A Critic's Diary

An Introduction: David Bourdon’s New York Art Year, From September 2017 to September 2018

Aboard the fireboat John J. Harvey on July 29, 2018, painted by Tauba Auerbach for a project called Flow Separation.


I can’t remember exactly how I came across it, but ten years ago, I found myself reading the obituary that Holland Cotter wrote in 1998 for his fellow art critic David Bourdon. One particular detail blew my mind: for the July/August 1977 issue of Art in America magazine, Bourdon had “produced a memorable diary-style, show-by-show review of the entire New York art season, a marathon task he never attempted again.” Who was this mad man?

Soon after, I took the subway up to Columbia University, found Bourdon’s article in the bowels of Avery Library, titled “A Critic’s Diary: The New York Art Year,” and started reading. The piece clocks in at about 15,000 words, but the prose is compelling, and I found it packed with nuggets of information and stories that I had never read anywhere else. What was most striking, though, was how familiar it all felt to me, a working art writer, even though it was decades old. It was a thrill to read, and I thought that one day I would like to try writing something similar, aiming to explain what it’s like to ride the waves of art that crash through the city each season.

The opening page of Bourdon’s 1977 article ‘A Critic’s Diary,’ published in Art in America. Click to enlarge.

One thing I immediately gleaned from reading Bourdon was how to strategize for maximum viewing. “Because there are literally hundreds of shows to be seen in New York most weeks of the year,” he begins, “art folk quickly learn to be selectively voracious.” He made lists of shows and moved quickly to see them all, sometimes taking in as many as 35 in one day.

In Bourdon’s day, the galleries were “clustered in three compact areas: Madison Avenue, 57th Street and SoHo,” and he had difficulty with SoHo, where a critical mass of cutting-edge galleries had opened. These days, my SoHo is the Lower East Side and Chinatown. For a while, I thought I had worked out an efficient path through them, but because galleries have opened and closed and moved there so frequently, I have given that up, and now let myself meander around, pulled here and there by shows I have an especial urge to see.

Mercifully, most of New York’s galleries are still clustered together, though their number has ballooned since Bourdon’s day. To ensure I visit as many as possible, I’ve taken to dividing the scene into five zones—Chelsea, Lower Manhattan (everything below 14th Street), Brooklyn (and the other outer boroughs), the Upper East Side (and Harlem), and Midtown (combining the latter two when I’m feeling ambitious). Once a month, I try to spend a full day in each one, catching the shows I didn’t rush to see when they first opened. Seeing everything is a difficult business, though, so regardless of how productive I have been, every few weeks, I triage, making a list of can’t-miss, soon-to-close shows and then checking them off as I go. (Still, I miss a few.)

Lewis Stein, Untitled, ca. 1976, on view at Essex Street, October 29–December 22, 2017.

Over the course of a month I typically see more than 100 exhibitions, sometimes many more. To quote from Bourdon one last time: “Much of what I see is mediocre and forgettable, but I never feel my time is wasted.” Even when I am not a fan of something I come across, I can usually find something about it that I like. (And if I can’t, that’s fun in its own way.)

I’ve tried to write my own Bourdon-style diary a few times since coming across his, but I’ve crashed and burned. Over the past year, though, I managed to scrape it together, and so here it is: a look back at the past season, from September 2017 all the way up to last week. Some bits have been published before—in various newsletters or articles—but most of it is new. It includes almost every show I saw, as well as a decent percentage of the performances and social events I attended. I had a great time writing it, but I don’t plan to attempt it again.

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