State of the Art Criticism

MJ&D cropped 2015

Artist Margaret Pettee Olsen, art critic for New York Magazine Jerry Saltz and Director of the Clyfford Still Museum Dean Sobel at ‘A Critical Conversation’, Ponti Hall, Denver Art Museum, February 12, 2015

I’ve been away from my blog as I’ve been planning and then moving my studio to a new, much larger space. A flood forced the move, but it turned out to be an excellent one. So I have some catching-you-up to do. Here’s a quick recap of what’s been of note to me outside the studio–albeit kind of late. This February, Roberta Smith, art critic for the New York Times, and Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine, paid a visit to the artists, collectors, curators, dealers and art lovers of the Mile High City to talk about the state of the art of criticism today. The Denver Art Museum’s Ponti Hall at(DAM) provided a venue for the attendees. The Clyfford Still Museum (CSM) sponsored the event. That CSM was able to entice both of these critics out to for a talk was terrific—perhaps a first for Denver.

Speaking as an artist, i.e., one who naturally spends a lot of time in the studio playing this one person sport of painting, I knew I had to go listen and maybe even discuss art with this word-wielding duo. Since Jerry Saltz invited me on my Facebook wall to “stop by and say hello” in person, I made sure to take the trek from my studio way north of uptown Denver to the DAM. Dean Sobel, Executive Director of CSM, opened the evening’s talk, A Critical Conversation, with a quote by Clyfford Still, whose opinion of art critics was, let’s just say, less than glowing. Sobel’s humorous opening remarks called to mind the complicated relationship between critics, artists and the rest of the art world and set the tone for the evening. Jerry Saltz, comic-showman-critic that he is, kept the room thinking about responses to art in a fresh, anti-academic manner which complimented Smith’s unapologetic and focused approach.  Together, their repartee would be the source of dialogue on art that evening, not any preplanned structure. Mr. Sobel did not moderate, there were no cue cards—nothing like that—just two critics with a no-holds-barred, on-the-spot thinking approach to art criticism.

While there was no prescribed format, I did notice that both critics addressed the artists in the audience, asking about how they might fit defining qualities of an artist, from personality profiles to really odd habits such as having a ‘good luck’, sort of fetish object– something to carry wherever one goes. Of course, being an artist is much more than any profile could paint, but I appreciated the direction of the talk: Artists first.  Roberta Smith was upfront in discouraging anyone from choosing the life of an artist unless they absolutely “had to”, and with that, the discussion about the state of criticism and contemporary art began.

I was encouraged to hear that Smith saw painting as a medium very much alive with possibilities today. In her opinion, there were too many artists who were ‘hiding out’ in performance based work. While I have no problem with artists who find good and meaningful direction in ‘social practice’ it was good to hear that her ideas broadly reflected mine regarding the importance of painting today.  I was also pleased that Smith caught my meaning in a question I pitched during the Q&A, “What is next in contemporary art considering how the landscape has changed and our view is one of a layered, multi-faceted, global and information-compressed world–a world where there are many threads of thinking–not just one?” Saltz threw up his hands and exclaimed, “Well, how the hell do we know that?” taking my question, in that moment, at face value, while Smith noodled away at what I was asking—understanding my question demanded stepping back and looking at the direction whole system(s) are moving in now, how art and criticism is changing, and that these changes are altering the very way we see art in context. Near the close of the talk, Smith aligned herself with one attendee who asked if she saw, “important and interesting work happening in many places around the country.” She agreed but added a caveat: “criticism still lives in New York,” she said.

As a onetime New York based artist, I mused a bit more on her comments on criticism in New York, took a few more notes about ideas that occurred to me during the talk, but mainly I tried to listen.  On the way out I thanked Jerry for visiting us far-flung artists, and then I approached Roberta: “Thanks for getting my question.” “It was an important one,” she offered as I packed notes and a sketch into the well-worn black leather bag I’ve carried since I came to New York just out of art school. That satchel’s a well-worn, paint-splattered thing, but I carry it wherever I go.

Now, post flood, panic and studio move, I think about that talk on art criticism, but leave it all at the door  when I walk into the large white studio with cement floors and freshly prepared canvases. I put down a steaming cup of coffee, glance at my black bag in the corner and begin work. Then again, I don’t really have a choice—now do I?

 

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