The Art World
To the Editor:
. . . In her review of John Bernard Myers’s Tracking the Marvelous [Books in Review, April], Jean Frumkin, though admitting that Myers went everywhere and knew everyone in the New York art world, feels compelled to cast doubt on everything he says by stressing that he is “dependable if you have corroboration,” otherwise not. Why should the “corroboration” automatically be more trustworthy, pray tell? The charge is meaningless, unless you go along with Jean Frumkin’s further charge that “there is a streak of disingenuousness that runs through this book.” This, however, is an accusation . . . the author cannot answer without appearing to prove he does have dark doings to hide.
The truth of the matter is that John Bernard Myers was a pivotal figure in the artistic life of New York in the 50′s and early 60′s . . . and that he was, and is, probably the one person who got the least financial gain out of his work and his discoveries. Over and over again he found and started artists who left his gallery for more effective moneymaking establishments as soon as they became recognized. He certainly wasn’t in the game for profit or sneaky dealings, but for the fun and friendship and sheer delight of “tracking the marvelous.” The disingenuousness seems entirely in the beholder’s eye.
But, ah, there is, according to Jean Frumkin, the shady treatment of the Mark Rothko case! And what is so suspect about that? Well, Myers puts it at the end of his book instead of in the center, as “the New York art world” expected! Obviously a crime. Also he insists on the honor and good faith of the prosecuted, although they were found guilty “under due process of law.” Some proof! Since when did due process of law establish true guilt? And why should Myers’s defense of people whose innocence he believes in prove his disingenuousness? Search me. Why are the chapters at the end of the book? the reviewer asks. Why are any chapters anywhere?
Jean Frumkin . . . ends by hoping for the arrival of other books on the period and place, particularly the critic Lionel Abel’s—as if critics were by definition better equipped than plain members of an avant-garde and/or eyewitnesses to discuss what happened. And, naturally, she finds “as many syntactical faults as anecdotes” in Myers’s book. . . . Reviewers invariably find “syntactical faults” galore in works they dislike, and it invariably means three or four places in which the writer’s usage of language differs from that of the reviewer. But that shouldn’t discourage anyone from reading this charming, lively, and informative book. . . .
Jean Frumkin writes:
Elsa Gress seems to speak from firsthand knowledge, and perhaps she is actually a friend of John Bernard Myers. I myself have never met him, and in my review I relied only on what I could deduce from a close reading of his book.
The example I gave of two versions of one anecdote—one by Myers, the other by Julien Levy—seemed to me to demonstrate clearly that, faced with a choice between a “good story” or plain good sense, Myers opted for the good story. This makes him a lively storyteller, but it also makes one uneasy about his dependability as a historian.
Since the purpose of the book was to recount a life spent “tracking the marvelous,” I questioned why Myers had gone off the track for a side trip through the “unmarvelous” Rothko affair in which he was not actually a participant. I also questioned his motivation and wondered what purpose might be served in including this episode.
I referred to Lionel Abel as a “critic” as a means of identifying him for the reader; I do not think of the term as connoting the final authority.
Myers makes no claim to being a professional writer, and Tracking the Marvelous should be read on that level, which is how I hope I did read it. I did, however, feel I should refer to the syntactical faults throughout the book, by which I mean not small errors in grammar or stylistic details, but sentences in which pronouns have two interchangeable antecedents, or sentences so constructed as to be open to two interpretations.
Since Myers did make his living from his art dealings, it seems to me naive to say that he did all that he did purely for “fun and friendship and sheer delight.” Would that life were that simple in the New York jungle!
The truth is that John Bernard Myers has made a very special place for himself in the New York art world as a much respected “presence,” and he was certainly a pivotal figure in making the Tibor de Nagy Gallery into a center for the second generation of Abstract Expressionists and for other gifted young painters of that time.
I recommended Tracking the Marvelous as agreeable light reading—even Myers, I think, would not take exception to that. But I also stressed the need for a book that would give serious consideration to the events of the period and reexamine certain clouded episodes, such as the ostracizing of the Surrealist Matta. That, as a matter of fact, was the real point of my review.