John Yau with Joan Waltemath
John Yau: I write fiction, poetry and essays, generally that’s what they would be called, and then I organize shows when I’m asked. I am the publisher/editor of a small press, Black Square Editions, which publishes fiction, poetry, and criticism with a lot of it, or I would say almost half of it, being from translations from French or some other language. I teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Avery Graduate School, which is part of Bard College.
Rail: So you’ve managed to deal with all this and…
Yau: I don’t know. Eve is always saying, "you’re so disorganized," which I am. I think I do all this amidst a lot of disorganization. If I were more organized, I’d probably do more which actually even scares me so I probably want to stay a little disorganized— spend half an hour looking for that piece of paper with someone’s address on it so that I can actually think about writing while I’m doing it rather than having all the time to do whatever it is I do.
Rail: What led you to go into criticism as a poet? There are a lot of directions you could have gone to support writing poetry, but you chose to write criticism.
Yau: I went to Bard College in 1969, I transferred there from Boston University. While I was at B.U., I began looking at art— well I began looking at art when my mother took me to museums as a child— but I began looking at contemporary art when I was a teenager. Which is to say I looked at a lot of color field painting which was all that was really being shown in Boston at the time. Anyway at Bard, I was reading a lot of contemporary poetry and met a teacher named Jake Grossberg who was a sculptor. He said you should write about art, that’s what poets do. And at that point I’d just started reading the poetry of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. I began looking for their criticism, and liking the way they wrote about art. Also, around this time, I began going to galleries in New York. Again, it was because of Jake, who would drive to New York on weekends. Then I moved to New York in 1974. During the first couple of years I was in New York, I went first to the Brooklyn Public Library and later to the main branch at 42nd street in Manhattan. There I went through all the periodicals and microfilm, and read all the criticism of Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan— whatever I could find. I also read novels by Steve Katz, Russell Banks, Anna Kavan, Adain Higgins, and others. I didn’t want to get a Ph.D. in literature. It was enough that I got through undergraduate college. In 1976, I heard John Ashbery read at Columbia College.
He said that he taught creative writing at Brooklyn College, so I applied and I got in. I assumed that 5,000 people applied, but I think that very few people outside of a small circle really knew who he was, and there weren’t a lot of people trying to study with him. At some point, after we became friends, I told him that I wanted to write criticism and asked if he would he help me learn how to write it. He said no— that he didn’t even want to read it. He said to send whatever I had written to Art in America. Of course, at that point I hadn’t written anything. I kept a lot of notebooks; I kept notes of every show I’ve ever gone to in New York with a little drawing of something in the show. I wrote a piece or two pieces, which I sent to Art in America. A year later, and I think after some pressure from John, they called me back. That’s how I began, and I guess I thought one way to exist outside of the academic situation was to be a freelance writer. I had no idea what that meant, I was really naive about it. And so I just began writing for Art in America.
Rail: When you started, did you have a system, an idea how to approach making critical judgments?
Yau: I had no criteria, I just thought I could figure it out by looking, by learning to see what was there. The format of Art in America is primarily descriptive; one describes what ones sees. I learned how to describe a work of art. You are allowed to make some judgments based on the description. Basically, I would just go and write about whoever they would let me write about and be happy to do it. I also had no judgment on that. I went to lots and lots of shows and wrote as many reviews as they would let me. I had no phone, so I had to call them from a friend’s apartment or from a phone booth and find out what I should write about.
When I first started writing criticism, it was less theory driven. The next generation of critics was more involved with theory and that came out of academia. But I feel like up to the early Eighties, it was still possible there were still poets who were asked to write criticism, but since then it seems to be less and less possible.
Rail: And now?
Yau: I write essays or pieces for Art on Paper; that’s the only magazine I’ve written for lately.
Rail: Reading through the catalogues that you gave me I got a clear sense of your position on painting through the way you handled and approached different artists’ work. In the catalogue on abstraction you talk about Pollock’s project not being the "end of art history," that its not a fait accompli. What led you to this particular formulation of the "death of painting"?
Yau: I came to New York in 1974-75 during one of the many tidal waves of proclaiming that "painting is dead." In the late 1960s, many people were saying the novel is dead. Then suddenly there was this person named Garcia Marquez being published. That theory was quickly swept under the rug or forgotten and all the people who said it acted as if they never said it.
There’s the notion of proclaiming something dead from an external point of view, which seems to me a little presumptuous because something is only dead if no one does it. So if all these people are painting, I can’t imagine that they all were wrong— I wouldn’t say they all were right— but they weren’t all wrong either. Abstraction has a short history. It didn’t make sense to me that one person, Pollock, could end it. The other thing is that I have had, and continue to have, a lot of conversations with artists and people like Archie Rand and David Reed, who I mentioned in the essay, or someone like Brice Marden who talked about painting. And the way they talked about painting made sense to me.
Also I think being a poet, the notion of writing poetry is sort of like you’re the misbegotten child of Don Quixote. How many people within the culture actually take poetry seriously, as part of their everyday life? And I think painting culture is the same way, painting is a culture unto itself; and it goes on and people either believe in it or don’t believe in it. I’m not so interested in the people who say it’s dead, I’m interested in what happened with the kinds of art that developed in spite of that proclamation. People who say they believe painting is dead because history has rendered it obsolete also believe they have a special vantage point, an omniscient view of the terrain.
Rail: What you said just made me wonder, at what point could Latin be declared a dead language?
Yau: It’s a dead language because the culture that used it died out. It becomes a dead language because there is no culture to sustain it.
Rail: Is painting facing a similar position?
Yau: No, because painting is still sustained by culture, both in the larger sense and in the smaller sense. The relationship is often antagonistic, but it is a relationship nevertheless.
It’s interesting that every year that painting is proclaimed dead, a significant number of people fixate on one painter. In all the years that painting has been proclaimed dead, there have been painters everyone looked at. One year, it was Elizabeth Murray. Another year it was Susan Rothenberg. Bill Jensen, Terry Winters, you know there is always room for one figure. It’s awful because having one figure (sort of like Jackie Robinson) relieves everyone of the responsibility of actually looking at the larger situation.
Rail: Donald Kuspit talks about idiosyncratic work as being the only authentic work of the moment. In your essay on young abstract painters, you mention that most of them are very idiosyncratic. Do you also see it as the only authentic approach at the moment?
Yau: I don’t have a model of what determines why someone’s authentic. I don’t have a preconceived model. I’m probably more influenced by Leo Steinberg— I try to defer judgment as long as possible and look at work and sympathize with it as much as possible. The worst thing I can do is be wrong. I think most critics are really afraid of being wrong, afraid to make fools out of themselves. But when you fall in love you make a fool out of yourself, whether you fall in love with the right person or the wrong person. I mean, being a poet is consciously making a fool out of oneself, and being extremely proud of it. The fool in Shakespearean terms. I think being a critic who loves painting, you’re already making a fool out of yourself in this culture.
Rail: That’s a tough position to take. It seems very practical. You know it seems like a good way to wake up, roll out of bead, and decide to do the same thing every single day and have the stamina to do it.
Yau: Yeah, I think it takes stamina to be a critic and a poet. And also I think if you believe that you’re a good poet and what a poet doesn’t really believe in themselves, then you believe what you write will last longer than you. I mean we still read Baudelaire’s criticism even though we might not care for half the people. We’re not going to run out and say Constantine de Guys is the greatest artist of that period. He was right about some of what he wrote about and wrong about other stuff and we don’t say, "well he didn’t get it." We believe his passion, the rigor of it, which is different than subscribing to a theory. I live in this time, I’m stuck in it, and I can’t step outside of my time. I think some critics try to climb up and look down over the whole world; they take the god-like position. But in the Baudelairean sense, I’m still walking around the streets; my view is completely partial because I’m not going to know what’s going around the world. I’m limited to where I live, where I go to, what my knowledge is, but if I’m explicit about those, and I state what I believe in and why I believe in it based on what I’m looking at, not some preconceived theory, I feel like someone who reads it will understand what I am writing about, and why.
Rail: In the beginning of your book, The United States of Jasper Johns, one of the things that you mention is that you feel the goal of art is to recuperate what is behind appearances. I wanted to ask you what you feel the responsibility of art or painting is towards society. The apparent uselessness of abstraction is a problem that has in a way plagued abstraction, and it brings with it the question of the responsibility of art.
Yau: The paradigm of usefulness is consumer oriented; art has to be useful so we can consume it. Useful in what way? Who determines its usefulness. If we consume, it is therefore useful. You say I get the meaning of that work of art and it’s a good thing, now I can go home. So I’m not against uselessness because I also think art shows you something that you haven’t seen before or it makes you think about something you haven’t thought about in that way before. Art does that. It might make you uncomfortable, it might bother you. I think that’s useful.
The first time I went to hear John Cage, people walked out of the room. It was at St. Marks in the Poetry Project. Someone started screaming at him. There was a guitar, and someone was practicing a guitar a few blocks away. I had never sat in a church and heard all those sounds before. At the end of the performance somebody came up to Cage and started talking about the person who had run out of the room, screaming "Fucking bourgeois" blah blah blah and slammed the church door. Cage said that a man had once left his concert just after it started. He drove home completely mad at him, got his car in the garage and then backed the car out and drove back to the concert and got there just as it ended. The man went up to Cage and apologized and said, "I’m sorry I was just so angry and I realized I didn’t need to be angry and now I’ve I missed the whole thing." And Cage said, "No, no that was all part of it."
So I feel like if you go in saying ‘this is what I want from art’ or ‘this is what I want from a novel’ or ‘this is what I want from a poem,’ then you are apt to be dissatisfied. One of the jobs of the poet, artist, and novelist is to not give you what you want. I read a lot of poems by my contemporaries that I can’t say I understand, but that doesn’t mean that I would stop reading their work. I’m not sure what it is I’m looking at, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go home and say, ‘well I’m not going to look at art or think about that.’ Because that presumes that when you go outside on the street and look at reality you know what’s going on.
When the two snipers were going around Washington, President Bush made this remark that I thought would be commented on in the news. He said, "This is not the America I know." And not a single newspaper or newscaster focused on that statement. Well, I thought, "if this is not the America he knows, doesn’t everyone want to know what America he does know?" Lets get this on the table immediately, so we can have a discussion about it— "Which America do you know"— and I’m sure there’s 200 million people who would tell you which America they know, and that some of them might have a very different reality than the one you presume exists for everyone. Why should painting be the thing you know?
Rail: In one of your essays you touch on the pleasure that’s to be found in painting. It felt like some very distant echo and made me aware that it’s been a long time since we’ve been comfortable talking about the pleasure in paint. How did we end up at this point? We can spend endless hours watching porn or talking about sex on TV talk shows, and yet pleasure in painting seems to be a tremendous taboo.
Yau: Well, it’s also in writing. With the NY School of Poets, the thing that was held against them from the beginning was that people knew that they were having a good time when they were writing, because their poems were funny. The idea of a poem being funny was a big taboo for literature and Kenneth Koch or Frank O’Hara clearly were laughing and how could this be? Also, Wallace Stevens said of poetry: "It must give pleasure." Why shouldn’t painting give pleasure. We don’t want to know that art can give us pleasure. Some people seem to think pleasure is a mortal sin. I am not one of them.
We have to show that we’re struggling and that it’s work. The artist is to be distrusted from the beginning in America. There’s no proof they really worked at it. I think there’s a real distrust of art and poetry in America. There always has been.
Rail: I’m going to throw one of your own questions back at you. Is it possible to move beyond the self-imposed historical limits of abstraction and recover what has been marginalized or deemed obsolete?
Yau: Yes, I think it is possible. I mean I actually have this other notion which is partly why I have wanted to write about this artist Charles Seliger. If Pollock is taken as a paradigm of expansiveness in painting, of being the origin of bigger and bigger formats, then Seliger, who showed at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century in 1944 when he was 17, is the origin of an alternative trajectory. Although Seliger, who was born in 1927, is younger than Pollock (who was born in 1912), they both were influenced by automatism and began showing around the same time. Seliger’s paintings are seldom, if ever, larger than 24 inches. Very small paintings.
You can see younger artists like Steven Charles sharing something with him, or Simon Frost. So therefore the line of thinking that says Pollock is central doesn’t see that there may have been an alternative trajectory. This is not discussed in a larger context. So it seems to me every time anybody reaches a conclusion of this is the way it is, I always think if that’s the way it is, what else is there? I think there are lots of bold and interesting artists right now, working in ways that are challenging. And, along with expansiveness, there is another issue that is ignored, and that is how the painting is put together. I mean there is the negative term, composition. And I think it is interesting to consider how artists such as Philip Taaffe, Ellen Gallagher, and David Reed are putting together their paintings.
Rail: Taaffe never challenges the all-over structure and works with compositional issues, he maintains an all over-space in his work.
Yau: I think people took the all-over idea as a way of not having to be responsible to the entire paint plane, that all-overness or placing something in the middle seem to me the two most common practices right now. But I think there artists who don’t do either of these things: Charles Seliger, Bill Jensen, Donna Nelson, Brice Marden, just to name a few. Composition. Johns certainly deals with composition.
I mean, this has to do with what I think of as received opinion. In his essay on Caroll Dunham, Robert Storr said that Dunham is the only younger artist who has been able to make use of the "hermetic" vocabulary of Jasper Johns. And I just thought about the word hermetic. Let’s shift the context a little. In poetry, if you read the NY Times, which some people believe is the true measure of all things, you know that they believe poetry should be accessible. Good poetry is accessible and bad poetry is hermetic because no one can understand it. And if no one can understand, how do we know that the poet knows what he or she is doing. A reviewer in the Times said of Albert Mobilio’s me, With Animal Towering, a book my press published, that his "twin brother couldn’t decipher it." Of course, the Times’ notion of "understanding" is rather limited. They want reading to be simple and orderly, Dick runs up the hill. Now lets shift that over to art. Really, the implication, and I think it still exists in art, is that we all want art that is accessible versus art that is "hermetic." Accessible art would be Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, up to the present. In addition to accessibility, we also want to be entertained. Hermetic art is neither accessible nor entertaining. Hermetic art would be Johns. And it would include abstract painters, Robert Ryman, Suzan Frecon, Brice Marden, David Reed, Dorothea Rockburne, Theresa Chong, Tom Nozkowski, Lisa Stefanelli, etc.
So here’s the issue: Why are we always hung up on what is accessible? I have a strong feeling about this. I think accessible is what the bourgeois culture prefers and any manifestation of accessibility that bourgeois culture can grab onto, it will take. And what I mean by bourgeois culture, I’m not talking about who buys or doesn’t buy art, I’m just talking about the viewing audience culture, the ones who go to museums and galleries, as opposed to the ones would burn these places down. They prefer accessibility versus what they call hermeticism. And they don’t want to look beyond the surface of what they think is accessible. I think Warhol can be read much deeper and much more interestingly than he has been. I also think with Johns or Ryman or other artists who have been called hermetic, does that mean that you get nothing out of their work or does it mean you don’t get something prepackaged and easy, like a Happy Meal.
You know there’s a lot of art based on television and popular culture, the world of readymade, and there’s art based on something else. Or there’s the realist novel. You know I can’t stand reading most realist novels because most people’s notion of realism seems generic. There’s other kinds of realist novels that I don’t think are like that— Flaubert and Beckett— but there is a kind of accepted generic realist novel, which requires that you have an epiphany at the end. And the art and poetry I like doesn’t have an epiphany; it keeps you looking and thinking.
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.