Art In Conversation
with Phong Bui
Although I’ve read her many books, including Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America, 1927-1944 (published by Harry N. Abrams, 1984), Vija Celmins: A Survey Exhibition (published by Fellows of Contemporary Art, 1979), Charles Biederman (published by Hudson Hills, 2010), countless essays on John McLaughlin, Jon Serl, and several reviews of exhibitions for Art News and Artforum, it wasn’t until recently, during her last trip to New York City, that Susan paid a visit to the Rail HQ for lunch and an extensive conversation about her life and work, and how she worked with New York artist Leo Rabkin in his last years to create the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Prize in visual arts journalism—the first of its kind—from The Rabkin Foundation. (I should mention how grateful I was to be included among my peers, Charles Desmarais from the San Francisco Chronicle; Bob Keyes from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram; Jason Farago from the New York Times; Jeff Huebner, freelance writer based in Chicago; Christina Rees of Glasstire in Dallas, Texas; Carolina Miranda from the Los Angeles Times and Chris Vitiello, a writer and curator based in Durham, North Carolina to be the inaugural recipients of this indispensable prize which I hope will encourage other foundations to join the effort to support art writing and criticism for a general readership). The gravity and substantial credibility of such writing, as both artists and writers know, not only broadens the reading of works of art but is also critical to the revaluation of the artist’s life work beyond their lifetime. It’s as though writing keeps the work of art alive, yet without the existence of a work of art, there exists no writing. It’s an essential partnership.
Phong Bui (Rail): Perhaps we can begin with when we first met, you spoke so admiringly of Brian O’Doherty’s book: American Masters: The Voice and the Myth (1973), which covered eight artists. It begins with Edward Hopper and then…
Susan Larsen: Stuart Davis, Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Andrew Wyeth, and Joseph Cornell.
Rail: Yes. And I remember we were talking about how unusual it was that Wyeth was thrown into the mix, considering the book was published by Random House in 1973, which was the time when minimalism and conceptual art were the predominant trends. Brian in fact told me: to touch Wyeth in those years was like touching the third Rail. Because the conservatism, or what he called the “outsider on the right,” represents a kind of mysterious coding of the country life that the urban folk don’t necessarily understand. City life, with constant movement and endless noise, is a world apart from the silence, the harsh and subtle, almost eeriness of country life.
Larsen: True. I bought that book when I was in school. And one of the beautiful things about it, besides the writing, is the generously big format—it’s very lush—and the wonderful photographs are bled all the way to the end of the pages. They projected a feeling of walking into those artists’ studios, which were not just their creative environments but also their modes of work, their points of view, the intimacy of their sacred spaces. The book seems to transpose the artists’ ways of life so heroically. It wasn’t, “this artist is more important than the other.” As you looked at each chapter, each one had another world view to offer you in a different time frame and circumstance. At that point I hadn’t yet visited any well-known artists’ studios. I still have that book, even though I loaned it once to a friend, and her puppy chewed it up, so it has a very bad, ragged corner. But I still love that book. I think it sort of set my emotions up for when I went to California to teach art history at USC, worked as curator at the Whitney Museum, and especially later when I was invited to do interviews for the Archives of American Art, which provided me the opportunity to visit many artists’ studios. I got to live the experience which was modeled in that book in order to report back to Washington these whole, big-life stories that they wanted me to get. I talked to Edmund Teske, the amazing photographer. I was probably twenty-six at the time, and very prim and proper—and there was ancient Edmund Teske telling me about the beauty and the wonder of the male nude. [Laughs]. I visited Billy Al Bengston, Richard Diebenkorn, Vija Celmins, among others. It just opened up the wonders that were there in the Los Angeles art world, for me. I think Brian O’Doherty’s book is inspirational.
Rail: I feel the same way. You wrote so extensively for your PhD dissertation at Northwestern University on the AAA (American Abstract Artists).
Larsen: I did.
Rail: It resulted in a handsome volume with John Lane, Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America, 1927-1944, which I bought when I was in college.
Larsen: Yes. I wrote a 500-page dissertation on the American Abstract Artists group, which was formed in 1936 by a group of artists, including Burgoyne Diller, Balcomb Greene, Gertrude Greene, Harry Holtzman, and George McNeil, who got together because they didn’t have other opportunities to show their work. And also, even people like Alfred Barr were telling New Yorkers that European art was “modern” and American art was “realistic” or “social realism.” And if you look at the early shows at the Museum of Modern Art, there was this split. The two Americans who could be modern, who were accepted, were Calder and Stuart Davis. But apart from those two, everybody else who was working abstractly was told “well that’s fine for Europe but it’s not fine for here.” So this whole group of artists, including Burgoyne Diller, Ilya Bolotowsky, Ad Reinhardt, George Morris, Alice Trumbull Mason—and there were about forty of them—got together. They rented the Squibb Gallery on Fifth Avenue, did a catalogue, and staged a show of members of the AAA. They garnered a lot of press for it. It attracted people and artists, to their fold, and they went on from there. The group still exists.
Rail: I was asked to join the board once, in fact by Leo [Rabkin] at Bob [Ryman] and Merrill [Wagner]'s house at a holiday party some years ago. Why were you attracted to this particular segment of history of American art?
Larsen: Well, I was raised in Chicago, and I was fortunate to have a childhood scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago, where I went every Saturday to enrichment programs with curators. It was like going to church for me, only better. The Art Institute was pretty progressive. I remember just being floored by a painting by de Kooning, Excavation, which is one of the great de Kooning paintings (painted in 1950). I remember over a period of several years looking at that painting, slowly growing in understanding what it was about. They had two good Pollocks, one early The Key (1946), and Greyed Rainbow (1953), and a few Mondrians, and a couple of amazing Matisses like his great Bathers by a River (1909 – 10 ).
Rail: And one of my favorites Woman before a Aquarium (1921 – 23).
Larsen: To me that’s really what art was. And in looking for a dissertation topic I greatly loved the New York School, but there already was substantial literature about it. The artists of the Stieglitz era also had been covered. But there was this place in between early American modernism and the New York School that had not been touched—except for Irving Sandler’s first chapter of his first volume that he wrote on the New York School, The Triumph of American Painting, in which he mentioned how crucial was the role of the AAA to the establishment of American abstract art. Barbara Rose also mentioned it briefly in her book American Painting, The Twentieth Century, but no one had written about the group in any depth. So, I took this idea of the AAA to my dissertation advisor, and he had been a curator at the Corcoran, and had written for the Washington Post. He had a journalist’s instinct for work with storylines. He said, “I think there’s a good story there.” This was James Breckenridge, he was my professor at Northwestern, and he was a wonderful person and an astute advisor. I said, also, “I think some of these people are still alive,” and indeed, they were. So I went from Chicago—just like we’re doing with the tape recorder—with my tape recorder and my notebook [laughs] I called up all these people, and I went from door to door, and met them and interviewed them.
Rail: Could you name a few?
Larsen: I talked to Ilya Bolotowsky, Balcomb Greene, Ruth Vollmer, Ibram Lassaw, George McNeil, Michael Loew, Rosalind Bengelsdorf. These were life-changing experiences for me. I talked to George L.K. Morris, for example.
Rail: Who was a seminal figure, beyond the art world context where he was called a Park Avenue Cubist because of his affluent status. He was instrumental in helping the Partisan Review to be independent of the John Reed Club (which was a communist club that founded the first few years of the magazine in 1934) when it reemerged in 1937.
Larsen: He was an extremely erudite and serious man. He spent a good bit of time in Paris when he was young, and knew firsthand Picasso, Braque, Léger, Mondrian, Arp, among others. He had a mentor, Albert E. Gallatin, who was often in Paris too. And Gallatin bought artworks for his Museum of Living Art installed for a time at NYU on Washington Square. That was a big influence in New York City. So L.K. Morris purchased works for his collection as well. I still remember vividly coming to see him one very rainy night at his Sutton Place apartment.
I was so tired that I almost ran into the glass door, but the door opened, and there was this fancy butler, and he said, “You can take the elevator up to his floor,” and of course the elevator opened and there L.K. Morris stood. He owned the whole floor. He was in a tuxedo. He was going to dinner after our talk. And there on his wall were Légers, Juan Gris paintings, endless others, and his own and his wife Suzy Frelinghuysen’s. I asked him about the AAA, and he didn’t see my hair that was completely wet or the fact that I wasn’t fancy. He said, “Well, I’m glad that you want to know,” and he just told me exactly what happened and how it was founded, who was who. We had about an hour and a half together. And then he said, “I have to go to dinner now,” and off he went. I never saw him again. [laughs] It was so complete, thorough, reasoned, uninflected by self-seeking, which is not always the case when you talk to people about their place in history. He was a very self-confident person, and fair to everybody. He was so clear in how he described everybody. I felt I had touched a certain normative reality, there, about how that group came together.
And that’s how I met Leo Rabkin. Leo was the president of the group (from 1964 – 1978) and he, having a sense of history, asked older members of the group to look around their houses and see if they had memorabilia, exhibition announcements, notes, photographs, and to please bring them in, bring them to a meeting. Leo would collect them and send them to the Archives of American Art. So Leo had boxes and boxes of this material, and I went there to look at it.
Rail: What was the year Susan?
Larsen: 1972. I was just a kid. I sat there going through all these boxes and Dorothea came by and she said, “Would you like some tea?” and I said “Sure.” I stopped for a moment, we talked, and I learned a little bit about who they were. Then, later that summer they were going to Europe, and they had two little cairn terriers, and she needed a dog sitter for two weeks. I offered to house sit and take care of the dogs. She said “really, would you like to?” and I said “oh, sure” —stay in a four-story house with two dogs in New York City, sure! And so I did, and our relationship was born, which went on until Leo’s death in 2015. They were part of my whole adult life, like an aunt and uncle.
Rail: Leo and Dorothea were also known for their collection of folk art and outsider art, which seemed to have some influence on your own admiration for them.
Larsen: It did. They started collecting folk art and country furniture in the late ‘50s. They married in 1958, and instead of buying Danish Modern, which they said they couldn’t afford at the time, their friend the painter Richard Lindner had a car and they would go out into the countryside. They had wonderful connoisseurship skills, so they identified that they might like Shaker objects such as tables, chairs, benches, cabinets, and so on. And then they began buying whirligigs, things that move, often with complicated multiple figures. Their loft-like apartment, that mostly had Leo’s own work in it for a long time, suddenly started to have these other things in it. And people then began to associate them with this collection. They had a very long friendship with Robert Bishop, who became director of the American Folk Art Museum. And they were instrumental in its programs and its collections. As they grew older, they decided—Dorothea mainly—to limit the collection to representations of people. She was hoping their collection would tell the story of America. Dorothea grew up in Berlin and was a Holocaust survivor. She and her twin sister were hidden by families who risked their own lives to hide them in closets and spare rooms over the war. Her father died during the war, but when Dorothea was young, he had taken her to see the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) show in Berlin. They went back a second time, and he was almost arrested. The guard asked him, “I see you Sir with your daughter, why are you back here?” He said, “Because I couldn’t believe it was so terrible, I needed to see it again,” and he got away with that, barely. But when Dorothea landed here in New York, she went to the Museum of Modern Art and saw the same artists celebrated. She said, “What a great country.” So, their folk art collection is very rich in images of African Americans, Native Americans, poor people, handicapped people—every kind of person. It’s a cross section. To her, America is coast-to-coast and includes everybody.
Rail: She met Leo through our mutual friend Dorothy Pearlstein, who is married to Philip Pearlstein.
Larsen: Yes she did.
Rail: Just to shift the subject a bit: how do you account for having written such a wide range; from Charles Biederman to Jon Serl, from John McLaughlin to Walter Ingliss Anderson, from Burgoyne Diller, Vija Celmins to Gary Lang, Sam Doyle, and so on?
Larsen: That’s a wide range! [laughs] Well, life is a journey and an evolution. You meet different people, and they influence and shape you and your life. At first, when I saw the Rabkin’s folk art collection, especially things like Sam Doyle’s painting on tin, I thought, “How could someone with such beautiful, carefully considered abstract works want to live with these big monstrosities?” I frankly said to Leo, “I don’t get it,” [laughs] and he said, “Well, you know, you’re young, maybe you will learn to appreciate it one day.” He didn’t criticize. I was just kind of astonished. I walked in one day and there were five Sam Doyles there in the living room. I thought, how could this be? But then when I met my husband, Lauri Robert Martin, we were driving around in the desert in California, and we wandered into a shop, in Lake Elsinore and there was a painting by Jon Serl. I looked and thought “Oh!” It reminded me especially of Dubuffet, but it also reminded me of Sam Doyle. We went out in search of Serl, and we found him, and he had a thousand paintings in his house. They were wonderful! And so was he. He was completely magical. The first thing we did was buy a painting from Jon and send it to the Rabkins as a present. Because we figured if it was in their house, everyone would see it—and it worked. We contacted some dealers and they came to see him, and he got a New York gallery.
Rail: That’s wonderful.
Larsen: So here is Jon Serl, who is eighty-four years old with a thousand paintings in a remote desert town having shows in New York. [laughs] I’ve written a memoir of our time with Jon, which I need to re-edit from forty to fifty hours of taped interviews with him. He was a born storyteller. He’d been a vaudevillian, an agricultural worker, and a voice-over artist in Hollywood because he had this amazing voice. As a child he ran away from home with two of his sisters. They ended up in mining camps in Denver. They were living in a brothel, really, and Jon dressed himself as a girl with blonde, curly hair and danced on the stage. I mean he was a very out-there person, a wonderful person. [laughs] He was very tall, skinny, graceful and there he was eighty-five or so and as limber as a twelve-year-old. Transgressive, completely transgressive. You could never pin him down about anything. So it was like trying to catch quick silver, trying to understand him. All you could do was love him, you could not necessarily always understand or conventionally know what was the truth about him.
Rail: Jon Serl sounds like a polar opposite of say, John McLaughlin.
Larsen: Yes. John McLaughlin is like home turf for me. He exemplifies the things I most admire about art and about life. He had a completely considered program. He had a rich understanding of both eastern culture and western culture, and a sense of where nature’s realities fit into and between things and how they relate to human psychology. He was completely rigorous with himself. His paintings have a definite presentness that forces you consider only what’s going on in that painting. They demand it. When you do that, you engage in a very interesting discourse where perceived balance is slightly out of balance. Out-of-balanceness, if you accept it, creates a sense of completion and balance in you. He demands that you not live in your everyday awareness. I don’t know exactly how to express it, except if you really look carefully, quietly at McLaughlin, you get into this state of mind that’s somewhat transcendent, but that’s also deeply alive. Many people report this similar sort of feeling. I noticed in my travels as an interviewer that some of the artists who were successful around LA admired McLaughlin. I went to see Ron Davis for an Art News article, there in his studio was a McLaughlin hanging on one wall. I went to see Ed Moses, and there in his studio was again a McLaughlin—and nothing else but their own work.
Rail: It’s interesting, in the context of the Light and Space moment in Southern California in the 1960s, artists like Larry Bell, James Turrell, Mary Corse, among others seem to emanate, from McLaughlin, an austere clarity in what they were doing in their work, especially the issues of light, volume, scale, and of course the novel use of materials.
Larsen: Like resin, cast acrylic, glass, neon, and so on. Yes, Robert Irwin was also a big admirer of McLaughlin. Many of them said to me that they were too in love with life and sensuality to totally give themselves over to such an austere program, but they admired this adamant clarity. It was a touchstone for them. It reminded me of the old story of when Matisse married, he took his wife’s dowry—the whole thing—and bought a Cézanne—the relatively small “Three Bathers” (1879-82). She asked him, “My dear, why did you spend my dowry on this painting?” He said, “I needed it.” [Laughs] And I think that many of these artists couldn’t afford to buy a John McLaughlin, but they needed it.
Rail: Like having a talisman.
Rail: It was that small Cézanne, Three Bathers, that Picasso saw in 1906—the same year that Cézanne died—which led him to compose the squatting figure with greater aggression and distortion on the lower right of the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
Larsen: Absolutely. It’s a seminal painting, which ended the Rose Period and led to the beginnings of the analytic phase of Cubism. There are artists who can recognize the sources that can change the course of their works. Ad Reinhardt comes to mind as an example. Dorothea’s German background was a key to their relationship with Rita Reinhardt. Leo loved and admired Ad Reinhardt so deeply, partly because Leo saw how Reinhardt had taken abstraction to a totally new reduction, which is conceptual art, among other things. In fact when I was going around New York doing those interviews, Leo said to me, “Go see Sol Lewitt.” Well, in my understanding at the time I was looking at the grids he was making and I was looking at other people making grids, and I was kind of seeing them as grids rather superficially. So I went to Lewitt’s place on Bowery Street that had a metal door. I knocked on it, looked around, and I started saying some things about what I saw. Lewitt stopped me after about five minutes, and he said, “Miss, you don’t understand. You’re not seeing this correctly.” He started to talk, and what he said was, in effect, almost word for word in his great essay “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (published in O.G magazine and Art-Language in 1969). In about an hour, he completely turned my head from one place to another. He told me and showed me how his manner of working had to do with an intellectual and visual awareness. And the intellectual was the leader, and the visual was the outfall, rather than the other way around. I remember walking out of that door, and suddenly I felt, [gasp] I understand conceptual art. Before that day, I really was looking at things in a formal manner, which I was pretty good at by that time, and I was very committed to. But that one hour was life changing, and so beneficial to my teaching. It gave me a way to open up that terrain for my students. I always remember the very first thing Sol LeWitt said, “It all starts with Reinhardt.” Then he said essentially that what Reinhardt does with his work isn’t based on an improvisational condition. It is a determined matter. And the beauty of the painting comes out of the decision. How it looks is not the same as that decision. How it looks is in a different realm, but the decision came first. And that’s what Reinhardt says again and again—you have to know what you’re about. You have to know what it is you’re doing. And then when you do it, you can then see what you’re capable of reaching. Surprises can occur after this clarity of knowing the procedure.
Rail: In the course of the last months of Leo’s life did you manage to spend some quality time with him?
Larsen: Yes. Every Sunday for maybe ten years, we would talk at one o’clock. Every Sunday, no matter where we were—I would stop everything and call up Leo. Dorothea passed away in 2008, and that was a huge loss for all of us. Leo was alone and he’d re-dedicated himself to his work, which was wonderful. He also gave away all of his folk art collection to various museums. He couldn’t bear to look at the folk art if Dorothea wasn’t there. He appointed me and he appointed his attorney to be on the board of his and Dorothea’s foundation. I kept asking him, in the last years, what is it you want to do? And during those times, the American Folk Art Museum got into big trouble. Leo had not been in favor of their expansion or building the building, and it turns out, as a businessman, he was right. So, unfortunately, he was a little sad about all of it and didn’t want to do anything in that situation necessarily. I kept asking him and asking him, “Do you want to do this, do you want to do that?” Mostly all I got was, “No, no, no,” and he changed the subject. With his lawyer in a meeting I said, “Well what about writing?” He had many writer friends, Grace Glueck was a very good friend, and many others who would often go to their parties and dinners, including Robert Bishop, Lucy Lippard, Vicki Goldberg, Avis Berman, John Russell, Pepe Karmel, among others. Every time, whenever I visited and stayed at their home, there would be just piles of art magazines, literary magazines, and art books. He was the first to tell me, for example, “You have to read the Brooklyn Rail.” He loved the Rail.
Leo had a seriousness that affected many lives. Unto great old age, he went on and on welcoming changes. He said, “Yes, let’s focus on this kind of support.” Having been a teacher in graduate school, I knew what it was like being employed as a tenured professor, which means I wasn’t out there on a high wire like many of my colleagues were. And I watched them, people like Lucy Lippard, Robert L. Pincus, Avis Berman, who were making a living by their writing. And I thought, “How brave, how incredibly brave you are.” I saw, occasionally, that their jobs would disappear. I knew, also, what writers were paid because when I wrote I got the same pittance for writing [laughs] and I knew the time it took. So that made what they were doing even more brave and important to me and the rest of us on the Rabkin Foundation board. I thought, “ok, we could do this, we can help.” We could have a program where we seek out and reward those art journalists who are most essential and crucial to communities around the country. Whether or not they are in a good position or in a good job or whether they’re in between or whether they’re doing writing for someone else or whether they’re in charge of the publication, and so on, we can help as long as they are visual art journalists working for the general public. We asked our nominators and jurors to find the person who always shows up, who is always looking, who is looking even if they’re not writing about something because they’re storing it away to gain perspective on things. We are looking for the person who reads other people and the person who has a big heart. When Leo passed away and we created this program, I knew from years of experience that it wasn’t always the person who applied who was the most worthy. And I learned also, from a week I spent at the Aspen Institute focused on artist-endowed foundations, the people busy doing something brilliantly aren’t always the ones who will apply. So, we decided to use a system of nominators.
Rail: Yes, straight to the matter, bypassing all the unnecessary bureaucracies. Having been on endless jury committees, I always recognize folks who are what I call “professional grant getters.” They’re very good at writing grants and they send the set of similar slides to different foundations every year. They know how to present their work, but those are the ones who don’t necessarily make consequential works! We should always seek out and support true artists, and true writers.
Larsen: I couldn’t agree more. For the first time, we have four trustees. They’re all writers: there’s Edgar Allen Beem, who’s a senior writer in Maine and a wonderful man, a true journalist; Nancy Karlins Thoman, who was an early writer for ArtNet.com, and she’s a specialist in folk and outsider artists, and she’s also very brilliant; and Deborah Irmas, who is a writer, collector, and a curator in Los Angeles—a deeply serious person—and beloved by many. So the four of us went out and we each were responsible for finding four nominators for a total of sixteen. We often picked people we didn’t know, but we knew by reputation. We were looking for people who read. We all have friends in the art world who we adore and love, who are important and who do important things, but they may not always be readers. They might be collectors or artists or not that interested in other people’s activities. But we needed people who were serious readers. So we looked around. These people also had to have deep knowledge of their individual communities. So there were a fair number of curators, museum directors, editors—we didn’t pick fellow writers because we didn’t want to conflict the pool—we did invite a retired gallerist, two older artists who were famous and well-set in their careers, hence they wouldn’t be political. We asked each of them questions: who is the essential art journalist in your area—who is the person always present, who’s been there for a considerable amount of time. Our criteria also allow for people writing in other languages. For example, if someone writes in Spanish for a Spanish-speaking community, or if they write in Chinese for a Chinese-speaking community, that’s all good. We ended up with sixteen nominees, and we asked each to submit two articles—recent ones—and a short vitae. My wonderful assistant, Danielle Frye, a recent graduate of The Maine College of Art, helped me gather up and organize the applications. We gave those to three jurors, and our independent jury made the choice.
Rail: Why is the foundation’s office based in Portland, Maine, not New York City?
Larsen: One of the reasons is that I was already in Maine. I could see that in downtown Portland, we have a rather vibrant arts community, including The Maine College of Art, Portland Museum, several galleries, and a modest collector base. We owned property in New York, but it wasn’t property that we could inhabit without more substantial investment so we decided to sell it. We’re based in Portland because it’s affordable, and with prudent management, we can prolong the life of the foundation. It’s also a statement that every part of the country counts. Every area has an arts community. Having been in L.A. for twenty years, I watched its art community grow in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. People kept saying, “Where is the art scene in L.A.?” But—there it was. There were artists like John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Robert Irwin, Richard Diebenkorn, Vija Celmins, Ed Ruscha, and endless others, plus a whole new generation of young artists. I should add that it was a privilege to be in L.A. at that time, it was so unfettered, so unselfconscious and dynamic that it’s no wonder that L.A. is what it is now. I truly hope that we grow to consider the whole country as one art world. Certainly the internet and many diverse and powerful online art journals have given us all a chance to see and understand many parts of the country and the world.
Rail: In my Rail interview with Connie Lewallen (July/August 2013) about her show State of Mind: New California Circa 1970, she said that before there is a market or any kind of critical response, the artist’s sense of inventiveness and playfulness stems from freedom and not having an infrastructure. And instead of looking to New York for validation, they’ve come to embrace their own local environment that feeds their work.
Larsen: It really does. Nobody anywhere else makes work that has that same essence. I was privileged to do two week-long interviews with Richard Diebenkorn in two different decades of his life. In that Ocean Park studio, with those amazing canvases, you could see they were products of that place and time, not elsewhere. At that time, I also knew Vija Celmins, who was one of the few people who was a star in L.A. and moved to New York successfully. She apparently is happy in New York.
Rail: To go back, again, to a deeper appreciation for writing—do you think there’s a discrepancy between you, writing as a scholar—an art historian for academics and artists, collectors, and whatnot—and you writing for a general audience, who may gain a greater understanding of art?
Larsen: Well, I’m glad you brought this up. When we were given Leo’s legacy, and when I went to the Aspen Institute, one of the things that they hammered home is that “You are now a public charity, you have resources, your foundation belongs to the people, it doesn’t belong to Leo and Dorothea.” We are obligated to use our resources to serve the American public. Fashioning our writers grant program, we tried to do so to support those writers who serve the American public, and who are motivated to speak to that public. We also believe that the public deserves the best writing; it’s not a popularity poll, it’s not commercial advertising, it’s not something meant to manipulate the public—it’s more like public education, like the public school system that should have equanimity, and should have a sense of service. Yes, when we write we tell the world about things we love and care about, and we try to share what it is we think we see or understand about something, but I’ve always tried to write so that an average intelligent person could enter that experience and maybe take away something they could apply in another context. Coming back around—that’s what Sol Lewitt did for me that day.
I think writing that does that is not just about some academic topic or boosting one artist over another. It’s not demonstrating how brilliant you are to a group of people who can then vote for your tenure—I’ve been there. But, it’s speaking to the American public in a way that respects that public, and gives it their best. Art is not a horse race. I really think that we can all be our best selves, we can all help each other along to get more and more out of the experience of looking at art and understanding it through various forms of writing. Leo and Dorothea had a great feeling for this country. Serving their ambition for America and its art is what we are striving to do at our foundation.
Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.