DAVID COHEN with Joan Waltemath
David Cohen is the publisher & editor of the online magazine artcritical.com. He was well known to New Yorkers as art critic for the New York Sun until it closed in 2008, and as moderator of the Review Panel at the National Academy. He was just stepping down as gallery director at the New York Studio School, after nine years there, to concentrate on artcritical and a book project when he caught up with Joan Waltemath.
Joan Waltemath (Rail): David, I have to ask you about a rumor I’ve heard about you. The rumor was that you were a famous baritone in the opera.
David Cohen: I’m famous in the shower.
Rail: So you weren’t trained professionally?
Cohen: No, I have been trained. I had great teachers when I was a teenager and again in my twenties.
Rail: I think I heard this in response to your adroit performances as a moderator.
Cohen: Yes, sometimes we break into song at the Review Panel, during dull bits.
Rail: Was there was a turning point for you in your life that led you to an interest in art? How did you begin looking at art and writing about it?
Cohen: As a kid I was fascinated by archeology and by history and was introduced to museum-going by an Iranian friend at school. We used to go off on Saturday mornings to the British Museum. Thinking back, he had some disturbing racial opinions. He would take me from the room with wonderful carved reliefs and say, “This is what we Aryans produced.” And then he’d take me to a room with a little vitrine in one corner with scrap of broken pottery and say, “This is what you Semites produced.” Nonetheless, it was a very good habit of going to museums. It’s what led me to take art history.
In England at that time you had to choose three A-Levels to study in the last two years of school, forcing you into specialization at the tender age of sixteen. The usual arts triad was English, history, and French. I loved English and history but, as a sort of recovering dyslexic, I was hopeless at languages, so I developed an interest in art.
Actually, there was a brief period before finishing up some college I was attending, where to kill time and keep a young tutor employed, they had the two of us read our way through E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. This confirmed my desire to study history of art rather than economics as my third A-Level.
My first art history tutor was a wonderful chap named Rafael Alfonso Mansilla-Pacheco, alas no longer with us. The first thing most teachers do is tell you what books to read, but not him. Instead he sent me to the National Gallery and told me to write descriptions of Honthorst’s “Christ Before the High Priest.” Then he sent me to city churches by Wren, Gibbs, and Hawksmoor to compare and contrast the interior spaces. A pretty good education actually, for a lad of sixteen.
Rail: When did you enter the Courtauld Institute?
Cohen: I did my Master’s there. What happened to me with my education was that I always left myself a little hungry after each meal. So as an undergraduate at Sussex I messed around with student politics for the first couple of years and then got into my studies in the third year. That left me wanting to study some more, so after a year’s break when I was a volunteer at the Tate, worked a bit, and traveled around Europe, I went to the Courtauld. I did my work with Sarah Wilson, who is a specialist in French and American art mid-century. We were looking at the transition and displacement of Surrealism from war-torn Europe to America and the emergence of the New York School. I did my Master’s thesis on the printmaker Stanley William Hayter, who is a good figure for that subject as he obviously was a transitional character himself: British-born, Paris-based, moved to New York.
Rail: What was it like studying at the Courtauld Institute? Who were the real compelling figures who were lecturing there when you were there?
Cohen: There were some very fine minds there. It was very laissez-faire: you just did one course, about a dozen meetings with students reading papers to one another, and then you wrote a dissertation. Because I kind of wanted to get my money’s worth, although it didn’t really cost anything, I audited Christopher Green’s seminar. Christopher Green was the other Modernist and his focus was Cubism and early Surrealism, 20’s and 30’s. John House was on the faculty, and Anita Brookner. I used to attend their lectures. Also, Michael Kaufmann who was the director of the institute and came from a curatorial background. At Sussex my personal tutor was David Mellor, a great guy who continued to advise me when I worked on a Ph.D. But actually, in a way, the real treasure at the Courtauld were one’s peers. They were people who often went on to do really distinguished things.
Rail: After graduating from the Courtauld, did you spend time in England before you came to the States?
Cohen: I had a decade-long career as a critic in England and it was my work there that brought me here. My profile in America is different than the one I had in England on two counts: I had only done a little bit of panel moderating back in the old country and I had never curated a show. I wrote for newspapers and art magazines pretty extensively, starting with Art Monthly, the Burlington Magazine, Apollo, Modern Painters (from the first issue). I then broke into newspaper work and wrote for the Sunday Times Magazine and eventually became a somewhat regular, freelance contributor to the New Statesman and the Independent. What happened when I started visiting America in the mid-90s was that I forged relationships with American titles and became a European correspondent for Sculpture, Art in America, and the newly formed artnet Magazine.
Rail: How do you transition from a very academic background focused on historical movements that have been canonized in art history to the kind of jumble of contemporary art where everything is happening simultaneously?
Cohen: Very stimulating question—I think, though, that there are two aspects to it. One is the contrast between a fixed canon and the freefall in which you are basically forming your own canon, or helping to collectively form one, which is the job of being a critic of living art. The other aspect of your question is the difference between a scholarly, academic approach and a more journalistic, accessible, fun kind of writing. Well, that’s actually portraying a prejudice because some academics have a lot more fun than journalists. My personal schizophrenia about journalism versus academia goes back to my own history. I played around for a few years with a Ph.D topic but I never envisioned myself as a professor with a pipe. When I began the Ph.D I really started to get going with my journalism too. The dilemma every time something was due was that either I could write the chapter of the thesis due in three years time for one academic you were paying to read it, or I could meet the deadline for next week’s Sunday Times feature, for which I was getting paid and which three million people would read. Alas, an indictment of my character, the latter always seemed more compelling. But, back to your question: I think there’s room for rigor everywhere and I think there’s room for liveliness everywhere. Despite what seems like ever-increasing specialism in our culture, I think technology (the Internet) breaks down distinctions between who you are, where you are, etc., whether it’s geographical, or institutional, or professional. This all means that we are going to see demands for more rigor in journalists and more accessibility in scholars and that the arenas in which these people act are going to be less distinguished from one another. Maybe, therefore, I’m a hybrid who is going to be less and less of an exception.
Rail: I think the Review Panel is a perfect example of bridging those two worlds. I want to talk about that a little bit more but before we go to the Review Panel, which has been wildly successful here, I want to ask you about the transition from England to the United States. Do you find any assumptions about the place of art within a society that are fundamentally different in England and in the United States?
Cohen: What I was primarily noticing and excited about was the difference in the way I personally felt and behaved in England and America, so it was really more for personal than cultural reasons that I made the move. But, that personal difference also reflected the way the art worlds in the two places seemed to operate. The New York scene was just so much bigger and more diverse than the London scene. London has certainly been a cosmopolitan art center as long as I have been alive. But the infrastructure is just way more developed in America and the number of people exponentially larger. Consequently, there is a more voracious appetite for opinions and a respect for different points of view in the American scene. I guess my needs or vanities as a writer were better suited to the more proactive audience that I found in New York than I had experienced in England. Another thing is that the London scene, and I stress once again that I think the demographics have changed in the interim, was just hitting renewed international attention around the time I started visiting New York. Damien Hirst, Ian Davenport, Rachel Whiteread, and others (also Anish Kapoor who is a bit older of course): fairly early in those people’s careers I was on record with a point of view. I think it was the wrong point of view and I have been on the blacklist of the British art establishment ever since.
The British are very different from the Americans in that they have a longer memory and more fixed boundaries. Because the art world in England has always felt it was battling a philistine establishment, there’s this fear that any kind of conservative or traditional view or even skepticism towards whatever has emerged as the most significant progressive art of the moment is something that’s too dangerous to tolerate. So debate is paralyzed or stifled. Whereas I think in New York, there’s more of a swim and because it is a bigger scene and a more confident scene, change and revivals, and the continuation of little traditions within the bigger traditions of modernism is all together more fluid and more organic. There are plenty of prejudices wherever you go, and snobbery and defense mechanisms from different groups; those are just universal phenomena and it would be ridiculous to idealize the American scene as somehow being this idyllic state where those sorts of prejudices and limitations don’t happen. But, it’s ironic I think that the bigger art center is the better place within which to be slightly out of step with whatever is new.
Rail: It’s not what one would necessarily assume to be the case.
Cohen: Well, actually, that’s another change that has occurred to me: moving from the old to the new world my tastes have been somewhat rejuvenated as well. But I do habitually gravitate towards the individuals who belong to overlooked or bypassed aesthetic options that don’t find favor with the powers that be. But in recent years my own tastes seem to coincide with increasing frequency with what is shown in respectable places. When I first visited the Venice Biennale I felt like I was from the wrong planet—I could barely find anything I wanted to look at (in the Biennale, not Venice!). When I was last there in 2007 for the one directed by Robert Storr, it was enormously gratifying to see many artists I’d already written about. Thomas Nozkowski and Merlin James—artists for whom I had curated shows and written about frequently—were both significant presences.
Rail: The kind of work that you have chosen to talk about at the Review Panel really reflects that notion of diversity that you’re talking about. I know having spoken on a few of the panels, that I have been witness to the enthusiasm people have for going and listening to a serious dialogue about art. Did the idea for doing the panels come from you, or did it come from the National Academy?
Cohen: The review panel was born from my experience of listening to the radio in England growing up where they would have these wonderful debates on Radio 3 or Radio 4, the cultural and news programs respectively, Radio 3 especially. I remember one show was called “Critics’ Forum,” where you’d have critics from different disciplines. Each show would be moderated by one of those critics and there would be a changing crew so each week one would drop out and a new person would join. You’d have a music critic, a theatre critic, and an art critic, say, and they’d be reviewing things that weren’t necessarily their own discipline: ballet, a new book, an exhibition, and there would be very heated, lively, focused discussion and it really went quite deep into the subject. Other programs on the classical music channel would analyze new discs, or in “Building a Library” some expert would be comparing one to another. All this suggested that it’s vital to hear informed, contrasted opinions on subjects and that debate takes things to a very meaningful place. With the Review Panel, the pressure, the excitement, the danger of having to extemporize before a live audience and banter with peers brings out a kind of analysis that’s rather more lively than a written text, or even a lecture. Not necessarily more penetrating and not an alternative to one individual sitting at her table, thinking things through very carefully and writing them down. That’s obviously essential to our civilization but so is getting three or four motivated people to peck at each other and chew over some bones and go to another kind of place.
Rail: Your ability as a moderator I think has contributed greatly to the sparring that goes on within those review panels and I think that’s what people really love to see.
Cohen: Thanks. You mentioned diversity and that’s very important to the panel but it’s also important to my whole modus operandi as a critic and a curator. I either have really terrible taste or very good taste, because I certainly have very eclectic taste. I think that to get overly committed to one generation, or style, or genre, or idiom is a dreadful mistake; quality rises within each test tube. You have to have all the test tubes on one rack so you can see the pattern of quality across disciplines, rather than be obsessed with what goes on in one tube. If you look at what I wrote in the New York Sun from 2003 to 2008, where my remit was the gallery scene rather than museums, there is an admirable cross-section of subjects. You really have a sense if you line up all those subjects of a very rich, diverse art world, a world made up of many different countries. Whereas if you look at some of my colleagues, especially in art magazines where they don’t have a responsibility to survey as broad a spectrum, you get a very narrow slice of art culture by looking at their index.
Rail: I’m curious: with this broad range of work that you are able to look at, what part do you feel taste plays in the kind of decisions you make about what to focus on?
Cohen: Looking at a cross-section is a more invigorating exercise in taste, not less of one. If you allow a critic to be exclusively specialized in, say, abstract sculpture then he or she will go very deeply into that subject and become very knowledgeable in it. They are way more likely to be maneuvered into accepting a kind of status quo of who is important within that genre because when you’re looking at one artist you focus on how they’re riffing off another; that’s the price you pay for depth of knowledge. Whereas if you’re looking right across the board at very diverse mediums, generations, reputations, degrees of fame or obscurity and just looking at the work, you have to develop criteria that will work for these different set ups, so you develop more quality-oriented criteria.
Rail: Could you make a distinction between taste, aesthetic judgments, and quality? How would you set those terms in relationship to each other?
Cohen: Well, this just happens to be the most profound philosophical problem for critics and I don’t have an easy answer to it. And I don’t even, in fact, have terribly hard and fast rules for myself as to how to negotiate around the problem. I consider myself a pragmatist, so if you’re interested in a broad spectrum of activity, you have to do two things, which are somewhat contradictory, which is why I think pragmatism is essential. On the one hand, you have to develop aesthetic criteria that are like a passport to travel to different countries. On the other hand, you have to know the local language, dialects, customs, and laws in each country. You become a special agent, zipping from place to place and knowing how to behave when you get there. But you can’t become like Woody Allen’s “Zelig” and be a completely different person if you are looking at an Ann Hamilton video one week and Dana Schutz paintings the next. You have got to understand, here is somebody with a long track record and a broad reputation, and here is someone fairly new and the jury is still out. You’ve got to be lively to those distinctions. That’s why I say pragmatism because it’s being universal and particular at the same time.
Rail: When you’re looking at art, is there a fundamental difference for you in looking at work that you’re going to write about and work that you are not going to write about? And beyond that, do you feel that writing about work changes the way that you see it?
Cohen: I pretty much look at all art with the same eye or intensity or commitment, unless I am on assignment and absolutely know that I have to have an interesting opinion on a show. But when I’m just doing galleries, even if I give short shrift to something and get out of there quickly, I sort of come to a formulated, journalistically-viable take on it. I’m able to verbalize where the artist is, what they’re doing, why I don’t like it, why I do like it, etc. It may just be in shorthand. And maybe if I sat down to write about it, the conclusion would be radically different due to the process of writing—that, actually, is the chief thrill of writing. I think you really see, with critics, two types. The type with a taste, an opinion, an agenda, a set of values, which are fixed and firm, who has gone into a show and come to a verdict; like a lawyer, they only find things that are going to back up their argument. And then you have the genuine scholar type who is open to any possibility, filtering as much evidence as possible and weighing the evidence up and then seeing if it arrives at a conclusion. I think for good journalism you have to have a bit of the former, but for decent criticism you have to have a little bit of the latter. I think the best writing combines the two, but I aspire to be a little more of the scholar type, filtering the evidence.
Rail: It definitely sounds better.
Cohen: It sounds more decent and honorable if you’re giving an interview about your practice. But, on the other hand, realistically, we all have a little bit of the dogmatist in us too, and criticism would be boring if we were all polite scholars.
Rail: There are assumptions that obtain whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not.
Cohen: You’ve got to be a bulldog and a pussycat at the same time. (And a hare and a tortoise, and a fox and a hedgehog.)
Rail: What made you want to start artcritical.com and devote so much time to editing and publishing other people’s writings about art?
Cohen: artcritical developed slightly by accident, but only slightly. I cherished an ambition to publish a magazine for a long time. I played around with some friends at university in starting a magazine with a rather recherché theme of Surrealism and magic, and later an academic and I were going to launch a journal about art criticism to be called Vasari, which sat on someone’s desk at Oxford University Press (OUP) for a year or two. That I have long been fascinated by art magazines and cherished the idea of putting one out into the world probably relates to something quite deep in my personality. As a boy of nine my ambition was to be a hotelier, then as a teenager my fantasy was to be a film director; both jobs are about harnessing various skills and egos to do something collective where the sum is greater than the individual parts. artcritical began as a personal website and the designer, Daisy Evans, came up with the name. I wanted it to be called artcriticism but that was taken already. Daisy suggested artcritical, which I didn’t think was really a word, but we went with it. A lucky break because it is a great title, which I can say with due modesty.
When I became curator at the New York Studio School in 2001, that was a change of identity for me because from 1986 to 2001 my professional profile was as a writer and more specifically as a critic. The writing component for a gallery director, catalog essays, press releases, whatever, was very much promotional; having to become a well-behaved servant in an institution suddenly made me nervous that I’d lose the capacity to be critical. And so I started some writing, which today would be called a blog, although that hateful word wasn’t in the lexicon yet, I don’t think, in 2001. My first piece for artcritical was on David Salle, actually, an example of what we were talking about earlier, of work forcing you to change your mind. My piece was that great mainstay of art journalism, “the critic who is humble enough to change his mind,” which of course is the opposite of humble because you are arrogant enough to show how witty you were when you hated the work and how perceptive you are for changing your mind! The change of mind piece is an exercise in false modesty.
When I joined the New York Sun a couple of years later, they generously allowed me to repost my pieces there at artcritical, which meant that my reviews were accessible to people who, for reasons of geography or ideology, were unable to buy the printed newspaper, and that generated a lot of content at the magazine, which in turn encouraged other people to start writing for me. As the magazine evolved I began to notice the absence of outlets for sustained and serious criticism. When the Sun “set” in 2008 it seemed to coincide with drastic cuts in art coverage in the New York Times. The New York Observer dropped (and didn’t replace) Hilton Kramer. And artnet had not been joined by any serious competition in its position on the web. The websites of the art magazines such as Artforum and Art in America, although they are constantly developing, always seem subservient to their printed versions. Post-Sun I had a place to carry on writing, and meanwhile a community had formed around me: it was enormously gratifying both to facilitate really established writers and also nurture new writers. I then realized that artcritical could really fill a niche, fulfill a need.
Rail: It was a completely different landscape from 2000 to 2001. Now there are so many sites that there’s the question of competition and of being able to bring in readers. But at the time, and this is also when the Brooklyn Rail really got launched as well, there was a dearth of criticism and the stranglehold of the glossy magazines was pretty complete. Can you talk a little bit about what other kinds of changes that you see happening for artcritical with the redesign of your site that you’ve undertaken for this fall?
Cohen: Redesign became urgent because visitors were either unaware to the depth of our archives or the wealth of new material. Now, somebody coming in through Google to some archived piece will immediately see that what they’re reading is part of an organic, very lively, very current magazine. Or somebody who comes to the homepage will rapidly realize that this is not the blog of an individual, but a community of writers and investigators, that there’s a track record, a sustained body of criticism and news going back quite a number of years. That’s a fantastic advantage a web magazine has over, say, a printed publication: it’s like you bought the latest copy of the New York Times and you’re walking around with its entire archive. Of course that’s why tablets are the future for journalism and scholarship alike.
Anyhow, the redesign is now making it possible to monetize the magazine, through advertising and other means that the old static pages had made very difficult. Breaking down our content into categories and subcategories, for navigability, made me realize the strengths and weaknesses of the magazine in terms of content. You want a magazine to be a very fulfilling, whole experience. It’s all about keeping people there once they’ve come. Web designers call this “stickablity,” which means that you’ve come to a site to do one thing, but you see there’s more, you stay, you do other things, and the other things are complimentary to or contrastive with the thing that brought you there in the first place.
What I’ve found is that a vast majority of my copy is reviews of individual exhibitions in New York City, and that’s great—I’m not complaining about that, that’s my treasure—but what the categories made me realize is that we’ve got a lot of meat, and not many potatoes, and nothing for dessert. It led me to think, well, okay, artcritical, it’s criticism, that’s the mainstay, that’s the purpose, art needs criticism, but it also needs to be celebrated. We had studio visits in the past, and there will be much more of the voice of the maker in the new artcritical. Often with emerging artists, criticism isn’t as useful as just seeing images—the criticism is in curating the choices of new artists rather than criticizing them per se.
But I do think that our strength is that we are about writers and thinkers, analysts of the scene. My job as editor is to shape, to curate what is being covered, leaving plenty of space for eccentric choices, not falling into the trap of ending up with reviews of only the obvious shows that everyone else is reviewing as well, but being careful to offer a kind of balanced diet of what’s going on so that at any moment the exhibitions that are being reviewed would be truly representative, indicative of what’s most vital in our area of interest.
Rail: Will the Review Panel continue on the new artcritical website?
Cohen: Totally. At the new artcritical, and also at the National Academy, which hosts the series, even though they are renovating. The first panel is September 24 when my guests are Lance Esplund, Faye Hirsch, and Andrea K. Scott.
Rail: We talked about the Review Panel already, but one thing we didn’t touch on is, why do you think the Review Panel has taken off the way it has and become so popular? There is standing room only every month—with people talking about art in a serious way, it’s not entertainment. What could you attribute that to?
Cohen: Hearing is exponentially superior to reading, because you see thoughts taking shape, you get the drama of one idea bouncing off against another, and actually it is entertaining. I don’t think it’s always more considered—the opposite, I think, is true. But, it cuts to the chase, and I think you get some real depth of analysis that you wouldn’t get in the more considered, polished prose of a single writer. Also, it’s about dialectics. The writer is, historically, a relatively new phenomenon. Look at the Greeks: before you had solitary individuals authoring texts, you had discussion groups whose findings were later committed to text. Before you had poets writing poems, you had poets singing poems, you had groups chanting what would become sagas. The live, vocalized group text that is a panel is something literally vital that has to be kept going.
Rail: You see that what one person says impacts how another person is thinking about that work. Do you sometimes decide on work to review that you know none of your guests will appreciate?
Cohen: No. On the contrary, I try to make sure that everyone is positively invested in at least one show. But I was cursed a couple of times last season by cancellations. I remember, for instance, Andrea Scott came down with a throat infection and was replaced very gallantly at the last moment by Mario Naves. Neither Mario nor any of the other three panelists including myself would cross the street to look at a show that Andrea had suggested when we were lining up the shows to talk about (guest panelists have input in the lineup of shows, which also reflects balance of gender, medium, generation, etc.). There’s a very rapid and totally negative consensus about this work and Mario turns to me and says, “David, why are we talking about this show?” So, [both laugh], well, I’m afraid, this wonderful, foolproof system of mine, so politically correct and beautifully orchestrated and delicately balanced, can go wrong.
Rail: Indeed. We’ve just passed this very sobering moment where a lot of excess has been curtailed and one starts to feel a resurgence of some other kind of interests. From your perspective, having spent a lot of time looking at a broad spectrum of work, what kinds of changes do you see taking hold?
Cohen: One huge change I’ve noticed since I first started coming to New York is a shift in the balance of power as far as New York itself is concerned. The vast, frankly obscene overload of galleries is still here, and you have a half dozen world-class museums all showing blockbusters, but you no longer have the sense that a major show put together in London or Paris would not be a success unless it also had its outing at the Met or the Modern. The burgeoning of Berlin and London as art centers has meant that it’s no longer the case that whatever is essential is going to come at some point to New York. It’s still a pretty good place to be if you have that kind of carousel mentality that you’d rather sit still and have it come to you rather than have to go to it, but New York centrism is becoming less and less viable for global economic reasons.
Rail: It doesn’t seem like it’s a bad moment to reassess. I thought that the Whitney decision to put up work acquired from past biennials re-grounded the biennial in a way that seemed necessary for that institution.
Cohen: Yes, but there are some shows I’ve seen in the last year which are just plain sad and only happened for economic reasons, like the Picasso show at the Met, drawn exclusively from its own collection. Such shows are convenient for scholars who want to see indifferent Picassos that otherwise you’d have to make an appointment to see in the vaults. But it was not so good for Picasso—luckily he can handle it—because showing whatever you happen to have collected of a major artist is the wrong selection criterion— in fact, it’s a non-selection criterion. On the other hand, the Guggenheim’s video show, Haunted, which is also very recession-friendly from the museum’s perspective, is fine, in fact, it’s fabulous, a very intelligent working through of their own holdings. Tino Sehgal, of course, was a stroke of genius from an accountant’s point of view, to have a blockbuster exhibition where you can charge the full price of admission that has no shipping, no labels, no insurance bill. More Tino Sehgals will allow museums to weather this storm, but hopefully we can get back to our pastoral symphony of blockbusters before too long.
Rail: After seeing Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions at MoMA, a worthwhile and surprising look into the vaults, I would say none too soon.
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.