Words for Art
(Sternberg Press, 2013)
Barry Schwabsky is a poet who writes art criticism regularly for the Nation. His recent book Words for Art compiles his reviews of essays by historians, philosophers, curators, critics, artists, and journalists published in English (some in translation) over the past two decades. Covering so vast a range is an ambitious if not Herculean task; one has the sense that casting so wide a net was Schwabsky’s way of orienting himself to the task of criticism after returning to the U.S. from an extended European stay. For example, he analyzes Walter Benjamin’s remarks on color, which were never published together as an essay, both because he is (rightly) fascinated by Benjamin and because he seems to be trying to define the role of color in painting for himself.
Schwabsky’s critique of criticism begins with Art Since 1900, the textbook written by the four principle editors of October: Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Hal Foster, and Benjamin Buchloh. He notes that the weighty tome, whose size is suggestive more of a coffee table than a textbook, presents various views of the “new art history” that has dominated academia, exalting theory over iconography, psychology, biography, social and literary context, and the other démodé approaches of yesteryear. Pointing out the incoherence of Art Since 1900 as a textbook, Schwabsky exposes the contradiction of Buchloh’s assertion that the human figure was expunged from most modern art for the first two decades of the century while Bois and Krauss concentrate on Matisse and Picasso, both consistently figurative artists. He gives deserved kudos to Bois’s and Krauss’s examinations of individual works, but ultimately he hits the whole quadriga hard, accusing them of being victims of precisely what they purport to abjure: the subjectivity of individual taste.
Taste is also an issue in his review of Alice Goldfarb Marquis’s biography Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg. Schwabsky is, as everyone should be, bothered that Greenberg insisted that his judgments were correct because they were made in the name of objective historical inevitability. By now we can judge the accuracy of Greenberg’s tea-leaf readings. True or false, his prophetic utterances in no way detracted from his ability to write really well in a liquid, transparent style until he lapsed into an alcoholic haze late in life when facing the triumph of everything he hated (Duchamp, theater, political propaganda) over the purist lyrical abstraction he defended and promoted.
Since they are bereft ideas, it is hard to understand why Schwabsky bothered to review the essays by the late MoMA curator Kirk Varnedoe, whose glib Pictures of Nothing might just as well have been titled Writing About Nothing. Schwabsky finds more to say about Linda Nochlin’s biographical view of Courbet and Michael Fried’s study of the German realist Adolf Menzel, two interpretations of 19th-century realism so at odds in methodology and range that comparing them seems a fruitless pursuit. Nochlin’s account is throughly traditional, whereas Fried calls on many different intellectual disciplines. Schwabsky bemoans Fried’s decision to back away from criticism of the contemporary scene and immerse himself in earlier art. It’s as if he himself feels personally betrayed by Fried’s decision to mine the past rather than waste time with the frivolities of the moment. But clearly he admires Fried, as I do, because agree or disagree with his arguments, the depth of his erudition and the originality of his insights make it worthwhile to engage with his sometimes intentionally opaque prose style.
Considering Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind, the publication commissioned by the Louvre to accompany a drawing exhibition, Schwabsky points out that whatever merits it might otherwise have, the essay in no way deals with drawings. He quotes Derrida saying, “I think that I will never know either how to draw or how to look at a drawing,” as a statement of modesty rather than an admission that the author is thoroughly ignorant of and in fact uninterested in the art of draftsmanship. Instead Derrida uses this essay purportedly about draftsmanship as an occasion to display wit, cleverness, and capacity to free associate all manner of interesting psychological and philosophical observations regarding “drawing” as a disembodied abstraction unrelated to any tradition of putting marks on paper. If the reader is seriously interested in drawing as an art form, Derrida’s digressions on the theme are not informative. On the other hand, those delighting in word games, puzzles, riddles, and paradoxes will savor every one of the French philosopher’s spiraling constructions,
Schwabsky provides an intelligent gloss of the essays of Ernst Gombrich, Meyer Schapiro, and Walter Benjamin. None of these towering intellectuals felt the need to write in styles so convoluted that the effort of understanding the text renders content secondary. They wrote not to be admired for cleverness or precious turns of phrase but to communicate clearly and immediately fundamental insights regarding the deep cultural significance of works of art and the way we look at them. None conceived of art freed from history, or as bloodless disembodied theory disconnected from material art objects.
Considering the words of Jack Tworkov and Mel Bochner as examples of artists writing about art, he has praise for Tworkov’s autobiographical memoir and even more for Bochner’s definition and defense of conceptual art. He uses Liz Kotz’s Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art as an occasion to write his own history of conceptual art, which both he and Bochner seem to agree is best expressed in Bochner’s art. Since the writings of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Frank Stella, not to mention those of Art & Language, were published during the same period, Schwabsky’s focus seems so distinctly personal that it avoids the central issues of artists writing about art, a topic yet to be discussed intelligently. One could even say that a weakness of art writing today is that artists seldom take part in the dialogue.
Taking on the heavyweights, Schwabsky compares James Elkins’s and Hubert Damisch’s books on Renaissance perspective, and does a good job explaining their respective examinations of the subject. The idea that there was no conception of depicted space prior to the Renaissance is, however, so far reaching and radical it demands much further and deeper consideration than an essay can possibly supply. Schwabsky’s examination of lesser-known texts such as the essays of Richard Sennett and Roberts on the currently much-disdained role of craft in art and politics in art by the German critic Boris Groys, whose years in Soviet Russia color his Marxist point of view, which seems more cynical than ironic, are valuable introductions. His extensive consideration of the dense and fascinating texts of the Belgian critic Thierry de Duve, which offer an original and valuable interpretation of Duchamp—whose specter still haunts contemporary art—makes one want to reread de Duve.
He notes the increasing incursions of academic historians into the field of contemporary art criticism during the past 20 years. But he does this without really offering an opinion of whether it has improved writing about art or turned it into yet another footnote-laden appeal to be quoted in the footnotes of other members of the exclusive circle of the academy. There is no doubt that the nature of art criticism, increasingly dominated by professors of modern and contemporary art more interested in philosophical theory than in either history or art has changed.
In many of his reviews, Schwabsky fills in the back-story of the biography of the writers. This supplies the reader with valuable contextual information that is more than just art gossip. In summarizing the arguments of key figures, Words on Art surveys a large variety of sometimes contradictory verbal responses to visual phenomena. But it does not judge the heuristic value of these attempts to translate images into words, nor their quality as literature. Nonetheless, it is a useful book that offers a global perspective about current critical discourse as well as a look back at its more expansive and less narrowly focused past.
BARBARA ROSE is an art historian and curator who lives in New York and Madrid, Spain.