Friends Among Us: Reflections on the Value and Risk of Nepotism in Art

Grace Hartigan with Helen Frankenthaler, 1952. Photo: Walter Silver. Image Courtesy of George Silver and Irving Sandler.
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Corazon del Sol had just arrived in Lisbon, to an apartment she left in the early 2010s, not long after losing someone close. She spent her first night there dreaming about intimacy, she told me over Skype. She woke up tired. “Understandable,” I said. I hadn’t spoken with Del Sol for two months, not since she left L.A. in September 2015. I wanted to know about the time she’d spent in residence at Skogen, in Gothenberg, Sweden. The topic of the residency had been “The Personal is Political,” not a new notion but an especially relevant one, given the artworld’s ongoing obsession with professionalism. “Can’t we release ourselves from the formality that’s become so important to us,” Del Sol asked, “and accept that our personal experiences aren’t separate from our professional ones?” Then we were off again on one of our frequent conversations about how vulnerability and authority can – and should be permitted to – coexist.

Del Sol is among a growing number of artists I no longer feel comfortable writing about in critical contexts, and certainly not without a full disclosure. I met her in 2012. I was writing about a show she co-curated about the legacy of her grandmother, gallerist Eugenia Butler, who had given a handful of now-iconic Conceptualists their start. The show, a pop-up installed in a vacated West Hollywood storefront, had mirrors everywhere, left over from whatever retail tenant had been there last. You could stand in a back corner and look up towards the ceiling to see reflections of art elsewhere: by Dieter Roth, James Lee Byars, John Baldessari, Douglas Huebler. On Saturday afternoons, Del Sol hosted picnics, with blankets laid out on the floor. I referenced the show’s anarchic energy in my writing as Del Sol transitioned from subject to friend.

***

Critic Jonathan Jones does not believe writers and artists should be friends. “This is a great time to be an art critic,” he writes in a short 2007 essay for The Guardian, “with so many egos to puncture. All that’s stopping us is friendship.” Friendship “corrupts,” he says; it makes him distrust his judgment. He’s not alone: Robert Hughes famously took an adversarial position toward many of his artist-subjects; and critic Erica Jeal considers it “creepy” to begin a friendship by taking notes and making pronouncements about that person’s work.

I distrust my judgment often, sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with personal relationships. Artists with overinflated market prices make me cranky; I’ve judged work by Urs Fischer and Matthew Barney too harshly before seeing it, because I disliked the way press releases trumpeted them as heroic; sometimes I praise shows at unconventional, “alt” spaces too enthusiastically because I want such spaces to succeed. For the first five years of my career, these kinds of biases worried me most, as I largely felt like a fly on the wall, a quiet observer. Then, quickly, as if I’d slid through an invisible wall, this changed. I didn’t just “know” the scene; I was in it. Conversations with artists who interested me began to continue long after I’d filed an essay or interview. “Corrupting” friendships became my routine concern.

Friendships have infected art writing at least since the days of Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), a man (often cited as “the first art historian”) who based much of his tome The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550) on gossip gleaned from friends in the know. Vasari refers to his personal relationships sparingly, preferring to play omniscient narrator, but it’s well understood that he favored his contemporaries in Florence, and attributed to them the advancements of the Renaissance.

Indeed, since art criticism became a field of its own in the later 18th century, critics have resisted revealing bias. Think of John Ruskin calling his close friend Edward Burne-Jones “gigantic,” or praising J.M.W. Turner in the commanding third person while avidly collecting the painter’s work (Ruskin owned 300 Turner paintings at the time of his death).

Art criticism, and art history by association, is frequently written by insiders reluctant to admit how “inside” they are. Readers receive a streamlined, neutral-sounding version of what matters and why. This adaptation can mislead, and read less interestingly than one citing the mess of association and the path to revelation. If we weren’t so eager to present art as serious, or to conform to existing conventions of newspaper or magazine criticism (objective, authoritative), we might be better positioned to convey a compelling depiction of art’s pull. It’s unfortunate that our notions of transparency and authority rarely go hand-in-hand.

***

When I first wrote about the exhibition Del Sol curated, I found navigating her subject, Eugenia Butler, challenging. Butler’s programming was wildly experimental, and she‘d done strange performances outside of her gallery (for instance she staged her own funeral, and had nude models parade down the stairs of her home). In 1970, she brought as her date to a LACMA opening one of her artists, who goes by “Adam II, the Late Paul Cotton.” He wore a bunny suit cut open to expose his genitals and carried a tray of marijuana (they were escorted out). The two began an affair around that time, and the dissolution of Eugenia Butler Gallery corresponded with the end of Butler’s marriage. Her husband, a lawyer and art collector, challenged his wife’s sanity in his effort to control her business and records. Butler wrote angry, sarcastic letters to people who sided with her husband, sometimes appearing unhinged.

In the high artworld, “crazy” women who no longer have power are still too quickly dismissed. I tried to write about Butler in a way that acknowledged her intensities and the bold choices as part of her influential work. Then, when the article appeared online, the headline read, “How a Crazy Gallerist Inspires the L.A. Artworld.” I emailed my editor, who replaced “Crazy” with “Wacky,” an imperfect fix.

Del Sol, who had never experienced Conceptual art outside the shadow of her family’s complexities, didn’t seem to mind. She was keenly interested in the way life stories bleed into art stories, and the difficulties involved in narrating that indistinction.

***

The first time I felt misled by a piece of criticism was in 2008, when L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight published a memorable review of Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love at the Hammer Museum. The review suggests Walker “queers the racial discourse” with art that blurs violent realities into racialized fantasies. Knight also claims an overlooked predecessor to Walker, L.A. painter Lari Pittman, a queer artist who used pre-Victorian silhouettes in the 1980s, before Walker did. He declares Pittman’s omission a serious failing.

Initially, I barely noticed the “full disclosure” line near the end, where Knight assures readers he brought up this “elision” of Pittman, not because “Pittman is a friend but because it is emblematic of the way Los Angeles artists regularly disappear from American art history.” That line only became important to me in retrospect, when I began to realize the extent of Pittman and Knight’s friendship. Had a major critic compelled me to think about the queerness of Kara Walker because he wanted to give a friend a fair shake? If so, I would have preferred to know that from the start. Then the review, already strange and impassioned, would have given a self-aware glimpse into how personal closeness affects expertise.

***

At the time our friendship began, the only work of Del Sol’s that I had personally seen were cakes she had baked in the shape of heads. She had brought them to a charged panel discussion held in response to a controversial Marina Abramović performance, in which heads of low-paid performers served as centerpieces at a MOCA gala. Del Sol meant for the cakes to counter the animosity.

So in late 2014, when she began preparing for her first solo show at a commercial gallery, my idea of her art mostly involved spontaneous interventions. I had no idea how this would manifest in a gallery setting. The show, a multi-generational exhibition at The BOX in downtown L.A., would include art from her grandmother’s gallery, some surprisingly confessional Conceptual work by her mother, and pieces of her own. Preparing for it proved an excavation. Del Sol dug through piles of her mother’s drawings, including those from dream journals. She discovered that she and her mom had parallel recurring dreams involving a marble staircase in her grandmother’s home. Both of them had hidden under it as children to escape the intensities of a family life in which psychological and physical abuses ran rampant. As late as May, less than two months before the show’s opening, Del Sol still had no clear notion of what the exhibition would look like.

I spent one evening sitting on her couch and paging through sketches of that space beneath the stairs. She had wanted to make a version of that space that was dimensional, claustrophobic. I wondered whether a flatter, more minimal approach might work.

The night her show opened, I saw the shape of that work laid out on the floor in cool, checkered marble. I didn’t feel any ownership of it, but I did feel connected.

***

Clement Greenberg, often privy to the processes of artists, never used the term “full disclosure” in his writing. He would on rare occasion say “a friend” (for instance, the clause “as one who was a friend of Pollock’s” appears in an essay published in 1960, four years after Pollock’s death). In the 1950s, artists used to invite Greenberg to come see their work a few weeks before an exhibition opened. He would tell them what he thought, a pre-critique from the best-known American art critic. He and painter Grace Hartigan had their first major falling out this way. He didn’t like her new work when he went to visit her studio in 1954, before her second solo exhibition at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. She had introduced vague traces of representational imagery – a regression, thought Greenberg, who saw abstraction as “advanced.” In her journal, Hartigan describes hurling cups, saucers, and “glasses or whatever” after the critic as he left.

Because she considered Greenberg’s then-lover Helen Frankenthaler a friend, Hartigan decided to send a letter to the critic to clear the air. “Admittedly my attitude toward you is loaded way beyond the point of intellectual disagreement,” she began. “I had unreasonable respect for you and your judgment. Plus whatever complications always exist between a man and a woman.”

That same year, 1954, Hartigan wrote in her journal about a dinner she attended at Greenberg and Frankenthaler’s home: “Clem got on his stick about ‘women painters’. […] He said he wants to be the contemporary of the first great woman painter. What shit – he’d be the first to attack.” “Clem” never wrote about Hartigan again, and her friendship with Frankenthaler cooled until around 1957, when Greenberg and Frankenthaler broke up.

Perhaps in Greenberg’s eyes, Frankenthaler was the first great women painter. His 1960 essay “Louis and Noland,” he explains that artists Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland abruptly changed their approach to painting after seeing Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea (1952), an expanse of stains on raw canvas that looked more like an avant-garde bouquet than landscape. Because of this anecdote, Frankenthaler has frequently been historicized as the forerunner of Color Field painting, or what Greenberg termed “post-painterly abstraction.”

Frankenthaler found this version of events discomfiting. When art historian Alan Solomon asked her about her influence on Morris Louis during a 1966 interview for National Entertainment Television, she said, “It’s very funny to talk about. […] I have to do it delicately.”

It’s not a bad story to be part of, one in which a great male critic credits you with a sea change in 20th-century abstraction. But this narrative of influence puts Frankenthaler forever at the mercy of her then-boyfriend’s idea of lineage.

Young critics often perpetuate this sort of one-begets-another narrative, usually because they’re mimicking reviews they’ve read in art magazines. They validate an artist by calling up iconic references: “Picasso on acid,” “the Andy Warhol of the digital age,” “Robert Adams meets Martin Puryear,” etc. Endorsing new artists via already established ones demonstrates you know your art history; following the form used by established critics allows you to pose as an “expert” before you are one. It also means the same stories get told over and over.

In January 2015, I met a painter, Dustin Metz, for coffee. I had just written about a gallery show in which Frances Picabia and Jorge Immendorf paintings hung alongside “Post-Internet” art, suggesting the former begat the latter. Metz had a more critical take on the show than I did. He saw flimsiness in the younger painters’ craft, whereas I’d wanted to embrace the curatorial narrative of progress, a narrative that makes for a tight storyline (something we’re less interested in here, but you’ll bear with me).

Such conversations with artists have lately become a more intentional part of my writing process. I already distrust the conventions and biases that shape my judgments, so why not test them before committing them to print?

***

I received a text message from Del Sol in early June with a video clip attached: two of her grandparent’s regal chairs in a boat on undulating water. She had been putting family valuables out to sea. The video, eventually installed in a concrete hallway outside The Box’s main gallery, struck me as both homage and a purge. Traces of Eugenia Butler’s iconoclasm were present, and stand-ins for patriarch and matriarch were floating away. I probably would have read this into the work even without the privilege of background knowledge. Certainly, I would have appreciated the deceptively serene aesthetic.

What my knowledge did give me was an added sense of vested excitement: before it existed, I had hoped this work could sensually convey the darkness and beauty of intergenerational influence. That it succeeded made me feel glad for a friend but also optimistic that conversations I’d personally engaged in could have wider reach.

***

In her 1973 history of early Conceptualism, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, writer Lucy Lippard treats friendships as part of her methodology. Relationships shape her work because she wants them to. She includes a collaboration with Douglas Huebler, and quotes artist-friends extensively. She revised the book’s introduction in the mid-1990s, more explicitly foregrounding her personal position. She notes that she was married to Robert Ryman, a process-oriented minimalist, when her interest in Conceptualism began. Her close friends included Sol Lewitt, Eva Hesse, Sylvia and Robert Mangold; her larger circle included Dan Graham, Robert Smithson, and Joseph Kosuth. These friendships, along with her leftist politics, informed her belief in Conceptualism as a potential “tabula rasa” that could separate art from the “system” or “establishment.”

In retrospect, Lippard realizes her thinking was naïvely utopian, but not entirely misguided. She holds out hope that the “most exciting ‘art’ might still be buried in social energies not yet recognized as art.” In thoroughly detailing her own relationships, she attempts an honest picture of how much she wanted from the work her friends were making.

***

Del Sol’s exhibition at The Box included a video game she’d made in a matter of months, with the help of a designer and a programmer. It was installed in a side gallery, on a monitor in front of velvety pink pillows for players to sit on. She initially meant for the game to be a Mario Brothers-style experience, with her grandmother as the avatar. This subject would progress through “levels” meant to correspond to artworld status markers (attention from museum curators, sales to international collectors). Instead, it became something of a dreamscape, where austere Minimalist fixtures coexist with sexualized fantasies and lunar landscapes.

The game ends when the silver, three-legged avatar falls over because the collaborators hadn’t devised a way to get the avatar back up in time for the show’s open. But a skilled player can keep moving through the vignettes indefinitely. There is no goal beyond this.

This aspect, and another one (a vignette featuring flying, cartoonish vaginas that caused some debate and stirred a protest within the gaming community) made for a good story. I pitched it to an editor, emphasizing the gender dynamic and body-phobia that exists in the artworld as well the gaming world.

What I wrote had a participatory feel to it, but it did not openly acknowledge my friendship with Del Sol. I had so little space to get the bones of the story across, I opted not to “fully disclose.” This omission was problematic, though I didn’t overthink it until after I’d submitted. I had an agenda in writing this piece. I associated the game with long conversations about how shame around vulnerability – including the vulnerability of sexuality – keeps us from speaking openly about how personal experiences affect our work. I wanted to learn how to narrate that dynamic accessibly. Omitting my own involvement undercut that goal.

***

Recently, over late-night drinks with another writer, I confessed my failure of transparency regarding this feature and a few others. My colleague said she thought writers should adopt a voice that conveys their personal stake, even just in the way it “sounds.” I agreed with her. However, voice is not enough. We should also fully admit to our relationships, so that readers aren’t left peering between the lines, detecting or projecting a bias of their own. Some writers do this quite well (Orit Gat with efficient clarity, Bruce Hainley with his heady flippancy). Or there’s Lippard, who manages to always sound serious even when she’s naming friends. Those who do it best, however (Eileen Myles, Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson), are often deemed “experimental.” Their self-exposing approach veers too close to memoir.

Still, too much criticism is written in the rote way: the critic dictates the situation to the reader who, if not an insider, has little hope of knowing where the writer stands. By sticking to this form, we limit the depth of the conversations we can have about art.

Deep conversations are not easy. As I try again to write about Del Sol’s show, I realize how little I understand about the ways my personal interests blur into my reading of her exhibitions. But it’s worth slogging through. My intimate engagement is what I have to offer readers. It’s where my knowledge, and probably my authority, sources its voice.

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