John Perreault, who wrote sharp art criticism for ARTnews, Soho News, and the Village Voice, and who made art that often relied on strange materials, died on Sunday morning after being hospitalized at NYU Langone for complications resulting from gastrointestinal surgery. He was 78.
Perreault is best known for being an early proponent of avant-garde movements like Minimalism, Land art, and Pattern and Decoration during the late 1960s and the ’70s. It helped that Perreault was closely integrated into the New York art world of his time. He staged a performance called Critical Mass at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971. He also had an eye for artists who would ultimately become canonical. As a result, he achieved a following from artists, critics, curators, and readers of all kinds.
When it came to art criticism, Perreault didn’t hold back, actively dismissing opinions that he thought were flawed or, moreover, wrong. Writing in ARTnews, then as an editorial associate, in 1968, on the occasion of a George Segal show at Sidney Janis Gallery, Perreault gently attacked the idea that Segal was a Pop artist. The Janis show, he wrote, “will do much to establish his position as, surprisingly enough, a major artist who, along with three or four of the other Pop Popes, proves his art is artful enough to survive labels that served as handy introductions but not as adequate definitions.”
As an art critic for the Village Voice between 1966 and 1974, Perreault gained a reputation for his writing and his friendships with artists. Perreault’s husband, Jeff Weinstein, recounted that Perreault spoke on the phone with Andy Warhol nightly for two years, and that this was just one of many friendships like this. “John was a witness to the art world in the ’60s and ’70s in a way that nobody else was,” Weinstein said in a phone conversation. “He didn’t know how important he was as a critic.”
Following writing for ARTnews, Perreault was the senior art critic at Soho News from 1975 to 1982, and a regular contributor to the Village Voice from 1988 to 1990. (In his time between the two publications, he was the chief curator at the Everson Museum of Art, in Syracuse, and then the director and curator of the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, in Staten Island.) His work at Soho News earned him an art criticism fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979. His commitment to art criticism remained throughout his life—he was dedicated to organizing the American section of the International Association of Art Critics, or what is now known as AICA-USA.
Having come to the fore at a time when art was transitioning from modernism to postmodernism, Perreault was doubtful of art that had been praised in the past, and he continued to be that way in the final years of his life. In a review of last year’s Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney, published on his personal blog Artopia, Perreault wrote, “The soup cans and Brillo boxes must have been an influence, yes. But you will find nothing in Koons equivalent to the silkscreen painting of the deadly tuna fish cans, the car crashes, or even the mourning Jackie. If Koons is a latter-day Warhol, he is a Warhol without shadows.”
Perreault also disagreed with today’s widely accepted idea that sociopolitical art is important art. “Contemporary art in the service of social criticism needs to be more subversive,” he said in a 2011 interview with Art Experience NYC. “The direct mode of social criticism—as pioneered by an artist like Hans Haacke—is all well and good and scores points within the art world and maybe eventually within art history. But, let’s face it; it has no impact on the larger world.”
However much Perreault felt at odds with what had received critical acclaim, he also had respect for his favorites. On the occasion of a Dada show at the Whitney in 1996, Perreault imagined a dialogue with Duchamp, telling the late artist: “[I]t is now a commonplace that without you, and without Dada, there would be no Pop, Conceptual Art, and Post-Modern Art,” to which Duchamp responded, “I take no responsibility.”
Perreault also made paintings that involved the use of such materials as toothpaste, instant coffee, and petroleum-coated beach-sand acrylic. With their drippy, blotted forms, they recall the automatist works by André Masson. These works, as well as sculptures made of toothpaste boxes and stones, have been shown at Gallery 125, in Bellport, New York, where Perreault and his husband lived. When not writing art criticism or making art, Perreault, who had been a protégé of John Ashbery, also wrote poetry.
Perreault is survived by Weinstein, who first met Perreault during the ’70s in a bowling alley in San Diego. Later, once they were back in New York, Perreault and Weinstein began dating. They had been together 32 years before they were formally married in 2008. Perreault and Weinstein were nearing the 39th anniversary of their first date by the time Perreault died.
Earlier today, on Facebook, Weinstein shared a portrait of his husband done by Philip Pearlstein in 1975. (Alice Neel also painted a much more risqué portrait of Perreault in 1972.) Friends and admirers shared memories of Perreault in the comments. The painter Pat Steir called Perreault’s death a “huge loss.”
In a phone conversation, Brett Littman, the executive director of the Drawing Center, recalled traveling with Weinstein and Perrault and working for Perrault at UrbanGlass, an arts center devoted to craft where Perrault was the executive director. (In the later decades of his life, Perrault developed an interest in craft and architecture.) “He always had a wicked sense of humor,” Littman said. “He was, even into his sixties and seventies, always pushing the boundaries, always learning and questioning, and asking me questions about what I was doing and why. This is someone who I think was also interested in me continuing to learn as a human being and as a person.”
Littman added that Perrault’s encouragement was the reason he began seriously writing about art. “I said to him one day, ‘I’d really like to write.’ He said to me, ‘Well, you know, you’re smart enough. Why don’t you just write something?'” Littman said. “In a traditional situation, no one would’ve done that.”