Barry Schwabsky is art critic for the Nation and co-editor of international reviews at Artforum. His most recent books are Words for Art: Criticism, History and Practice (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013), a collection of essays on art writing; Trembling Hand Equilibrium (New York: Black Square Editions, 2013), a collection of poems; and The Perpetual Guest (New York and London: Verso, 2016), a selection of his art criticism from the Nation. Schwabsky spoke with Jarrett Earnest about the relationships between poetry, music, and criticism.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): How old were you when you first became aware of poetry?
Barry Schwabsky: I guess I was really little. In the apartment where I grew up there was an Anthology of English Poetry from Chaucer to Yeats, or something like that. It had been my mother’s, from her one year at Brooklyn College before she had to leave to work. She took an English course and this was the textbook from it. It was just there and I used to pick it up and read it. It didn’t seem different from the lyrics of songs I heard on the radio. It seemed natural to be curious about it.
I grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and when I became aware that someone had written a book-length poem about Paterson I was flabbergasted that anyone would want to do that. So I went to the library and got William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, and that is when I started reading modernist poetry. Because it was published by New Directions I looked for other books they published and was then reading Ezra Pound, Denise Levertov, and so on.
The other thing is that somehow poetry is just an idea that is in circulation that everybody is exposed to. I think every lovelorn teenager writes a poem. It’s really more a question of why most people stop, or become convinced that it doesn’t have anything to do with them, or they with it.
Rail: If poetry is an idea in the air for everybody, then what is that idea?
Schwabsky: It’s not one idea. It’s many ideas. But maybe it’s just something like articulating a relation to reality through words.
Rail: At what point did you start writing poetry yourself?
Schwabsky: Like I say, I don’t think it’s a question of starting, I think it’s a question of not-stopping.
Rail: Then, rather, at what point did you adopt being a “poet” as part of your identity?
Schwabsky: Well that’s a different thing. Maybe in college. I don’t think I had a sense of an identity as a poet until then.
Rail: Were you ever a musician?
Schwabsky: I always wanted to be, but I never had any talent.
Rail: So what is the distinction between, “Everyone writes poetry, we grow up with nursery rhymes, etc.” and, “I always wanted to be a musician but I didn’t have the talent”? Music has to be just as “natural” to our experience of the world as poems. At what point does the “talent” peel people off from poetry, or direct them toward it?
Schwabsky: I think it’s a little bit different, because in music there are actual physical requirements for success. I started to learn music theory, and I could understand it and so on, but there was a limit to how well I could play any instrument and that was the end of it. Maybe if I had thought about singing, which I never did, I could have found a way to go further with it.
Rail: One of the things that is striking in your criticism is that it feels like its primary relationship is language, but language in the sense that it relates to sound, as opposed to the visual world.
Schwabsky: Yeah, I think my sense of where I can find the poetry in the language has much more to do with the resonant than with the imagistic side of it.
Rail: When you invoke music as an example or as a metaphor it has a clarity and power unusual in art writing. How do you see your relationship to music?
Schwabsky: It’s hard to encapsulate, but it’s very important. For instance, I think one of the things that has been important to me in writing poetry, as a sort of model or influence, is a particular experience which you probably know, because I think it’s a very familiar one: When you listen to songs, particularly in rock music, which is where I come from, sometimes as you are listening the words come in and out of understandability. In other words, sometimes you just hear the voice and you can’t really make out the lyric, and other times, it is very clear what they are singing. To me that very fact of going back and forth, and having those transitions between clarity and incomprehensibility, or the materiality of the voice on the one hand and what it wants to communicate on the other, really touches me. I always thought it would be great to create that effect without the music, just with the words, and, how do you do that? It’s not as if I’ve invented some technique, it just one of those big things always in the back of my head.
Rail: An example is that song by The Crystals: I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still / Da do ron-ron-ron, da do ron-ron / Somebody told me that his name was Bill / Da do ron-ron-ron, da do ron-ron. Who knows what da do ron-ron-ron actually means, but we all have some emotional sense of what it’s saying within the song. But is that something different from what you’re describing?
Schwabsky: It’s funny because one of my really, really old poems had da do ron-ron-ron, da do ron-ron in it! I’m trying to say, How can I have the da do ron-ron feeling while having words you think you can read?
Rail: I thought the most dazzling piece in The Perpetual Guest is your review of the Blues for Smoke exhibition at the Whitney (February 7 – April 28, 2013). The way you examined not just the formal and experiential implications of jazz, but also the cultural and existential ones, showing how those open onto the specific experiences of African-American abstraction, was really superb. I never heard it articulated in that way before.
Schwabsky: That was something very personal for me, because even though I write about all kinds of contemporary art, in whatever medium, my basic analytical model comes from painting. If I look at a piece of Conceptual art or a video, of course I’m looking at it as what it is and not pretending that it’s a painting, but there is a kind of framework for formally understanding that thing and the relation of its parts that I developed from looking at and trying to figure out paintings. In a way, what the Blues for Smoke exhibition did was to make me think, Well, wait a second, I don’t necessarily have to have painting as a model, maybe music can be the model for painting and all the rest. How you do that I don’t know yet. It’s a long row to hoe, as they say.
So I was grateful on the one hand to the makers of that exhibition for really making me think about that, but at the same time they evaded trying to grapple with it as much as they could have done. Of course, there is an idea about music that has always been important in painting; think about Kandinsky and so forth. But for me personally, that lineage that treats music as the emblem of the “abstract” in Western art never really touched the thing that gets to me about music or about that art. Suddenly I realized that maybe this other tradition, the way these African-American painters were coming to abstract form through their lives does touch on it in a different way. I’m not sure, any more than were the curators of Blue Smoke, of where that leads, but I have the feeling it leads somewhere.
Rail: That article was searingly insightful about Jack Whitten’s paintings and you did that without visually describing a Whitten painting. So what is there? There are Jack Whitten’s words and an analysis of the conceptual structures you extrapolated out of his paintings. What I’m trying to say is that a lot of writing on art rests on rigorous visual description as a form of analysis, but you do something different.
Schwabsky: In a way maybe it goes back to what one has a talent for. I’ve never felt that I had a talent as a describer in that sense. I’ve tried to push myself to be better, because you need to do it sometimes, and I think giving a reader a sense that what you’re saying is anchored in the actual experience of the thing is crucial. But at a certain point, I realized there are ways to bypass parts of that. For instance, if you read Clement Greenberg’s criticism, he doesn’t describe a great deal.
He tried to get to the point of what’s significant about this thing and he supplied the minimal amount of description necessary to make that clear. I saw that I could go that way and function better. Whereas if you read a critic like Max Kozloff, in his writing in the ’60s on painting he is a very luscious describer—almost in the way of a food critic describing the specific tastes of the cauliflower or whatever it is, and when I read it I think, I can never do that the way that he does. I’m not making a hierarchy of value within critical writing, I’m saying you just have to come to terms with where your value is. If you’re built for basketball, don’t try and make it as a jockey.
Rail: Something that runs through a lot of your reviews on visual artists is your engagement with their language, so whether it’s Jack Whitten or Jimmie Durham or Boetti, you bring in what they’ve said and written. How do you approach incorporating an artist’s words into an argument?
Schwabsky: That is something you have to be careful about. First of all, artists, like everyone else, use lots of words: Which are the ones that really count? You’re editing them—without permission. You’re imposing choices that somebody else might not find to be the right choices. Just like when you’re giving a visual description—you can’t actually describe every mark in a painting, you have to pick the ones you think offer the greatest clarity about the intentions with which this thing was made. It’s the same with words. Of course you don’t want to put the words in the way or in the place of the visual thing, you want them to be something that points toward seeing what’s there. I think for artists in our time, writing and talking have become an important part of what they do. Because it’s not like we’re in the 16th century where the church tells us what the subjects of the art are and theology tells us how it’s interpreted. The subject matter and its relation to other circles of discourse in the world has to be somewhat supplied by artists.
Rail: You open your review of Peter Schjeldahl’s book Let’s See: Writings on Art From The New Yorker (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008) saying that he is the art writer you are most envious of on the level of style. How has style in your writing has evolved?
Schwabsky: It’s definitely evolved. I’ve never really thought of trying to look back and recapitulate what that development was. I think there was a certain point when I really wanted to go toward hardcore, formally descriptive language that would be very much inside the development of the artwork. When I look back on things I wrote then I find them almost unreadable. And yet, it seemed important at the time because I was aware of a lot of people who were doing the opposite, which was looking for a topical hook to hang the work from, to display it as an emblem of what a particular micro-moment of contemporaneity represented. That always felt false, so I wanted to go the opposite way—but then that opposite way wasn’t really right for me either.
Since then, I’ve tried to do something with a more permeable membrane between the inside and outside of the work. A somewhat conversational tone seems to allow for quick shifts in and out without trying to underline too emphatically the points where artistic things go toward social things or political things or everyday things. And yet have those entries and exits there.
Rail: How did you start writing criticism?
Schwabsky: I arrived in New York in 1982. I was writing poetry—
Rail: In the vein of?
Schwabsky: I was much influenced by John Ashbery. I was very interested in the New York School in general. I got to know some slightly older poets who were here in New York and they were writing for art magazines—
Rail: Including who?
Schwabsky: Most importantly John Yau, who recommended me to Richard Martin, who was at that time the editor of Arts magazine. That was in 1984. That is when I started to write for art magazines.
Rail: How long had you been looking at paintings before that?
Schwabsky: I got quite interested in painting in high school, I think partly because of poetry. I started to read people like O’Hara, and I was curious about who these painters were that he was talking about. I remember going on a school field trip to the Museum of Modern Art and immediately loving Rothko. From ’79 – ’81 I was in graduate school in English at Yale. I thought I was going to get a Ph.D. in English and be a professor, which didn’t happen.
Rail: What were you going to work on?
Schwabsky: My initial thought was to work on English Renaissance poetry—Wyatt, Shakespeare, Sydney, all that. When I got there I realized that the most interesting work that was going on was actually in Romanticism; if I had stayed I would probably have gone that direction. I had a girlfriend who was studying art history. Through her, I got to know some other people studying art history and also in the art school and it just became a normal thing to talk about art. After two years it was clear that I should leave academia. My girlfriend got a grant to go to Italy to do research for her dissertation. I thought, I’ll go to Italy too. I found a job teaching English and we’d go every weekend to every church and little museum and look at all this Medieval and Renaissance and Baroque art.
Rail: Where were you living?
Schwabsky: We were in Milan, but we traveled all over northern and central Italy. That was a real experience of seeing painting and sculpture in the place it had been made for, so you get a different sense of the relationship of art to its environment than you get at the Museum of Modern Art, which had been my thing up until then.
Rail: When you started writing at Arts, what were you reading as models for how to write about art?
Schwabsky: Well, for one thing I started reading other things in art magazines—Arts magazine and Artforum—and after a little while I started writing for Flash Art and Artscribe which existed in London then. In terms of other influences, I think that Roland Barthes’s essay on Cy Twombly was really my holy grail.
Schwabsky: Because it was so sensitive and inventive, and because it was so clear to me how emotional it was. He was able to take his feelings and make an intellectual construct out of those feelings so that anyone else could enter into it without having the feeling imposed on them. Feeling became a way of knowing and vice versa.
Rail: Your book Words for Art is a very impressive volume on art writing, and one of the most impressive things about it is that I can’t really figure out your agenda. You’re talking about a number of different approaches to art with greatly varying methodological commitments and intellectual stakes and you’re very fair with each of them on their own terms. When you put them together, what did you notice about that group of essays?
Schwabsky: In a way I could wish more of an agenda had emerged from it. But it’s true that I didn’t enter into that project with an agenda. When I say “project,” the earlier things in the book are things I wrote just as separate book reviews because I was interested in a particular writer or book. Then, after I had done a number of them, I thought, I’m interested in this idea of writing about art writers so I’m going to look for opportunities to keep doing it and maybe I’ll have enough of them to make them into a book, and eventually I did. As a book they should add up to more than the sum of their parts. If it’s the case that they do, it’s not because it makes an argument for a certain way of writing about art to be the right one, or for certain qualities of art writing to be key ones. It’s simply that as a fellow practitioner I was curious how different people went about it—whether as critics, or philosophers, or artists, or whatever.
Rail: What do you think of the role of “taste” or “opinion” in criticism?
Schwabsky: I think those are two different things. “Taste” seems to be almost corporeal—does it taste good or not? Whereas “opinion” would be more of a reflected judgement, or at least that is what it implies to me. I think taste is really a great tool, because it’s something that happens when your tongue comes into contact with something that is not “you.” Taste is where you and the world meet. What is the flavor of it? Is it sweet or sour or bitter or salty? I think taste means a primary way of getting acquainted with the world and interacting with it. And it can be very immediate, but I don’t think it’s interesting to stick to that immediate feeling. There are things that you once tasted and spit out because you didn’t like them and later you found out that you do. Taste seems so physiological that it’s easy to forget that it changes and you can cultivate and educate it—it can become wider or narrower. I think the interesting thing about taste is to not accept it as it is, but to keep working on it and seeing where it takes you and where you take it.
Rail: So it’s not about rejecting taste, just about not accepting it as final?
Rail: Then how would you describe “opinion”?
Schwabsky: I think that is also something that needs to be relativized. You need to understand how tactical or temporary or contingent it is. I don’t think it’s as important for criticism as taste. But I think it’s always there.
Rail: In reading your criticism, it doesn’t feel like its driven by your opinions. But there are critics who feel that their opinions are the name of the game.
Schwabsky: In the sense of their judgement, like, This is good or not good? I think that judgement is something different than opinion. For me, anyway, that judgement is a horizon. Is it good or not, is really fundamental in art, but the answer tends to be somewhere far out in front of you—you’re not really there yet. Whereas maybe opinions are something you have along the way to judgement.
Rail: In your life as an editor and critic, how do you understand the ways art criticism functions now and how it is different than when you first got involved in the mid-’80s?
Schwabsky: I remember very distinctly, sometime fairly early on, I had written something about a group show and had critical things to say about the work of one of the painters in it. Later I met the artist and he said, “I thought about what you said in that piece and I decided that you’re right.” That freaked me out, because that was the first moment I realized that I’m not just writing for myself but that someone might actually take seriously what I was saying. Now I needed to take that into account. I had to realize that this thing I was doing basically for my own pleasure had consequences for other people and that I had a responsibility. But how much weight should I give to that? I don’t want to get into the pose of responsibility. I don’t like it in other people and I don’t like it in myself.
Rail: How would you articulate that pose of responsibility? I think it’s something palpable and also ineffable. How do you understand what your “responsibilities” are?
Schwabsky: It’s to the reader and to the artist. On the one hand, I think it’s really important to remember that when you’re writing criticism, or just simply being an engaged viewer or member of the public, you’re not passively receiving something but you’re actively contributing something that wasn’t there until you came and gave it. That thing that you’re giving, in the very nature of it, is something without a foundation—you’re making a leap, the leap of interpretation. And yet, in making that leap and giving up that foundation you’re not just doing any old thing. You have to be as serious about it as the person inviting you to participate. I think one way of ensuring that, and this may seem like a contradiction, is to be serious in that way that’s not too serious—not to make too much of what you’re contributing. In a way, that goes back to my private apprenticeship to the poets of the New York School because that was always part of their implicit critique of what had seemed to be the dominant American poetry when they came on the scene in the 1950s, that it was too self-serious and too overt in rhetoricizing its own literariness. They realized it could be more serious to be witty in a certain way, or more answerable to reality to be frivolous—I think I’ve really taken that to heart. Not that I ever write things that are frivolous, because that is not my style—
Rail: But the sense of the conversational is there in your writing. Your reviews for the Nation are longer than a standard column but shorter than an article. There is something about their form that’s a perfectly balanced and conversational length. How have you approached writing different formats?
Schwabsky: Partly it’s just good luck that I got a chance to write at a magazine that gives me a substantial but not unlimited amount of space to work with. It’s like somebody making a painting who stretches a canvas of a certain size so the marks put on the canvas are going to be made in relation to that scale. I know when I’m writing for the Nation I’ve got about 2800 words and I’ve got to make something that works at that scale. If I write a review for Artforum I know it’s going to be about 600 words and I approach it with that in mind.
Rail: How do you navigate your personal relationships with artists as relevant to writing you’ve done about them?
Schwabsky: It’s not necessarily easy because, for me certainly, I was writing early on in order to become more involved with art and that really meant being with artists in order to understand what they were trying to do. Having those conversations has always been really important to me, but at the same time, I’m not the spokesperson of the artist, I’m doing my own thing. It’s almost like what two-year-olds do called “parallel play”: there’s a stage where children play in the same space next to one another but they are playing individually; only later do they get to the stage where they are really playing together. So in a certain sense it’s like that, where I’m playing and kind of looking over and seeing what they’re doing and maybe they are looking over and seeing what I’m doing, but we each have our own thing. Sometimes you get into slightly uncomfortable situations, for all sorts of reasons, because people that you have these informal personal relationships with don’t like it that at a certain point you seem to be exercising judgement over them. Or, that you’re not exercising the judgement that they thought you should have had.
Rail: In that little piece you wrote on Schjeldahl, you quote something he said to you: “You write the studio and I write the opening.” I’m wondering how you see that as positioning your criticism.
Schwabsky: I don’t think that has anything to do with being more on the side of the artist because the artist is at the opening just like they are in their studio. But, it does have to do with my emphasis on, why did this person do this, whereas maybe for Schjeldahl it’s about what effect did it have that this person did this.
Rail: Do you think there are any persistent misunderstandings about art criticism or what it should be?
Schwabsky: I would say there is a lot of confusion or mystification about it. One has to do with that idea I mentioned, of whether the writer is the spokesman for the artist or for the art world in some broader sense. We all want to say, I’m just speaking on behalf of myself, this is me, but it’s also right to remember that when you’re speaking as yourself in public you are still positing some circle of agreement around yourself, so who is the real or imaginary group that the “I” is representative of? That is one question. And the other, in many people’s minds, is the relationship of all this to the art market, and that is something we haven’t really talked about.
Rail: Do you want to talk about it?
Schwabsky: I don’t want to, but I don’t know if you can avoid it. I don’t think any of us writing today, with the possible exception of Roberta Smith, can imagine that we have a direct effect on what happens in the art market, the way we imagine maybe Greenberg did in his day. And yet, criticism more broadly is certainly one of the things that keep the market running and makes an atmosphere of interest around art in general. So even though the individual critic may not have any measurable weight in terms of what goes on in the market, the broader sense of critical interest might, and the activity of art magazines is part of that system. The question is, can we be more precise in our understanding of how that happens? What’s the good of it and what’s the bad of it?
Rail: Do you conceive of the kind of writing you do as having any relationship with the market? The way you write and what you write about, I don’t see how it does.
Schwabsky: Simply the fact that you are writing about this artist and not that artist is somehow part of the cloud of information surrounding their art. But how? I’d like it if I thought my writing could help those artists whose art I appreciate. I’d like them to have an easier time earning a living and more peace of mind, but from what I can see, what I write doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on that.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.