INTERVIEW: KAREN WILKIN
Karen Wilkin was the Head Curator of the Edmonton Art Gallery during the Gallery’s most vital period, through the seventies and eighties. During her tenure at the EAG, she was responsible for organizing some the Gallery’s most important exhibitions of art, including “Sculpture in Steel,” “The Collective Unconscious,” “Adolph Gottlieb Pictographs,” and “David Smith: The Formative Years.” The interview was conducted over a two year period (2003-2004) via e-mail.
Russell Bingham Would you call yourself an art critic or an art historian? You seem to combine both roles in your writing and you also spend a lot of time in artists' studios, which is something that art historians don't tend to do a lot of.
Karen Wilkin I am a working critic and curator, trained as an art historian. I also write books that depend on art historical research, but also depend on critical judgements. I am not a theoretician, which separates me from current academics; I was trained by art historians, including Meyer Schapiro, for whom the work of art – the object – was primary. The role of the art historian was to learn as much as possible about everything that might possibly have anything to do with the object and bring it all to bear, in order to illuminate the object. But all of this was in addition to scrupulous visual analysis, not a substitute for it. Present day theory-obsessed art historians seem to regard the work of art as a point of departure for intellectual construct, which is the diametric opposite of the way I was trained.
Schapiro talks about "critical seeing." Obviously, you make critical judgements, value judgements, all the time – as Kant says, they are involuntary, instantaneous, and not subject to modification based on reason – but critical seeing involves thinking about everything else as well, including other people's judgements of the work of art, at various times in its history.
Spending time in studios is part of the job, as well as being something enormously stimulating. The best criticism, as I have said many times, is always deeply informed by studio talk, by the way artists think and talk about what they do.
RB You raise the question of artists' intentions versus results. Ultimately, shouldn't everything that needs to be communicated about the artwork be communicated by the artwork alone? How can anything that the artist tells you about his or her intentions affect your judgement of the work?
KW Yes, ultimately everything should somehow come through from the work of art itself – or at least everything that has to do with the work's aesthetic merits. Subject matter really doesn't matter much. The subject of Piero della Francesca's “Flagellation,” in Urbino, was finally identified not long ago as “The Dream of St. Jerome,” which explains exactly why the barefoot types are there in the foreground and why Christ and company are in the background. It's nice to know what's really going on, but it doesn't change the picture. It is no more or less miraculous than it always was. And if someone next week found a Renaissance pastoral poem that explains what Giorgione's “The Tempest” is really about that wouldn't change the painting, either. There's that famous quote of Matisse's (probably about the Giottos in Padova, which he admired immensely and which influenced his work profoundly) in which he says something about not needing to know which scene from the life of Christ he is looking at, since he gets it from the overall composition.
Yet if you know something about the conventions of Renaissance or Baroque narrative, you are going to get even more out of even a superb Piero or a great Caravaggio, say, because you will not only respond to the inherent qualities of the picture, but you will also be aware of how inventive the painter has been in breaking with traditional conceptions. That's true of any inventive work at any time. More knowledge may not be necessary for unmediated aesthetic response, but it can enlarge and enhance your experience of the work.
The artist's intentions don't affect your judgement of the work, but talking with artists about what they are after can often be interesting in relation to the evident mechanism visible in the work. If the work doesn't come across in any way without an explication or a text, then, in my view (but not in the view of many of my colleagues) there's an acute problem. Of course, that has been an increasing difficulty ever since we lost the old, shared, commonly understood themes and art became more and more about interior narratives and private imperatives. No viewer will ever bring precisely the same kind of emotional or intellectual baggage to the work that the artist did; you just hope that there's some kind of connection. But one reason I think critics tend to be stuck with their own generation is that there is some kind of shared experience with people of your own time and culture. I know I don't get a lot of the assumed references of the current generation of young artists because I didn't spend my childhood watching TV or handling plastic toys, or my adolescence listening to what they listened to. And that seems to be what their work is mainly about.
RB So, are we in a sense always cut off from some aspect of an artwork that is not recognizable to us – given that we will never completely share the life experience of the artist? What is lost? And of what remains, is this enough to get a handle on the essential core of the artwork?
KW You always miss a lot of what may have been intended, simply by not being the person who made the work or by not being from the same century, although one of the great pleasures of getting to know a work of art thoroughly is that "aha" moment when you can see why the artist did something – at least in terms of formal relationships or narrative requirements. In a masterpiece like Masaccio's “The Tribute Money” the two are seamless. But I firmly believe that if a work of art is any good, it will speak to you at some level (or at least to anyone who takes the trouble to look hard and think about what is being seen). I've seen some fascinating exhibitions that compared how African tribal cultures regard their carved objects (which the culture may or may not think of as art, in our sense) and how Westerners regard them. Films of ceremonies showed masks and headdresses in use, as part of elaborate costumes, and figures and special regalia were arranged in recreations of the shrines or society houses where they would have been kept. One terrific show about the Baule included commentary by a contemporary Baule that amounted to a short course in the tribe's culture and aesthetic.
The shows were really enlightening and enriched my perceptions of African art, but you don't have to know anything about traditional Baule culture to respond to their carvings as sculpture. That's what Matisse got out of them and Picasso – once Matisse introduced him to African art – or any of the rest of them, up to, say, Gottlieb. They responded to the formal and emotional power of the work and to its exoticism. They clearly valued that it was both formally inventive and utterly independent of the Greco-Roman tradition, but they weren't at all concerned with the ethnographic part of its history. You can argue that this is imperialist, paternalistic, and all the rest of the currently fashionable cant, but it's really about pure aesthetic response. The curators of the Baule show made the point by installing objects in two ways in each section of the exhibition: masks of a particular type, for example, both in their "real" context and as "aestheticized" objects divorced from context. Both seemed equally important.
This is a long-winded way of saying that the much maligned term "quality" – or "excellence" or the ability to move, touch, or disturb you – is inherent in the object. As I said (and as Meyer Schapiro said) the more you bring to any work of art, the more you'll get out of it. All other things being equal, your aesthetic experience might be enhanced. But no amount of contextual, historical, or technical information can make something that isn't very good any better. It might make it more interesting, but it's not going to alter the essential aesthetic value of the work. None of this can be proved, of course.
I suspect that part of what makes something compelling is everything the artist brings to bear, almost certainly unconsciously, in making the work. (Oh dear. This is beginning to sound like Clem's dictum that in the end, it's a question of character – which it may be.) But that can't be proved either, although on balance, I would have to say that in my experience, the artists I know well who make truly inventive, probing, exciting work are extremely intelligent and perceptive. And they're often very smart about other people's work, too.
RB “Quality...” “excellence,”… these are terms that don’t get casually tossed off these days. Can you describe how your attitudes to art were formed?
KW As for sounding like one of those formalist critics, I refer you to Michael Kimmelman's piece on Gerhardt Richter in The New York Times Sunday Magazine around the time of the Richter retrospective at MOMA. Richter keeps talking about quality as the key element in any work of art. Most interesting.
RB Yes, well the term “quality” gets thrown around rather loosely, but I was struck by one section of the article where Kimmelman describes how Richter was leafing through a catalogue of photos of some of his paintings and remarks that one picture was “actually better than another,” and goes on to say that “there must be some higher faculty, some progressive sensibility that we find in abstraction. But it is impossible to describe.''
KW Getting back to your question: how were my attitudes formed? As I said, I was trained as an art historian, by a generation of scholars for whom the work of art was primary and everything else was learned or thought about in a effort to illuminate the work of art, in order to understand it as completely as possible. Underneath was the fundamental assumption that the reason one did this was the overwhelming importance of aesthetic experience, experience that was inexplicable and exhilarating.
I drew and painted as a kid. I was never the person who could reproduce cartoon characters perfectly, but I liked doing it a lot and got a certain amount of praise for it. I went to a high school that required a pretty rigorous entrance exam in either music or art – art people had to present portfolios and make drawings and paintings at the school. Your day was longer than most, since in addition to a high level college preparatory academic program, you had extra classes in art or music. (The school still exists.) In 8th grade, I studied with Moses Soyer – the first "real artist" whose studio I visited – a friend of my family's, who gave very traditional classes in painting from the model, in his Greenwich Village studio. He saw my work and offered to let me study with him. I was dancing very seriously – and continued to do so until my second year of college, when I realized that I couldn't do both, even though I was taking company class and getting a good deal of encouragement from the faculty at the NYCB school. My parents weren't very pro-ballet, so they pushed painting as an alternative. (When I was about 14, I posed for Soyer as a dancer, which was one of his main themes; for a while there was a reproduction of one of the pictures I posed for in every dentist's office in NY.) I continued to take studio classes for my own amusement when I was at Barnard.
The time I've spent in hands-on art making has been crucial to my way of thinking about art. I don't see it as some irrational, mystical process of channelling the gods, but as an intensely physical activity. Yes, there is the mysterious part of it, the "getting out of your own way" and allowing talent or intuition to take over – not to mention the mystery of talent or whatever you want to call it, itself – but I always remember my friend Samuel Barber's saying "If anyone wants to know how I compose, I get up in the morning, go to my studio, and make with the notes." Having some sense of the process helps me enter into studio conversations with artists – the "does it work or doesn't it" discussions that count so much – and I've learned enormously from that kind of talk, as has any critic worth anything, from Diderot on, as I've said before. The time I spent as student and spectator with Balanchine, the most three dimensional of choreographers, has had a profound effect on my understanding of sculpture and probably accounts for my particular interest in sculpture.
Meyer Schapiro was an important influence, as were a number of other Barnard and Columbia professors. So was Roger Fry's criticism and Meier-Graefe's, whom I discovered long after I'd been reading Fry. Greenberg's criticism was a powerful model, obviously, whatever my reservations about him personally, and I was fortunate enough to spend a good deal of time with him in studios and looking at art, when he was still in peak form, before he started having preconceptions of what he wanted to see. I learned a lot from him and still do, when I read his work. I'm a big fan of Michael Fried's, whether I wholly agree with him or not – he's brilliant, perceptive, and makes me think. I've learned from John Elderfield, John Golding, and Andrew Forge, among others.
Obviously spending time in museums and travelling to see monuments has been paramount in developing a sense of excellence (even "quality"). That's a given – there's no substitute for the direct encounter and no substitute for sheer looking. But I would have to give most credit to the artists whom I have spent time with over the nearly thirty years that I've been doing what I do. Being in studios has honed my eye, gotten me to clarify what I think in order to respond to work, helped me to understand process – material and intellectual – all of which has shaped my writing – Does this make me a formalist? Whatever!
RB For a number of years, you were Head Curator at the Edmonton Art Gallery – this was during Terry Fenton’s term as director. Did the experience of being a full-time curator affect your evolvement as a critic? Can you say something about the artistic climate of Edmonton at the time, and also something about the critical climate of the Edmonton Art Gallery under Terry Fenton?
KW I was chief curator at the EAG from July 1971 to summer 1978, and in organizing shows for the gallery, I visited a lot of artists across the Prairies and found some of them very interesting. At some point, one of the Edmonton painters – I forget just who it was – said "You're from New York. You know people. Why don't you write something about us for one of the NY art magazines." Up to then, apart from university and graduate school essays, I'd only written exhibition catalogues, but I thought "Why not?" The editor of Art in America at that time was Brian O'Doherty (who makes installations as Patrick Ireland), the husband of my undergraduate thesis advisor at Barnard, Barbara Novak, the Americanist, with whom I had worked closely. Since I had known Brian for years, I proposed a piece on Canadian prairie artists to him. It never occurred to me to go to any other magazine. He said "sure" and gave me a deadline and a word count – daunting, since this was in pre-computer days. I packed a lot in and mentioned a lot of people, trying to be as comprehensive as possible. Brian was pleased, the artists were pleased, and after that, I just kept going, writing for Artscanada, Arts, and Artnews, and after about 1988, for New Criterion and Partisan Review – all of whom approached me, originally, which was flattering. Brian went on to do other things not long after my piece was published and it was many years before I wrote for Art in America again – which I now do fairly regularly.
When I first started working at the EAG, I can't say I was very excited about the Edmonton art scene. The best painter around – and one of the first I met – was Doug Haynes, who impressed me as a serious, bright guy, but a rather polite painter at the time. He later surprised the hell out of me when he cut loose with the “Split Diamond” paintings and the series that followed, all of which are anything but polite. Quite the opposite. They're stubborn and cranky and very good and very interesting as a result. Doug keeps me humble, reminds me never to write anyone off – if they're serious and committed, anything can happen.
The rest – well let's just say I had inherited a lot of one person shows from my predecessor, Bill Kirby, and they were not of people I think I would have selected, had I been choosing. But they were what Edmonton had to offer at the time. There were also younger people, about my age, some of whom had come from elsewhere, who were much more exciting. Some of the most interesting were in Calgary: Harold Feist and Bruce O'Neil, for example. Ann Clarke, Phil Darrah, and Graham Peacock came to Edmonton about the same time I began to work at the Gallery, among others, all of which made the scene much more lively and raised both the standards and the stakes. Later Peter Hide arrived, which put another kind of pressure on an already burgeoning sculpture scene in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
When Terry arrived, some months after I started, he brought with him his connections with the (at the time) more sophisticated and ambitious Saskatchewan scene. We started doing shows that set the work of local, regional, and non-regional Canadian artists side by side with each other and with work by international and historical artists. We organized a couple of workshops to accompany shows of contemporary artists – Stephen Greene and Michael Steiner led workshops in painting and sculpture, respectively. The Greene workshop galvanized Harold Feist and got Ann Clarke, who was trying to deal with life in Edmonton with no car, two small children and a fairly traditional husband, and get back to thinking of herself as a painter. She got a studio near the Industrial Airport and cut loose. Steiner got Al Reynolds going. The new generation of Edmonton painters and sculptors really responded to this sense of being part of a larger context – which extended to Emma Lake, which everyone knows about, so there's no – need to go into that. Clem Greenberg visited. Dorothy Knowles and Bill Perehudoff visited. Jack Bush visited. And there were always studio visits, viewing of work in the Gallery, and lots of discussion about people's work. Edmonton collector Al Pyrch (who recruited me to the Gallery in the first place) was increasingly ambitious in his collecting and whenever he got a new Olitski or Poons or Caro, he'd invite people from the Gallery and artists to come and see it. (Which wasn't easy, given Al's penchant for low lighting!) So there was a sense of dialogue among artists and some of the best art of the time. I think the rising generation of artists in Alberta were really measuring themselves against what they believed was the best in international terms rather than thinking of themselves as Alberta or even Canadian artists. That Clem and Toronto collector David Mirvish were ready to lend us all sorts of museum quality contemporary art that we could never hope to acquire with our limited acquisitions funds made it possible to create that context for them.
I was able to organize shows I would never had a chance to do for a more established institution. When I wanted to do a Gottlieb Pictograph show or a survey of sculpture in steel or a show of early David Smith, no one said I couldn't. Of course, one shamelessly exploited every possible connection one had: Clem, David Mirvish, Gottlieb himself (who was my father's patient and a family friend). People were remarkably generous. Clem, who was a Trustee of the Smith Estate at the time, told me whom to contact and of course, insisted on all the formalities being observed, but said I could borrow anything I wanted from the Estate. We just forged on ahead. I wanted to do a Tim Scott show, so I simply proposed it (and me) to the British Council and they helped. Quite amazing!
RB I remember very fondly some of the exhibitions that you organized: Sculpture in Steel, Gottlieb Pictographs, David Smith: The Formative Years. The Collective Unconscious was another one, and thinking about these I recall that the focus of many of these shows was on that early “Surrealist” period of North American abstraction. Why is it, do you think, that artists during this period could draw inspiration from this kind of fantastical, occasionally internal imagery and come up with such terrific works of art? When artists today make art about psychological internal stuff – “universal” symbolism, that sort of thing – more often than not, their work is contrived and self-obsessed. And silly. Why could Smith and Gottlieb, et al do it and be so “authentic”?
KW Interesting question. I look back fondly (and proudly) on those shows, too. I was very fortunate to be working at a museum and for a museum director who thought it was important to do them – and who encouraged me to do them. Organizing those exhibitions was a big part of my education as a curator. As you've pointed out, the Gottlieb Pictograph show – his works of the 1940s, the David Smith show of works of the 1930s and ‘40s, and The Collective Unconscious – US and Canadian works of the 1940s and early '50s, were all linked by the artists' interest in Surrealist ideas, which was obviously a dominant concern of the time. And as you say, that assumption that the source of art was the unconscious, that interior imagery was a fruitful point of departure, seemed to trigger some very good, richly referential art that was enriched by its ambiguity. At least it did in many artists of that generation. (Of course, the same assumptions led less talented people to make much less interesting art, too.)
Of course, these were relatively fresh ideas in the 1930s and ‘40s – the first Surrealist manifesto was – what? 1924? – and MOMA's Dada and Surrealism show was held around 1934. That included Giacometti's "Palace at 4 am" which the museum bought not long afterward. New Yorkers got to see a fair amount of Miró, too – there was a Miró show at MOMA, too, early on, and he showed regularly in NY after WW II. He even came to NY to paint some murals for a hotel in Cincinnati, around 1946 or ‘47, borrowing a studio from someone who showed at Kootz so all the Kootz artists (who included Gottlieb) went and saw the murals first hand. Peggy Guggenheim showed all that Surrealist stuff, including the more abstract end of the spectrum, Matta and Max Ernst. The influence was direct and on a fairly high level. Freudian and Jungian ideas of myths as universal shared symbols, re-enacted in some way by everyone, were much discussed. "Universal" and "shared" were key ideas. The American edition of "The Golden Bough," which painstakingly tracked the way myths cut through time and across cultures, was published in the mid -‘30s and apparently everyone read it. Many of the Ab Ex generation had copies in their libraries.
This is a long-winded way of saying that the answer to your question might be that the ideas that prompted this generation of serious artists to reach into themselves for imagery and motivation for making art may have seemed new and exciting at the time. I'm not sure the motives of the people now working with what you call "psychological internal stuff" are the same. The notion that something could communicate universally seems out of favour, replaced, often, by the belief that everything is so specific to the experience of individual artists – including taste, gender preference, ethnicity, economic and social position, and all the rest of it – that whatever they are doing can't be understood by anyone with different experience, which is why so much text and explication is required. Even when there is no text, impenetrable private references that offer no way in or are legible only to specialists are assumed to be OK, which in fact, they are, if the art is good enough. We may read something into it or extract something from it that wasn't intended by the artist, but we can still be deeply moved and compelled by formal invention. Gorky can knock your socks off, even if you don't know about the references that his weird images are supposed to make to his Armenian childhood (or if you can't see them, even if they've been pointed out) because his pictures are so powerful as paintings. The other end of the spectrum, for me, would be works like Gerhardt Richter's paintings of murdered nurses. If you don't know who the subjects are, they look like rather clunkily painted enlargements of yearbook photos – which is exactly what they are – but even if you do know the story, they are still pretty dull paintings that fail to engage you materially or formally.
Of course, the short, curmudgeonly answer might be that the current generation is more self-involved and has a more circumscribed set of references than Gottlieb or Smith's generation. Or the people you are thinking about are just less good!
RB I've often thought that this interest in Surrealism that was so common among American artists during that period was motivated (probably unconsciously) by the search for a new way to make a picture, one that was liberated from the logic of deep space, naturalistic representation, etc. and that also offered a personal repertory of forms and colour arrangements that could be detached from everyday association. As Clem Greenberg pointed out, this impulse – to get away from naturalist representation – was expressed in Kandinsky's paintings, but he tried to get there without going through Cubism. The Americans had digested Cubism and Cubism gave them a system for organizing pictorial space that worked as they moved towards abstraction. What do you think?
KW Your observations about Surrealism are interesting. Of course, as we've discussed, it was the idea of using interior ideas rather than observation as a starting point for making images (abstract or figurative) that grabbed the Americans, not the look of Surrealism – except for biomorphism in general and Miró in particular. (I've often thought that if people had known Matta's work better when Motherwell introduced him to the NY artists of his circle, and he started telling them about automatic writing, they might not have paid attention. Or did I say this already?)
You're right about the usefulness of Cubism, of course. Most American artists who aspired to be "modern" regarded Cubism as the most progressive way of structuring a picture – mostly because of the towering influence of Picasso – whether or not they were interested in Surrealist ideas. Any other kind of structural approach was pretty conventional: deep space, illusionism, etc. That was Stuart Davis's main objection to the American Scene painters and the Mexican muralists – that they were formally "reactionary," in his view. He was particularly annoyed at Rivera, who initially was responding to Picasso and therefore, according to Davis, should have known better.
RB I want to go back to what you said about Greenberg and how “he started to have preconceptions about what he wanted to see.” For many of us, what we remember most about Clem was that his taste remained uncorrupted to the end. His was a kind of example of how taste should work – detached from personal desire or agenda. What makes you feel otherwise?
KW The experience of seeing him in the studio over 20 years. In the first years, he would respond to what was in front of him as though it was the first time he had seen anything of the kind – pure, direct, unmediated by anything other than informed, but unwilled subjective taste. Later he seemed to want to see work that fit into general characteristics: close valued, non-figure-ground, subdued colour, for example. When the work was outside of certain limits he would often say that he had nothing to say about it – I'm basing this on certain Triangle sessions – when he once would have welcomed the chance to engage with an artist whose work he didn't like. Clem was always less guilty of preconception than Ken Moffett, but he did change over the years, in my experience. I recall some rather painful sessions with people whose work he had once encouraged who were exploring new, slightly less "orthodox" directions.
RB I don't recall Clem changing like that. In fact, I was amazed at the 1985 Triangle by how he would confound my expectations with his openness to "different" or unfamiliar art. And again a few years ago in Edmonton. Oh well... We disagree.
KW 1985 was before Clem started evidencing the behaviour I spoke of. There were inklings at the Barcelona Triangle of 1987 and in my experience, it became more noticeable later. I think it was linked to his drinking. In Edmonton, he may well have been different, since he was in a sense among "true believers" and felt particularly cherished and admired there.
RB We have talked a bit about modernist art of that “golden era” of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and I think you will agree that the ‘60s, ‘70s and maybe the ‘80s, too, embraced the high period for modernist abstraction. Do you think that the art of the present time continues on that level? From my vantage – admittedly a low limb without a particularly clear view – it seems that the hardest thing today is to be an abstract painter with the ghosts of past masters like Jules Olitski looming over all. And of course, Tony Caro has presented a pretty stiff challenge to anyone making sculpture today.
KW I find the art world's shift away from "traditional" aesthetic values to Duchampian idea-based art so profoundly depressing that I may overestimate the work I come across that assumes that the eye is part of the brain, that verbal explication is no substitute for visual invention, that the physical properties of materials can be made into expressive elements, and that it is not a sin to mean whole-heartedly what you do. I see a fair amount of high level work being made according to these premises, even by younger artists, although it gets little or no "official" attention nor is it likely to, alas. So the inescapable conclusion is that things are pretty dismal, as opposed to the time when Caro, Olitski, Noland, Louis, Frankenthaler, and their colleagues were having important museum shows internationally and their work was hung regularly in important collections. Only Caro can be described this way now, unfortunately, and that's partly because he is not an American, partly because at 80 he's the one of the few truly significant British artists of his generation – I'd say the only, but even supporters of the YBAs have to admit Tony's achievement – and partly because his London gallery has impeccable international connections and used them to Tony's benefit. The good news is that there seems to be revived interest in work of a lot of the senior artists I admire. There have been more Poons, Noland, Olitski and Louis shows recently than in quite a while.
But good art is still being made. We may be too close to some of it to see how good it is. Is it all abstract? No. Is it is all "straight" painting or sculpture? No. There's nothing I like better than being sandbagged by work that I wouldn't have expected to be moved or engaged by – no matter how much you try to keep an open mind you're stuck with yourself. It has happened occasionally with video. I take Mary Lucier, Shirin Neshat, and Kim Soo Ja very seriously and my experience of what seems to me their best work has set a standard for me that most other video simply doesn't come up to, so I am doubly grateful to them for honing my perceptions.
I don't for a moment believe that non-ironic, object-oriented, wordless painting or sculpture has been exhausted but neither do I believe that Olitski and Caro's work of the '60s, '70s, and ‘80s, much as I admire and love it, represents impassable limits. Nor does either of them. They are both exploring possibilities they previously ignored, with notably exciting effect. They've both been able to shake themselves loose in ways that their "disciples" haven't always been able to. (Olitski's extreme version of all-over painting can be seen as an ultimate limit of possibility only if you subscribe to a "pure" Greenbergian description of modernism in painting – which is not to deny the power or emotional resonance or inventiveness of his work.) Younger artists, too, are probing limits, asking themselves new questions, exploring the implications of other notions, without losing faith in the thread of tradition that modernism assumes nor in modernism itself. There's a whole history of art whose ramifications and possibilities have not yet been exhausted and the Greenbergian model is not the only way of looking at that vast, baggy monster, the course of art of the past 150 years. There are a handful of people (some in Canada – including Edmonton – some in the U.S., some in Europe) of various generations, who seem to me to be keeping things alive and lively. I get to their studios whenever I can and their work really nourishes me and gives me hope. I wish they were getting the acclaim I think they deserve. I wish I had the clout to help bring that about.
Stuart Davis said that a great art deserves a great audience of at least one. These people are a kind of underground, which is sad in many ways, but when you consider that about 85% of current art world perceptions have to do with packaging and positioning – which includes politics, sociology, gender issues and all the rest of it – maybe underground is not such a bad place to be.
RB I want to make it clear that I don’t think art died with Olitski and Caro in the ‘70s and ‘80s – in fact, Tony and I debated this point at Triangle in ‘85 (he was lamenting the decline). And as far as a “pure” Greenbergian notion of modernist painting – again, I never got the impression that Clem felt that his take on what has happened until now should prescribe what will happen in the future. Still, looking back to that “high” period of modernist art, it seems that there was a clearer idea about what needed to be done. Something to do with the concentration of expression that comes from pushing something through to its limit. And then there’s the problem of being aware of a tradition and working out how you as an artist are going to respond to this tradition. Peter Hide has often said that he had to go “through” Caro to find his own originality. It seems to me that the artists who have chosen to deal with Caro by rejecting him have done less well. It’s a similar case with Olitski, which I think is clearly evident in the failure of the New New artists to produce anything that can challenge Olitski at his close-valued best. Or not so best for that matter. (Note: subsequent to the time of this conversation, Olitski began to make highly coloured figure-ground style paintings, many of which were extremely good.)
Still, to focus on these peaks shuts out appreciation for a lot of other exceptional art that doesn’t follow a single-line trajectory: Horacio Torres, for example, and as you point out, a great many more recent artists. Do you think it’s harder, though, for good younger artists to get attention – get shown, get written about in a serious, critical way? The prospect of playing to an audience of one can’t be very encouraging. Maybe the problem isn’t a lack of good artists but a lack of good critics. Are there any critics that you pay attention to?
KW I don't think the problem with the New New Painters is their failure to come up with anything as good as Olitski at his best or not so best, but – with some notable exceptions – their failure, in more absolute terms, to come up with work that doesn't seem arbitrary or self-indulgent or plastic-y or garish for the sake of being plastic-y or garish. (We'll leave out lumpy for the sake of being lumpy, for now.) I know that the plastic-y and garish aspects are supposed to be New New, but it seems to me that surface and colour should be dictated by formal and expressive imperatives, not a preconceived idea about what constitutes "newness." That is probably very Old Old of me.
Is the problem a lack of good critics? As I've said before, art gets along just fine without criticism. Art criticism is a very recent invention, going back to the late 18th century, with Diderot, if you stretch a point. It's probably more accurate to date it from the 19th century and the proliferation of newspapers and periodicals that accompanied the rise of the middle class and a growing literate population, but that's another story.
Are there critics whom I read? Quite a few, but most of them make steam come out of my ears because of their stupidity, lack of art historical knowledge, presumption, or arrogance. Two really good ones are Daniel Kunitz, a very bright young critic who until recently wrote for the New York Sun and is now the US correspondent for Art Review, and WS Di Piero, a splendid poet who writes about art for various publications – he has a very good book of essays called Out of Eden – and teaches at Stamford. They both look hard, think hard, and write well. Even when I don't entirely agree with their take, I read them with interest and pleasure. We've invited both of them to Triangle more than once, partly because their responses are worth having and partly because we feel Triangle can be a training ground for critics by making them more familiar with the studio. (I've said repeatedly that I think the best criticism is informed by studio talk.)
Robert Taplin, a fine figurative sculptor, and Robert Berlind, an equally fine figurative painter, both write very perceptively, intelligently, and trenchantly; they, too, are always worth reading and must be taken very seriously. They obviously write as artists and that's a plus – usually in Art in America. Frank Stella is always rewarding to read, whether or not you agree completely with his interpretation of the course of pictorial space, especially in relation to Caravaggio. A very interesting and fiercely intelligent painter, Joseph Marioni, writes very provocatively about colour and the course of modernism. He believes that the irreduceable quality of painting is not flatness but colour; a flat surface isn't necessarily a painting, but you can't have a painting on any surface without colour. The paradox is that if you eliminate everything but colour, you have an impossible, disembodied "colour hanging in the air" situation, which logically means that painting is ultimately aiming at non-existence. All this and he makes really beautiful, seductive, deeply moving paintings.
David Cohen, a British critic living in New York, can be unbearably pompous and pretentious, but he's not stupid and is usually worth reading. He has an on-line thing called Art Critical and also writes for The Sun.
I find that I learn more from art historical writing than critical writing, largely because so much criticism is shot through with theory. So is a good deal of art history, but I always learn something from John Elderfield, David Rosand, George Shackelford, Joseph Rishel, William Agee, and David Anfam. Michael Fried is a class by himself. Even when I disagree with him, I find him fascinating, stirring, and impossible to ignore. These are all art historians who care passionately about objects, who believe that the role of the critic/historian is to illuminate the work of art, not to bury it in a sea of theorizing.
There are probably others, too, but these are the ones who first come to mind.