During the third quarter of the 20th century, the New Yorker—characterized by intellectual assurance, cultural breadth and refreshing clarity—played a central role in defining late modern taste. Affiliated writers such as Whitney Balliett, Arlene Croce, Janet Flanner, Brendan Gill, Pauline Kael, Lewis Mumford, Harold Rosenberg and Edmund Wilson frequently upended conventional thinking and promoted vanguard experimentation. But is the same true at the publication today? Two recent anthologies of New Yorker pieces about contemporary art—Calvin Tomkins’s Lives of the Artists and Peter Schjeldahl’s Let’s See—raise serious doubts about the critical criteria in place today at what, given its Manhattan base and its distinguished history, ought to be the gold standard of American magazines.
Calvin Tomkins has been a professional observer of the arts for more than a half century and a New Yorker writer since 1960. (He and Schjeldahl have been fellow staffers at the magazine since 1998.) An art journalist, as distinct from an art critic, Tomkins specializes in that familiar genre of verbal portraiture, the profile. He has published several previous anthologies of New Yorker pieces, the most recent being Post- to Neo-: The Art World of the 1980s (1988).
In Lives of the Artists, Tomkins’s careful reporting pays off in appealing sketches of James Turrell and Maurizio Cattelan, artists whose eccentric careers are relatively removed from conventional gallery-based practices. His portraits of “bad boy” artists Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, however, are undone by a disturbing disconnect. Primarily interested in channeling artists’ intentions, Tomkins shows no journalistic compulsion to examine the codependence between such artists and establishment figures like commercial dealers and institutional curators—to say nothing of art writers who traffic in gossipy, extra-art matters better suited to “Page 6” of the New York Post than to the culture pages of the New Yorker. Profiles of a disparate group of other artists, including Matthew Barney, John Currin, Jasper Johns, Julian Schnabel, Richard Serra and Cindy Sherman, round out the book’s contents, arranged chronologically by date of original publication, from 1999 to 2008.
Like Giorgio Vasari’s 16th-century Lives of the Artists, Tomkins’s anthology is seasoned with personal information about its subjects. But unlike that centuries-spanning survey of “the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects,” this volumeis devoted exclusively to artists not only living but available for interview. Moreover, the profile form, as practiced by Tomkins, privileges those subjects already blessed with enough name recognition to draw reader interest. Perhaps this explains the author’s belated attention to the majority of his subjects, who—apart from Currin and arguably Hirst—were well known for 15 years (and in most cases far longer) by the time
Tomkins wrote about them. All too often Tomkins’s reportorial skills are applied to accounts of lunches with the rich and famous, at the expense of more compelling art matters. These meals are cozy affairs that tend to include the subject’s children as well as Tomkins’s wife, Dodie Kazanjian (to whom the book is dedicated), a contributing editor for Vogue and director of Gallery Met at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
In a magazine renowned for both subjectivity and critical acumen, Tomkins seems oddly hesitant to argue for his own views about the work of the artists he profiles. At a Gagosian Gallery opening in Beverly Hills for a Prada-clad Cindy Sherman, for instance, Tomkins recounts this exchange with another guest: “She asked me what I thought of the pictures. I mumbled something. . . . The woman said . . . ‘These are the most disturbing things [by Sherman] I’ve seen yet. There is no empathy in them.’” Upon later reflection, Tomkins “sees her point” but, now that she has safely moved on, rejects it in favor of a diametrically opposed interpretation of Sherman’s images.
It’s a curiously convoluted—and diffident—way of presenting multiple interpretations of a body of work that did, in fact, divide viewers and reviewers over its ambivalent-seeming portrayals of, to use Sherman’s word, Hollywood “chicks”—affluent, no-longer-young women holding on for dear life.
Tomkins relates most fully and sympathetically to the work of Jasper Johns and Richard Serra. His enthusiasm is a reminder of the difficulty of transcending one’s generational responses. Born in 1925, Tomkins was drawn to the postwar, avant-garde circle of Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and the neo-Dadaists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, where he found the subjects of his best books. (The most notable may be Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg,1980, a vivid biography-cum-group-portrait that highlights the 1964 Venice Biennale, from which Rauschenberg emerged a star.)
With his postmodern artist-subjects, however, Tomkins seems out of sync—insensitive to telling details and incapable of recognizing, or eliciting, any revelatory utterances. As with the conventional documentary overpopulated with talking heads, the magazine profile is a nearly exhausted form that is far more difficult to resuscitate than nonwriters might imagine. Unfortunately, Lives of the Artists fails to transcend the snoozy norm; it seems encased in amber.
As the New Yorker’schief exhibition reviewer, Peter Schjeldahl may have the best art critic’s gig in the universe. (Disclosure: Schjeldahl and I were colleagues at the short-lived magazine 7 Days in the late ’80s and at the Village Voice during the early ’90s.) The Condé Nast publication, with a circulation of one million-plus, pays well, allows its critics to write at comfortable length and eschews the tone of earnest pedagogy that afflicts so many newspapers and journals. Unlike his daily-paper counterparts, the New Yorker columnist is also spared too-frequent deadlines and the guilt-inducing responsibility of validating worthy but little-known institutions and artists. Such working conditions add luster to the New Yorker’sreputation as a nurturing place for writers. Virtually every piece of criticism that appears in the magazine seems not just elegantly composed and edited, but ripe for anthologizing. (Or, in the view of Publishers Weekly, which terms such collections an “industry” at the New Yorker, perhaps overripe.)
Let’s See is Schjeldahl’s fourth compilation of art criticism but the first from a major publisher. It contains an engaging full-length profile (of art dealer Marian Goodman), a “Talk of the Town” item and 73 “Art World” columns devoted to exhibitions, biennials, artists and the occasional offbeat subject (e.g., Victorian fairy painting or the works of Martín Ramírez, Norman Rockwell and Adolf Hitler). Instead of an introduction, Schjeldahl offers an entertaining,tell-all-style section in which 24 art-world colleagues (Roberta Smith, Walter Robinson, Dave Hickey,Jerry Saltz, Lynne Cooke et al.)each posed one query to him.
To some readers, Schjeldahl is familiar both as a poet and an art critic. In the Q&A, he wisecracks that he didn’t give up poetry in the early ’80s, “It gave up on me.” Why? “I never had a real subject, only a desperate wish to be somehow glorious. When you lean too hard on anything it breaks.” Despite his lapsed-poet status, he is—along with John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, John Perreault and John Yau—among the remaining New York School poet-critics.
Epitomized by writer and Art News editor Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), this unruly “school” of art criticism was anything but a cohesive group: the writers’ strongest shared characteristic was a penchant for an experiential/existential, rather than art-historical, m.o. Their frankly subjective approach held considerable sway in New York before the institutionalization of contemporary art by the academy and the museum. It was enhanced by the congeniality of a small, tight-knit (and allegedly Edenic) downtown scene of commingled poets, musicians and visual artists, who gathered at the Cedar Tavern throughout the ’50s and the first half of the ’60s, after which Max’s Kansas City became the hangout of choice until it closed in 1974.