IN “THE CREATIVE ACT,” a short essay from 1957, Marcel Duchamp argues that artmaking is never truly a solitary activity. He describes the artist as a sort of conduit for inchoate creativity, operating like a “mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing.” Aesthetic decisions made in the studio “rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a self-analysis, spoken or written, or even thought out.” The initial creation is an aesthetic object stuck in a veritable purgatory. It remains inert without the effort of a spectator, who “brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications.” In Duchamp’s formulation, Art in America’s contributors and editors are among those who confront “art à l’état brut,” and transform it into something “‘refined’ as pure sugar from molasses.”
I suspect quite a few artists would take issue with this version of events and the notion that they lack ultimate control over what they’ve made. And the sugar metaphor probably gives too much credit to criticism. The transmutation that Duchamp described may be profound, but it’s not necessarily difficult to accomplish. Anyone can offer any kind of interpretation, whether it sticks or not is another story. Still, Duchamp’s essay underscores the core function of criticism as I see it, which is to put works of art in contact with the world and illuminate how they accrue meaning far outside the studio. This mode of social art criticism often brings large-scale power structures to bear on the interpretation of artwork. In this issue, for example, we present extended discussions of the politics of art institutions, surveillance programs, and the tax shelters that feed the elite art economy.
Without closing our eyes to these realities, the moments of raw creation can remain a source of fascination. Two articles in this issue examine the granular details of artists’ processes and their stated motivations for working. Sue Taylor discusses painter R.B. Kitaj in relation to his memoir, posthumously published in 2017. Kitaj could be pompous, boorish, paranoid, and spiteful toward detractors, as he sought to perfect his craft and find visual forms to express a modern Jewish identity. Taylor spars with Kitaj’s own understanding of his work—treating the Duchampian critical act as a kind of boxing match—never allowing his self-assessment to overshadow her own interpretation of his canvases, which are among the most striking figurative paintings of the late twentieth century.
Nancy Princenthal, a contributing editor to A.i.A., details the extraordinary relationship between contemporary artist R.H. Quaytman and modernist painter Hilma af Klint. The latter was quite literally “mediumistic”: af Klint steeped herself in Theosophy and claimed to produce her early abstractions through the guidance of spiritual forces. Quaytman organized af Klint’s first exhibition in New York, in 1989, and has remained fascinated with the pioneering abstractionist for the past thirty years. Both an artist and an interpreter of af Klint, Quaytman produced a new series of paintings that are currently on view in tandem with af Klint’s retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Princenthal details connections between the Conceptual parameters that govern Quaytman’s production and the spiritual drive that determined af Klint’s compositions, giving credence to Sol LeWitt’s famous observation that “conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists.”
The new year marks a new beginning for Art in America. This issue is our first to be published by the Penske Media Corporation, which recently acquired the magazine as well as our sister publication, ARTnews. For the past one hundred and six years, Art in America has cultivated a robust forum for art criticism, and our editorial staff is excited to build on this history throughout our one hundred and seventh year and beyond.