Art Writing and the Place of the “I”

Randy Kennedy

  What is the place of subjectivity in contemporary art criticism? “Since 1960: Contemporary Art and The Stakes of Criticism,” a two-day symposium hosted by the department of Theory and History of Art and Design in October, gathered professionals in the field to ponder and push this question. The event was held in honor of longtime New Yorker writer and art critic Calvin Tomkins and his recent donation of his art books to the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, Rhode Island. Panelists included artist Moyra Davey, New York Times co-chief art critic Roberta Smith, and Randy Kennedy, whose introduction provided insights into “the place of the self” vis-à-vis not only art writing but the art world as well, as it transforms over time. Thank you to Kennedy for allowing v.1 to share his remarks, which have been slightly edited and condensed for publication.

“Since 1960: Contemporary Art and The Stakes of Criticism,” RISD Museum, October 26, 2018; left to right: Richard Shiff, Randy Kennedy, Leora Maltz-Leca, Roberta Smith, Massimiliano Gioni. Photo: Jennifer Liese

I started writing professionally about art full-time at the age of 37, after working for The New York Times first as a copyboy, then as a clerk, then, for a decade, as a city reporter. It was a lucky accident to be in the right place, known to the right editor, to be able to raise my hand one day and say, “I really love art. I know a few things about some of it. I’d like to write about it. I don’t think I’ll embarrass you.”

Beginning one’s art education in the city in the 1990s was both momentous and absolutely bewildering, a whipsaw between what had begun in the ’80s—the rise of the market and (after its brief time-out) of painting—set against the tumultuous backdrop of AIDS and so-called identity politics and the roots of what has come to be the Right’s stranglehold on American politics. My first Whitney Biennial was the 1993 show, which seems more prescient every day. (Roberta Smith, pretty much alone among critics then, called it a watershed, though she also said its alternate title could have been the “Reading While Standing Up” biennial.) It was the first time I’d ever seen Robert Gober or Lorna Simpson or Ida Applebroog or Nan Goldin or Jimmie Durham, and I was seeing them alongside people wearing Daniel Joseph Martinez’s colorful metal buttons emblazoned with their firebrand mantra: “I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting to be White.” I knew I had a lot to figure out.

Often, I was seeing art in the company of my brother-in-law, the artist Larry Krone, who has a piece up now in Repair and Design Futures, the astute show at the RISD Museum about the political and social power of mending. Larry was taking me to places where he showed, where his friends were, vital places I might have been too intimidated to explore on my own: Exit Art, PS 122, the Kitchen, PS1, the Gramercy Art Fair when it was still in the funky old Gramercy Park Hotel and the people showed art on toilet tanks in the bathrooms.

As a news reporter covering the city, my articles were written in a news voice, or what was back then certainly the news voice at The New York Times: the reporter as what philosophers call an “ideal observer,” present and all-seeing but dissolved individually in the solution of the writing. At the same time, I was reading art criticism and reporting that was profoundly individual in tone, in multifarious ways: Roberta and Calvin Tomkins and Holland Cotter, Jerry Saltz and Peter Schjeldahl and Michael Kimmelman and Robert Hughes. I was also hunting down older pieces by John Russell, Irving Sandler, Bill Berkson, Dore Ashton, Edwin Denby, John Ashbery, and Frank O’Hara, as well as reading Artforum, ArtNews and The New York Review of Books.

I always found myself trying to get a feel for a writer’s intensely subjective experience of his or her own time, even if the writer had worked hard to sublimate it. I’m sure the need arose because I was trying to gain a sense of my experience of my own time, while feeling constantly at sea. (There’s a great line in Joan Didion’s book South and West: “I am trying to place myself in history. I have been looking all my life for history and have yet to find it.”)

You could ask, “Does the writer’s own history and sense of it matter that much in the long run, in what we continue to go back to and read about art and art history, what “stays news,” as Ezra Pound put it? For that matter, does the artist’s own history and sense of it matter apart from the work? For me as a writer, reader, and art lover, it always has. I say this despite the fact that the foregrounded presence of the writer’s self can sometimes be as much a fiction—a bad one—as the fiction of writing that approaches art from the other side, from the model of dispassionate analysis set by the social sciences in the late 19th century, whose influence on art criticism may have reached its nadir in the 1990s. In this context, I often think of a wry observation by Dave Hickey, whose own foregrounding of self can occasionally be bad fiction but whose work I love nonetheless. In his 2013 collection of essays Pirates and Farmers, Hickey writes, “Unfortunately, art is not a liberal art. It does not constitute a body of knowledge in any traditional sense. It has scrap heaps of theories and oodles of information but no true proof, internal confirmation, dictionary or stable contextual reference.” To that I say: Amen and hallelujah.

This is not an indirect way of saying that poets write more meaningfully about art than academics. But poets are often the people who have spent the most time with artists, in their studios, watching them work, drinking with them, sleeping with them, inspiring them and feuding with them, so they bring a lot of disparate information to the table, in addition to a strong sense of place and a general lack of dogmatism. What Edwin Denby wrote about art—collected in his wonderfully titled 1965 book Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets—has never been simply anecdotal to me. Of the 1930s, he said: “The part I knew I saw as a neighbor. I met Willem de Kooning on the fire escape, because a black kitten lost in the rain cried at my fire door, and after the rain it turned out to be his kitten. He was painting on a dark eight-foot high picture that had sweeps of black across it and a big look.” That’s a brilliantly compact prose poem about the feel of New York, about the size and composition of its art world at the time, and about Denby’s conception of how best to represent that history.

At The Times I was an art reporter, not a critic, though that distinction is not as definitive as it would be between a political reporter and an editorial-page writer. By the time I’d been writing about art for a decade, I think my decision to write about an artist or show or curator signaled both my own interest and the newspaper’s sense of the importance of the subject. I began to feel that readers wanted me to communicate not only what other people thought about a subject but what I thought about it, too. This wasn’t something that came easily—I’m an introvert by nature. But the chief intellectual joy of the job, which I wanted to convey in plainly personal terms, was the time I got to spend with and talking to curators, historians, and artists, even—maybe especially—artists who actively resisted the inclusion of self in the conception of their work, or at least fiercely opposed loose prattle about meaning: artists like Hans Haacke, John Wesley, Bruce Nauman, Isa Genzken, and John Chamberlain, who once complained, “Everyone always wanted to know what it meant, you know: ‘What does it mean, jellybean?’ Even if I knew, I could only know what I thought it meant.”

As a writer, I began to get a sense of where the “I” fit in my writing and why. I studied writers like Tomkins, who did it so effortlessly, without pointing to themselves except in the context of what felt like solid reportage, a mutual humanistic inquiry with the reader. Bill Berkson said all great art writing “proceeds, by stumbles and veers, along the lines of articulated sensation, cultivating a shifting horde of passions, tolerances, fascinations, glees and disgusts that mark the temporary side effect of what keeps promising to be a civilized habit.” The thought of passion for art—and that passion in art writing—as a habit that never quite succeeds in making itself respectable strikes me as absolutely right.

To wrap up, I’ll mention a kind of back formation that has helped me understand conceptually—philosophically, maybe—why I’m drawn to art writing with a heavy foregrounding of self. This comes by way of Louis Menand’s 2001 book The Metaphysical Club, his quartet biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Dewey, Charles Sanders Pierce, and Williams James and their roles in the development of the first truly American school of philosophy, pragmatism. Menand wrote of the four thinkers: “They believed that ideas are produced not by individuals but by groups of individuals—that ideas are social. They believed that ideas do not develop according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like germs, on their human carriers and the environment.” In my 40s, this insistence that meaning and truth were social creations, that what really mattered was conversation, experience, time, and proximity—being there, in other words, with other people—reoriented my thinking in a profound way. It opened up my thinking about how to write. And it helped me see why writing that brought in the writer, along with the anecdotal, the incidental, the particular, and the narrative—all those things that make up what Eudora Welty beautifully called “the grain of the present”—felt and still feels so alive.

Randy Kennedy is director of special projects at Hauser & Wirth. His novel Presidio was published by Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster in 2018.