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.For the reader unfamiliar with Schjeldahl’s writing, the Q&A provides clues, many of them apparent in the smoothly crafted, faux-conversational style quoted above. A magazine column, written in the first person, is not only a species of self-portraiture but one of the purest projections of sensibility possible in (so-called) nonfiction writing. The persona that Schjeldahl has created seems to derive largely from Charles Baudelaire. When asked in the Q&A to name the “emulatable virtues” of his role models, Schjeldahl cites first Baudelaire’s “hyperalertness to consequences of the aesthetic” and later refers to the French writer as his “intellectual hero.” Like Baudelaire (and the so-called decadents and aesthetes who followed him), Schjeldahl worships at the altar of (artistic) experience, rejecting any a priori method or belief system. In the Q&A, he describes his sometimes improvisatory approach to unfamiliar art:
If I strongly like or dislike a work, I simply argue for my response. . . . Art that doesn’t excite me, either way, demands a method. . . . I ask myself what I would like or dislike about a work if I liked or disliked it. . . . [I don’t do this] too often. Nothing ruins a critic like pretending to care.
Unlike Baudelaire, Schjeldahl evinces little interest in current art either for its contemporaneity or, despite his espoused allegiance, for its esthetic appeal. His intellectual concerns—at least as expressed in the pieces reprinted in the book—are unusually narrow, especially given that the New Yorker styles itself as the voice of American (multi)cultural urbanity. Schjeldahl is too willing, for example, to dismiss in remarkably few words—rather than to thoughtfully explore—an impulse widely shared among contemporary American artists. His Hilton Kramer-esque response to “political art” sweepingly asserts:
Most political art is poor art and worse politics. . . . How many artists are willing to sacrifice their ambition to a fleeting cause? Most of them strike a political posture only when it’s in fashion. Beyond that who even cares what an artist has to say about politics?
Consequently he ignores much of the most challenging work of his own time and place, and utterly misses one of the biggest international developments of the past decade: the emergence of experimental, often politically inflected, art from China.
Let’s See also underlines the disjuncture between Schjeldahl’s interest in (Western) historical art and his anti-art-historical method. His sketches of the historical contexts for painters such as Rembrandt, Chardin and El Greco are sometimes too broadly brushed, and he occasionally makes surprising errors, as in his review of a Caspar David Friedrich show at the Met (2001), which suggests that many artists working prior to Friedrich’s death in 1840—and outside of the plein-airBarbizon School—painted directly from nature. Articles devoted to monographic exhibitions of painters—many long dead before the 20th century—constitute more than half of the book, while only around a half dozen pieces engage contemporary photography, video or installation art.
Of course Schjeldhal’s devotees don’t read him for insights into social history, queer theory, video art or gossipy promotions of new talent on West 24th Street. They read him for the pleasures that brilliant craft can afford—for exhilarating literary pyrotechnics and bravura flourishes. Here is an example of Schjeldahl’s literary flair:
My favorite picture in “Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640): The Drawings,” . . . portrays an ox. . . . The work conveys ponderous mass, rippling musculature, bristling hair, and creased and dimpled, somehow palpably warm, skin. . . . What I particularly appreciate about An Ox is that it isn’t the image of a naked human being.
The passages below, in tandem, are about as close to a statement of principles as Schjeldahl gets. Both are excerpted from considerations of traditional matters only occasionally encountered in contemporary art. In an unusually satisfying review, Schjeldahl criticizes the organizers of “Regarding Beauty,” a 1999 exhibition at the
Hirshhorn, for failing to understand its eponymous subject: The curators approach beauty cautiously. . . . But beauty is not a concept . . . it is a common word. . . . Unless we are desperately sad or angry, we have occasion to use the word every day—almost always correctly, even when the pleasures and satisfactions in question are only a little bit intense and a little bit deep. Is beauty in the eye—and the brain, heart, and gut—of the viewer? Sure. That’s where it can do the most good. . . . Yearnings for beauty in one who is incapable of it give rise to thoughts of suicide: beautiful surcease.
By contrast, he effusively praises the canvases of John Currin, an artist virtually alone among contemporary painters in employing laborious old master techniques. (He is the only artist about whom both Tomkins and Schjeldahl write in their collections.) Schjeldahl concludes that Currin’s brand of artistic outlawry is timely. Today’s establishment loves art not wisely but too well. Art is administered by sentimentally celebratory institutions, snugged into niche markets of dauntingly efficient commerce, and paraded through auction houses as a kind of glorified funny money. In this context, to be frankly unlovable seems a prerequisite for meaning anything vital. For Currin, it’s not that old things—such as gleaming windowpanes of varnish or the use of the female nude to mirror male emotion—are new again. It’s that “old” and “new” are exhausted categories. The past is present now.
Is that the familiar sound of épatez-ing the bourgeoisieI hear? Would that Schjeldahl’s reformulations of old-fashioned avant-gardism illuminated something original or meaningful about Currin’s work or the current art scene.
Schjeldahl’s equation of old and new also applies to his relationship with the New Yorker. In one sense, he is perfectly suited for the publication, championing its time-honored approach to the arts. Despite its self-proclaimed (and actual) sophistication, the New Yorker’s critical reputation—like its commercial success—derives partly from its rejection of snobbery and its eradication of the traditional high/low distinctions between art forms. In the New Yorker worldview, the art experience holds potential appeal for everybody, with little specialized know-how required for understanding and enjoyment.
Consider that probably the most famous review in the history of American magazines—Pauline Kael’s ecstatic encomium for Last Tango in Paris (1972)—was the work of a New Yorker writer who insisted on being called a movie (rather than a film)critic. Her prediction that Last Tango is “a movie people will be arguing about . . . for as long as there are movies” may be questionable. But her writing remains hard to resist, in part because, like Schjeldahl, she so passionately defends the pleasure principle in art. The self-confidence she gave New Yorker readers during the postwar era, when “reading” films seemed to necessitate a specialized vocabulary, was a gift. But times have changed. Perhaps the drive for pleasure, self-expression and “glory” embodied in Let’s See isn’t what our clamorous, know-nothing culture needs from its critics today.
Robert Atkins, based in California, is a writer and head of U.S. planning for the website ArtSpeak China (www.artspeakchina.org), a bilingual, collaboratively authored encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese art.
Books: Lives of the Artists, by Calvin Tomkins, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2008; 254 pages, $26 hardcover, $15 paper.
Let’s See: Writings on Art from The New Yorker, by Peter Schjeldahl, New York, Thames & Hudson, 2008; 256 pages, $29.95.