In Praise of Good Art Writing

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I took this task a bit too seriously.

I read every back issue of every magazine snow-drifting throughout my house, fingering all the books with a 2014 publishing date, jaunting through all the online publications I readily procrastinate with while trying to stick my own words together, deadlines whooshing past. Even as I finish this compilation, I understand the vast territories I’ve overlooked.

In the course of this, I made a list of every vaguely art publication I halfway care about (forty and counting, with hundreds of writers and thousands of articles), and realized that there’s no way I could afford to read them all.

This was going to be about individual essays but I found that I liked many things by the same people. Often times, I fell in love with a writer from a single phrase. Other times it was from a spirit, a joy, a need to speak loudly about what moved them, to witness.

I like writing that transcends its context and makes me feel something. Any great piece of writing can do this, even the humble exhibition review, which, at its best, can be enjoyed on the strength of its own poetry.

Here I emphasize writers who I discovered for myself this year, most of whom I’ve never met, with only a few famous veterans who hit me so hard with a particular work that I can’t stop feeling it. A number of my favorite writers on art: Bruce Hainley, Hilton Als, Chris Kraus, Sarah Thornton, Wayne Koestenbaum, Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer each produced important work this year and each deserve long, heartfelt appreciations. Also, I focused less on things that were important or significantly informative (Ben Davis does an excellent job of that in Artnet News). Lastly, I left out pieces that I personally edited, including a bunch of excellent essays and reviews that came across my desk this year from Sarah Bay Williams, Christina Catherine Martinez, and Lisa Anne Auerbach, to namecheck just a few.

No matter how diligent I was in my reading, I surely missed writing of terrible beauty and profound insight. Please tell me about them. In methodically pouring through so many publications, I felt incredibly grateful for this weird mix of people who make writing about art a practice, who’ve devoted their lives to observe, and make space and advocate for others. But the gang of writers mentioned here is neither complete nor definitive, just a few whose work I really enjoyed reading.

I feel lucky to have read them all. Here is a look back, and a look forward.

Sarah Nicole Prickett

Again and again this year, Sarah Nicole Prickett sucker-punched me with one kind of delight or another. Her recent reports from Miami Beach for Artforum’s Diary (see them here and here) were trenchant, revealing, hilarious, beautifully composed and, in many ways, brave. In them, she exploded as few writers have, in art, the weird genre of the social diary (Bruce Hainley’s piece on the opening of Richard Hawkins retrospective, from a few years back, is another strong example). Along with a smattering of articles in a smattering of publications in addition to the creation of her own magazine, Adult, Sarah’s work has been a singularly exciting new discovery.

Brad Philips

With brute force and surprising sensitivity, the writing of artist Brad Phillips infuriates, titillates, repulses and unexpectedly charms. Writing about sex, literature, art, Phillips pens essays and stories with a weary honesty and desirous hunger. Though sometimes baiting-ly provocative, his voice has a rare and compelling originality.

Dave Hickey

The title essay of his book Pirates and Farmers gave me a new criteria in which to view the world. Alongside his Facebook posts, this past year, written sometimes with the well-earned cantankerousness of a 74-year-old critic, Hickey’s prose, with the shimmy of its words, the bounce of its metaphors, and the stiletto of its intelligence, continues to make him one of the greatest art writers of all time.

Laura McLean-Ferris

You’re an artist and you find yourself at an opening when Francisco de Goya taps you on the shoulder and tells you your opening at Kunstverein Hannover is just about to start. Oh no, you think, maybe you’ve forgotten to install anything. Plus you’ve forgotten to wear any underwear and your coat keeps falling open.

Laura McLean-Ferris writing on Amelie von Wulffen in Frieze/de, May 2014. Just one of many pieces from one of the many texts I thoroughly enjoyed by her.

Quinn Latimer

For several years, Quinn Latimer has been one of my more inspiring colleagues, but in 2014 she published a book with Michel Auder that morphs the retrospective catalogue into a work of literature. The catalogue has for too long been presented with a particularly tired format, usually something that combines the worst qualities of academic prose and the overpriced gift-shop item. Here Quinn beautifully and methodically takes on the intimate oeuvre of this singular artist in a way that I hope becomes a spiritual prototype for a new way of thinking about this kind of book.

John Menick

Though technology and its discontents are probably one of the weirdest and most warping forces in our world – and more specifically, our art – very few writers I’ve read (with the exception of Bruce Sterling) have written on the subject, and its relation to art, with as much skill and brilliance as John Menick. Looking at the confluences of art, technology, science, and speculative futures, his contributions for Mousse (especially his two-piece Stylometry, Part One is online here), over the last year, have been incredible.

PC Smith

In a two-part essay, “Pantheon of the Anteater” (Part 1 and 2) published in Art in America, PC Smith covers a writing course taught by David Salle and through that class goes deeply into what it means to write about art, discussing plainly why certain works of writing are so damned good, and the strange history and tensions that critical theory brought to the field.

Ana Ofak

Los Angeles has long been pursuing the economies of pink, but it has been pursuing a phantom. Pink is a non-existent wavelength of light. We cannot perceive it, but literally imagine it. Its features disclose themselves in every BPA-free bottle of pink coconut water, in Lindsay Lohan’s strawberry blonde tresses starring in The Canyons (2013) – Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis’s “acid-etched horror story” complete with a trailer by Kanye West – or ultimately in every smog-induced sunset spectacle off Santa Monica beach. A little bit like Ed Ruscha’s pastel-on-paper work Another Hollywood Dream Bubble Popped (1976), the economies of pink allow the space of representation, not the pictorial space to rule. About that space of representation, Michel Foucault wrote that it transpires “only on the surface, no more than a polished stone, bearing words and shapes: beneath, nothing […] a gravestone.”

Besides the fact that she writes about two of my favorite subjects – Los Angeles and color – the range of Ana Ofak’s imagery and reference, as well as the deftness with which she pulls these together, truly inspires. This text can be read in full on Art-Agenda.

An Appreciative Litany on Reviewers

Review-writing is a somewhat thankless job. Less well-paid than other kinds of work, rarely read in depth. Even if written with insight and beauty, the life of a review is short, lasting the length of the exhibition it pertains to or the magazines’ shelf-life on the stands. Despite its short, brutish life and length, reviews are the foundation for the whole profession (though for my own work, I might also add the ekphrasis). Thus, reviews are to art writers what the scales are to pianists. They are fundamental to keeping one’s chops up and staying in tune, even if they’re mostly forgotten.

I give the reviewers serious consideration, knowing that outside of their cities and subjects, few people are trying to read their work closely. And besides, reading reviews is also the fastest way to see who of my colleagues, nationally and internationally, are still hitting the pavement, making the rounds, and engaging in the everyday life of their communities. Here’s a few appreciations to reviewers who inspired me this last year.

When Lauren O’Neill-Butler writes, “Foolish, it seems, to not begin with the bowties,” I am destined to read whatever comes next. When Matt Saunders reviews Amy Sillman, he sets out with clear intent to show me why the painter is indispensable, and in unfolding Sillman’s attentive intelligence (dolloped with vulnerability), he reveals his own. Whatever Prudence Peiffer’s writing, she always finds a verb to cut right through the paper and make me feel (keenly, clearly, physically) whatever she’s looking it.

Writing in his own particularly intelligent offshoot of Robert Smithson’s crypto-Marxist mystical prose, Travis Diehl often says those things that few amongst have the bravery to say aloud. My longtime counterpart on the other end of a shared spectrum, Ed Schad writes with a plainspoken clarity and I’m inspired by the depth of his care for art, giving his subjects a closeness of attention and tough love too rarely found. (I actually laughed aloud reading David Rimanelli’s review on de Kooning in Artforum last spring.)

Travis Jeppesen’s reviews from Berlin unfold with an admirable narrative pulse, surging with a darkling energy. Jason Farago’s punchy, thoughtful reviews sometimes land a hit so squarely I wince for its recipient (especially in his altogether perspicacious Guardian review of The Forever Now). Kate Sutton does most of my traveling to far-flung places for me, and captures in her reviews a dreamy dislocation, an explorer that in relaying her visions sometimes doesn’t quite believe what she’s seeing even as she does.

Reviewers of the world keep reviewing, with joy and wit and poetry, seeing those things immediately seen and writing as deadlines allow. Our best conversations start in your hurried musings. I am doing my best to read you all.

Looking Forward

The future is impossible to predict but I do feel a change. It’ll only continue. I think writing about art is going to get better: fleshier, funnier, clearer, smarter. Every year of the last ten, another couple or more writers start publishing that I read with pleasure, affinity, and just a dollop of healthy envy. This year there’ll be more, and those already writing will become bolder.

Provoked by the ideas of critical theory and a back-boning of art history, a generation of writers is coming unmoored from the specificity of those professional languages and disciplined vocabularies. Each is trying to write with an original voice, broadly readable and not just to those with a particular kind of education. Battered for years by the economic shifts in publishing, our community of writers is starting to recover, and grow stronger than before. In art writing, we have clearly begun to measure a writer’s force not purely by the timeliness of their content but by the beauty of their expression. This evolution can only continue.

So, is this going to be the year that all the jargon and cliché slough away?

Hardly.

But it will get better, because of writers like those above and dozens more (unmentioned but not unnoticed) who will keep on.

Art writing can supersede its perceived limitations as commercial journalism and philosophical illustration and grow into great literature, but only if we are brave enough to try.

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