Bad Reviews

I took a community-college workshop five years ago with Kirk Stoller, an artist whose work I could look at forever. Kirk used carpentry tailings and hardware-store components to make sculptures that don’t seem recycled, found, or any other descriptor that might be applied to an artwork to rationalize its existence. They are just that beautiful, sublime. To me they are gestures, like traces of where someone was. I didn’t know Kirk well but saw him around at City College of San Francisco, where he worked in the continuing-education department. I was semi-enrolled in order to make a series of images in my friend Anthony Ryan’s screen-printing studio, which he built from scratch in a multipurpose classroom in the former Army wharves at Fort Mason. Anthony introduced me to Kirk and told me about the sculpture workshop, and we decided to take it together. After three evening sessions, I came away with two objects that looked like Kirk Stoller knockoffs and one that looked like mine. That one is composed of pieces of wood with rippled or flat edges suspended in Hydrocal that I poured into a mold and then carved and smoothed. The back turned out to be the front. I had not previously assumed I was capable of making a successful sculpture.

The ordinary tasks of being an artist transform relatively inarticulate materials into a fluent object. This fluency may be expressed in an imprecise language with few or infinite words and shifting syntax, and yet the whole idea is for an audience to encounter the object and to hear it.

My neighbor has a garden and keeps a few supplies along the fence. She kept a roll of chicken wire there among her tackle and, during at least a year of observation, I never saw it change. I thought off and on about its wide-open grid and about how I might move it around. I saw a small mouse run from underneath it. I started to think about the wire a lot more, and I wanted it. I imagined buying my own chicken wire and never did. I read about Pablo Picasso picking up garbage that he thought looked like something else and placing one piece on top of another, and I laughed at Pablo. I didn’t tell myself that using found materials would justify my existence. I can’t explain the significance of the wire beyond saying that I wanted the material that generated the thought. The process of transforming materials involves many banalities. These banalities enmesh the artist with their environment and with other people. The extent to which artists are in conversation with the past and the future is important, but less literal. The literal elements are romantic enough in that they open up a privileged kind of access to important banalities.


New York doesn’t seem like a healthy environment for an artist. For many years, critics have been attending all of your openings and calling them banal. This is something I noticed while reading Bad Reviews, the pretext for this essay, a scrapbook of art reviews collected by artist Aleksandra Mir and curator (and former Artforum editor) Tim Griffin between 2015 and its publication in 2022. During a studio visit, Mir and her former teacher Marilyn Minter reminisced about bad reviews they had received and that they cherished. They perceived a decline in the practice of negative criticism, and Mir decided on the spot to make a book. Each invited her friends, and then friends of friends, to contribute, which eventually yielded ephemera from 150 artist-contributors. Most of the action takes place in New York, although there is one entry local to me, in which a writer from World Socialist Web Site visits the Diego Rivera mural at the San Francisco Art Institute and is disturbed to find a companion installation by Alejandro Almanza Pereda partially blocking it.

Any photos that originally accompanied these newspaper and magazine clippings, and later screenshots, were excised. There is no contextual information aside from basic bibliographic details, the book’s chronology, and editorial statements by Mir and Griffin. The significance of each review to the artist is also obscured, because although the participants selected their reviews, Mir states that she “didn’t ask, and most didn’t explain” why they sent what they did, or in what sense they felt each review was bad. One hint appears in the acknowledgments, where Robert Longo, in a recollection to the editors, says of Roberta Smith: “Her review single-handedly derailed my life . . . I perversely respect her for it.” These editorial decisions have the effect of disembodying the criticism from the art. I can see why all of it would have felt significant to the artists, but it was difficult for me to extract from the collection more than a sense of the critics’ repeating forms: generational shifts not understood; art-making modes too unfamiliar or messy; results too disposable to be considered fine art.

I did notice that the book recapitulates the perceived insularity of an art world that bases itself on who you know and who your friends are, and is not meant to be understood or even witnessed by outsiders. The book is not for sale to the public; it has been distributed back to the contributors and otherwise placed in institutional collections. The web of relationships is the organizing logic, and I think this produces an honest book, but it doesn’t encourage a narrative among the critics or describe to a present-day reader the vitality of bygone art-critical environments.

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I suspect Bad Reviews was not meant to be read from cover to cover as I did. This is not to say I didn’t get anything out of doing it wrong—I got an extended panic attack about my career, for one thing—but for the most part, I didn’t recognize the ecosystem. There are artists upon artists upon artists in this world. Some of us are seen by institutions, and some of us are not. All of us have skills we picked up from someone, in a formal setting or not. We can be habitual. We have been looking at art since we were children. We have jobs and people to take care of. We pay attention to what’s going on in other places and show our friends pictures of work that reminds us of theirs. We do research that feels like an obsession. We collaborate with writers and musicians and relate to their ideas. We invite everyone we know. All of us have a process and a result and an afterlife of unknown scope and duration. All art is local, formed as it is out of an artist’s milieu, and this is how it can be understood to begin with. But individual artists are points of contact between overlapping groups in conversation with each other, and I think this broader confluence is part of what critics make real, because they see it and can explain it.

The fluency of an artwork is sussed out in the interplay between the artist and the audience, all of whom operate in an ecology of looking that has no firm boundaries between experiencing art and the rest of life. The object represents an artist’s idea, and a critic represents the object’s audience and frames one of many possible responses to it. At least that’s how it can be. Financialization is another intermediary figure, usually present even if understated, that injects mystification into the processes of making and describing work so that it can be valued well beyond the sum of its raw materials and labor. If negative art reviews are on the wane, maybe it has to do with an art economy that accepts this economic mystification as a given. As Griffin points out, “To review negatively in a networked age risks courting the limits of one’s own employability.” All the more reason to appreciate criticism freely given, on social media and in private, where it occurs in abundance. I think it’s a good time to be a critic because there’s a lot to criticize.


Spread from Bad Reviews. Photograph by Elisabeth Nicula.

The perverse emotional center of Bad Reviews is Arlene Croce’s New Yorker essay “Discussing the Undiscussable,” about her refusal to attend Bill T. Jones’s 1994 multidisciplinary dance performance Still/Here, which incorporated videos of people talking about their experiences of terminal illness. I wasn’t aware of the review before reading the book but knew immediately that it was infamous. In 2023, it would be called clickbait, and I was surprised by my belated realization that this type of writing predated the social internet. It is in every way offensive. Croce’s argument is that art with performers who are dying isn’t worth seeing because it cannot be transcendent, and that such work is weaponized against criticism like a human shield, which kills the critic and threatens the audience (“The critic is part of the audience for art that victimhood also threatens”). As an act of malpractice, it’s a powerful one, because in her bias and confusion she doesn’t realize that in dying, we are all at some point the performer and the audience. In reading Croce’s essay, I came to feel that transcendence is another type of mystification that places art outside the realm of human biological and social activity.

Croce, who sat on a National Endowment for the Arts panel in the 1970s, places some of the blame for what she calls the trend in “victim art” on “government and private-funding agencies” that have “in recent years demonstrated a blatant bias for utilitarian art—art that justifies the bureaucracy’s existence by being socially useful.” Usefulness is in the eye of the beholder, not that Croce did any beholding, and I am having trouble thinking of art that isn’t somehow socially useful. Typing this, I feel like a gigantic mark; I thought an aspect of performance is that it is socially literal, inasmuch as it’s a direct exchange between collaborating artists and their audience. It can’t be collected so it doesn’t need to be valuable in some other way.

Croce compares Still/Here unfavorably to another artwork about death, the AIDS Memorial Quilt (“a pathetic lumping together”). I happened to see the quilt when it was on display in a field at Golden Gate Park in June 2022. Readers provided narration about their loved ones over the PA system while I skulked around and cried. The panels might be described as amateurish because they are folk art, borne of crisis and clarity. This was the first opportunity I had since COVID-19 hit to do quite a lot of mourning, and I felt situated in a reality of loss that the pandemic’s political expediencies have obscured. There’s a lovely passage earlier in Bad Reviews where critic Arthur C. Danto, initially writing in The Nation, can’t bring himself to appreciate David Salle’s 1987 exhibition at the Whitney: “I clearly dislike Salle’s work, but I admire someone who reveals the limits of the world in which my likes and dislikes can have some critical justification. There is more than one way for art to be a mirror.” Transcendence implies a letting go—of ordinary pain, of common assumptions, and of hidebound aesthetic sensibilities. Art that challenges taste by reflecting an unpleasant truth can transcend as well as art of the sublime does.


Later in Bad Reviews, Roberta Smith’s New York Times article “Gaining a Voice and an Identity in Minimalism,” about Roni Horn’s 2009 exhibition at the Whitney, is the selection in the book that eventually cut through the estrangement I was feeling from all this contextless art writing. Whereas Croce seems to have seen her role as critic as a matter of taste-making, Smith is there in the audience, prepared to translate the fluent object. Through her understanding of this show, she explains how artists and audiences collaborate (“Ms. Horn has always had a lot to say about what her work means and how it is to be viewed, and some of it is quite interesting, but artists don’t own the meaning of their artworks”); what art can do (“Ms. Horn has also contributed to Conceptual Art’s influential fusion of text and image, and thus the experiences of reading and looking. . . . The experience of reading Ms. Horn’s meandering thoughts on water, photography, color and so on enables you to better hear your own”); and what is left to the professional audience to explain (“The downside of [Horn’s extensive writing about her work in the exhibition catalogue] is that no one makes a concise case for her art: for its debts to previous artists, for its originality and for its place among the work of her contemporaries. Things like this need to be sorted out.”) I felt relief when I read all this. I resent writing artist statements—a ridiculous aspect of the art-application economy that I can’t imagine Pablo bothering to participate in. When I make an object that isn’t fluent, or isn’t received how I intended it to be—which has happened many times!—I prefer to accept that I am not supposed to be the flower and the bee. Through her criticism, Smith makes a communal argument for art-making and looking.

I moved out of my studio in 2020 and only recently moved back in. My new studio mate Heidi McDowell trained and worked as an architect before becoming a painter. I told her about the chicken wire, and she told me about making models and about a bag of fabric scraps, and I told her about the sculpture workshop. We decided to give ourselves a week to stop doing our normal work and make sculptures. I asked my neighbor for the chicken wire, and she let me have it, of course. I texted Anthony because I had forgotten what Hydrocal is called and asked where Kirk bought it.

I think there are times when I have misunderstood what my own artwork is, partly because it’s not always clear to me what parts of my life are my work. For example, the many tens of thousands of photos I took of a scrub jay in my backyard seemed to me like passing time, and derailed what I considered to be my real project, but I have heard that these images are legible as art to other people. Most of my activities have leaky boundaries. “Looking at art” and “making art” and “living in San Francisco” and “looking out the window” and “gossiping with friends” and “recoiling from someone’s Instagram post” and “thinking about chicken wire” are all aspects of the same thing to me, and hard to tease out alone. Better to be part of an ecosystem that can make sense of these entanglements.

Elisabeth Nicula, “Frank, November 7, 2017.” Courtesy the artist.

What if art and its environs sounded like a cicada eruption, buzzing with the stored-up frustration and excitement of trying to understand and communicate, tending a sense of place and nurturing a vision for the future, and reaching outward until one chorus contacts another and their frequencies adjust and merge? What if everyone could be a part of this? Wouldn’t that be useful to drown out some other noise?

Heidi and I began our week with a trip to the casting-supply store, which is in a part of the city that has tech offices, automotive specialists, and ramps to the highway. It was raining and the outside looked like a shed and the inside had none of the extra stuff art-supply stores stock near the register, like fruit-shaped erasers, botanical wrapping papers, or Frida-covered notebooks. The most recent flyer on the wall was from the 1990s. There was a young guy in a back brace for lifting, and he had a whole different take on art materials than we did, being more concerned with encasing our sculptures in polyurethane and other optimizations for frequent handling (at Burning Man?) than with our questions of surface and colorfastness, but we got what we came for, plus some other kind of wire. I also got Kelly green–powdered pigment that I did not need. I loved it there and hope the guy doesn’t see this so I can go back. I could know about the plaster store only by needing plaster. Being an artist is a good job for people who enjoy the banal.


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  • Thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I’m in awe of the banality of plaster and chicken wire too. Thank-you Momus and Elisabeth – a great read to start my morning on the Prairies.

  • Andy Patton says:

    What a writer Elisabeth Nicula is. It’s so fascinating to read along and follow her mind where it wanders: a wonderful journey among bad reviews, art criticism, wondering about chicken wire and just generally noodling about.

  • Todd Berman says:

    I really appreciate the questioning around “what parts of my life are my work.” Thank you for these thoughts.

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