Surveying figures ranging from Clement Greenberg to Jacques Derrida, New York-based critic Barry Schwabsky has just released a compendium of 20 short essays. Words for Art (Sternberg) doesn't compile the numerous critical pieces Schwabsky has done for the Nation, focusing instead on his reflections on art writing itself.
Words for Art grew out of a proposal for a book of essays on painting. It was only when he realized that he "could never quite satisfy [himself] that the original proposal was right," Schwabsky told A.i.A. via e-mail, that he devised the concept for Words for Art. He told Sternberg, "‘Here's a book that's not the one that we talked about, but see if you are interested.' And they went for it."
The collection demonstrates Schwabsky's far-reaching intellectual curiosity. He originally considered becoming a literature professor, and he cites midcentury heavyweights of literary theory like Roland Barthes and Paul de Man as major influences. His idol, however, is Walter Benjamin; Schwabsky does a great deal to liberate the German critic and philosopher from the weight of countless "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" references by other writers. In two essays on the Frankfurt School affiliate, Schwabsky mines Benjamin's letters for Wittgensteinian insights into language, and brings to the fore a number of Benjamin's early essays on color, which Schwabsky uses in analyses of Matisse and Gary Hume.
That's not to say that Schwabsky ignores his fellow art critics. Words for Art includes a shrewd examination of how the journal October went from radical upstart to venerable elder, with Schwabsky sketching out the gradual enshrinement of art criticism as an academic discipline. There's a fascinating recollection of a conversation between Schwabsky and New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, in which Schjeldahl subtly takes him to task as a critic focused on the "studio" rather than the "opening"—"saying that if there's a side to be taken, it's that of the public, not that of the artist."
The ultimate point of the book, according to Schwabsky, is to ignite interest in art criticism itself as something to be contemplated. "I always repeat Duchamp's remark that it's the viewer who completes the work," he told A.i.A. "Writing about art is one of the best ways to do that. It means that you are not a passive receiver—you always have to give something to the art that wasn't there before you started responding."