The Critics

THOMAS McEVILLEY [posted March 12, 2013]


Thomas McEvilley, 2011. Photo © Lawrence Schwartzwald. (No reproduction without express permission.)

Like so many other great art critics before him (and, let’s hope, like more to follow), Tom McEvilley, who died March 2, 2013, stumbled into art criticism from other intellectual territory.  In his case, it wasn’t poetry in the Baudelaire-Apollinaire-O’Hara line, or philosophy like Arthur Danto, but classical philology.  One of the many admirable qualities of Tom’s criticism was the fact that he rarely, if ever, reminded his readers of his considerable classical training.  Indeed, I suspect that most of them had no idea of his academic background until, during the last decade of his life, he again took up his early passions in The Shape of Ancient Thought (a book arguing for the influence of Eastern—Indian, Persian—thought on Greek religion and philosophy, and hence on the entire development of Western culture) and translations of Greek poetry. Like that other renegade philologist Friedrich Nietzsche, Tom loved challenging his society’s most fundamental assumptions.

What marked all of Tom’s activities as an art critic was moral courage.  Many people are familiar with his 1984 Artforum article “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief,” written in response to MoMA’s “Modern Art and ‘Primitivism’” show, and the subsequent exchange of letters he engaged in with the show’s curators. These are rightly acknowledged as the opening salvos in the cultural upheaval that dismantled Eurocentric esthetics and gave rise to the global artworld of today.  (They are also, in my opinion, the most important, influential works of art criticism of the last 50 years, transcending the limited domain of visual art to make a grand cultural statement.) What fewer readers may realize is that following “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief,” Tom stayed true to his principles, to the position he so brilliantly, compellingly articulated. Turning his back on the New York gallery and magazine milieu that had anointed him as the great critic of the 1980s, he set out in search of the art of the rest of the world. McEvilley’s writings of the 1990s and 2000s follow an itinerary that took him everywhere from the “‘stans” of Central Asia to the deep vernacular traditions of the American south. (I was honored to be his editor for most of his writings in Art in America from around 1995 to 2007; and also to teach in the Art Criticism and Writing MFA program he founded at SVA.) It is rare for someone to willingly surrender such power as Tom had; he did so, I believe, because he thought it was the right thing to do, historically and ethically.

Yet he by no means renounced all his former associations. Indeed, the last Art in America article we worked on together concerned one of Tom’s oldest friends, an artist he had written about repeatedly: James Lee Byars. It was a harrowing piece of writing, recounting Byars’s lonely death in Cairo, Tom’s Egyptian-style shiva alongside the artist’s corpse, and a detailed, controversial account of an emblematic battle between art and commerce. As many times before, I was amazed at Tom’s ability to instantly craft new, perfectly constructed sentences as we worked on many drafts in person and over the phone. In this case, the editorial process also involved me visiting Tom’s Lower East Side apartment to view various Byars-related relics. I left the magazine before the article came out, but I heard reports that its publication had greatly upset the powers that be. Significantly, perhaps, it was the last piece of Tom’s published in Art in America.

What marked all of Tom’s writings was his ability to balance a grand historical scope with a vivid sense of existing in the present, being what he called “a living critic.” I may not have always agreed with his brief against “value judgments” but I never doubted his prophetic power, even when it was undermining the very ground I stood on as a critic. Our first encounter came when I wrote a review for Arts Magazine of his 1991 book Art & Discontent: Theory at the Millennium. I still am grappling with certain sentences from that book: “The critic will see that he or she may investigate, analyze, interpret, compare, gather together and sever apart—but not attempt to enforce his or her value judgments on others; of all things, that will be the most direct betrayal of the reconsidered critical project. The purpose of criticism will no longer be to make value judgments for others, but to sharpen the critical faculty and its practice through all of culture.”



AMY GOLDIN [posted September 14, 2012]

It’s not so uncommon for an overlooked or forgotten artist to be rediscovered—lately, and not just on The Silo, there has been a growing interest in mining the recent past, bring renewed attention to artists such as Alina Szapocznikow, Al Taylor or Sven Lukin. Alas, this process of rediscovery almost never befalls art critics. Outside of academia, it is exceedingly rare for a critic’s body of work to be reissued and reassessed. Instead, the greater part of older art criticism remains largely unavailable to readers: many collections of essays and reviews are long out of print and, perhaps more importantly, there has been little effort to scan and post back issues of important art magazines (I’m thinking, for instance, of once-influential but now extinct magazines such as Arts and Art International, which are nowhere on the web; even existing major art magazines such as Art in America and Flash Art make very little of their past archives available.) Well, some people might say, that’s just as it should be: old art criticism is of little use or interest to anyone other than scholars. As art critic Jerry Saltz once observed, art criticism is very here and then very gone.

The case for why it’s worthwhile to rescue art criticism of the past (at least some of it) from obscurity is forcefully made by a recently published collection of writings by art critic Amy Goldin, Art in a Hairshirt: Art Criticism 1964-1978. Edited by artist Robert Kushner and published by Hard Press Editions (full disclosure: Hard Press has published several of my books of poetry and criticism), this book gathers some 25 of Goldin’s articles, reviews and previously unpublished writings along reminiscences and appreciations by eight critics and editors.

Cover of Amy Goldin, Art in a Hairshirt: Art Criticism 1964-1978

There are at least three reasons to read (or reread) Goldin’s writings. The first is because she was the critic who best articulated the concerns and achievements of the Pattern and Decoration movement, a mid-1970s group of loosely associated painters and sculptors who demolished some central taboos of modernism by embracing the decorative, craft (especially so-called women’s work) and non-Western art in a non-exploitative manner. Not only did Goldin write compellingly about such work, she was also a crucial early influence on two leading P&D artists, Robert Kushner and Kim MacConnel. In a 1975 Artforum piece titled “Patterns, Grids and Painting” Goldin perceptively spelled out why pattern painting had met with so much resistance, even by artists who practiced it:

“Pattern, for Americans, has never been an esthetic issue. Our artistic self-consciousness developed out of painting and, perhaps, architecture. Associated with decoration and the machine, pattern was always outside the area of legitimate artistic concern. The stylistic revisions of the last decade or so—remember the defense of boredom?—might have been expected to alter that situation. Yet to artists now working with pattern (especially women, who may feel it as something particularly their own), it still seems to imply a lack of inwardness and freedom, and they are often defensive about it. . . . Pattern itself remains unanalyzed, its salient characteristics unknown. Unlike painting, pattern has no mystique, and it has been underground so long that thinking about it reveals surprising complexities.”

Carefully analyzing pattern, rescuing it from its underground existence, was central to Goldin’s project. The context in which she carried out most of her analysis of pattern brings us to a second reason for reading Goldin: the attention she devoted to Islamic art, a subject no other Western art critic of her generation cared much about. So great was her passion that in 1974 she traveled through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan to see firsthand monuments and manuscripts from the 14th century Timurid Dynasty. Kushner, who accompanied her on the trip, says that afterwards her writings on Islamic art “took on a new perspective and urgency.”

One of the most personal pieces in the book is an unpublished 1972 text on rugs in which she speaks lovingly of her own favorite kelims, including a recently acquired Persian Sehna: “It’s new and I don’t know it well yet, but the pattern keeps coagulating and dissolving, pouring itself into different shapes and sizes. Impossible to follow the repeats because of the multiplicity of eddies. Ravishingly pale color rose and green, cultivated and fatigued. . .” In her published articles on Islamic, including long pieces on museum shows in New York and London, Goldin responds to carpets, calligraphic manuscripts and decorative artifacts with the same attention to visual dynamics that she brought to contemporary painting and sculpture. Reading through this collection one sees how Goldin’s interests dovetail into one another: her definitions of “deep” and “shallow” art, her brief against content, her interest in folk art and public sculpture gradually define a non-programmatic but remarkably consistent critical approach.

At the time Goldin’s work hardly went unnoticed: in 1975 she was awarded the Frank Jewett Mather Ward for Art Criticism by the College Art Association, and she had a significant impact on some of her readers. In his contribution to this collection, New York Times critic Holland Cotter, who is known for his writing on nonwestern art, recalls coming upon one of Goldin’s article on Islamic art and becoming an instant fan.

The third (but by no means last) reason for reading Goldin is for the sheer artfulness of her prose, the daring of her arguments, the intellectual energy that pours off the page, even 40 years on. But don’t think that Goldin was only about enthusiastic praise for the art she loved: she could be quite combative (see her early attack on Harold Rosenberg), and even when writing about artists she supported she was willing to point out what she saw as shortcomings and failures.

Here are a few brief passages that convey the range and quality of Goldin’s criticism:

On Morris Louis: “He is an artist who projects a nameless something very purely and powerfully and directly. Something utterly common, nearly vulgar and rarefied—like Marilyn Monroe.”

On Expressionist painting: “There is no objective reason at all to suppose that a zig-zag line must be drawn with more feeling than a curve, or that a full heart will reach for a lemon yellow faster than it will for yellow ochre.”

On abstraction: “Assertions that abstract art is about anything, and particularly about abstractions like time, science, or Cubism, are nonsense—desperate attempts to preserve the old form-and content structure of artistic meaning.”

On Matisse’s late work: “From 1950 until his death in 1954, Matisse struggled to meet and define the new territory of decoration. In the face of grids and framing problems his mastery of draftsmanship counted for nothing—and he threw it away.”

On George Sugarman’s sculpture Two in One (1966), which graces the cover of the book: “This is a piece full of portents, crisis and wit. When the sense of a statement appears through rapid changes in tone from one element to the next, is this not the precise analogue, the essence of wit? As for crisis, when a rhythm is established and builds momentum only to find itself suddenly blocked, what else would you call it?”

Amy Goldin, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, 1971 © Naomi Schiff.

Sadly, Goldin’s career and life were cut short by cancer. She died in 1978, at the age of 52. We owe an enormous debt to her friend Robert Kushner for rescuing and effectively contextualizing her writing—every art critic should be so lucky to have such a devoted fan. (Mention should also be made of the late founder of Hard Press, Jon Gams, who didn’t live to see this book through to print.) Let’s hope that other enterprising publishers and editors will be inspired by this example to initiate similar projects of recovery.