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In Memoriam: Dore Ashton, 1928–2017

Ashton.JOHN SIMON GUGGENHEIM FOUNDATION

Ashton.

JOHN SIMON GUGGENHEIM FOUNDATION

“I am a proud philistine,” Dore wrote on a small piece of paper she gave me at her home in New York. It was one of those evenings we used to spend together discussing literature, poetry, and art. Of course, she was provocative—there are very few art critics I know, or read, who have had such a rich and idiosyncratic knowledge of world cultures and arts. In fact, I should have just written “culture,” for Dore perceived all cultures as equally important—those associated with “art centers” and those with “art peripheries.” She constructed a different, non–geo-cultural, hierarchy for herself, one based on what she considered universal excellence in art, not as a newly invented, or reinvented, set of formal rules or style, but as something belonging to the long tradition of art making. She simply stood for a commitment to everyday hard work, erudition, and remaining true to her own sensibility. “Tinkering” (as a form of “bricolage) was her methodology. Of course, as a deep thinker, she was never totally certain of the results of her arguments, of how successful or convincing they were, but she used to repeat a famous phrase in French: “Quand je me regarde je me désole, quand je me compare je me console.” (“When I look at myself I feel sorry, when I compare myself I console myself).”

She was a passionate critic, meaning she stood firm behind her opinions, even—or particularly—when they appeared to be unpopular, which often put her in conflict with many fellow art critics. I often heard people saying she was out of touch with her time, belonged to a different era. But it wasn’t that simple: hard work, erudition, and sensibility do not obey time. One might say, she fit and, at the same time, didn’t fit into the New York art scene. For some people it was a paradox, considering that she was one of the main voices for artists associated with the so-called New York School, from which modern American art and art criticism developed as unique phenomena. I, who wanted to fit so badly as a young art critic and art historian, wondered why she was so confrontational, especially when voicing an opinion about the kind of academic art writing of which she was not an admirer at all. The reason might have been very clear: the writers who inspired her writing about art were Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Philip Guston, Gaston Bachelard, and Octavio Paz.

Her home, which she shared for many years with her late second husband, Matti Megged, was an extraordinary meeting place in New York. Mark Rothko, Guston, Robert Motherwell, Antoni Tàpies, Pierre Soulages, Hedda Sterne, Antonio Saura … Lee Bontecou, Rosemarie Trockel, Miquel Barceló frequently came to visit—often staying for dinner. Among other regular visitors were important writers, poets, and philosophers, as well as her students from the Cooper Union, where she taught for many years. I particularly remember an “official evening” organized in Dore’s home in the mid-1990s for a Sandinista dignitary from Nicaragua, at which, to my delight, I saw Allen Ginsberg, who was my idol when I was a teenager growing up in Poland. Then there were the more private evenings reserved for conversations among family and friends about literature and poetry, from Dante to Heinrich von Kleist, from Miguel de Cervantes to Bruno Schulz. Speaking about Schulz, I remember once telling Dore that I was shocked to learn how many people in New York claimed ancestors who’d come from Drohobycz! She was not surprised, since  so many influential intellectuals had come to New York from that part of the world, which the town in Ukraine symbolizes.

Dore has left many loyal admirers worldwide, in such places as Japan, Spain, Chile, and Hungary, as well as in here in the United States. I witnessed the breadth and depth of that admiration many times, including during a visit we’d made together to Budapest, Hungary, in 1998. There, after our public conversation about art held at the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, a man approached her with a visibly used copy of one of her books and showed it to her with great pride. She has also left many friends in Santiago de Chile, particularly among the staff and visitors at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, where her name is prominently listed on a wall panel among the people who were instrumental in putting together the incredible collection of modern art, all works gifts of artists, gathered there.

From early on, Dore was a restless traveler, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that her last major trip had been to Cuba a few years ago. Clearly, that represented her “pilgrimage” to a country she considered a “spiritual place,” of course, not in a religious sense of the word, but in terms of providing a utopian model for her life and work as a leftist intellectual with Big Dreams. By the time she made that trip, we had “traveled” our separate ways, seeing each other infrequently. And yet, our paths crossed in a different way when AICA (the International Association of Art Critics), held its Congress in Cuba last fall. Although Dore didn’t attend it, she was constantly in my mind there.

New York, February 1, 2017

Marek Bartelik currently serves as XVth President of AICA International.

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