Draft letter to John Elderfield

Transcription of a hand-written draft letter to John Elderfield in response to his article published in Art Forum reviewing exhibitions by Jeremy Moon, Frank Stella and Terry Frost, 1971
Dear Mr Elderfield,
I never write letters to critics who write about my work – but feel disposed to try the experience now for the first time. When I read your article on Stella, Frost and myself, I was interested in how you saw my paintings (and the others) but frankly thought the article itself very bad. Today however I happened to see your piece in Art Forum on Mondrian, Noland and Newman which inspite of the “ten-words-where-one-word-would-do” Forum style seems to me more confident and sure of itself. As you are into some fundamental aspects of painting, and doing it seriously – I take the liberty of putting a few ideas down myself. From the very different tone of your two articles I think one one can tell how much easier it is to write about very familiar work for which a complete critical jargon has already been developed and burnished (not to say almost rotted away) – but than to write about work which, though in a similar territory have subtle but fundamental differences of aspiration, conception and process. (I should say that I do not propose to work at this better but speak out straight – and also that before I go on any further that I am not writing in any way defensively or to ‘get back’ at you for being critical. I enjoyed the experience – and anyway, once years ago worked in an advertising agency and know that any publicity is better than none).
I understand what you are saying in the Forum article and the relevance of what you mean about and all the concepts – flatness, designing, painterliness, light, ’60s, ’70s etc etc etc are of course in an instinctive way the very stuff of any painters waking instinctive feelings and waking thoughts all his waking hours! However, the bad thing that is happening in art writing, and I believe it got in after Greenberg with Fried… [in that that synthesis of space, light and form on a plane for which there are as many painting solutions as there are painters to attempt it is being/has been reduced down by written analysis various critics to the point where it seems that they see painting as simply a game of dialectical hunt the thimble played by a tiny band of chosen people (3 about).]
…in that painting is being written about more and more as if it was a sort of dialectical hunt the thimble in which a tiny band of hand chosen people (three about) struggle to outwit everyone else in solving the equation of the great modernist painting puzzle, or the great where do we go next syndrome. The implied definition of the problem increasingly is seen largely primarily as the solving of what is really a sort of design equation but competitors are allowed to make to enhance periodically to restyle their solutions to the problem with light and or texture to added to taste. It might even be thought from the tone of voice adopted by one or two critics that they actually have access to the answers before the competition starts.


…simple equation of in which the elements of composition and design have become all important and the concepts of light, space and surface almost ignored or treated as some minor expressive
 addition for bringing the model up to date or restyling divide. Now when you use the words form or formal I have the strong impression that you really mean design. Now I have to refer to my own paintings and it is not my intention and it is certainly impossible to persuade someone who has looked at ones pictures and formed an adverse opinion of their merits (and presumably therefore had no emotional experience as well as having had no intellectual pleasure) that they were wrong
– but I hope that one day you will see my painting Flamingo (for example) again and get something from it a stronger and I am not deeper experience. This group of paintings are less to do with the conceptual struggle of the In terms of image – say of composition – or even I’ll admit – process – these paintings in comparison with other periods of my work and certainly compared with the work of many American painters appear less ‘ambitious’ as you call it or ‘radical’ and I do not deny this. However – in terms of light (an experience of hue and tone and surface all modulating each other and giving life to each other and to the whole composition of which they are a part) these pictures – or the best of them – went beyond anything in the more polemical (??!) (to you not me!) charged pictures (which have qualities I liked for different reasons) and are quite different in means and end (although you don’t allow this at all) from pictures work apparently similar in formal concern and imagery by other painters. You may say for example a lack of intensity of effort (and, incidentally refer to grid formats which I don’t understand at all?) – but I never put into any of my previous work more intensity of thought, feeling and effort than into the colour/tone aspect of the experience of the best of these paintings – and an honest painter does not fool himself about when what is intensity of effort or the result of it! / Much has been written (in Forum especially) about colour – but so much of what is talked of about – particularly in American painting as being colour – isn’t “colour” at all Very few so called colour painters work with colour but simply “paint”! in the subtle and deep sense of the term in painting. Even Morris Louis – who was a fine artist – was in fact working more with “paint” than with “colour” in the sense that he used paint as a substance to be poured and soaked and stained in and not as a simple area of opaque, reflective (flat or painterly it makes no difference!) pigment on a plane undulated by tonal adjustment to the technical and expressive requirements of the painting. It is a terrific paradox that all those very aspects of American painting which are regarded as having lead painting away from the evils of cubism and of modelling, collage, relief etc back to its proper role as a purely pictorial ‘sheer’ experience have also taken painting at the same time (?) facture (?) and the physical nature of canvas and paint more than ever at any time before previously. The staining on in Pollock and subsequently Loius – Noland et al, and the American obsession with the need to be radical as the first priority which has lead to a unique degree of experimentation with physical processes and new materials and the tendency because of these the above for more and more young painters to work into the plane of the picture horizontal all contribute a highly paradoxical emphasis on the plastic aspect of the engagement in painting. I’m not of course arguing that fine art I don’t mean that fine art has not been made during this period. It has – what has been clear to me for some time however has been this – that through the critical writings of various critics influencing each other and sharing and building both a polemic and a jargon or vocabulary with which to articulate it their responses to this American abstract painting the problems, images and process of a particular group of artists at a particular time and place in art history have been elevated to the position of unshakeable absolute truths about the essence of the nature of the art itself. This pattern of rise and decline in art and a corresponding but not necessarily synchronised rise and decline in the accompanying criticism is a familiar throughout art history. But the job of a young critic of ambition is to pin down the fallacies of contemporary criticism and not to blindly apply a fixed system of criteria of authentic worth through with an unchanging jargon but to realize that art itself calls for a constantly changing critical approach in which no one dialectic of art history is ever allowed to freeze the pattern of how critics see and write. when artists themselves are constantly being forced forwards towards the chimera of reality. You will say that you are open and forward looking and of course I know you are talking about painterliness being a new (!!) means – or of Noland’s painting having more light – of “60’s linearism” being outmoded, etc, etc – but this is not what I mean by going forward and keeping your mind open! Lastly don’t You mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that all the most ambitious artists are primarily engaging in setting up the relevant problem and finding the correct solution – all the greatest artists of the past knew it was far more complicated and far less pin downable than your tone of voice suggests you think it is. If Art Forum had tried to chart the course of painting as it happened  in 1930 or 1910 or 1880 or 1850 etc etc – what would it sound like now?
Of course you must do your best – and so must we all – but the tone of voice must change a bit I think – and perhaps you should look much harder at what is in the painting and not think so much about what you feel should be in the painting. I doubt if you’ve got this far but if you have you’ll have the sense of humour to say – ‘balls’ – as painters do when they read reviews! 
Best wishes Jeremy Moon