BARRY SCHWABSKY In Conversation with Joan Waltemath

Barry Schwabsky is an American art critic and poet living in London. His books include The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art (Cambridge University Press), Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting (Phaidon Press), Opera: Poems 1981-2002 (Meritage Press), and Book Left Open in the Rain (The Brooklyn Rail/Black Square Editions). He writes regularly for Artforum and The Nation, among others.

Joan Waltemath (Rail): How did you first get interested in Contemporary art?

Barry Schwabsky: Well, I think that I probably became interested and curious about contemporary art and the art world through what I knew about it from the poetry world. And I was quite interested in the New York School, so I knew that John Ashbery was an art critic, I knew that Frank O’Hara had been a curator and critic, and of course that his friends and his life in the art world were part of his poetry as well. So there was something, there was a connection there, already.

I started writing for art magazines in 1984, first of all for Arts Magazine when Richard Martin was the Editor. Then shortly afterwards I began writing for Flash Art and Artscribe in London. Then in 1987, Flash Art brilliantly came to the realization that if they were publishing a magazine in English that they should have somebody on the staff whose native language was English. I was writing for them, and I knew some Italian and I’d lived in Italy before, so I went to work for them under the title of Managing Editor, and I worked there for a year. That was the first time that I was employed full time in the art world. Up until then I had been working in publishing, and just doing art writing as a kind of extra thing on the side. I worked for Flash Art for a year, then when Richard Martin left Arts Magazine, I applied for his position and got it, and came back to New York, and edited that magazine for four years until it went out of business—until I drove it out of business!—and since then I’ve been a freelance writer, occasional editor, occasional curator, occasional teacher, but mostly free-lance writer.

Rail: If I think about the end of the 80s, Arts was a very high profile magazine, it seemed to really have its finger on the pulse of what was going on, or what was interesting in New York at that time, though not necessarily what was commercial. So, I’m wondering what remains with you from that time of being the editor of Arts?

Schwabsky: I guess I miss Arts not as an editor but as a writer. The thing that I liked about it was that somehow it really seemed to be a reflection of a certain art community and its interests and not so much of a kind of art power structure, if you know what I mean. And to some extent I think the Rail has picked up on that, but art is only part of what the Rail does, so therefore it can’t do it with the same amplitude, because the political things have to be in there, and the literary things have to be in there.

Rail: And it’s a very different community.

Schwabsky: Well it’s a development of that historical community.

Rail: I never thought of Arts as having to do with Brooklyn.

Schwabsky: It was pre-Brooklyn, as it were. That just means that the generation that went to Brooklyn followed another generation that went somewhere else. When I came on the scene, SoHo was the place, and the East Village. You know, the East Village thing, as a place to show art, if not as a place to live, didn’t last very long. But SoHo was a very vibrant situation at that time.

Rail: It had better architecture. There were better places to work with in SoHo than in the East Village. I always felt like that was a problem in the East Village. The tenement structures only lent themselves to a certain kind of work, it was limited.

Schwabsky: Well, certainly limited in scale.

Rail: Do you have specific memories of looking at works of art that were really cathartic for you in terms of your own thinking about art?

Schwabsky: I remember going on a high school field trip to the MoMA and seeing paintings by Rothko and Pollock for the first time and finding them quite exhilarating, and I think that’s sort of the earliest one that I can think of.

Rail: Do you think you can still have those kinds of experiences once you know too much?

Schwabsky: I think you can have them much more, I know that, because, when I was young, I think that pretty much the only paintings that I could really get a hang of were either abstract paintings, or they were, let’s say, things like Impressionist paintings that had quite ordinary subject matter of daily life, but I would go to the museum and see, I don’t know, let’s say, a Bellini painting, and all I could see was the Madonna and child and it had to do with a religion that wasn’t mine and that I didn’t have any real desire to know more about than I already did, and so the subject matter of classic painting more or less alienated me from it until a somewhat later stage when I could see more in the painting than what the painting was about. And then I could have exhilarating experiences with paintings of Christian subject matter, and then having that experience I became also more in tune, more sympathetic to understanding why it was that people had been so concerned about this subject matter, so I think that in my development knowing more allowed me to be open to more experiences—and also to feel them more deeply.

Rail: I remember you wrote something about stages of development and mentioned that when artists or critics could overcome their own taste, that it was really an extraordinary thing, if an artist could make something that didn’t really coincide with their own taste you felt that they have achieved a high level of—

Schwabsky: Let’s say, self-consciousness, I don’t know, I’m not sure what you call it.

Rail: You’re living in London now, what precipitated the move to London?

Schwabsky: A lot of things, both personal and otherwise, but in short, I was a little bit tired of New York, and I felt like I knew it too well, and maybe more so that it knew me too well. And the gentrification—there was a leveling upwards, if you know what I mean, of New York (then being defined mostly as Manhattan) that made it much less interesting than it had been when I first got there. And I was interested in living somewhere on the other side of the ocean, and through various reasons London turned out to be the place where I could do it.

Rail: What do you appreciate most about being in London?

Schwabsky: I’m just a big believer in changing your context. I tell everybody to do that. They never listen to me.

Rail: Has being in London given you another view of the New York scene that you knew too well? Has it enabled you to come at it from a different angle?

Schwabsky: Well, I come at it from a different angle because I’m not immersed in it, and I only know it in a partial way. But the fact is also that the situation has changed since I left, and I think New York has become much more interesting than it was 10 years ago, and the reason that it has become much more interesting is that in fact when I left 8 years ago, when you said New York, that was still assumed to be Manhattan below 96th street, and that’s not assumed anymore. And I think that that opening up or crossing of the boundaries of what counts as New York has released a lot of energy. When I was living here, I lived a lot of different places, but most of the time I lived in Brooklyn. And when I got on the subway to go to Manhattan I always felt like I was going to the City, you know, you called it the City, coming from someplace else and going into the center. And now, there is no center it seems to me anymore. And whatever it is that I was looking for in the City, as it was understood then, is now equally somewhere else.

Rail: That’s probably the biggest shift that’s occurred in the last 10 years, is that loss of the center, as far as my own observation goes. I feel like Manhattan is more interesting right now than it has been in a long time. All the spaces that are being vacated here make me feel like there’s a potential for activities to occur here, as they have in the past. I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that it’s happening but I feel the latency of it.

Schwabsky: Maybe.

Rail: You mention Robert Smithson a lot in your writing; he seems to be an artist that comes up for you, as almost a standard-bearer, as a way to measure the achievement of other artists. I was wondering if there was any particular realization about Smithson’s work that you had, or if you actually knew him when he was alive.

Schwabsky: No, no, not at all, that was definitely before my time. But I would say that his collected writings was really one of the first books about art that made a really strong impression on me before I started to write about art, or before I even knew very much about it. But somehow I got my hands on that book at a young age, and I think it did leave a lot of impressions on me that probably remained latent for a long time, because I didn’t really at that time have that much of a reference for what his writing was about.

His writing is very connected to some other kinds of writing that are not art writing, sometimes literary writing, sometimes sub-literary. Meaning it connects to, let’s say, someone like Borges, but then it also connects to science fiction, which as a kid I had read voluminously, and through that, it connects to certain kinds of literary sensibility that I was, sort of, primed to receive. But also because it connects to big, almost metaphysical ideas about sort of the fate of the world and so on, I could understand more readily the significance of the ideas than would have been the case if those kinds of connections hadn’t been made so explicit.

Rail: I have a sense of his complexity as mirroring the complexity of our existence in the way he was able to touch on many different disciplines and ways of thinking and somehow make it all a context for his work.

Schwabsky: I think in that sense he was part of his time, there seems to have been a kind of urge to somehow get away from the pictorial at that time, which was actually an urge that was never fulfilled, but it was an interesting urge.

Rail: Can you think of any other artist that was a contemporary of Smithson that would have embodied that urge to get away from the pictorial? Are you seeing it as a foundation of conceptual art?

Schwabsky: Yeah, I think conceptual art is part of that. But painting was deeply affected by it as well. Daniel Buren is an antipictorial painter.

Rail: It’s rather ironic, then, that often with conceptual art, what you end up looking at are photographs that depict the event.

Schwabsky: Of course. And with Smithson you could develop a whole theory of the image out of his writings, because he was actually profoundly concerned with that, and how images worked was completely bound up with his ideas about time and history, and so on. I don’t think he thought that images stopped time, for instance, even though they give us the illusion that they do.

Rail: Of course, Dan Graham, I just saw the retrospective, but I’m trying to find another artist where the anti-image would be a description of the work.

Schwabsky: I don’t know, like Bruce Nauman. You walk through a maze, and then you see a video image of yourself somewhere back in another part of the maze, and you can never catch up with yourself so the image and the reality somehow never can coincide.

Rail: How was the Bruce Nauman installation in Venice?

Schwabsky: It was kind of a mini retrospective, but he had a new piece. It was there in two versions, an Italian version and an English version, and it was a sound piece on the days of the week. I thought it was a very beautiful, moving piece.

Rail: As I was reading through some of your writings I was wondering if you had a particular idea of the final line in a piece, because they seem very specific in your writing.

Schwabsky: I don’t have any general philosophy about it, but I think that just like first lines are important for getting someone’s attention, but even more so for setting up the type of attention that you want, the last line is the last thing that you’re leaving someone with, and there are different ways to do it depending on what you’ve done up until then. Sometimes it’s interesting to have a really abrupt cutoff that lets something else kind of echo after it, sometimes it’s interesting to have something that’s more of a summation, sometimes it’s interesting to leave people with a concrete detail, it just depends. And don’t forget, when you’re writing to a deadline and a word count, sometimes you just realize you’ve got to break off, like it or not. The piece on the Venice Biennale, somehow I had it in mind to start things off in a very kind of light, almost trivial manner, as if you’re just kind of going off on a little holiday to Venice, or something like that. This opened up to a kind of a structural description of the Biennale as a whole, almost as if it were a work in itself.

Rail: What do you take along to read on your trip?

Schwabsky: I’ve just been reading the journals and letters of Jack Tworkov that were recently published. I’m hoping to write something about them. What’s so interesting is how he agonizes so much over the thought that he’s given up too much by painting abstractly, and that, even though he feels sure that this was the only thing that he could have done, it seems he always felt like he would rather have been able to be a representational painter, and he keeps wondering if it’s not too late for him to change back. Is it only that he doesn’t have the courage to change his work anymore now when he is sixty years old or seventy years old? Or is he really doing the only painting that is in him to do? Even though he always ends up thinking abstraction is the only painting that’s in him to do, he has to do this painting and not another kind of painting, you always have the sense that he would have liked to not have done that kind of painting. And he always had in mind the example of his sister, who was an extraordinary painter and always remained a representationalist—in fact to me she might have been a better painter then he was.

Rail: What is her name?

Schwabsky: Janice Biala. She was always a representational painter and I think he admired and envied in her the fact that she was able to maintain that.

Rail: What years do the diaries span?

Schwabsky: From the 30s until his death. But mostly from the 50s until his death in 1982.

Rail: I want to backtrack slightly: at one point you were talking about underlying systems and questioning whether there was an underlying system to works of art. The notion of an underlying order is something that I’ve been working with for a long time. I’m aware of it all around me and I see that in the time of Bellini that they were able to create a specific and clear mathematical structure underlying their paintings. Does it reflect a social order that was simpler or more possible to idealize? Can that kind of parallel be made today, or have we reached a point where the layers of complexity can no longer be comprehended by individuals?

Schwabsky: Well, some people can apparently think that order, or at least they can think that they’re thinking it. Maybe you can. I had a friend, or better to say, an acquaintance, a friendly acquaintance, in London who passed away recently, a writer called John Michell. He was a kind of a Platonist, and he really believed there was an underlined geometrical order to the universe and everything in it, and I think that one of the things that fascinated me about him was that fact because I could never begin to believe such a thing, I don’t think that it’s in me to believe it.

Rail: Interesting. I came across his works when I was in my early twenties and then met him and knew some of the people around him, so I am familiar with his work. I could intuitively make sense of the geometry that he was talking about.

Schwabsky: What he saw as the underlying structure of things I saw as a highly specialized, rare, and fragile situation of things that was epiphenomenal.

Rail: So if you don’t see a kind of underlying structure, how do you go about making sense of the many different kinds of things that you look at as a critic? Do you have a system or set means to approach looking at work?

Schwabsky: No, I don’t have a system. I think I’m very involved with the random, not in a John Cage sense, but in some other sense. I think I’m much more—as a kind of basic way of looking at things—much more comfortable with the kind of Lucretian viewpoint which says that it’s just matter and there are just all these atoms, and he says they’re all falling and as they fall, sometimes, at some arbitrary point, they swerve, and as all these atoms kept falling and swerving, the swerving made them clump together and they start to form objects, and that’s where the world came from, and—

Rail: No attraction between certain ones that will cause them to swerve?

Schwabsky: Well, the swerve is the attraction somehow, it’s not that there’s the attraction and then there’s the swerve, and so yeah, I think that I have that swerve towards certain things and certain people and certain situations, and I try not to resist it, and I try to reason through the resulting meeting, if there is one. Sometimes there’s not a meeting, sometimes you bypass them. But the name of that swerve is Eros.

Rail: What you’re saying reminds me of your approach, or could we say non-approach, to the last line of a piece. As I read through a number of the pieces that I came in contact with I felt like each one of them had a different idea about it, each one of them was doing a different thing in terms of the writing, and that really fascinated me because it seems like you are responding to the particular circumstances of what you are creating. As somebody who’s really involved in systems, I find that fascinating.

Schwabsky: You know, I think it would be very useful to have a system, I’m not against a system, really, and I take seriously what William Blake said, “I have to have my own system or I’ll be the slave of someone else’s.”

Rail: What a beautiful line of Blake’s!

Schwabsky: But I’ve never really been able to have that system. I’ve only been able to think that at least I circumstantially evaded those of others, without being the slave of them, but still without making my own.

Rail: It’s a question I think Breton touched on in Nadja when he writes, “Perhaps I am doomed to retrace my steps under the illusion that I am exploring.”


Joan Waltemath

JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.