How Our Critics Spoke

The good, the bad, the splendid, the beautiful, and "a negation of everything under the sun and the sun itself".

Matisse’s first show at MoMA opened its third season, in 1931.


Carnegie Institute Exhibition
December 9, 1905
… The so-called impressionists, both of Europe and America, are prominent in the display. The first and third prizes of $1,500 and $500, respectively with the accompanying gold and bronze medals, were awarded by the jury to Lucien Simon of Paris, and Childe Hassam of New York, both impressionistic painters. The impressionistic W. Glackens received an honorable mention for one of his characteristic canvases, and among the pictures shown, those by proclaimed impressionists, or by artists painting under their influence, are to the front. Whether or not the visitor to the exhibition admires the works of the impressionists, or is as yet a convert to their theories and beliefs, no such visitor, who is fair minded, can deny the effective cleverness that the dominance of the impressionists gives the display….

“Chamber of Horrors”
March 1, 1913
Who shall determine how much may be attributed to real art interest and how much to curiosity, of the five thousand dollars and more in entrance fees, at twenty-five cents each, received by the International Exhibition of Modern Art in the 69 Regiment Armory during its first week?…

There is every evidence that New York has decided to give the “Cubists,” “Futurists” and other freakists, “the laugh,” a bad sign for these “jokers of the brush.” In fact, some predict that New York’s laugh will bury these new apostles of art in oblivion. Marcel Duchamp’s mixture of leather, tin and broken violins, which he calls “A Nude Descending a Staircase,” draws shrieks of laughter from the crowds who gather about it eight deep, in their eagerness to discover the lady or the stairway. Had the mind (or the stomach) which conceived this novel presentation of the female form divine invented some comprehensible title, the financial results would doubtless have not been as large, and certain it is that M. Duchamp has done his part towards swelling the door receipts, and may therefore safely be called a “Profit.”

Why should time be wasted in advertising these “carpenters” who in a few weeks, when the public has had its laugh, will have to seek places in their real trade? The management was wise, however, in bringing their works to New York, but they have served their purpose, as by comparison with them any good work of art is doubly appreciated and the management was wiser still in offering to the public a number of beautiful examples by sane and serious men, whose art only shines the more by its close proximity to this vaudevillian collection. It is the work of such masters as Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas… which command serious consideration and respect for the exhibit, and which are a relief to the eyes and minds tortured by the disquieting perpetrations of the art criminals.
—L. Merrick

Academy Spurns Matisse
February 5, 1916
It is said on good authority that Matisse has returned to his original method of painting, the style in which he failed before he conceived the idea of creating absurdities, which he now admits he employed in order to force recognition from the art public, which had previously ignored him. Perhaps it was this “old style” of work that represented him in the four canvases he submitted to the recent Winter Academy, which were not recognized by the jury (among whose members were a number of his most ardent admirers) and were consigned to the cellar as too mediocre to hang. The “sane” painters are now enjoying the laugh on the followers of Matisse.

Matisse Exhibit Opens Season at Modern Museum
November 7, 1931
The retrospective exhibition of the works of Henri Matisse that inaugurates the Musuem of Modern Art’s third season fairly bristles with the attendant excitements of success. Following hard upon the triumphant demonstration of his art that formed the climax of the Paris art season last spring, this fifth—and most comprehensive—Matisse showing in America is practically a bestowal of final honors, made doubly conclusive by being accorded within the artist’s own time by New York’s most representative and glamorous body of art lovers…. Henri Matisse, while trying to be many things at many periods, has ended by becoming splendidly himself….
—Ralph Flint

January 16, 1932
A pleasant madness prevails at Julien Levy’s new and interesting gallery, with its miscellany of surrealistic drawings, prints and whatnot. Mr. Levy has been at considerable pains to inform us what these ultra-modern men are up to, and he is to be congratulated on the well-rounded line-up of the surréalistic camp. If the so-called modern movement has done nothing more than free us from the necessity of sticking to those facts immediately relevant to our immediate and, in most cases, rather limited experiences, it has worked a great wonder. Just how seriously this moon-struck phase of painting, known as the surréaliste movement, is to be taken is something that must be worked out individually. I suspect the greater part of it is like that famous bowl of cherries George White has so cleverly set before us this winter, and so my advice to those not directly implicated in the new movement is “don’t take it serious, it’s too mysterious.”

But those of us who were brought up on such delightful lunacies as Edward Lear, for example, concocted in those far away Eighties and Nineties, will recognize the legitimacy of these Cyranoesque impromptus and baubles. For a point of definite support there are two Picassos, which should reassure the more timid. And then there are two of Pierre Roy’s very pleasing constructions, which, I must confess, seem very Boucher and beribboned beside the more farouchefare that surrounds them. Max Ernst does interesting things that are full of fluttering wings, and Salvador Dali is a clever painter with macabre yet forceful tendencies. His “Pérsistance de la Mémoire” is a curious medley of watch dials which droop and drip all over a charming landscape, one of the foreground timepieces being cosily crowded by ants! Page Mr. Freud!…

The Negro Sympathetically Rendered by Lawrence…
February 18, 1939
A fresh, vivid view of Negro life in New York may be seen in the tempera paintings of Jacob Lawrence, a graduate of the American Artists School where an exhibition of his work is now being held. A style which it is easy to call primitive marks his versions of ice peddlers, the subway, the park and restaurants, but closer inspection reveals draughtsmanship too accomplished to be called naí¯ve. The bright colors in flat areas and the literal view of the world turn out to be just his manner of expressing his very sensitive reactions to a kaleidescopic, animated world, in which his spirit is not to be downed by the oppression and neglect of his own people which he sees on all sides. They have little of the mournfulness of spirituals. Rather are they testimony of the unquenchable joie de vivre of the Negro, his inestimable gift to repressed, gloomy Nordics….
—Jeannette Lowe

Jackson Pollock
December 1950
Jackson Pollock [Parsons; to Dec. 16], the most highly publicized of the younger American abstractionists whose controversial reputation is beginning to grow abroad, has been deeply occupied with some enormous paintings this summer—the l
argest are 20 by 9 feet. No. 100 of this series is done in great, open black rhythms that dance in disturbing degrees of intensity, ecstatically energizing the powerful image in an almost hypnotic way…. Pollock has found a discipline that releases tremendous emotive energy combined with a sensitive statement that, if to some overpowering, can not be absorbed in one viewing—one must return. $350–$4,500.
—Robert Goodnough

De Kooning
April 1948
To his New York debut, William [sic] de Kooning [Egan; to Apr.30], Dutch-born artist who has devoted twenty years exclusively to painting in New York City, brings a singular concentration of passion and technique. His abstractions with their fierce energy are the results of months of sketching and alteration, and they reveal a new, self-contained personality. For here is virtuosity disguised by voluptuousness—the process of painting becomes the end…. Indeed, his subject seems to be the crucial intensity of the creative process itself, which De Kooning has translated into a new and purely pictorial idiom. $300–$2,000.
—Renée Arb

Roy Lichtenstein
May 1951
Roy Lichtenstein [Carlebach; to May 12] recognizes the faces that appear on buttons and electric light outlets and ushers them with mock ceremony into the inner sanctum—a half-naí¯ve, private world of dots, hooks, eyes, pegs, little jagged shapes, like torn paper, and things that look like bow ties, all in muted pinks, blues and mauves. From this completely ingenuous way of looking at things, it is a short step to the concoction of The Warrior from a file and a pink drill-buffer, and The Horse from a lump of wood, a handle for opening a window, and an absurd screw. Lichtenstein teaches at Ohio State University and his first one man show reveals a curious and amusing mind in the act of discovering a personal syntax of form. $30–$300.
—Larry Campbell

Clarke, Rager, Warhol
Summer 1954
… Andy Warhol has developed an original style of line drawing and a willingness to obligate himself to that narrow horizon on which appear attractive and demanding young men involved in the business of being as much like Truman Capote or his heroes as possible. His technique has the effect of the reverse side of a negative, although his lines are broken and the spaces not clouded. Prices unquoted.
—Barbara Guest

David Smith: The Color of Steel
Three exhibitions are not enough to show all the current work by the dean of American sculptors working in metal
December 1961
… The stainless-steel sculptures continue a direction which first reached monumental proportions in Fifteen Planes (shown at the Venice Biennale, 1958). They are tall, glittering, leggy works, usually with several flat surfaces meeting like still-lifes above the verticals which hold them aloft…. They look severe and dashing; to continue the meadow-party idea, they are the sort of people who are about to walk away because you just aren’t as interesting as they are, but they’re not quite mean enough to do it. The working of the surface in this medium, as Smith does it, has the kind of severe, ironic frivolity Velí¡zquez brought to the marvelously detailed costume of a mean-looking Spanish nobleman. But of course it is really all a matter of light, light sinking, light dashing into the surface, light bouncing back at you….
—Frank O’Hara

Picasso in Retrospect 1839–1900
The Comprehensive Exhibition in New York and Chicago
November 18, 1939
Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, for the biggest show on earth of Pablo, the Playboy Painter of Paris—performing his prodigious prestidigitations of protean pictorialization! A change of style as often as every five minutes—first he’s blue, then he’s rosy, now he’s all cubes and angles, next he’s all curves! He shows you things you’ve never seen before, but it’s Picasso pinxit all the time—the hand is quicker than the eye, the tongue rapid in the cheek!


Here, in full retrospect, is the master of the modern age, the painter who, even by the admission of his antagonists, has influenced the art of his time more than any other man. Here is the most fertile and the most advanced painter of the twentieth century, whose art at fifty-eight is still as revolutionary and again as generally misunderstood as was once that of his twenties which is now an accepted classic almost unto the academies….

What more evidence than these alternative openings—each as true in its own way as the other—to a review of the great Picasso Exhibition, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago, is needed to testify to the difficulties that here confront the critic?… What to say in a larger sense? Most of all, I think, that this exhibition must make the thinking man concede Picasso as the greatest artist of our time….
—Alfred M. Frankfurter

Los Angeles
Relevance—and art, too
January 1973
… The prize problematical young artist of the area is undisputably 27-year-old Chris Burden. He creates terrifying performance pieces that often appear to place him in literal physical danger, and his viewers in a moral and psychological dilemma. He recently announced a “performance” at La Cienega’s Mizuno Gallery. The assembled crowd eventually discovered him huddled under a tarpaulin on the traffic side of a parked car. Accident flares sputtered near the heaped figure. Art-lovers soon blocked traffic, attracting the police. Burden was hauled off and booked on a misdemeanor charge—”causing the report of a false emergency.”

This was fairly mild compared to the times he had a friend shoot him in the arm, sat atop a ladder in an electrified pool all night and locked himself in a locker for several days.

I am inclined to believe such self-destructive acts ought not to be viewed as art for reasons of simple humanity….
—William Wilson

Nam June Paik
April 1975
(René Block): Nam June Paik is the first master of video. He bothers to present his interesting tapes in an interesting manner; don’t you wish everybody did?…
—Michael André

Cindy Sherman
Metro Pictures
December 1985
The 14 huge color photographs in this show represent a great leap forward for Sherman, the young artist who has gained fame and critical acclaim for her photographs of herself in various guises….

These are intense, terrifying photographs for the most part—nightmarish variations on folk legends and archetypes: an Arabian princess bares false breasts in her tent; a creature, half woman, half pig, grovels in the mud; a bald gnome rises in a wheat field; a figure clutches crazily at wet gravel; a medieval warrior lies bloodied on the ground. The ominousness that lurked beneath the surface even in Sherman’s wry “film stills” of 1977–80 here erupts in full force; these are brutal and unforgettable images of terror, desperation, victimization and deformity. While the film stills tapped into our cultural consciousness, suggesting media images of the 1950s and ’60s, Sherman has now reached into the collective unconscious, grabbing the viewer at the most visceral, elemental level.

In a sense, Sherman is still shooting film stills, but she is now a more accomplished director….
—John Sturman

A view from outside the 1993 Whitney Biennial, which our critic called a "Zeitgeist-in-a-mall."


Whitney Biennial: Apocalypse Now?
April 1993
In her catalogue essay, “What’s White… ?” Thelma Golden, an associate curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, writes, “many may call this Biennial the ’multicultural’ or ’politically correct’ Biennial….” How right she was, and more so. If this 67th edition of the Whitney’s pulse-taking of the art scene contributed anything, it was the redefinition of that endlessly heard abbreviation “PC.” No longer does it only mean “politically correct.” Now, thanks to this exhibition’s slavish, though not uninteresting, focus on the “marginalized,” the victims of white, male, capitalist society—what Robert Hughes once called, with derisive humor, the Penis People—PC can now stand for “predictably correct,” or even better, “predictably chic.”…
—Steven Henry Madoff

Robert Rauschenberg
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Ace
November 1997
Although the Guggenheim’s retrospective of some 400 works at three venues—uptown (through January 7), SoHo (through January 4), and at Ace Gallery (through the ninth of this month)—may be too big, and a number of the pieces in it are not Rauschenberg’s best, none of this detracts from the show’s extraordinary testimony to the ingenuity and originality of one of this century’s most influential artists.

Few could stand up to the scrutiny of a retrospective filling even one museum. It is not only Rauschenberg’s expansive talent that sustains this show and its beautiful, heavyweight catalogue, but also the rare glimpse we get of the trajectory of a career, the way an idea gets developed, played out, and sometimes overextended. Drawing on the past and the present—combining and appropriating, paying homage to other times, places, artists, and movements—the 72-year-old artist emerges as a natural postmodernist….
—Barbara A. MacAdam

“The Funny Side of the Abyss”: Bruce Nauman
from “Top Ten Living Artists”
December 1999
… His art is never tame or polite; it grunts at us; it moans and howls; it makes rude, unpleasant noises. To attend an exhibition of his work is to recapture some of the danger and excitement of hanging out with the most inventive, creative, and charismatic kid on the block— the one who, of course, grew up to be the criminal or the psycho….
—Francine Prose


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