with this in Ad Rheinhardt to whom you referred a minute ago, Wayne, in one of our American exhibitions a couple of years ago, he won the first prize, or not the first prize, one of the main prizes, with a painting which everyone called "Black", which of course was not black at all, but everyone picked it up. All the sensationalists and the newspapers and individual cranks and all claimed that they were being kidded because they weren't being kidded. He was dead serious. He's trying to do something which they simply didn't look at.
Ralph "Ted" Coe You've got sort of two sets of approach to this sort of thing. You've got the person that is confronted by something that is new, completely new to his experience, let's say, and he says, "That's new to me. I'm a little bit worried about it. I can't explain it. It worries me. It bothers me, it antagonizes me, and I really hate it." And if you get the person to that to hating the work of art, you really almost lost him. If instead they would ask themselves, "I don't understand it. What is it? What does it mean? Where can I find out about it? I mean to be exposed to it. I can understand it somewhat. Maybe I'll like it. I do like it." That is a positive approach.
Studs Terkel The point that Ted just raised. Something is happening to the audience though I find a little sad. People are afraid to say, you know, afraid to say, "I don't understand it. I'd like to."
Wayne Thiebaud But both of those are the same attitude. Calling it a hoax and not saying something about it or exactly the same attitude, that is to say in a contemporary sense of existential kind of preoccupation, everybody is in the last analysis responsible for their reactions. And we all listen to these stories about Vietnam and we make up our mind theoretically, or the alternative to that is to trust the leaders.
Wayne Thiebaud But you do confront the issue, it seems to me, in any kind of activity that we're all responsible for on the basis of the language of the discipline you're entering if you're going to confront the issue of Vietnam you're supposed to read about it, and you have to know some instances of history, some notion about the political confrontation going on and so on and so forth. In painting, the obvious irresponsible attitude is one, not saying about it or to say it must be all right because it's in there, or to say it's a hoax, and all three of those are exactly the same kind of irresponsible reaction.
Ralph "Ted" Coe We had an incredible thing happen in Kansas City last year. Since William Rockhill Nelson in his will specifically stipulated that his funds, which are fairly large, cannot be used unless the artist has been dead for 30 years, I mean as far as purchase goes, we have to rely, very graciously for the most part, on our membership group to subscribe up to $25,000 a year for purchases. And we had Mark Rothko, we contacted him personally and he sent out two paintings to Kansas City for purchase, and the paintings were just plain not understood although they are very tranquil. One of these late Rothkos was at stake and they are rather dark paintings, they're rather Rembrandtesque in their fatalism and their tranquility. And these very tranquil paintings were treated like, you know, screaming hoaxes. And one of the more prominent Kansas Citians got caught up in the audience and just damned these pictures top to bottom and I found out the next day that he had never heard of Mark Rothko, didn't know anything about it whatsoever, but he had presumed --
Ralph "Ted" Coe He had had a chance to see the painting, it was at the gallery before the evening purchase meeting. My ambition is to get his wife to buy a Rothko painting and put it in his house. And I think it's going to work. She's going to buy one.
Studs Terkel And I think it's something that Wayne said a moment ago that hits me, he mentioned Vietnam and painting, and this matter of silence and acceptance. I raise this now just as a layman. You know, the silence and acceptance is something that is laid down. I know that a charge often is raised about contemporary art, that mandarins set the style, a certain elite, you know.
Studs Terkel Yeah. And it's accepted and people are afraid to say, "No, I don't quite dig this." Perhaps -- It's accepted. I mean, I use this parallel that you do, isn't this a circumstance to be faced? Isn't it?
Wayne Thiebaud Yes, if, I think the interesting point about that would be that we haven't as yet apparently had a kind of sitting in the art gallery, and I'm waiting for that someday, when someone really, when some group is really that convinced, that determined, and that intelligent to go in there with the kind of information which they may be well, could develop, in reference as a strong kind of dialogue between this thing that you mention in terms of accepted establishment of the art tradition vis-a-vis the people who don't agree with that perhaps, that this might occur but what's happening now is just a lot of that kind of guerrilla warfare. You know, people say things, take pot shots and so on, but there's no real, there's no real dialogue between the public and the so-called establishment in the art tradition. I think it's mainly because the -- It's not as important as it should be.
Ralph "Ted" Coe So that taste instead of being vested in the potential collector or individual sort of gets into the New York Times via critics and that kind of -- We all agree what Kennedy says, but we don't make up our own minds. I've seen this in operation. Everybody talks about what everybody else is talking about, not
Studs Terkel Yeah, what is the artist establishment? This is interesting. Here are new developments in art, and yet the art establishment as we know it today more or less is part of what you represent.
Jim Speyer It's a questionable honor. I think the establishment, which is an ugly word, but which in fact is a perfectly descriptive term, represents the so-called elite who are elite simply by virtue of their position as arbiters of taste in museums and galleries and who write and reviews magazines and books. And after all, the people are quite able, we would hope, who read this material and who see the -- In the case of books or articles or who see it in the case of exhibitions which are installed in museums, to judge whether or not this establishment is doing what it should. What it should is much more involved and much too involved to talk about now, what it should do. But it isn't unusual for what is called an elite few to find itself as arbiters of taste in any field. There's, there are always people who are professionally interested in something who are better informed earlier than other people. We all know that, and --
Ralph "Ted" Coe I think in many ways it's filling in. I don't think it'll ever be filled in, but this so-called cultural explosion has caused us a curiosity to be abroad in the country. And what worries me is the other side of the coin, because as your cultural explosion widens the base of operations for exhibitions and so forth, then you have a widening of the taste in that it can be watered down and it can be can be de-standardized as far as excellence goes. And, actually, I think curators and museum people in general have to work as hard as hell today to keep their quality standards abreast of the explosion.
Wayne Thiebaud No, art isn't something that's delivered like the morning milk, it's stolen fruit, and everyone has to steal their fruit, it's not given out. It's not like in boxes of lugs where you go and just buy it as you want to, you have to, and this is an interesting point in reference to the establishment, the artist is as much outside it as anyone else or perhaps can be. And museums are the same way, the artist -- As Picasso once said, "Steals the fire from Mount Olympus." It isn't given to him, he does it with, as a great task, and the same is true in viewing, when you go to the museum you have to seek out the fruit. You can't, you can't go in and because there's a show of optical painting or pop art or whatever it is, go in and have the experience, you go in, you find one thing you like, you know, and sometimes it's not the thing that everybody likes. Sometimes it is, sometimes it's a thing only a few people like. Sometimes you are as liable to find it coming back through a hallway and finding a little painting which has sort of been overlooked or sometimes through the wandering to the basement, and sometimes the stuff in the basement comes back up to the top of the museum, it depends a great deal on the individuals, on the time, on the kind of accumulated mass that you have as a person, etc., etc.
Ralph "Ted" Coe Studs, one of the large national magazines of the sort of "Time-Life", you know, "U.S. News and World Report", is preparing an essay on sort of the cultural problems in America. And one of the questions that they've been sort of asking answers to is this: That there's such a sort of mass communication now in the way of exhibitions and catalogues and art publications and, you know, art history being made in two months when a new painter is discovered and, you know, art being put in the public eye very quickly, that there are no real battles anymore. There are no intellectual causes. You know, the way they were in the time, let's say, when the abstract expressionists were starting in the late 1940s, and my answer to that was, you know, because of this great tendency to lower taste through spreading out, that there's actually much more of a battle to be fought than there ever was. And I see this as a very, very acute thing so that you don't proliferate bad taste, you know, through all these state art commissions and this kind of thing, that you keep the standards up. That's a tough one.
Studs Terkel We know, for example, that theaters, leaving, you know, for the moment the visual arts, you know, we know that in theater, in music, practically every country I speak now of the Western world, as well as the world of Eastern Europe, really, we know that [unintelligible] small cities all have subsidized theatres and they are well-attended and because part of their lives, we shy from this, don't we?
Ralph "Ted" Coe There's a different tradition in America. I had it illustrated for me a little bit by working in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where you know, no works of art are bought with government funds. The appropriation is simply made to run the museum, the works of art have to be given. Why? Because they would be worried about, you know, criticism in the purchase of works of art. And there has to be a private gift involved.
Studs Terkel Is it, I'm asking about, I mean, I know this is a question which may have, we may have disagreements but, is it because our whole tradition -- I'm using this word now, a Philistine tradition that the men who built this country are proud of their strength. You know, the empire builders, but also proud of their virility and art is always considered something not quite part of the man. You know, it's women. You notice that? It's the women, the wives of the tycoons who were in the early days the patrons of the arts.
Wayne Thiebaud That's not a good justification for art because anybody here can think of anything new. That's one of the most difficult things in the world to do. I've tried that with my students and I'll be damned if they can think of anything new and these are bright, top of the knot supposedly Californian young high intelligent students, and they've been painting maybe for four or five years, and you give them that problem, they can't think of anything new.
Jim Speyer Newness is perfectly human. And of course we don't know what it would be, do we? We might know what newness has been at one time or another, we know that perspective in the Renaissance was something new. Well, it was marvelous, wasn't it?
Jim Speyer The mannerism of Michelangelo was completely new and it influenced painting and sculpture in the rest of the world for a hundred years. But it was, I think, do you agree with me? That mannerism was absolutely new.
Ralph "Ted" Coe And what is new and very, very new becomes with the passage of time part of the great tradition and has to be renewed again, so that your time changes all that. It may not be new very long.
Studs Terkel The reason I raise this, there was a guy named Nervi. Nervi the designer, he uses certain phrases. He bothers by, he's bothered by some of the young architects he's -- Who innovate for innovation's sake and he described them in doing "fashion, fashion and style." His style is something that has a permanence about it, his standard. Fashion is something of a moment and it goes tomorrow. Fashion may be a car going 20 miles an hour down nowhere. Style is the hallmark of a certain creative guy who did it. Just thinking about --
Ralph "Ted" Coe And so you're perfectly safe. After all, we don't look at three quarters of the paintings done 80 years ago, but it was perfectly right to have painted them. Maybe they were fashionable faddy-type paintings.
Jim Speyer Well, Nervi's comment for example refers to the arbitrary and really willful desire of these architects to do something which is different than what they see other people doing. But this does not for a moment mean that it's new.
Studs Terkel Well, quite clearly all this leads up to the show at the Art Institute here that I assume from what we gather that it will be quite provocative. What can we say? What can we say specifically now about what has been chosen by the jury? The word nature, these are all Chicago artists or Chicago --
Wayne Thiebaud One of the things seems to me there are a couple of things which are interesting to me personally. One is the sort of number of, a great number of paintings in the show which to me appear to be eclectic, as you say a gathering of lots of influences, and above and beyond that I have a sense that some of the people who are in the show are students under the direction of a number of influences where you sense this because of the kind of dislocation which suddenly occurs in the painting when a consistency seems to be going a certain way and then something else is suddenly sort of thrown in like a little op painting or a little pop painting or a little hard-edge or whatever it happens to be in combination with expressionistic, surrealist overtones, etc., etc. There's that thing which makes for a very lively part of the show for me where the paintings may not be great paintings but they're stimulating interesting paintings because they're full of a great kind of interest, a kind of vitality. Another part of the show is almost the opposite of that, a sort of polished, refined extension of a tradition which is established for long on several levels, whether it's collage or a very carefully selected collage or whether it's a kind of painting in a sort of sense of Picabia or whatever tradition. Well, those are my two main reactions.
Ralph "Ted" Coe Well, I certainly agree with Wayne on that, but I have something else in this show, another sort of element of it really bothers me, and that is that despite a certain sort of, you know, tentative vitality in certain areas, that everything was tentative. I didn't find anything in that show that I thought, you know, was fully realized in terms of its potential, that this eclecticism that Wayne's been talking about sort of took away the completion of any ideas. So while the show has a certain bounce and vitality, and I was delighted to have judged it, I didn't go away feeling in any sense that I'd had a complete total aesthetic experience out of the paintings involved. And I found this true not only here but in other, other shows that I've judged. And it does give you pause to reflect.
Wayne Thiebaud Well, of someone that's made up their mind and you sort of sense in their work over a period of years a great intensity, a kind of focused sort of preoccupation of passion, etc., etc., and where the work shows the externalization of these preoccupations.
Ralph "Ted" Coe But nowhere did I really see something was totally impassioned from the viewpoint of expression. It's sort of, I'm not trying to indict any artist at all, because I think this show was as fully as good as anything we've had in Kansas City, probably better. That isn't the point at all. But you know when you're a juror, you always are trying to search for something that is complete, that is a total thing to the painter's realization, and that I didn't really find. And so there's a certain sort of vacuum that you bring with you when you go away with it from the show. You always want to find that sort of, you know, rara avis. And I just didn't quite find it.
Jim Speyer Well, you know, I think the whole show has to be considered from one other point of view, first that of the 1200 odd objects that were selected. I believe there were only 59 were chosen which looks quite a bit and quite a big show. And in terms of other regional shows that I know of these days is not at all too few. After all, each juror had the right to choose any work he wished. It was not a case of a majority decision on each work and each label still --
Ralph "Ted" Coe
Studs Terkel individual juror, so Wayne Thiebaud, Ted -- Maybe one were chosen by one, other chosen by three, by four. And we emphasized that. And the name goes on. Oh, really? So you're committed, then. You're there.
Jim Speyer And there are many, many others who were not accepted, who ostensibly are very good artists, and I don't mean just in reputation but in fact, and how the decision is made by the jury is something that I can only speak of if I am a juror. But I do think that there is a consideration to take seriously about a local exhibition in 1965 in a community as large as Chicago. I'm not sure at all that a community should have a local salon of this sort in 1965 because I don't believe that the artists in Chicago are the only artists from Chicago. There are many artists from Chicago who are not, perhaps, here at this moment. There are others who are coming in. There is a constant flux. This is a time when people don't stay in one place, you can't. New York doesn't have a regional exhibition. Los Angeles does less and less. It used to. But all of these big regional shows were conceived before the gallery system. Now, for example, Chicago has a very good gallery system. We have a lot of private galleries now. We see a great deal. The arts club has constant shows of the highest quality. We have a great many contemporary shows, and the idea of having a local Chicago I say salon because it's the French word to use for big exhibition, seems kind of, I don't know, redundant. I think that the same artists could show other places, perhaps, and that it gives the wrong emphasis to take it as the essence of Chicago artwork. I think Chicago artwork is much broader than our show ever is.
Jim Speyer Right.
Jim Speyer It's not needed anymore. You know, in the old days, this is the 68th, I can't figure out how many years ago that was, 68 from 65, it must have been the end of the 19th century. And in those days there were no private galleries to amount to anything. This was the place for any Chicago artist show. Also people stayed put a great deal.
Studs Terkel But isn't there a danger in this? I want to ask this one point here, if there's sort of internationalization or homogenizing if you don't, regional, isn't there a loss of some uniqueness? I mean, where isn't a thing called, maybe it's a passé phrase, Chicago style or co-style? Isn't there a loss if these regional styles disappear?
Jim Speyer There's a loss but it's 1965, and it's just all gone, and you can go to Athens, Greece and you can eat the same food and stay in the same hotel and come in the same plane as you do in Los Angeles and Chicago.
Ralph "Ted" Coe Also in these shows, I say that the Bay style of California or the Chicago sort of style, if you want to call it that, or whatever you want to refer to, you don't see that occurring in these regional-type shows. You see it in "Art International" magazine, you see it when you know the artists and they're particularly involved in it. But these shows are the same whether you judge them in Little Rock, Arkansas, the way I did two years ago, or Kansas City, Missouri, it's the same thing all the way through. And that worries me also.
Ralph "Ted" Coe A cross section, let's see, if you took a photograph of the Chicago show as it's installed and just asked someone where it was, well, they couldn't do a thing with it, and you could have done the same thing with the Delta Annual that I judged in Little Rock three years ago.
Wayne Thiebaud I was just going to say that with that so-called loss you also gained the proliferation of style possibilities for the artist. The artist is aware as you grow up as a young art student now, everything is possible. You don't grow up in a singular tradition like in Venice or in the Japanese wood-cut tradition of Hokusai, you grow up instead of growing like that you have to grow broadly and select down or find yourself in reference to the whole old pattern, so that still continues and probably will keep on continuing, the idea of the artist having available any kind of a thing that he wants to depend upon is and that throws the responsibility back on the artist that you are talking about in the sense of first of all, of even making a selection of what he's going to do. So you could argue, it seems to me, that the artist, perhaps, today is even more responsible than he was some years ago.
Ralph "Ted" Coe I sort of wonder if these regional-type exhibitions are not changing a bit in the last relatively few years and the sort of salon concept to the place where the younger artists and students really sort of try out, in their kind of try-out shows, then the older artists, the more professional established artists, don't feel they need them anymore, where at one time a show like this, no matter where you held it, would have been considered the salon for the artists and that they're becoming kind of, you know, like the semifinals or the, you know, the beginnings. And for that reason, of course, I think they'd be very important in one form or another.
Jim Speyer I just don't know, because I wasn't here. But it certainly has been true recently. You know, some years ago there was a great fuss, because the then director of the Art Institute tried to outlaw student participation in the exhibition, and who was a student and who wasn't has always been a great question, and it boomeranged.
Studs Terkel This is obviously provocative, because it just didn't, in talking to members of the jury here, Wayne Thiebaud and Ted Coe, two men who have very definite opinions, who are individuals, who are not afraid to lend their names to the paintings they chose, and there is the responsibility of the juror right there. And of course we thank Jim Speyer, too, who is the, was the curator responsible for this, and Elmer Bischoff, the third member of the jury wasn't here, left, and these three were the members of the jury.
Studs Terkel They can argue about it. They can disagree, but above all, live. I mean, doing, show some sense of life. Isn't that the purpose of the artist, to disturb? Isn't that part of his purpose, too, at times?
Jim Speyer They should be excited by the exhibition rather than angry or annoyed because they'd been refused or cheated because they have the misconception of having a hoax. And really I'd like to see them excited by it, either negatively or positively against it or for it, but not passive and not to have cheap emotions.
Wayne Thiebaud One final hint I'd like to give about viewing works which is more constructive and very sort of professorial device. And it seems to me that people look much too quickly at work, and someone did a research problem once on the amount of time that people generally look in the museums, and it came out to less than seven seconds that they spent looking at a painting, at a work of art. If you haven't looked at a great amount of work, the best thing to do, and this is what I have my students do, is to sit them down in front of a picture for five full minutes or even three minutes. If you don't want to do that, just look at your own watch and time yourself to look at the painting one minute once, and just stand and look at it directly without looking at anything else and concentrate on it and see what happens, see if that helps.
Ralph "Ted" Coe And to do that you've got to be relaxed. I wish people wouldn't have such fits about art if they could just relax and just take it the way professional people do, you know? And then they'll have the chance to do what Wayne's talking about.
Studs Terkel It's an interesting tip there, just to take your time, obviously, to look. That's interesting, seven seconds is the average time, it's shocking, of course, but the idea of looking, as you say, looking and getting acquainted with it, and looking and looking again.
Jim Speyer And to accept what they see is important. Because if you see something in a painting it exists, whether it was planned as such or not. And to--as you see what exists and put it together your whole perception functions. And if you have a preconception, and rule out that which you might miscalculate as an accident, or something which seems inconsistent, you're just distorting your whole attitude. It has to be open. You have to really open yourself, and to the degree that you open yourself looking at a picture, you will see more.
Studs Terkel And thus the show started the 30th of April, through May 23rd. Our three guests were two members of the jury. Wayne Thiebaud teaches at University--it says Stanford--no, it's the University of California.
Studs Terkel The Davis Branch. And Ralph T. Coe, Ted Coe, who is the curator of painting and sculpture at the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City, and the curator of contemporary art at the Chicago Art Institute, Jim Speyer. Gentlemen, thank you very much. An epilogue to this roundtable on art might be in order. As you can gather, there is a very controversial show going on inside the Art Institute and there's one equally controversial--some say much more interesting--going on outside. It's a question of which program do you prefer. A matter of personal choice. Doesn't it turn out to be that after all, in almost every decision of life? Here,