How To Write a Review

Henriette Browne, "A Girl Writing," 1874.

Go see an exhibition at a museum, a gallery, a studio. See a show skywritten above the arroyo, tucked under a bridge, in virtual reality. See it dangling over a river or in the pool on the rooftop of a downtown hotel. See it in a medieval cistern, a crumbling palazzo, a five-car garage. Look through a hole in an old shed, past a rusty chain-link fence in a parking lot, in the back of a box truck. Drive out to the nuclear bunker or the mountaintop observatory; peer in the art dealer’s ear or at the alt-space proprietor’s tattooed arm. Go to the cemetery at night, to the apartment building window at noon, to the desert crossroads at twilight. Go anytime you want, the gallery’s always closed or it’s always open as a conceptual gesture. The exhibition is a piano bar, a stack of cellophaned photocopies, a couple of jugglers smashing hundreds of plates in a haunted mansion. When you have to take off your clothes to enter the disco-mirrored, egg-shaped steam room steeped in perfume and strange music, do so without hesitation. Bring sturdy shoes, a coat, a bottle of water. Before leaving the house, stuff a loose book of poetry in your bag; sometimes you forget the force of language.

You might have a cold or flu, harrowing cramps or defeating depression. You might have a bacterial infection or existential malaise. If every joint in your body aches and you’re not sure you can go on, go anyway. Your father died last week and your car’s in the shop and the shadows are closing in: just go. Sometimes you’ll have to sneak in. Don’t worry, they’ll only rarely throw you out. Near the entrance you might see your lover smooching another under a shaded tree. You will want to turn around and weep elsewhere, but don’t. However, if there are drinks available, you’re permitted as many as you need to carry on. Being present is essential.

After you’ve had a look, write what you saw down – on a battered laptop, with a pencil on the back of the press release, a ballpoint pen on the inside of your arm, the words hieroglyphing up your skin with smeary ink. Dictate your thoughts into a cellphone in the bathroom of a dance club, through the roar of the motor on the water taxi in the lagoon, in your rattling car on the long, lonesome drive home. Type it up on the train out of town, on the flight to the next exhibition. Write it under your blanket, by candlelight, in your bathtub. Scribble it on yellow legal pads during your ten-minute break and half-hour lunch, or in your head as you pour coffee or wait tables, answer sales inquiries or file legal paperwork. If you have this other job that you’d rather not have, steal as much time as possible to write. This is the subsidy for the arts they ought to be paying.

It’s only three-hundred words, or five-hundred words, or a thousand – or it’s unlimited because you’re not being paid, so it doesn’t really matter. Or perhaps there’s $50 or $100 or maybe $250 in this for you. They’ll pay you next month, maybe next year, sometimes never at all. You might write two or three reviews a week in publications from Beijing to Milan, Buenos Aires to Winnipeg. When they’re translated into Mandarin and Spanish, Italian and Arabic, you feel a thrill but always wonder what was published (sometimes discovering through an online translator that it’s been changed in ways that radically alter your position). Sigh, maybe complain, perhaps quit that gig, but always move to the next.

Often it feels like only the artist and their dealer read the review, sometimes not even them. (Though rarely to be sure, they are sometimes eagerly inhaled, changing the fortunes of those under scrutiny.) When a young artist tells you with beery breath that she doesn’t read reviews and didn’t read yours, you wince but try not to take it personally. The line on the artist’s CV only states that their work was written about, but not what was said. It’s actually quite easy for the gallery to leave those photocopied reviews out of the blue plastic binder on the front desk. Like many other jobs in art, review-writing is a mostly thankless and underpaid task – but you keep going anyway.  

You write reviews because the community needs them: to provoke the conversation to go deeper, to consider something seriously and offer that to others, for the temporary exhibition to be found in permanent print, for the experience of art to travel to those who will never see it. You wished to see that retrospective in New York, that group show in Tokyo, that performance in New Delhi, but you couldn’t and JPGS don’t cut it. You hope that the writers in those cities kept their eyes open, went to difficult places, and wrote truthfully of what it meant for their bodies to be there.

Sometimes you’ll turn in long pieces without mentioning the artist’s name beyond the headline; your experience of their work didn’t necessarily require it – that clear endorsement, that literal statement of facts. You write this hard, journalistic prose for some exhibitions and an ethereal poetic fiction for others. You get away with what you can, which sometimes isn’t much. There’s pressure always to write a thumbs up or thumbs down, to use the platform for an ideology, to placate or pander.

You’re not sure about this word “critic,” but you remind yourself that you have an important role (more important, at least, than what’s suggested by your pay). You, with this review you’re writing, are a fundamental point of mediation between aesthetics and the market. You help prevent art from descending into pure investment. And maybe the investors of the world may always treat art this way: disappearing it into crates stacked at warehouses next to airports, to languish unseen for years, perhaps forever. But you, reviewer, whatever the fate of these collected objects, you marked into record their passage in this world.

And what exactly do you write in your review?

You write what you see, you write what can’t be seen, you write what you wished you might see. You do not wish to describe, really, or theorize, but simply to witness: to be a body that experienced a thing and lived to tell of it to others. You want everything in life, especially art, to feel like more than just another product in an elegant shop: to be something worthy of poetry.


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