Roberta Smith with Jarrett Earnest
Roberta Smith is co-chief art critic at the New York Times. She joined the newspaper’s staff in 1991 after writing for Artforum, Art in America, and the Village Voice. Smith spoke with Jarrett Earnest about Donald Judd, opinionated criticism, and dealing with your own ideas.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): I’m interested in the longer articles you wrote for Art in America in the 1970s, when you were splitting an editorial job with Scott Burton—
Roberta Smith: —In theory.
Rail: What does that mean?
Smith: It means I couldn’t edit—I didn’t know a thing about editing. Betsy Baker basically hired me so I would write for her. She gave me a job, which meant I could leave Artforum, which I was really happy to do—
Smith: I had just been savaged in the magazine by Jeff Perrone. He reviewed a big Donald Judd show at the National Gallery of Canada in 1975. I’d contributed an essay that was a rewrite of my college thesis, which traced Judd’s transition from two to three dimensions, basically from 1952 to 1962. When Jeff reviewed the show he called me, in effect, “a groupie, a flatterer and a stooge.” I’ve come to really like Jeff and by now I tend to view that Judd piece as juvenilia. But as might be expected, you don’t forget that kind of thing, especially one as rhythmic as that. Jeff came into the art world writing nervy, negative pieces about big names. He was very smart, some take-downs were probably in order, but it was also a very efficient way to achieve power and visibility. The Artforum article came out just as Betsy offered me that job, so I had no problem leaving. Another thing was that I had been hired by Robert Pincus-Witten, who was easy to work with. Then he left and I was being edited by Max Kozloff, who one day accused me of “being a formalist.” Or at least informed me that I was one. At that point I didn’t know quite what it meant, but he didn’t seem to be on my side!
Rail: When you moved from Artforum to Art in America in 1976, were you able to write differently?
Smith: Art in America was very different, easier, looser. I had written only one little article for Artforum, on Jared Bark, otherwise I’d done nothing but reviews. I was terrified of going from the reviews section to the front. At Art in America, I was getting much more support—and all of a sudden was writing long pieces that Betsy put on the cover. I guess Betsy saw a potential in me that hadn’t been recognized at Artforum. In addition, she was a great, sympathetic editor with no agenda who taught me a lot, as many editors do.
Obviously it helped tremendously that she was a woman, which, unbelievably, I wasn’t quite conscious of at the time. In many ways I’m a late bloomer. It probably took the arrival of the first woman to head the Culture department at the Times for me to gain absolute clarity about it. I’ve worked under about a dozen Culture chiefs, all men, several of whom were wonderful. But having Danielle (Mattoon) in that job changed everything. It transformed the atmosphere and enabled me to relax at the Times in a way that I never quite had. When I was first there and for a long time, it felt like being on a football team where they hadn’t given you the playbook.
Rail: In 1978 you wrote an article about Scott Burton, “Designs on Minimalism,” for Art in America; I thought this line was lovely: “It is safe to say that Burton wants his objects to have charisma, a physical quasi-erotic magnetism that is both fascinating and a little repellent, due to the extent to which it is abstracted and purified (and withheld) by being presented in such formal, material terms.”
Smith: I don’t remember what I’ve written. You could have written that yourself and I’d take your word for it. So what is your question?
Rail: It’s a lovely description, but it also seems like something that might come out of a personal relationship, from knowing the artist as a person. I wanted to know about your transition from being embedded with the artist and writing from their perspective, to your present position, in which you have to stay critically aloof from personal involvement with artists.
Smith: What changed that was going to the Village Voice and realizing that I wasn’t writing for the artist or the artist’s approval, that artists don’t control the meaning of their work. I remember being tormented writing a feature for Art in America on Philip Guston, wondering, what is Philip Guston going to think about this? And realizing in the end that he probably didn’t think much of it. The Voice gave me—this important thing that is hard to have writing in the art world: a readership. Or it was then, before everything could be instantly put online. Around this time, a writer friend said to me, If you really want to be a critic for life you have to get out of the art world and get a readership. And that is when I went to the Voice and asked for a job, which I eventually got. When you have a broader—and a weekly—readership everything becomes more immediate, pressured and also pleasurable. Your sense of responsibility and loyalty instantly switches to the readers, at least it did for me. It’s hard to describe, but suddenly you’re in conversation with a much larger, more varied audience. The weekly appearance makes it feel like you never stop talking. And you get the idea, delusional or not, that the readers want to hear from you. It encourages a condition that I think is basic to writing criticism: “disinterestedness.” You have to be disinterested in your own responses, no matter what they are. You can’t have either an agenda or fear of what some artist or friend will think. You learn to shut all that out more; you learn to go deeper into yourself. Mainly you’re faced with the task of simply being honest. So you want to edit things like the artist out.
Rail: Does that mean you don’t do studio visits?
Smith: During my first decade in New York, while writing for art magazines, I had gone to artists’ studios all the time; they were part of my DIY graduate school. At the Voice I felt that if I went to one artist’s studio I’d have to go to all artists’ studios—it wouldn’t be fair. These days I have studio visits with close friends who I don’t write about, or do little more than mention in passing. Carroll Dunham is a friend and a couple of years back we filmed a short studio visit with Michael Blackwood as a kind of substitute. I’m kind of camera phobic and still haven’t watched it.
Rail: But you’ve reviewed Carroll Dunham.
Smith: My, my you have been deep in the archives! Obviously I’d suppressed that for the moment. I reviewed a show of his at Sonnabend in the late 1980s, when I was relatively new to the Times and still a stringer. I think I was naïvely testing the waters of writing for a much larger publication. I got some backlash from friends and others, which quickly and rather painfully clarified the ethical situation.
Rail: What was interesting to me about that particular Times piece on Carroll Dunham is that it’s one of the most Judd-like of your reviews, in tone as well as approach. It starts:
Each work features one shape rendered in one bright color on a rectangular surface composed of one or more 40-by-60-inch sheets of paper mounted on panels. As this eight-painting series progresses, the surfaces enlarge. […] The first three paintings—respectively red, green and brown—are on one panel each. In other works, the ground doubles, then triples and so forth, culminating in the largest work, Purple Shape, which occupies a 9-by-12-foot surface of five panels.
Do you think you wrote it like that because you were so personally close?
Smith: I don’t know. It could have been that. It may also have been an attempt to emphasize the formal progression, the systemic nature of such seemingly spontaneous, superficially child-like work. Also I was still finding my voice at the Times, which felt so different from the Voice. And in addition I was still at the stage where every deadline was a kind of trauma.
You write these things and file and edit them, and then you sort of want to kill yourself. I don’t think that is unusual. Especially for weekly writers, there’s often this incredible regret—you think of all the stuff that is not in it, and that it’s badly written. You can’t see it. Then all the things you’ve shut out in order to write—like this is going to hurt some feelings—rush back in. I still can have a mini breakdown on Thursday nights before the paper comes out, but it’s become more comedic. Jerry usually ridicules me out of it, basically saying, If you’re down about your writing, it must be Thursday night.
Rail: Something I love about art criticism: ethical agreements that are actually articulated and hashed out in real journalism are completely amorphous and opaque in art writing—there is no set standard for what constitutes the ethical boundaries between artists and critics socially and professionally. It sounds like when you moved to the Times you had to work that out for yourself.
Smith: I had to work that out a bit, partly because I was a stringer for five years and wasn’t given the same time and attention as staff writers, so I was a bit more on my own. It’s not that hard, in a way. You don’t go to gallery dinners; you don’t pursue new friendships with artists; also, you ask dealers to stop talking if they are giving you a spiel about an artist. You try to keep the situation as uncontaminated as possible. And let’s face it, the main person you want to hear from is yourself. But seriously, as an art critic you have to remember: all you really have is a certain kind of integrity and credibility based both on what you write and how you behave. Not that it’s limited to art critics or the art world. I guess reputation is all, everywhere. But it always seemed kind of stark to me, like the thing that kept the wolf from the door almost. Of course that’s rather laughable these days, when critics can earn thousands of dollars writing catalogue essays for art galleries. I tried that twice when I was between the Voice and the Times—and the wolf was approaching the door—and wasn’t comfortable with it.
Rail: So it was a kind of progression from publication to publication.
Smith: Definitely. The thing I’m just realizing right now, which was implied in your earlier question, is: I wrote an article about Scott Burton, a colleague of mine at the magazine that published it. Jesus! I’ll bet you were waiting for me to realize that, and I just did. [Laughter.] I wouldn’t say that Scott was a friend of mine—but still, thinking about it today it’s a total conflict of interest. But that is the way those things were back then.
Rail: I’m into that, and I don’t think its quality or usefulness should be undermined by calling it a “conflict of interest.” Art and criticism is born from those conflicting interests. How has that changed for you?
Smith: Absolutely, but that doesn’t necessarily involve contact—or conflict—with the artist. There’s enough going on inside yourself! Art is the best art criticism I think Jasper Johns said. Every reaction to it, consciously or not, is also some form of criticism no matter how rudimentary. My particular job is to write about my reactions. I hopefully develop maybe sharper skills of looking at art and listening to myself in an attempt to produce something that is readable, that has some style and a point of view. It’s not that I don’t like artists. I love them, but they can get in the way.
Rail: I went through the Times archive from when you started publishing there in 1986 to today, and it’s interesting to watch names enter into the stream and stay in the stream for thirty years as they change and the art world changes around and with them. It’s even more interesting to see who disappears.
Smith: Totally fascinating. I was in the Whitney Independent Study Program when I wrote my Judd paper. My first experience of living in New York and I moved five times in four months. At one point I was living with four guys who were all in the program on the top floor of a brownstone on East 10th Street. I was the last person to move in, so I didn’t get a room, and built one out of orange crates in the dining room. You can imagine I often felt like I had no place to go, so I’d spend a lot of time in the library after hours, until ten or eleven at night, reading the reviews in the backs of bound volumes of art magazines. This was 1968; the ’50s are only just over, but they felt like a century ago to me because I was so young, and because there was so much change in the early ’60s.
Reading through those reviews was very educational. There were all kinds of artists who were emerging but weren’t in the art world as I got to know it. Artists like Lester Johnson or George Ortman, whom Mitchell Algus resurrected. I remember Ronald Bladen being reviewed as a painter, then as a sculptor and then later when he was embraced by younger artists like Bill Jensen. It was very sobering. It gave me an archive of neglected names and a daunting sense of how fluid everything is. The way attention comes and goes. Artists rise to the surface and sink again. How an artist endures that, how they keep making a living and developing during all that, when the art world isn’t looking, is a major psychological effort.
Rail: Given the fact that your first serious engagement with art criticism was compiling all of Donald Judd’s reviews for publication as a book, it’s interesting that you’ve never collected your writing—is that not interesting to you, or do you believe that the review has a life in the daily paper that is not served by being in a book?
Smith: Yes in both cases. Nobody has thrown themselves at my feet and said, I want to do this more than anything. I’m certainly not going to do it. With a weekly deadline, you’re always going forward anyway. The idea of rereading everything gives me the willies. I write for a newspaper. Until digitalization, I saw reviews as very ephemeral, written to be read quickly and tossed. You try to make your words as durable as possible, but newspaper criticism is fleeting. And I’m not crazy about collections of critics’ writings, which may say more about me than them. I’ve read Jerry’s two books, Peter Schjeldahl’s 7 Days and quite a bit of Greenberg, from the four-volume complete writings. Otherwise a lot of those books just sit on my shelf. I don’t want to put this thing out into the world that is just going to sit on people’s shelves.
Rail: When you said Max Kozloff called you a “formalist”—that is something I’m really interested in. What makes Judd such a terrific critic is that he’s extraordinarily opinionated and yet it’s grounded in form—there is this thing out there you are talking about specifically; it isn’t “just an opinion.” I think you’ve adopted that strategy—your reviews are driven by opinion, which is one of the reasons they are so important to the public, but they are grounded in form, which gives them weight and stability.
Smith: I’m not so sure of that. Form is grounded in specificity, but people still have different opinions about it. Michael Fried certainly did when it came to Minimalism. Nonetheless I do think form is the ultimate, it is what is really speaking to us in art. And form can be achieved in absolutely any way, in any medium, social practice included, but now it’s neglected and people look down on it. I always wanted to write an article on “content” and how it has been completely confused with “subject matter.” I’ve heard people say, “Judd has no content.” You can’t say that! Everything has content, certainly all art. Also, to a great degree, content is beyond the artist’s control, mostly it’s what they can’t keep out of their art. It’s the non-verbal part of it, even art that is completely made of words has to have it. Obviously novels and poetry have it. To me form and content are together, not opposed to each other. Subject matter is outside them, it may contribute to them in some way but it’s really different. I think Dorothea Rockburne said that subject matter is what an artwork is about, content is what it does i.e., what it does to you. And form is how it does it.
Rail: What was your first awareness of “form”?
Smith: We were visiting my aunt in Hastings-on-Hudson in New York; she was a real estate agent and had a Mercedes-Benz. When I got in that car it was intense. Oh my god, some things really are a lot better than others of their kind. I just knew that it was “quality,” incredibly made and thought through. I guess you could say it was rigorous, which is probably the least you can expect from luxury goods.
Rail: I wrote down something in a review you wrote in the Times in 1988:
“If an artist says it’s art, it’s art” is an attitude prevalent since at least the ’60s (the actual words, if I remember correctly, are Donald Judd’s). I cut my art-critical eyeteeth on this concept, and it has always seemed to clarify, focus and dignify the critic’s task. It implies that the critic’s job is not so much to dither around with the definition of art but rather to pass judgment on the quality of a body of work as precisely and convincingly as possible.
I thought it was interesting the way “quality” functions in light of this conversation, and wanted to see how you feel about that as a definition for what a critic does, over thirty years later.
Smith: I still agree with that. Quality—however you define it—is what we’re looking for, on all fronts, not just art. You have to be open to it occurring in anything an artist calls art. I’m not interested in saying something is not art. One way I get around it in my head, which is completely chicken, is that sometimes I think people just aren’t really artists.
Rail: I think that a lot.
Smith: I think a lot of people who’ve misplaced their talent or interests, for whatever reason—are attracted to the glamour of the art world, or find a kind of safety there. With a lot of social practice I think, This is great—now go out in the world and actually do something with it. Actually change something—and how about not calling it art? Just kidding! But if you make a pronouncement like “this is not art,” you will eventually have an experience that will assert itself as art and prove you wrong. Tino Sehgal did that for me; it was this feeling of control and precision, of form.
Rail: It seems like you took the tools for addressing perception that we called “formal analysis,” that were really honed, visually and bodily, in Judd, and that you then directed them away from the Judd program and applied them to everything.
Smith: Art made me do it. I emerged from my time with Judd as a total Juddite: Painting was dead; illusion on a two-dimensional surface was anathema. Then I encountered Philip Guston’s late paintings and Conceptual Art. Art teaches you and changes you. With luck it broadens your perspectives. Another part of my DIY graduate school is that after working for Judd, I worked at Paula Cooper Gallery for two-and-a-half years in the early 1970s. It was full of artists looking for ways through Minimalism that involved objects and weren’t overtly conceptual. These included Alan Shields, Elizabeth Murray, Joel Shapiro, Jennifer Bartlett, Robert Grosvenor, Jackie Winsor, Joel Fisher and Jonathan Borofsky. Being around them and their work was definitely broadening.
Rail: The articles you wrote in the ’70s on Scott Burton and Richard Artschwager showed that evolution: you’re bringing Judd’s formal intelligence to bear on somewhat opposed work, so that the illusion of the Formica, and the reality of the chair, bring you to different ends.
Smith: That’s very flattering, but I think you have to remember the diversity and physicality of the work he wrote about enthusiastically: Oldenburg, John Wesley, Samaras, which all had subject matter and was figurative in a way that his own work wasn’t.
But I do think art is more engaged these days in subject matter and it’s a post-Conceptual phenomenon. Conceptual Art was a shock to the whole system, a lot like Cubism. Everything got re-arranged. It made artists more interested in subject matter and many then and since have been trying to figure out how to find form within it. I think most of the artists at Paula’s were doing that. A lot of figurative paintings throughout history had already figured out form plus subject matter pretty well, and after Conceptual Art, artists have been figuring it out again, in a new way. This also applies to so-called abstract art.
Rail: This might sound like a tangent, but I heard that you grew up Quaker.
Smith: I am from a Quaker family, a birthright Quaker. My parents called each other “thee” and “thou.” They were actually third cousins, from a few generations of related Smiths who all started out in a hamlet in Loudon County, Virginia that renamed itself Lincoln after the Civil War. Then just after I was born, we moved to Lawrence, Kansas, and we didn’t go to Meeting there. My mother went once and never went back. Basically I think she had never been to a Meeting where she wasn’t related more or less to nearly everyone there: they were all mostly Browns, Smiths, Janneys, Taylors and probably one or two other names. Gorky painted on one of the Taylors’ farm right around there. I later learned they had some Gorky watercolors. That’s Lincoln’s little tie to art history. We went back there every summer until I was about eight, but then close relatives started dying and farms were sold, it all changed.
Still, even in Kansas, my mother maintained some kind of Quaker ethos or mythology. I loved the fact that, as a religion, it is egalitarian, there were no ministers or preachers, the education of women was valued. I also had some sense of plainness, although a complicated one. I remember my mother telling me about gray Quaker bonnets lined with silk and fitted with lots of tiny, perfect tucks.
Rail: This might sound hokey, but my experience of Quaker meeting houses, like the beautiful building over on Stuyvesant Square, puts you in a different relation to perception or contemplation that seems like good preparation for Judd and Minimalism—the “testimony of simplicity.” Do you think you were predisposed to respond to those kinds of aesthetics because of this Quaker background?
Smith: I might have been. When I met Judd and encountered his environment, I understood that everything in it was carefully selected and that everything in it attracted me. It brought up something already present in me and very important to me. To the best of my financial ability I tried to buy things he and his wife Julie Finch had—Arabia ware from Design Research on 57th Street; those Wearever cooking pots, with their wonderful straight sides. I went to Tiffany’s to see the black basalt Wedgwood coffee cups, but decided I couldn’t afford them. It was like being inside the Mercedes Benz, but it was a life. And it was a life that I could, in small ways, aspire to. Of course it then turned out that I’m a bit of a pack rat and that I live with someone who likes to arrange or “curate” all kinds of stuff all over the house.
Rail: You emphasize integrity as a critic. In another interview you said, “I think sincerity and integrity are the primary value in art, and these result from making something as good as you can make it so that it reflects your ideas, interests, and your passions as clearly as possible.” Something about your work as a critic relates to a strong ethic, so it didn’t surprise me when I found out that you grew up Quaker.
Smith: That’s interesting. I know it’s definitely in there. Probably the thing I love most is that Quakers, or at least Hicksite or nonorthodox Quakers, which I sort of am, don’t think Jesus was holy. He was a wise teacher, but a human one. I learned that when someone informed my mother that because of that little loophole, she wasn’t Christian. She was a little taken aback, but it was fine with me.
Rail: Even so, what I find attractive about Quakerism, taken as an extreme form of Protestantism, is that it puts all the onus on you—you’ve got to follow your light. I feel that is potentially also our relation to form: form has to communicate to you directly, and there really shouldn’t be an authority that overrides that. But people are so often disempowered from believing that feeling.
Smith: That feeling is really all you have when looking at art. Disempowerment comes from being instructed to look in only one way. The art world is in an interesting place right now, because it’s wide open. I’m leery of what art students learn in graduate school; I think their ideas often get narrowed down. I’m just not interested in anything that verges on the ideological. I think it always trips things up. Even Hicksite and orthodox Quakers weren’t exactly tolerant of each other.
Rail: But as a working critic you don’t have that luxury, the luxury of being “fair” in that way.
Smith: I don’t quite know what you mean. Fair is exactly what I’m interested in. One thing we’ve learned in postwar art history is that pretty much every kind of art is going on all the time, at the same time, but usually only a strand or two gets attention at any one time. You have to be open to everything. Quality doesn’t come from the carefully proscribed places or kinds of people that it used to. Everybody has aesthetic inclinations and a certain percentage of them are visual and acted upon. Some people are at Creative Growth, some are in graduate school in Yale, some majored in English in undergrad, can’t afford grad school and out on their own, working day jobs to have studios that might be in Bushwick or Detroit. And others are just out there doing it on their own in their backyards, garages or living rooms, making things that might be discovered in the attic after they’re gone. There is so much more art than we know about, whether past or present.
Rail: Clement Greenberg, too, if you look at his personal collection. His early writing was obviously much more open and eccentric than what was collected in Art and Culture. His career is almost a lesson in learning to un-see.
Smith: I know. I loved his early short reviews, when he was open. I think the intoxication of discovering Jackson Pollock—or thinking he had—made him kind of power-mad. Everything he did after a certain point seems to be just about power.
Rail: Power wants to consolidate more and more power.
Smith: And one form it takes is making other people wrong. Art should be this, not that. Critics should do this not that. It’s interesting to try at least to not tell other people what to do—which is hard. I’m not interested in reprimanding other critics in my writing—although I love arguing with them on panels. I just want to make whatever case for the art I’m writing about. I’m humbled by art, by its persistence and its unpredictability, and I’m always learning from it. It is just amazing to me how hard it is to see, and how little you see. As you grow older you do see more and more but you’re still missing things.
Rail: How do you understand what it means to have an opinion, as a critic?
Smith: Opinion is what you do, your process and your product, the thing that makes criticism exciting to read. I realized this from Judd of course, but perhaps more from reading the reviews of lifelong critics like Pauline Kael and Edmund Wilson. Criticism is an evaluation more of pros and cons, not so often raves. I like to write negative reviews but sometimes they’re hard to justify when you’ve got as little space for galleries as we do at the Times. But sometimes not. Lately I’ve been trying to do capsule reviews on Instagram because space is so tight at the Times. I don’t think these can be negative. It just doesn’t feel right. But we’ll see. Truth be told, I’d like to review just about everything I see.
Rail: There is a lot that is buoyant and optimistic about this conversation but I heard you once say that you don’t think Judd would be writing if he were starting out now. Why is that? What does that say about the climate of writing now that would not be amenable to him?
Smith: There is so much against what he believed in. His position was if you discover electricity you don’t go back to candles. Judd would think a lot of painting now was going back to candles. But there are whole different groups of people making art. There are more women painting than ever before. Artists of color are in an interesting position. They’ve got a subject—African-American experience in America—and some are finding forms for it. It reminds me of the German artists who arrived in the early ’80s; you’re looking at their work and thinking Wow, they’ve got the weight of German history sitting on top of them—that is really something to work with. Art is not just pure form and space, there is more to it than that now.
Rail: I don’t think it ever was pure form or space. That is why people think they hate “formalism.” A lot of abstraction is predicated on the illusion of that purity.
Smith: You’re totally right. I was being simplistic. As for abstraction, the most recent kind seems predicated on showing up that illusion as a fallacy. I wrote recently about the lack of a Philip Taaffe painting from the 1980s in the Whitney’s collection and its show Fast Forward: Paintings from the 1980s. He made a kind of conceptual yet sensuous painting that he perfectly poised between the two main factions of the ’80s, Neo-Expressionism and the Pictures Generation. I think most people don’t even know those paintings, the Op Art ones.
Rail: I don’t.
Smith: Someone should do a show of them. He invented this great collaged surface, by covering the entire canvas with prints on thin paper that added up to, for example, the waves of one of Bridget Riley’s well-known Op Art motifs, but a strangely disembodied and semi-translucent version. Then he would stain these new Rileys so that the waves softened or shimmered, becoming visually more complex, more naturalistic or decorative. He took a tall Vasarely painting that had three squares with lines intersecting at the center of each, tinted them red, yellow and blue and renamed it Trinity. Basically Taaffe was probably the first around then to show that abstract painting could appropriate—which many painters do today—while also demonstrating once more that most painters physically reinvent their medium in some way. So did Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Elizabeth Murray.
Rail: Is that what you meant earlier when you said you were looking for “personal form”?
Smith: Yes. I don’t think pure abstraction ever existed, but it hasn’t got a chance now, because you can’t do a monochrome without it being a comment on, or development from, a century of monochromes. Also a lot of the figurative painting now is interesting because it incorporates abstraction in complicated ways. Going back to why I brought up Taaffe, he once said in an interview about the Op Art paintings he used, that he didn’t think they were finished. It could be taken as a criticism of Riley—which is fine with me because I don’t like much of her work. But it is also positive: there is more still to be done with this and I’m going to do it. There is a lot of that going on right now. There is more to be done with the entire 20th century—it’s open to being expanded upon. A lot of people will call that “retro” but I think that is not the case. I guess the question is, what amount of difference is enough difference so it feels like our time?
Rail: As opposed to Judd looking for “new form.”
Smith: Or a more subtle form of it.
Rail: What ways have you found to disentangle yourself from writing about art; how are you aware of what you’re bringing into the experience?
Smith: Again, you learn to listen to yourself, deal with your ideas, your musings and whatever your unconscious churns up and interrogate them all. That could be a definition of writing criticism. It’s a process of criticism of trying to be honest, and I’m not sure you can ever achieve it absolutely. Saying exactly what you think is really hard. There is a way you just let your eye be, and you follow it. I agree with Greenberg in a way, that you could walk into a gallery and do a 360-turn in the middle, and pick the best painting in the room. I think you would pick the best painting for you. When I say what the best painting is for me, some people will agree with me, some don’t.
Rail: Is it like a representative democracy of taste: you’ve been elected because you have opinions other people can agree with?
Smith: That’s one way to put it. I prefer to think that you establish a point of view and voice that people come to trust. Critics get positions because one or two specific people (e.g. editors) believe in their work enough to give it a try. Then it’s up to you to prove yourself. You establish this credibility, this integrity, and, then you get another thing, which comes from where you write but also from your own work: power. Power is given to you by your readers, you earn it, and you can lose it or have it taken away. All they have to do is stop reading you.
The thing that I’m interested in is “use value.” If people read you repeatedly, it is a measure of usefulness. When Jerry was first writing he’d write a few paragraphs and get stuck. I would ask, What does the reader need to know next? The main thing I’m trying to do is get people out of the house to look at art, to open themselves to it, so they can learn things about themselves and about the world. Art is a mirror and a sustenance of food—very essential. It would be a tragedy if the NEA gets cut, not just for the money, but the symbolism: you don’t have to bother with art, when you should bother with it like you bother with learning to read.
Rail: You wrote a little piece about the effects of Minimalism, in 1989:
Similarly, it is not the nihilism of Minimalism that comes across but a kind of innocence and a complete faith in the eye’s ability to see, and in seeing, to provoke critical thought. Needless to say, these are important lessons for a nation as visually illiterate as our own.
I loved that way of framing it.
Smith: Basically I think opinionated art criticism helps the reader find pleasure and also develop a criticality that can be applied elsewhere. It spills over into other aspects of a person’s life, like thinking critically about architecture or society and what it means to be a citizen.
I’m humbled by art, and I’m always learning from it. It is just amazing to me how hard it is to see, and how little you see. As you grow older you do see more and more but you’re still missing things.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.