An Interview with Harry Cooper

Earlier this year, Pac Pobric sat down with Harry Cooper, curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to discuss painting, modernity, and theoretical methodology. Cooper earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University under Yve-Alain Bois with a dissertation on Piet Mondrian’s diamond pictures and has since curated exhibits on Frank Stella (with Megan Luke), Philip Guston, and Mark Rothko, among others. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion, broken up into several themed sections.

Medium Specificity

491: I’m curious about your interests in the relations between various media. You’ve written about the way that music has had an impact on painting and the way that these media can speak to one another. But I think that there’s also a sense that you’re wary about collapsing distinctions between the various media. You argued once—as part of an Artforum exhibition review—that “hunting synesthesia back to the level of material production exposed the fact that at the level of psychological reception it had been a myth all along.”[1]

Harry Cooper: That upset a lot of synesthetes. I got a number of letters from people saying: “This is real. I see smells. I hear colors.” My point was just that there doesn’t seem to be any kind of broader common experience. Synesthetes do not agree on the color of middle C, for example.

491: So the question is: Is there something at stake in modern painting that isn’t at stake in modern literature or modern music?

Harry Cooper: In a way, I think the question is, Is there anything at stake in common for the three of them? Because I really do think that the differences of media are so profound that they’re entirely different pursuits. And we happen to have this term “art” that encompasses them, but I’m not even sure how useful that is. So they keep being interested in one another but attempts to put them together keep failing, I would say. And I think part of my head of steam in that article you quoted was just realizing that the branch of work I like, that I responded to in painting that dealt with music, was the Mondrian branch, if you will, and not the Kandinsky branch—the branch that didn’t seek to make a musical painting somehow the way Kandinsky did after he heard the Schoenberg, but rather the branch that sought a translation from one medium into its own principles in the other medium. Which is just a way of avoiding the question about what’s at stake. I’ve never been an art historian like Meyer Schapiro who would say that these art forms are representing something about the world, about society. (At least Schapiro in his earlier vein before he became more purely formalist.) I’m sure that’s true. But I am just skeptical of my own personal ability to say what those great things are that these different arts are representing. And I’m not that interested in that level of generality, you know, where tone row room music or Pollock’s painting reflect some kind of dissolution of traditional hierarchies in social life or whatever it is. Or think about the polemic that Fried and Clark have had where Clark wants to find this sort of common principle of negation in these modern arts and Fried doesn’t. Fried asks, What does it mean even to say that traditional sets of values and ways of associating have broken down? You can ask that at any point in history.[2] But the point is that I am more interested in the specificity of these different media and I think they’re very powerful in different ways. I think painting is quite jealous of the power of music, this kind of visceral modality. Barthes wrote an essay about rhythm and how it just seems to be uncoded.[3] It seems to get right to us. I think painting is also jealous of music for the opposite reason which is that music has this great coded system of notation, of harmony, that makes sense, that has geometric basis, and painting has some pathetic color wheel that nobody agrees about. So I’m interested in that predicament of painting, that it’s always trying to be something maybe more, to be bigger, more enveloping, to have more power. And in the end, it can be reduced materially to something very crude, whereas music has this wonderful immateriality. The same goes for poetry. For me, maybe that’s an interesting predicament of painting. The painters who are accepting of materiality are the interesting ones to me, although it can go too far and then you get someone pushing paint around on the square canvas.

Jasper Johns. Device Circle, 1959. Encaustic and collage on canvas with wood. © Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

491: In your work on Jasper Johns, you argue that he has “a commitment to preserving the margin, especially the lower margin, which Johns often leaves incompletely painted.”[4] Is Johns, as a “contemporary” painter continuing a project of preserving the edges of the canvas as the end of the work? Instead of moving the work out into the world and beyond itself, the edge is sort of what delimits the experience. So is there something about Johns in particular that makes him a modernist painter as opposed to postmodern painter?

Harry Cooper: I hadn’t really studied Johns nor had my mentor. So I came to him fresh. Seeing the work in person in a couple of shows in the last few years and living with it here with the works we have on loan from him at the National Gallery made a huge difference to me versus seeing it in reproduction. He makes incredible surfaces and in that way alone he is a modernist. I think the issue of edges is really an interesting one for Johns because, on the one hand, as you were saying, he leaves the bottom margin often unpainted, but on the other hand, he is interested in the left and right edges as these wrap-around structures. So you could argue that there is a kind of exceeding of the edge on the sides and an obedience or an acknowledgement at the bottom. So I think this is not a surprise because Johns is a very interesting and smart juggler with all kinds of conventions. But I think that his interest in pairs of paintings, black and white but colored ones also, is kind of a way of exceeding the limit of a single painting. I was interested in that essay in this idea of language as sound in his work and that gets back to what we were saying earlier about the limits between media. I think he really is someone who is ambitious to break some of those limits and that certainly has something to do with someone like Cage and Cunningham. But I haven’t thought about how he would fit in to that whole history of synesthesia. I think he took very seriously the Cubist inclusion of language in painting and wanted to do even more with it—with the materiality of language, not just as visual object, but as sound. That brings music into it as well and you begin to have a painter who I think is working at the limits, so he is still a modernist, but is probably working at the limits, speaking of edges, of what painting inherently can do, whatever that is.

491: You’ve just recently written an essay for the show Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment 1910-1912.[5] Maybe you can give us a sense of what the essay you’ve written is about.

Harry Cooper: It’s really simply asking the question: Why did Cubists, and Picasso and Braque in particular, use the oval format? I’m trying to recover, first, what a bizarre decision that was and what they might have gotten out of it. If anything, it goes back to this problem of edges and corners that Michael Fried and Clement Greenberg and Braque himself talk about in Cubism and how the oval might have been the solution to that. My basic argument is that they needed the oval because it brought more with it than just solving this problem of corners. It brought a history having to do with mirrors – a common format for mirrors. So they brought in the idea of self portraiture. Also, a lot of those oval mirrors have a convex surface, so we can perhaps think about the cubist surface as possibly convex, as possibly mirroring. I’m just trying to open up this material that has been gone over countless, countless times and yet we don’t really know what Cubism was all about. I mean, there is still a great undiscovered country, such a rich realm of material. So, I’m just trying to do something a little off base with that.

Cultural Studies/Marxism

491: You’ve brought up Clark, so I’m curious about a comment you had about Crow’s Adornian Marxism since he was a student of Clark. You argue that if his perspective doesn’t have anything to offer in the way of analysis of someone like Mondrian, it is still on the whole “preferable to the total embrace of the popular by most ‘cultural studies.’”[6] It seems that what is expressed here is kind of an allergy to certain contemporary approaches to culture. So I’m curious as to what you see, broadly speaking, as the problem of the various fields that make up the cultural studies. And is it fair at this point to call it a passing trend? It’s been around for some time now.

Harry Cooper: I was very conflicted about Crow and about Adorno too.[7] I think, to put it simply, I was certainly sympathetic to the idea that there was a difference between art that was great, that was intense and often complicated, and art that was simple. (I’m trying to avoid using the words “high” and “low” or “elite” and “popular.”) I think that where Crow and Adorno and a lot of people in a sort of Marxist sphere go wrong is that they are committed in some way to an assumption that it is the more popular arts, the ones that are emerging from mass culture, that are somehow compromised because they are unable to arise out of that proletarian condition; that it is only the mandarin arts that can find a level of expression and complexity. I just think that’s based on a socio-economic model that is too simple. And as a result it ends up treating – well, like Crow treated jazz, or T.S. Eliot’s interest in the fox trot, as a kind of slumming. Like it couldn’t have been real. But why not? Why isn’t it possible that the fox trot actually encodes some very interesting principles, just as interesting, maybe, as one of Mondrian’s paintings? So I would say that basically I do endorse a high/low distinction. I just don’t draw it necessarily along class lines. I think my problem with popular studies or visual studies, whatever you want to call them – and it is still booming – is that there are still plenty of journals out there and whether it is the romance novel or a billboard or whatever, they take pleasure in treating these things with just the same level of intensity that we would bring to “Art,” capital A. I think that’s fine for some things, but they just seem to do it for all of those things and that I think that is just giving up on the dream of what art can be. So I don’t read a lot of it except in certain areas like jazz. The fact is that jazz is kind of a red herring because for a long time it has been what I think anyone would consider a high art with its principles, its academies, and its very self conscious linear development. Really, to say that I am interested in jazz doesn’t broaden my portfolio very much. I think jazz for me was the model of what an avant garde, modernist, self reflexive art practice could be. The way you had Charlie Parker carrying around Lester Young’s 78s in his saxophone case, learning them, studying them, repeating them, inverting them, and eventually demolishing them is just a great model for any modernist process of artistic development.


Adolf Ziegler's Four Elements hanging in the apartment of Adolf Hitler. Art Slide Library, Hunter College, CUNY.

491: So if the cultural studies are a postmodern sort of pursuit, do you believe that there is really such a thing as postmodernism, whatever that would be? I know you’ve said before that Philip Guston is one of those figures that signals the transition from the modern to the contemporary. But would that also then mean a transition from modern to postmodern? Or is there still something fundamentally modern about Guston or someone like Johns? Is there some kind of a break in history?

Harry Cooper: I think there have been a lot of breaks, certainly. Whether modern/postmodern is a good one to hold on to, or modern/contemporary – just the fact that nobody knows where to locate it indicates that it may not be that clear or that true. This department that I work in is called modern and contemporary art and I actually don’t like that. I think that it should have a single name or it should be two departments. Guston: I know it’s easy to say, and I probably have said, that he links this kind of modern to contemporary practice with his turn in the 70s, his rejection of abstraction and his turn to a cartoon style. But if anything, I am more interested in how that was a return for Guston to an earlier mode that was rooted in his 1930s social activist mural making and his concerns with politics and with certain symbols like the Klan and the hood. And yet he was and is very influential for a lot of contemporary painters. So I don’t know. I realize that a lot of things happened with Warhol and people like that in the early ‘60s. But Guston really wasn’t part of that – minimal, conceptual, pop. I guess I have stayed a modernist and I realize that there are a lot of other things going on. And I think there’s a break but I don’t use the term postmodern. It has been criticized by Bois, by Foster. In Foster, the basic idea is that it’s naïve to talk about a “postmodern” where in fact – and there is some of this in Buchloh too – there is so much recycling of work in neo-avantgardism. Of course the recycling they trace often goes back to figures like Duchamp and you could argue that early in the century there is already a split – not a diachronic split but a synchronous split – between figures like Duchamp and figures like Mondrian. So that maybe what we’re calling postmodern is really just the drawing out of another modern strain that had been more or less repressed by Greenberg and company. But I think it still therefore makes sense to see the whole 20th century as a piece and I don’t see a lot of work that would have been shocking to Malevich or Duchamp or Mondrian. I think we just haven’t seen that.

491: So how we can account for the collapse of a utopian impulse in art that you have in Mondrian, for example? In his work, there is this sense that painting is meant to lead not only the other arts but also society to some sort of collapse of dualism. How can we account for the absence of this type of thinking?

Harry Cooper: I think that there are still artists who believe that they can change the world. Maybe slightly tongue in cheek, but I think it’s still a strain that’s continuing. But it would be easy to chalk it up to the  atom bomb, the camps, the fall of communism, or, for some people, or even before the fall of communism, the rise of Stalin and the betrayal of those hopes. Why you had utopianism continuing after WWI is a question. I mean, that should have been enough maybe to “put paid,” as T.J. Clark likes to put it, to that whole dream. But it wasn’t. So I think artists seem to have the capacity to really hope for the best. The whole Abstract Expressionist ethos in the ‘50s was full of excitement and hope. So they were maybe starting from scratch in some ways, but that was a liberation. Maybe it wasn’t explicitly utopian, but the belief that they could express the age itself is kind of utopian. I don’t know if that’s still going on or not. I kind of hope so.

491: What about contemporary antimodernism? I don’t know if you’ve seen the recent show at the Guggenheim.

Harry Cooper: Chaos and Classicism.  

491: Exactly, yes. Would it be fair to link certain strands of historical antimodernism to contemporary versions of it?

Harry Cooper: Absolutely. When I got to the top of that show and saw the painting that had been in Hitler’s office, I immediately thought of John Currin. It’s the same vocabulary. He’s an antimodernist who has a whole tradition of antimodernism behind him and it happens that the Nazis liked some of that too [Laughs]. And that’s not a problem. It’s not a problem, I don’t think, for Pollock to appear in Vanity Fair. Anything can be appropriated for anything. But it certainly was for me a sort of vivid realization of just how antimodern a lot of currents of contemporary art are.


Pablo Picasso. Still life with Chair Caning, 1912. Oil, oilcloth, paper, rope on canvas. Art Slide Library, Hunter College, CUNY.

491: It’s interesting that you say that anything can be appropriated for anything because there is a sense in your work, coming out of Yve-Alain Bois (who in turn traces it in part back to Russian Formalism) that there is no separation between form and content. So what does that ultimately mean? If anything can be appropriated in any way, is that a misunderstanding of what the appropriated forms express?

Harry Cooper: Some people would say that semiosis is just the condition of art and that there are no inherent meanings; that there is just a drift of meaning which can be taken in different directions. I think that goes a little too far. There are meanings, or at least a neighborhood of meanings, that really inhere in a work and there is such a thing as misconstruction. But I wouldn’t want to go too far and say that we can know what a work means, or that an artist can know what a work means, or be in control of what a work means, even. But I don’t get how people can just believe in a drift of meaning and still want to do interpretation. Because the drive to do interpretation has got to be the drive to get it right or to get some part of it right in some way. I think that’s where I would stand on that.

491: I’m curious then about the way in which you use theory. You had an exchange with Marilyn McCully some time ago about Rosalind Krauss’s Picasso Papers in the New York Review of Books.[8] You argue that what counts for Krauss’s dialectical reading of Picasso is not “the empirical soundness or current popularity of any given theory but rather the quality of interpretive work it allows.” McCully responded that “before any theory can be brought into play, a careful examination of both the works themselves and of a wide range of documentary sources must be undertaken.” She added to that “to draw on theories without critically considering their vulnerability to factual and logical analysis seems an abdication of judgment that any serious discipline must try to avoid.” Can you elaborate on what you meant by your statement? What is your particular approach to theory? What relation does it have to “empirical soundness” as it figures in a particular object?

Harry Cooper: It’s funny you bring that up. I guess the New York Review of Books gets read a lot because if you Google me that will come up almost at the top. My one little possibly foolhardy appearance in the New York Review of Books. I think Rosalind had just had her illness and I was feeling also that the magazine in general has not gotten it right with their coverage of modern art. And so I was probably a little intemperate. Of course I would agree with McCully that you need to do the absolute toughest, most thorough documentary work and visual analysis. But the idea that it should come before interpretation is for me wrong. There is this hermeneutic circle, it’s sometimes called, where you approach evidence with ideas in mind, your ideas change, your reading of the same evidence changes, and so on and so forth. So where do you begin? One of Bois’s big points is that you have to begin with an idea if you’re going to do interesting work. Then the question is: What if that idea is Freudianism? Or Marxism? Are those ideas bunk? If so, should we stop beginning with them? I would say that McCully is right that we don’t want to base our work on wrong theoretical perspectives from other fields. But this is the humanities. I sort of regret bringing up the whole idea of empirical soundness because it’s going to be a matter of debate whether psychoanalysis is empirically sound or not. And it may be impossible to adjudicate that. So there is also the issue that if these are theories that were current – whether its semiotics or psychoanalysis, or what have you – at the time that certain art was being made, that alone may be enough to warrant their use, although I guess as a Bois student I am looking for theories here and there that seem to help me understand the works. I’m hopefully not relying on the same one, time and again because the works may call for different kinds of approaches. So it’s nice to have some arrows in your quiver. Some of them may not be the greatest arrows. [Laughs.] But still, they can fly through the air, they can get you thinking about a work of art and maybe that’s all that the theory needs to do and it can sort of fall away once you have your foothold in the visual material.


Ellsworth Kelly. White Angle, 1966. Painted aluminum. © Larry Qualls.

491: We’ve already talked about people like Crow or Clark who come out of Adorno. Donald Kuspit does as well. His criticism attempts a serious political engagement. In Critic as Artist,[9] he argues that criticism takes on the role of imbuing art with meaning. He feels that the responsibility of imagination lies with the critic in what he calls an “impossible world.” So what’s your sense of this type of criticism? What does it do? What does it not do? What are its advantages or failures?

Harry Cooper: Well I should say I haven’t read a lot of Kuspit. I’ve read some things and I’ve heard him speak. And I haven’t thought of him as an especially political critic just because I think of him just as having written about health, joy – if I have the right person here – and some very wonderfully uncritical aspects of the sort of modernism that we’re not taught is important. We’re thinking more about difficulty, negativity perhaps. And I appreciate that although it hasn’t spoken to me. But I think with just the quotes you read there, my gut reaction is that I tend to be suspicious of the claim that the critic is the one now who needs to supply meaning or who is as creative as the artist just because I think that it’s more modest work than that. As for political criticism in general, I think there are so many aspects of that. I don’t know, maybe we would need to talk about some other figures. For me, someone like Buchloh would be a good model of a major kind of political critic who tends to view the post-war history of art as one of somehow dealing with what he regards as the highly constricted possibilities of subjectivity in late capitalism, just to paraphrase, or possibly even to quote him exactly. [Laughs.] Because it is something he has certainly insisted on. I admire the focus that brings, the insistence, the level of belief. I happen to feel that framework is too simple. I think any jazz fan would believe that there are possibilities of subjective expression that remain which may even be greater for being put under the pressures of social developments. But just in the way Buchloh deals with Ellsworth Kelly and why Kelly would seek out these strategies like the monochrome are things I wouldn’t have thought of, wouldn’t write about myself, but which seem very true. And which the artist might not acknowledge but for Buchloh, and I think for a lot of political critics, there is the confidence that they can see beyond these individual developments, that they can see the place of that individual or that individual work in some great historical framework. I think that’s one kind. And maybe the other kind is the much more detailed kind of political work that involves – well, say T.J. Clark and Manet and The Painting of Modern Life,[10] to take a classic example that involves really locating the work in very specific political discourses, although again with a broad framework and a big axe to grind. I’m so glad that they’re doing that work because I cannot do that kind of work and I’m not that interested in doing it. But it needs to be done.

Final Remarks

491: A final question about what you’re working on now. What’s being planned for the National Gallery? I think you mentioned to me earlier something in the tower.

Harry Cooper: Right. We’re going to open a Nam June Paik extravaganza up there following right on the heels of that very somber Rothko show. I haven’t had a kind of project space to work with before but I established this one here. And these issues of what follows what become really fun, really interesting. So that will be for six months. We hope to actually work with some not only just-dead but actually living artists there too but with the basic criterion that whatever is up there makes good use of that wonderful, unusual space, responds to the space in some way. I think that the first thing I did up there, which was rather ad-hoc, which was a little Guston survey, in retrospect didn’t make the best use of the space. So I think I’m learning with my associate curators who will be doing more and more up there how to make a project where the room isn’t just a container for one project after another. And that room is not a container. It’s nothing like it. It’s a very assertive kind of space which we will try to make the most of. That’s true of this whole building. I get a lot of pleasure out of the small moves of works in the galleries that are required when things go out on loan and things get shuffled around. I haven’t done a wholesale re-hang but I think it’s been a kind of piecemeal, so by now it almost is. In terms of major shows, I guess I have an ambivalent relationship to the retrospective but I am interested in Juan Gris. I’ve been working quite a bit on Gris as I’m working on some other Cubist issues. And Stuart Davis as well I think has my name on him, or at least part of him, because of his interest in jazz, his modernism, and his great surfaces. So that might be something in the future too. And then James Meyer and Molly Donovan both have great shows on the way. I won’t speak for James because he just got here but Molly has a Warhol show coming up about his use of headlines which will be really interesting. So that’s roughly it aside from all the daily crap. [Laughs.]

491: Thank you very much.

Harry Cooper: Absolutely.

(Cover image: Philip Guston. Deluge II, 1975. Oil on canvas. Image © Museum of Modern Art, New York.)

[1] Harry Cooper, “An Eye for an Ear.” Artforum vol. 43, no. 10 (Summer 2005), 310-315.

[2] Michael Fried, “How Modernism Works: A Response to T.J. Clark.” Critical Inquity vol. 9, no. 1 (Sep., 1982), pp. 217- 234

[3] Roland Barthes, “Rasch.” In The Responsibility of Forms. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

[4] Harry Cooper, “Speak, Painting: Word and Device in Early Johns.” October 127 (Winter 2009), 60.

[5] Harry Cooper, “Braque’s Ovals.” In Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment (Santa Barbara & Kimbell Art Museums, 2011).

[6] Harry Cooper, “Popular Models: Fox-Trot and Jazz Band in Mondrian’s Abstraction.” In Music and Modern Art, ed. James Leggio (New York: Routledge, 2001), 164. See also Cooper’s “On Über Jazz: Replaying Adorno with the Grain.” October 75 (1996): 99-133.

[7] See Thomas Crow’s “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts” in Benjamin Buchloh et al., eds, Modernism and Modernity (Halifax, Nova Scotia: College of Art and Design, 1983).

 [8] Harry Cooper, “The Picasso Papers: An Exchange,” The New York Review of Books 46, no. 15.

[9] Donald Kuspit. The Critic is Artist: The Intentionality of Art (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984).

[10] T.J. Clark. The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the art of Manet and his Followers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985).



  1. Pingback: Society of Contemporary Art Historians | 491: An Interview With Harry Cooper

  2. benjamin9000

    I think it would be a mistake to paint Crow as any kind of snob about popular culture. He takes it seriously. In a 2000 interview with David Joselit:

    “I think the history of art has been damaged in the past by people being incurious about what’s going on in the vernacular worlds of popular music, film, and street fashion. These worlds should be more a part of our common conversation. But within the discipline of art history many people are seizing on the idea of visual culture, hoping to undermine traditional notions of the aesthetic without fully developing new critical competencies. In short, they’re not deep and obsessive fans of any of those vernacular forms. I think a certain naivete is at the heart of the wish to use popular culture as a means of challenging the singularity of masterpieces or seminal works of art. If you go deeply into a realm like popular music, you’re going to find great masterpieces that are widely revered among its practitioners. There will be strong qualitative distinctions and invidious comparisons between the great and the merely competent. You’ll never get away from hierarchy, and to imagine that it is possible to do so by moving into the realm of popular culture makes me think that these people don’t know very much about popular culture.”

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