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The Mirror Displaced: Artists Writing on Art

Not all artists consider themselves writers too, let alone critics. The poet Alice Notley, in reviewing a new collection of poems by Edwin Denby in the St. Mark’s Poetry Project newsletter of 1976, prefaced her review (not quite a disclaimer nor a benediction) by stating, “Poets can’t write criticism because what they understand about a poet they adore is what they themselves do or would, it is visceral—death to analyze? critics can’t write criticism because they never are knowing.”

On the Make

I have often felt I was crazy as an artist who doesn’t feel the need to make art. I’ve received so much of it over the years I don’t care if I ever see or make another image. That is why I write.

Writing on Art and Muscle Memory

What brings me back to a painting is often a feeling, like a nagging muscle memory, of wanting not only to see, but to sense the painting’s facture.

A Real Connection

Communicating why another artist’s work matters—to me, or anyone else—forces me to flex the same muscles that I use to discern the germ within the husk of my painting habit. Art, if it deserves the name, demands that I meet it on its own terms, where I least expect it: at the margins, in the interstices, in the places I thought I knew and consequently ignored.

Playing Solitaire

At age 14, in my sophomore year in high school, I was in Dr. Nikol’s Advanced Placement European History class. The syllabus was thorough and in the section on the Enlightenment we paused briefly on Descartes, to note his contributions to mathematics, and secondly his Meditations on First Philosophy, which have to this day never left me a moment’s peace.

What Lives in the Work

Making came first and then writing. It began with images and is how I learned to see, not just the external world but the clouded interiority of my self. What drew me into the world of images was an initial experience in the darkroom.

Double Helix

I worship twin gods, the image and the text. They are like two chemical elements, irreducible to one another. Words calcify meaning, while images abide by a logic of infinite growth. An image can contain the universe, as in a spiral carved upon a stone.

Artists and Writers

Authors say that writing sometimes writes itself, notably when their characters seem to speak out in their own voice. Visual artists claim a pristine silence for their own, which they prize, eye and hand alone together gladly, no words. The word that breaks that silence is often recriminatory, and resented. It came upon a scene uninvited, that should not have been witnessed. Words, they say, compromise sight, and the silent work of the eye.

When We Are Given a Voice

In the ’70s and ’80s I had written a few pieces about fellow women artists who could not get any coverage, because men got most of the ink. It began as a sort of public service for my sister artists, marginalized and discouraged.

Milling Stone

The way a review’s argument takes shape is not dissimilar to the way an artwork’s premise comes about. Selected from the lot of pebbles-cum-premises, the rock is given some time in the tumbler, from which it emerges smooth, clear, yet with enough of an edge to feel distinctive.

A Correspondence With Motherwell

My initial contact with artists’ writings happened in the beginning stages of learning to paint while keeping a journal of notes and drawings in the process. I was in my early 20s and living in Santa Barbara, California. It was the 1970s and I recall seeing an exhibition at LACMA where two large paintings from Robert Motherwell’s “Open” series (circa 1969–70) were on display.

Of Masonry and Shadows

I keep a modest library of books on the subject of artists’ writings. I began acquiring it as a young artist in high school with books like Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912) and The Diaries of Paul Klee (1964), hoping to absorb their lessons on synesthesia and abstraction. The compendium Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art (eds. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, 1996) followed during my time as an art history student.

An Artist Writing

I think that here are some surprising common aspects of making art, and writing about it, in handling paint and in handling words. For me this is because both are as much about finding as about doing. The act of doing is always generative whether it is obvious or not, to the point where it is often the most interesting aspect of either.

I Run My Hand Over the Race

The words in my title belong to Robert Irwin. I came across them years ago in Lawrence Weschler’s much-loved book of dialogues with the artist, and since then they’ve become something of a personal shibboleth. Referring to his technique for placing bets at the track (a second vocation in which he enjoyed great success), Irwin relayed that, after carefully studying the statistics for each horse, he would forget all the facts, close his eyes, and “run his hand over the race.” I don’t think I’ve encountered a better metaphor for tacit thinking: the kind of thinking we do unconsciously, without language, with and through our bodies.

Untitled (On amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds)

Developing in parallel, visual art birthed our most beautiful writing systems. The Korean alphabet, Hangul, imitates the positions of the mouth when pronouncing each letter’s sound, while the Chinese character for rain falls.


To my mind it’s significant that the Rail’s current Guest Editor, Tom McGlynn is soliciting a response from artist/writers on being an artist who writes about other artists’ works. This is not a consideration that usually receives a lot of attention, especially in the recent past when a theoretical approach dominated art writing and the credibility of an objective viewpoint had not yet been debunked.

Writing about art is like talking about feelings

Writing about art is not like making art. Jack Whitten said that a painter’s sensibility is the ability to feel, entwined with plasticity, two sides of the same coin. Writing about art is like talking about feelings. It validates interior experiences by externalizing them, helping us understand what is acting upon us and what this means.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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