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‘The Emphasis of the Magazine Is Really on the Critic’: Margaret Sundell on 4Columns, Her New Publication Devoted to Arts Criticism

Alma Thomas's Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers (1968) is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem, in a show reviewed by Anesh D'Souza in the first issue of 4Columns. ARTHUR EVANS/THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION, WASHINGTON, D.C., GIFT OF FRANZ BADER, 1976

Alma Thomas’s Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers (1968) is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem, in a show reviewed by Aruna D’Souza in the first issue of 4Columns.

ARTHUR EVANS/THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION, WASHINGTON, D.C., GIFT OF FRANZ BADER, 1976

In an age of armchair critics and impatient readers, it takes guts to launch a publication entirely devoted to reviews, yet that’s exactly what critic Margaret Sundell has done with 4Columns, an online magazine that will run four arts-related essays a week. Funded by a nonprofit, 4Columns announced its existence earlier this month with a Charles Baudelaire–quoting release that promised contributions by Hilton Als, Alex Kitnick, and Amy Taubin, among others. Each column will be just 1,000 words, and each will focus on a different art form—the first issue, released last Friday and available to the public for free, includes an Aruna D’Souza essay on Alma Thomas, and a review of RuPaul’s Drag Race by Ed Halter. Speaking by phone last week, Sundell discussed her vision for 4Columns, and why the magazine will be like a box of Godiva chocolates.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

ARTnews: Tell me a little bit about the concept behind 4Columns.

Margaret Sundell: The website is the vehicle of a nonprofit organization. It was created to do the website, but it was also created to support and promote arts criticism and art critics through the publication of 4Columns, this venue for art criticism. Even though it’s based online, there are certain ways in which it hearkens to the print medium, insofar as there are technically issues. Each week, there will be four columns, each addressing a different subject, and they’re all going to launch together. The older ones are archived.

Is it going to be a different art form every week?

The coverage is the gamut of the arts. The visual arts are going to be a big part of the magazine, and there will be a piece devoted to an exhibition every week. There’s also going to be a book review of some sort every week, and there will also be coverage of film, of music, of theater, and performance as well. But there’s a strong anchor in the visual arts, and that will be something you can expect to find on a weekly basis.

Is there an overarching vision for the criticism?

It’s aimed at a general audience, so it should be more accessible to an educated reader. It’s not academic. 4Columns definitely wants not to be mired in the jargon of specific disciplines, so that people who are culturally engaged, and culturally and intellectually curious, can participate in what’s going on in artistic forms other than the ones that they are most involved with. I think many of the readers will be from the art world or the literary world, but I want the ones from the literary world to be able to understand the art reviews and vice versa.

The emphasis of the magazine is really on the critic and the critic’s work, not on someone who makes objective judgements in a disembodied way, but actually as somebody that’s in the world and seeing the work, and who can link it other things and past experiences or works. I think there’s a centrality of the critic as a kind of refracting viewer of the artwork.

4Columns debuts four new arts-related essays a week. All old essays are archived on the site, and are available to the public for free.

4Columns debuts four new arts-related essays a week. All old essays are archived on the site, and are available to the public for free.

4Columns’s mainstay will be the 1,000-word review. Tell me about why that form appealed to you.

One thousand words happens to be the length of the lead review of Time Out magazine, which I wrote for—I was a critic there. It’s also the length of Artforum’s longer reviews. It’s something that I work in, as a critic, and I think that it’s a great length because it’s long enough that you can say something, but you have to be really rigorous with. You can’t say everything; you can’t just have it as a platform for riffing. . . . One thousand words is also a very nice length for the reader of online platforms, in that you can follow an argument and you can read it all at once. It’s not a blurb—it’s something where someone is developing an argument, and where you will come away with a sense of the exhibition. The length was chosen with the writer’s perspective in mind, but it also dovetails with the fact that 4Columns is an online-only publication, and that it is operating at a gentle online speed.

Obviously, this is just beginning, but what do you envision for 4Columns’s future? Is there a possibility that it will grow beyond four columns?

One thing we have planned so far is something called the fifth column. You’re laughing, so you know this what this refers to. The fifth column will be an internal agent of subversion in our nice four columns. It will be a periodic moment for doing something different that will tweak or twist our format. We already have our first fifth column lined up, which will be coverage of the Creative Time Summit. That’s going to be done as an interview with Nato Thompson, and through live-blogging.

Maybe this is a broad question, but are there any major issues in criticism that you’re thinking about a lot?

One thing that I think about is the value of criticism, and of criticism as a genre in its own right. I talk about it as a writerly genre. I come from academic training, and I think that there are ways in which the fusion of academia and contemporary art has not always been so felicitous for contemporary criticism. Something I think about is criticism as a form of writing, as opposed to a form of contemporary art history, if that makes any sense.

It does. Online, there’s so much criticism that people have gotten less good at sifting through what’s good and what isn’t.

That’s absolutely true. I have this weird idea of the site as being a little chocolate sampler. In my childhood, I would get these little boxes of Godiva gold chocolate samplers, where you have four chocolates. They’re these small chocolates, these four little nuggets. They’re all related, but they’re all very individual and have their own richness and their own texture. In this sense, 4Columns is giving that to the reader.

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