Recalling the Saints
The idea for this Critics Page in the Brooklyn Rail has been germinating in my mind for some time. As co-president of AICA-USA (International Association of Art Critics, USA section), I have the good fortune of presiding over board meetings with a talented group of eminent colleagues. In addition to overseeing the requisite agenda items that pertain to the operations and strivings of an organization that serves a national membership of art writers (a category that includes critics, journalists, and curators), I work with fellow board members in highlighting relevant issues to discuss among ourselves and in organizing compelling panels, speakers, and programs to share with interested art audiences.
As serious, trained professionals who care deeply about art and artists, and place a high value on the disciplines of art history and art criticism, we regularly reflect on the role of the art writer/critic—what it is today and what it should be in a rapidly changing art world. The number of venues—art journals, publications, and the like—is increasingly small and the demand for penetrating, meaningful art criticism is at an all-time low. The economics, politics, and fashion of art are eclipsing its essential and timeless value as a reflection of the ideas and the soul of our culture. Many of the structures and institutions supporting art have come to regard it in terms of its market rather than aesthetic and intellectual value, with a diminishing concern for criticism, academic or journalistic.
The AICA-USA board has been engaged in a period of self-examination. We have identified as a priority the reinvigoration of art criticism/writing and the redirection of attention to art and ideas. We are dedicated to highlighting and promoting the good work of our membership and wish to provide venues and platforms for mentoring writers, both young and emerging as well as mid-career and mature ones to encourage future meaningful writing about art.
In that spirit I have been giving a great deal of thought to the people and institutions that have been inspiring guideposts and models to me as an art professional. Having had as mentors in my graduate art history studies such exemplary professors as Professors Kirk Varnedoe and Barbara Novak, I was driven to maintain their high, rigorous standards in my studies and in my capacities as a writer and curator. I am also extremely grateful to artists with whom I have worked directly as particularly special role models. The art of Richard Tuttle, Nancy Spero, and Leon Golub, in particular, has had an incalculable effect on my thinking and on my life—personally and professionally. As people, they each have had a powerful impact on how I view the world and tread on the earth. I could write a book, or three, about this—and perhaps one day I will.
Finally, another crucial role model for me, who until recently has hovered under the radar, is Dick Bellamy. I was Director of Kent Fine Art when it opened in 1985. It was a heady, fun and exciting time, and we did some wonderful shows and catalogues. But the art world went wacky in the late ’80s and crashed by 1990. I was disillusioned with the misplaced emphasis on money and yearned for a more meaningful context that focused on art and artists. Enter Dick Bellamy. I worked with Dick and Barbara Flynn on a two-gallery Myron Stout exhibition and catalogue of paintings and drawings in the fall of 1990 at Kent Fine Art and Flynn. It was the last show of my commercial gallery career. That collaboration was a turning point for me. Dick’s devotion, integrity, and commitment in presenting Myron Stout’s art reinstilled in me hope and a belief that there could be a place for ME in the artworld. I identified with Dick’s passion for and delight in the artists he believed in and gratefully submitted to his tutelage.
Sixteen years later, my colleague and AICA co-president, Judith Stein, has written the wonderful, critically acclaimed book, Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016). My excitement both over the book and its subject dovetailed with the Brooklyn Rail’s Co-Founder and Artistic Director (and fellow AICA-USA) Phong Bui’s enthusiasm for my doing an interview with Judith—an obvious away to endorse the superlative works of AICA. When Phong also invited me to curate the Critics Page section of the Rail’s November issue, it occurred to me to ask other AICA members to contribute writings about their own inspiring, under-sung heroes. The written pieces that follow are personal reflections by noted art critics and writers of people who have left an indelible mark on them. I am delighted to present this collaboration of tributes with and from my esteemed colleagues. Reading these as a collection reminds us of why many of us chose to enter into this field—and more importantly why we have chosen to stay. If nothing else, as Holland Cotter wrote in response to my invitation, it is a “good opportunity to recall the saints.”
SUSAN HARRIS is co-president of the Board of the International Association of Art Critics, United States section (AICA-USA). She is an independent scholar and curator. Her most recent project is Managing Editor, Unfinished Memories: 30 Years of Exit Art, Steidl, 2016.