The art critic is an endangered species. Look through prominent reviews in North America—but is it so different in Europe?—and you will find, as commentators on art, writers moonlighting as critics, artists switch-hitting as the same, or philosophers unwinding, but almost no one tagged as ‘art critic’ pure and simple. Odder still is that art critics are fairly scarce in prominent art magazines like Artforum. What has happened to this figure who, only a generation or two ago, strode through the cultural landscape with the force of a Clement Greenberg or a Harold Rosenberg?

Challenging Art provides a few clues to this strange disappearance. This big book tells the story of Artforum from its inauspicious beginnings in San Francisco in 1962, through its glory days as the influential review of contemporary art in the late 1960s, to its editorial meltdown in New York in 1974. (The magazine continues to this day, but then so do many publications born in the sixties, either undead or morphed beyond recognition.) It is a story stitched together with industrious skill by Amy Newman out of seven years of interviews with the principal players. Some have become well-known, such as the art historians Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss; some are semi-forgotten, such as the founding editor Philip Leider, the lead tenor in this soap opera of critical voices; and some deserve wider appreciation, such as Annette Michelson, the doyenne of cinema studies. The result is an unusual kind of retroactive document, an oral history of recent criticism in the United States. For almost all the witnesses believe that art criticism became a ‘serious discipline’ in America only at this time, and primarily through the medium of Artforum.

Challenging Art takes the form of a “conversation”’, Newman tells us, ‘although each speaker was interviewed individually.’ One sees why immediately: some wounds are not healed, to put it mildly, and we watch others reopen as the participants reminisce. Even the initiate needs a scorecard to keep track of all the old account-settling and new point-making; depressingly, old divisions between formalist and social-historical approaches, theoretical and belle-lettristic voices, and autonomous and engaged positions are reaffirmed. Yet all this festering reminds us that good criticism is often born of great resentment. It also makes the book good fun to read, with the photographs alone worth the price of admission. Most are baby pictures (these critics were a precocious bunch), and some look hilarious today. With black glasses, cigar and suit, the cerebral painter Frank Stella resembles a young Groucho Marx before a shaped canvas of 1966, while the critic Barbara Rose, his wife at the time, looks mod but overmatched next to two apparent strippers at a Claes Oldenburg happening in 1964. Also reproduced is the notorious 1974 Artforum spread showing the artist Lynda Benglis, naked, tanned and oiled, holding a massive dildo to her crotch—and cracking apart an already tense editorial board as she does so. Opinions still swirl around this flamboyant gesture. Was it a feminist assertion of power, or the opposite? A mocking of the art market, or an act of self-promotion taken to a soft-porn extreme that let loose the Jeff Koonses and Damien Hirsts of the world? For associate editors like Krauss and Michelson, who walked out (in part to found October magazine), the answers seemed clear enough.

Artforum is identified with the Big Apple, but it began on the Left Coast, humbly enough, in a San Francisco gallery where Leider—a lit-crit type from New York—worked as an assistant. Along with his early collaborators James Monte and John Coplans, Leider outgrew the Beat-dominated Bay Area, and moved the magazine to Los Angeles in 1965. With artists like Ed Keinholz and curators like Walter Hopps, the LA scene was livelier; Andy Warhol first showed his Campbell soup cans at the Ferus Gallery in 1962, and Marcel Duchamp had an influential retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963. A couple of years here prepared Leider for the move to New York in 1967. This was a very different setting once again.

New York was a big step closer to Europe, though you couldn’t have guessed it from Artforum. In the wake of Abstract Expressionism, later dubbed ‘the Triumph of American Painting’, ambitious artists and critics in the US were chauvinistic about home-bred modernism, and liked to imagine the Old World as played out. ‘Europe was in total shreds and decadent and used up’, Rose gushes here, ‘and we had people like Barnett Newman and Pollock and really great artists’. This is the artistic version of the American Century or Manifest Destiny: after the European deluge comes Abstract Expressionism, and after Ab Ex comes us. However, several witnesses intimate another factor in this national hubris: many of these young radicals were kids of immigrants and/or Jews for whom the US was ‘Still The New World’ (as the title of a boosterish book by Philip Fisher has it) and Europe an ambiguous past to be either forgotten or overcome. Other conditions set up this new generation as well. It was maybe the very last, Leider suggests, ‘to get one of those great educations in the public school systems’ of big cities like New York and Washington. It also bene­fited from the postwar boom in American universities, with new MA and MFA programmes that gave this group—whether champions of abstract painting or critics of the modernist lineage—a historical consciousness and philosophical sophistication without precedent in the States.