THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

What D0 Artists and Critics Think?

 

Now that we’ve heard from our trio of academic art theorists, we thought a good idea might be to check in with a sample of artists and critics whose practice is with paint and prose. The Examiner was curious to see if the artists pay any attention to the critics and if the critics are familiar with their past colleagues and the critical tradition.

We began with a foundational question: Should the focus in art criticism be more in favor of evaluative or descriptive writing? Since descriptive criticism is now the overwhelming standard, we wanted to learn what factors our respondents thought had contributed most to the decline in evaluation that prevailed from the Greeks until the first signs of decline in the 1960s with Pop Art and the later appearance of conceptual art, earth art and post-structuralist theory.

The panel of four artists and four critics offered very thoughtful responses that we think you will find enlightening. We hope they may even sharpen your own thinking on the topic.

 

 

Stephen F. Eisenman

Professor of Art History,
Northwestern University

 

Q: Do you think art criticism should be more focused on evaluation or descriptive criticism?

A: I think you can’t have one without the other. I had a conservative art critic teacher at Princeton named Sam Hunter. He’d say, “Evoke the object”... The description is always necessary, but if a critic doesn’t do evaluation, he doesn’t do anything.

Q: What one or two factors contributed to the decline of the once-standard evaluative criticism?

A: Two things. One is the absence of a shared body of knowledge. Critics come from multiple perspectives and have been taught that any kind of master value or master critical trope is out of bounds or even oppressive. That means there isn’t a shared language, which is problematic for critics and their readers. The second thing would be...the authority of the market. The phenomenon that you’re describing began during the 1980s—and that’s the great era of the rise of neoliberal politics and economics… In that context, critical evaluation is ruled out.

Q: How has art criticism informed your practice of art, criticism, or even teaching?

A: For me, art criticism and art history are mutually reinforcing, or even a dialectic. The art criticism forces me as a historian to think about the temporal. It also requires me to sharpen my language and be more direct and even conversational. The need to write from Olympian heights as a scholar for an art historical audience is made foolish if you’re writing on a regular basis for an audience of normally educated people who aren’t scholars. The language of art criticism has clarified my language as an art historian. On the other hand, my writing as an art historian has made me much more attuned to the historicity of a contemporary work of art.

One of the things that is lacking in contemporary criticism, it seems to me, which a historical perspective can provide, is a view of the totality. Using one’s discernment, one can organize diverse materials, make valid generalizations, and draw broad conclusions. So, not only to see things in a micro-historical way, but to be able and willing to step back and look at the whole.

Q: Are there any critics or art writers, past or present, whom you especially admire and read on a regular basis?

A: I’d say Holland Cotter (of The New York Times) is the best critic in the United States... Luc Sante often writes well... Among past critics, I could include people from Baudelaire to Clement Greenberg, as well as Adrian Stokes, Donald Judd, Donald Kuspit, and David Craven.

Q: Which artist or exhibit has had the greatest impact on you?

A: My long-term, sustained critical and personal relationship with Sue Coe has had the greatest impact on me. She’s a model of artistic diligence, of personal and political integrity, of incorruptibility, and of engagement—and sheer skill! She has a retrospective at MoMA PS1 right now.

 

 

Rebekka Federle

Artist

 

Q: Do you think art criticism should be more focused on evaluation or on descriptive criticism?

A: Personally, I’m more interested in descriptive criticism. I can apply what I’ve learned about craft theory and art history and decide for myself. I think there’s more opportunity within descriptive criticism to apply your own learning to it—but then of course you’re stepping away from traditional art criticism.

Q: In our judgment, evaluative criticism has generally declined in more recent times. What do you think has contributed to that decline?

A: I don’t know that I’m fully licensed to speak to that. Art criticism and art have moved to a wider audience—that’s why I would imagine that’s happening.

Q: How has art criticism informed your practice, either as an artist or in any writing you may have done?

A: I think mainly through art criticism as it has happened within my own community—whether that be through school or through galleries or through artists I have relationships with. Art criticism at large doesn’t really affect me on a day to day basis—except for Jerry Saltz, who I follow on Instagram.

Q: Are there any critics or art writers, past or present, who you admire and read on a regular basis?

A: I had readings through school but somehow, after that, that all fell by the wayside. I think that’s mainly because I studied a craft field, and a lot of craft theory and craft criticism isn’t too relevant to what I was doing—but I follow Jerry Saltz and his lovely wife, Roberta Smith.

Q: What artist or exhibit has had the greatest impact on you?

A: The artist that has had the greatest impact on me is somebody that didn’t have any criticism written about him at the time that he was making anything—Henry Darger… I was lucky enough to have been introduced to him when I was seven. So I looked at him and his work way before any formal art training, and I think that helped me keep a certain naivete.

 

 

Michelle Grabner

Curator and the Crown Family Professor of Art
at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

Q: Do you think that art criticism should be more focused on evaluative or descriptive criticism?

A: You need both. Evaluation and interpretation need to be made, but careful description is necessary to ground your assessment.

Q: What one or two factors most contributed to the decline of the once-standard evaluative criticism?

A: Social media offers a platform for opinion to many. It is the immediacy of these opinions that erode assessments  acknowledging history.

Q: How has art criticism informed your practice or not?

A: I value criticality. That includes art criticism. Recently New Formalism has been influencing my approach to critique so development of literary criticism along with history and philosophy also informing my critical and curatorial work. And obviously my studio work as well.

Q: Are there any current critics or art writers, past or present, whom you respect and read on a regular basis?

A: I have been reading Fredric Jameson again.  But I have also become a fan of Rita Felski’s work on critique. And then there is Caroline Levine’s writing on form.

Q: What artist or exhibition has had the most impact on you?

A: The 1990 Carnegie International show had a great impact on me as a young critic and artist. I’ve been thinking about its subsequent impact on artmaking and theme of the international in the margins.

 

 

Dan Ramirez

Chicago-based artist. His most recent exhibition, a retrospective, “Certainty and Doubt: Paintings by Dan Ramirez,” was exhibited at the Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, WI. 2017-18

 

Q: Do you think that art criticism should be more focused on evaluative or descriptive criticism?

A: I find evaluative writing more significant in that it engages conceptual, philosophical and formal issues more deeply than descriptive writing. It also provides a more thorough bridge between artist and critic where transformative thought can occur between both over time. It also benefits the general art viewer in ways that descriptive writing does not.

Q: What one or two factors most contributed to the decline of the once-standard evaluative criticism?

A: Current evaluative criticism contextualizes much of its writing within a particular contemporary milieu, such as the recent focus on identity politics. This leaves little room for the larger function of interpretation that art has to offer. A decline of artists writing has also had an effect. This has fostered a lack of meaningful dialogue between artist and critic.

Q: How has art criticism informed your practice?

A: I expect art criticism to engage in a dialogue with my work that allows for some kind of transformation in my thinking. Something that pushes further on whatever I might be exploring at the time.

Q: Are there any current critics or art writers, past or present, whom you respect and read on a regular basis?

A: Yes! James Yood, Buzz Spector and Richard Schiff immediately come to mind. These are writers who have literally engaged me in the past in ways that I described earlier. I would also add Donald Judd, Richard Serra and Barnett Newman. Currently I am reading works by Korean artist Lee Ufan.

Q: What artist or exhibition has had the most impact on you?

A: Barnett Newman. His work had a huge existential impact on me. His “Stations of the Cross” challenged me as to what it means to simultaneously feel, think and look! It was a series that initially disappointed me on a first live viewing—then pushed me to grow in ways unimaginable.

 

 

Elliot Reichert

Art Editor of Newcity and formerly Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University

 

Q: Do you think art criticism should be more focused on evaluation or descriptive criticism?

A: In written criticism, description is a necessary precursor to evaluation, providing the foundational evidence for an evaluative claim. However, description itself carries evaluative properties, as it necessitates the magnification of certain details over others within the limited scope of a critique. Thus, evaluative criticism presupposes an inherent bias on the part of the writer, despite feigning objectivity. While I practice a self-consciously evaluative approach in my criticism, I do not believe that this method is the only viable or legitimate mode of critique. Criticism must be open to possibilities that it has not already imagined, both in terms of the art it critiques and the methods it deploys.

Q: What one or two factors contributed to the decline of the once-standard evaluative criticism?

A: If evaluative criticism were ever the standard—and I’m not sure that it ever was outside of a very narrow definition of criticism—it is because art criticism as we know it was born from Enlightenment thought in a pre-photographic world. The confluence of these conditions meant that artwork had to be described in order to be grasped and that criticism was understood as a practice of knowledge production within a very specific—that is, white, male, European—epistemology. Thankfully, epistemological orientations have changed since the birth of art criticism, and so too has art. The evaluative method can no longer be effective without an expressed self-awareness of the preconditions it demands from art. And, digital photography and the internet have made description far less vital to the practice of criticism, putting pressure on critics to use description more honestly and creatively. These are positive developments.

Q: How has art criticism informed your practice of art or criticism?

A: I prefer to think that art has informed my art criticism more than any other factor. That is not to say that I do not read art criticism—I do, but only to learn about art, not to learn how to better my criticism. If the criticism is of good quality, it will recede behind the impression of the artwork it has conveyed to me. If it is poorly written, it will impugn only itself, not the work at hand. It is as easy to write poorly about good art as it is difficult to write well about bad art.

Q: Are there any current critics or art writers, past or present, whom you admire and read on a regular basis?

A: When I am feeling numb to the art world, I hate-read Barry Schwabsky and Jerry Saltz to remind myself that I have strong opinions about art and art writing. It’s like cutting yourself to make sure you still bleed. This is hardly an act of admiration, but it helps me nonetheless.

Q: What artist or exhibit has had the greatest impact on you?

A: As a critic, I depend on a steady variety of artists and exhibitions to inspire me over the years. While I have many favorite artists and appreciated exhibitions, I prefer to keep myself open to inspiration and away from overdetermining ideals. However, as a curator, I gravitate to exhibitions that exemplify the practice. The 2015 Venice Biennial, curated by Okwui Enwezor, is among my favorites.

 

 

Dmitry Samarov

Painter and writer

 

Q: Do you think art criticism should be more focused on evaluative or descriptive criticism?

A: I’m not sure how to answer that. It depends on the case. Also, what the venue is. I have a lot of misgivings about the whole enterprise [of criticism]... I’m not sure what the value of it is.

Artists exist without critics. Critics don’t exist without artists.

Q: Have you observed a move away from evaluative to descriptive criticism?

A: There’s been a movement away from writing or thinking about art, period. It has become mostly a sales job. If by “descriptive” you mean a glorified press release, well, I have no interest in that kind of writing. I think it’s valuable to let a reading public know a little bit of what they’ll be seeing. One of the reasons I started writing about art in Chicago was that there’s just so little writing about art in Chicago.

Q: What one or two factors contributed to the decline of once-standard evaluative criticism?

A: There has to be some sort of economic dimension to changes in the art world. At some point, art critics weren’t as influential on art prices as they used to be, so the art magazines stopped wielding influence. There was a day when someone like Clement Greenberg could make or break an artist. I can’t think of a single art critic today who has that kind of influence. There’s so many other avenues of selling art. So much of is at auction houses. They’re just commodities for ultra rich people to hide their riches.

Q: How has art criticism informed your practice of art or of criticism?

A: It’s hard to track as far as the writing goes. I haven’t been doing art criticism for very long, but I read all the time, so any kind of writing will have an influence. I think that I mostly write based on my individual enthusiasm about a show or an artist. As far as how the writing influences the painting, that’s hard to say. I like to think I put it aside. A good percentage of the reason I do the writing is to pay bills. It’s something I discovered later in life that I actually have some aptitude for and that I can actually get paid for--and that’s often not the case with painting, unfortunately.

Q: Are there any critics or art writers, past or present, who you admire and read on a regular basis?

A: I’ve enjoyed some of Robert Hughes’ writing. I like Jed Perl. I’ve also liked some artists’ writings from the past. There’s a book with Fairfield Porter’s art criticism. The filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky wrote a book called Sculpting in Time, which I really enjoyed. The medium is not important. They’re writing about the same thing. There’s a great book by the filmmaker Robert Bresson called Notes on the Cinematographer.

Q: Are there any artists or exhibits that stand out as having had a great impact on you?

A: There was a Matisse retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. It was in the early ‘90s--I think when I was still in art school. That one hit me like a ton of bricks (laughs). More recently, there was a really good Raymond Pettibon show at the New Museum in New York. In Chicago, the most recent really great show I remember is Kerry James Marshall at the MCA.

 

 

Jessica Stockholder,

Artist as well as chair of the Department of Visual Arts (DOVA) at the University of Chicago

 

Q. Do you think art criticism should be more focused on evaluation or descriptive criticism?

A: I think that art criticism should be more focused on explication. I don’t really see it as a polarization that is particularly useful. I think art criticism is most useful when the critic puts himself into the shoes of the artist and tries to give language to what matters to the artists, what’s driving the energy that produced the art and to then be evaluative in relationship to those observations.

Q. Evaluation, at one time, was the predominant standard for art criticism. What do you think are one or two factors that have caused its decline?

A: I think that the weight of the market eclipsing other forms of support for art has contributed to its decline because it’s very difficult to bite the hand that feeds you. Also, there is an ever increasing array of different kinds of activity placed under the Art umbrella; perhaps the increasing pluralism we are privileged to live with puts stress on the form of criticism, making it difficult for short pieces of writing to bridge the gaps between us all.

Q. Are there any critics on art writing, past or present, whom you respect and read on a regular basis?

A: I don’t read art criticism on a regular basis. I keep my eyes on The New York Times and Roberta Smith. I care about Jerry Saltz. I like the way he puts his foot in it. He’s not frightened of stirring things up. Barry Schwabsky who writes for The Nation is a good friend of mine. I follow him.

Q. How has art criticism informed your practice as an artist or not?

A: I think it’s a privilege to have people write about my work and I don’t know that I can come up with something really specific about how it’s informed my work but, having other people’s words put to what I’m doing they often circle back sometimes raiseing questions and helping me understand the significance of questions that I might not have understood before. So, I value other people’s thoughts about my work whether or not I agree with them.

Q. What artist or exhibit has had the most impact on you?

A: That’s hard. I don’t know if there is one artist or exhibition that has had the most impact. What jumps to mind is my most important teacher, Canadian artistMowry Baden; he had an enormous influence on me. His way of putting words to work.

Q. Let me probe that a bit more. Is there some work that has been so impactful that it may have changed your art practice?

A: I’m such a magpie in my work. I take from so many people (laughs) and I’m influenced by so many people. I mean, Peter Halley, Tauba Auerbach, Matisse, Cezanne, Robert Davidson, There isn’t one. It’s a plethora and I care a lot about these people.

 

 

Lori Waxman,

Freelance contributor about contemporary art for the Chicago Tribune, teaches art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

 

Q: Do you think that art criticism should be more focused on evaluative or descriptive criticism?

A: Both. Good art criticism does both simultaneously.

Q: What one or two factors most contributed to the decline of the once-standard evaluative criticism?

A: You are presuming a decline in art criticism.

Q: How has art criticism informed your practice or not?

A: I read voraciously. I read criticism, I read novels, I read political writing, and I try to apply the best of all that I read to art.

Q: Are there any current critics or art writers, past or present, whom you respect and read on a regular basis?

A: Sure. Coco Fusco, Peter Schjeldahl, Holland Cotter, Maggie Nelson and Carolina Miranda, among others. Oh, and Gertrude Stein!

Q: What artist or exhibition has had the most impact on you?

A: The New Contemporary exhibit at the Art Institute. Because some exhibitions are so wrong that they make you think deeply about what’s really important.

 

Interviews by Tom Mullaney and Nathan Worcester.

 

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