Last year, curator Robert Storr, then the dean of the Yale School of Art, went on a tirade about the state of art criticism on a Yale radio show, lambasting everyone from New York magazine’s Jerry Saltz—a “class clown,” Storr said—to academics Hal Foster and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who “know very little about art history.” “Critics,” Storr concluded, “have gotten confused about the issue of what their role is.”
This year, several books addressed the role of the critic head-on, bringing Storr’s words back to mind for me. In his memoir Before Pictures, Douglas Crimp tracked how he became an art writer, while two anthologies—Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015, edited by Jennifer Liese, and Bob Nickas’s The Dept. of Corrections: Collected Writings 2007–2015—collected diverse forms of recent criticism. The artist Liam Gillick, an indefatigable provocateur, also entered the debate with Industry and Intelligence: Contemporary Art Since 1820, tackling the very nature of art history itself. Each book argued that the art critic as art-world arbiter may be a thing of the past, and that that may not be such a terrible development.
Crimp’s Before Pictures (Dancing Foxes Press and University of Chicago Press) is a nostalgia trip to a time before criticism’s efficacy fell into doubt. It follows Crimp’s early years in the art world, from 1967 to 1977, the year he curated “Pictures,” his landmark show at Artists Space about emerging art focused on media’s role in representation, better known to many in the form of a 1979 essay published in the journal October. (Crimp’s essential writing on Andy Warhol, art after AIDS, and dance would come later.) Crimp’s book is equal parts a coming-of-age story, a love letter to New York City, and an account of Crimp’s romantic travails—a memoir that doubles as the tale of how criticism shaped the beginnings of postmodern art.
Crimp begins in New York, where he landed after studying art history at Tulane University, with a neighbor at his 98th Street apartment who “made a project of turning me into an art-world insider.” Through some mutual connections, he met the artist Jack Tworkov’s daughter, Helen, and she took him to the storied bar Max’s Kansas City near Union Square. Minimalists and Conceptualists hung out in the front; Warhol’s gang camped out in the back. Crimp writes, “The division represented by Max’s front and back rooms—between the art world and the queer world—was one that I would negotiate throughout my first decade in New York City.”
Before Pictures embodies the same split, being both a history of the’70s New York art world and the era’s gay scene, which can make for frustrating reading. There’s enough material here for two full books. But there is beauty to be had when the two worlds rub against each other, like bodies pressed against each other at an overheated disco.
Discussing Gordon Matta-Clark’s project Day’s End (1972), which the artist staged over the course of a summer in a dilapidated Hudson River pier, near a cruising ground for gay men, Crimp writes that “it’s impossible for me not to think of the experiences of those other pier occupants, the ones whom Matta-Clark seems, in nearly all the statements about the work, to want to differentiate himself.” That leads him to Alvin Baltrop’s black-and-white photographs of the piers, of “butt fucking or cock sucking amid the rubble,” and his admission that he didn’t frequent the piers himself, being apprehensive about their “easy proximity and constant promise.” (Managing freelancing and a thriving sex life was always a balancing act.)
It is a pleasure to find Crimp, associated for many with dense writing and theory, comfortable in unfiltered and entertaining first-person, sharing, “I always made breakfasts for my tricks,” or dishing about his brief romance with the artist Ellsworth Kelly. His clear prose mirrors the liberated attitudes of the scene he describes.
Developing his critical facilities, as a curatorial assistant at the Guggenheim Museum, and then as a freelance writer, he writes, “I was determined to find a critical position that circumvented both the poetic approach associated with Art News”—he briefly did reviews for this magazine—“and the Greenbergian formalism that held sway among many of the Artforum critics.” Before Pictures is ultimately about how he worked out a solution for himself: finding where criticism, politics, art, and his own life converged.
Concluding Before Pictures, Crimp writes that the art world in 1977 “was small enough to seem fully comprehensible. . . . That, of course, no longer holds true.” Questions naturally follow: Has it grown so big that critics can no longer have a real voice? How does a critic respond to a rapidly expanding universe of museums, galleries, and markets?
Bob Nickas’s anthology The Dept. of Corrections: Collected Writings 2007–2015 (Karma) is a eulogy for the smaller New York art world of the 1980s and ‘90s. Filled with memorable essays about Nickas’s favorite artists, it features a few showstoppers, including the bittersweet piece “Traces of SoHo Past,” in which Nickas writes, “In New York, art has always left traces behind, but like everything else in the city, those traces vanish a little more every passing day, until they are completely erased.” When Nickas wrote the piece in 2010, Matta-Clark’s storied SoHo restaurant Food was a Lucky Brand Jeans, and dealer Tony Shafrazi’s nearby space was a Marc Jacobs. Almost every sign of ’80s SoHo has disappeared, but every so often, “those old bones rattle,” and it comes alive again, through acts of remembrance, Nickas argues.
Working in the ’80s, Nickas witnessed radical change in art, including the rise of a new type of criticism, pioneered by Village Voice writers like Eileen Myles and Gary Indiana, who reviewed shows while bitching about their personal lives. Punchy, stylized, witty, poetic, and sad, their reviews forged a sensibility devoid of October’s high-minded theory and circuitous sentences.
The Dept. of Corrections has the same accessible, anti-establishment air as that writing, the best done in the ’80s. In one of its best essays, “Closing the Gap Between Art and Life,” Nickas uses the Frieze Art Fair’s partnership with the Gap as an opportunity to indict the whole art world. “That ‘lowercase a’ art world of ours? It’s more like Ye Olde Medieval Village, with its idiots and town criers,” he writes, adding later, “Why are there prizes in art? It doesn’t get more medieval than that.”
Nickas is good on art itself, too. He writes on Kara Walker’s 1994 drawing Gone (“devilish” and “mercurial”), David Hammons’s 2002 installation Concerto in Black and Blue (it “thwart[s] the expectations of an audience he had never played to”), Laurie Parsons’s spare installations (“purposeful and compassionate”), and others, ably navigating between artworks and what happens when they are exploited by dealers, curators, and flacks.
Nickas is a stylist, carefully attuned to how and why writers write. That comes to the fore in “Tragedy Begets Farce,” a culled poem of sorts. Every word is lifted from artist and writer Sam Pulitzer’s Artforum review of the 2015 New Museum Triennial, which Nickas reassembles into a neo-Dada sound poem, implying that criticism has lost its grip on reality, that it’s overrun with meaningless phrases like “predictive futurity” and “recursive self-portraiture.” For Nickas, the irony of Pulitzer’s review is that it contains a phrase that describes itself: “informatic slop.”
You could also use that term to describe Liam Gillick’s Industry and Intelligence: Contemporary Art Since 1820 (Columbia University Press), a dumbfounding little tome that suffers from prose awful enough that any attempt at provocation is lost in the mess. (For instance, describing the global chaos caused by World War II and its aftermath, Gillick intones, “An abstraction of an abstraction swirled around and intoxicated capital.”) The book’s thesis—that the term “contemporary art” isn’t valid anymore, because there’s no way art isn’t contemporary these days, if it’s constantly pressured to address what is happening right now—is interesting, but the means Gillick uses to make it are not. While his art, at its best, has a certain concise humor, that is not true here. Like the first draft of a graduate-school term paper, the book is dry and overly intricate, albeit with a couple good points buried in there somewhere.
At its heart, Industry and Intelligence is a book that’s about contemporary art’s narcissism. “The discourse of contemporary art,” Gillick writes, “revolves around itself.” It’s created an “endlessly produced white noise of seminewness,” whatever that means. That discourse is like a disease in Gillick’s mind, taking over everything it touches. “It does not describe a practice but a general being in the context,” which is an opaque way of saying that the only perspectives contemporary art allows for are those created by history and current events—artists who want to be considered relevant aren’t allowed to be introspective.
What follows is a theoretical history of art since 1820, as the industrial evolution was beginning, up through 1974. Artists and works are rarely mentioned, though there is a bizarre picture essay, with images of work by artists like Ed Atkins and Rosemarie Trockel, in the middle presented without explanation. Gillick describes a condition without naming names, which makes it hard to argue against him, and difficult to believe him. He does cogently argue that curators, the market, and the academy have a chokehold on artists today, forcing them to make work that involves all kinds of information. Is there a way out? He proposes we look to “current artists,” who work “freely, openly, and on demand,” typically outside the gallery system. It’s a vague premise. For a book obsessed with terminology, it’s ironic that its own words are so unclear.
A welcome antidote to Gillick’s willful obfuscation is Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015 (Paper Monument), a bombshell of an anthology with texts by 75 artists, from Jimmie Durham to Juliana Huxtable. Edited by Jennifer Liese, the director of the Rhode Island School of Design’s writing center, it aims to sample artists’ writings since 2000. Liese writes in an introduction that artists have rushed to the form in the 21st century—a “surprising, if not unprecedented” development, and her essential book convincingly makes the case that they are innovating a once-dormant critical field.
The book begins, appropriately, with artists writing about artists writing. “Is there a difference between an artist/critic and an art critic? I would have to say yes, there is,” Mike Kelley says in an essay from 2001. Social Medium elucidates that point—it shows artists going places that critics rarely explore, and writing in ways that art historians generally do not. Consider Glenn Ligon’s beautiful essay on Hammons’s sly readymades, which Ligon uses as a means of reflecting on his own identity, writing, “If blackness is a construct, then we are all construction workers.”
Liese’s book offers a fine sampling of both mainstream and slightly obscure writing, for example placing a Hito Steyerl essay on art in a “post-democracy world” just 50 pages after Takashi Murakami’s “Super Flat Manifesto.” She also includes both accessible and academic works—there is a lot of diversity and a lot to love, even if the quality of the texts varies dramatically.
Some pieces are calls to arms. W.A.G.E. contributes a “wo/manifesto,” in which the activist organization “DEMANDS PAYMENT FOR MAKING THE WORLD MORE INTERESTING.” Molly Crabapple, whose work was central to Occupy Wall Street, offers a damning essay about Guantanamo Bay, where staff members had drinks as prisoners were waterboarded. “We will spend $150 million a year to detain 166 men until the end of terror,” Crabapple writes. “But like the war on drugs, the war on terror will never end.”
Others texts are politics-free. One particularly audacious selection is from Deanna Havas, known online as baby d, whose insouciant tweets are reprinted. Two choice selections: “Career highlight: slapped a Frieze editor at Basel during champagne brunch” and “I think like 45% of my dreams are coming true.” They play nicely off Ryan Trecartin’s frenetic, off-the-wall poetry, complete with oversize punctuation and multiple fonts, and a Xu Bing story told entirely through emoticons.
Liese maintains that “the Internet came along and irrevocably changed the production, distribution, and reception of writing.” True, but it feels like she is overstating her case. Though some texts in this book were developed online, like a Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries piece that’s simply a URL (you’ll even need internet access to read it), I’ve encountered more than a few of them before in magazines, books, and journals. The internet is a vital issue for many of these artists, but by no means all of them.
That said, digital tools have fostered some exciting projects here, like Greg Allen’s blog posts, some of which consider the complicated origins of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953). Allen writes about how precious moments of art history get lost. Researching the work, he comes to “realize that there is an entire layer of art historical information out there, stuff that people who know know, but can’t write about. I wonder how much of this information gets lost before it’s written or published or transmitted somehow.” Even some of the juiciest gossip and the most important artworks fall through the cracks—nobody, not even the best art historian or critic, could make sense of it all. Thankfully, there are artists to help with that.