BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 07 JUN 06
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Issue 100

A Desk Job

Criticism is the chance to start a conversation about things that matter

BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 07 JUN 06

I have been doing this for more than a quarter century – almost half my life. Sobering thought! And as usual I have done it as I am now – in off hours. When I was younger, writing was a way to burn off steam after coming home from forays into the art world, flush with the heat of arguments at gallery openings, dinners and bars. When our daughters were born, I shifted to the early morning, my favourite part of day since I sold the Sunday New York Times in Chicago as a teenager. Life takes up most of the rest, but writing, hard as it is, is ‘time out’ – an interval when the flow of thought and the cadences of words set the clock.

The first piece of ‘New York’ criticism I wrote was a letter to the Editor of the Village Voice protesting at critic Peter Schjeldahl’s appraisal of the 1980 Philip Guston retrospective. Despite the complaints I lodged against him, this earned me the friendship of the best stylist in town as well as his introduction to the most generous of editors, Betsy Baker, who gave me my first regular access to print at Art in America. She also gave me the scrupulous editing I needed to tame a youthful haste in stating my ideas before fully describing the work that had set my mind in motion. This journeyman phase lasted several years before the next set of doors – to catalogues, lectures and other magazines – opened. In short, before writing supplanted sheet-rocking and art handling and I became ‘professional’.

Prior to all of this was the period – late 1960s to late 1970s – during which I travelled to New York every six months to make the rounds of galleries, museums and parties in the company of a woman of the world. A distant relative my Auntie Mame had been a friend of Gertrude Stein’s and one of the privileged but independent spirits who fostered international Modernism in America in the 1930s and ’40s. The ‘exams’ I took for the art history lessons she taught were letters of thanks reporting on all she introduced me to, from Paul Cézanne to Robert Ryman, Pablo Picasso to Anthony Caro, Joaquin Torres-Garcia to Eva Hesse. Add stints as a mural assistant to artists as different as David Alfaro Siqueiros and Dorothea Rockburne, plus my own struggles in the studio, and my apprenticeship was complete.

It may help to explain how I approach art writing. In all that has been said in the last decades about ‘the subject’ and its contingency and about artistic ‘aura’ and its loss, it is striking to me that we so seldom learn anything about the author of such theories or their personal experiences of the world or the works they choose to analyse. At any rate, seldom do we learn it from the author him- or herself. Rather, in the age where the ‘universal’ has supposedly been deconstructed, the reader is nevertheless most often addressed in a neutral – shall we call it post-Structuralist? – though often mannered voice that implies that what is being said is categorically true without the speaker revealing much of his or her actual experience as opposed to schematically acknowledging the variable experiences of the reader.

In a dyspeptic one-liner of the 1980s, Schjeldahl cracked: ‘A text is a slab written by nobody, to be read by nobody.’ If that sounds glib, don’t forget that the author of the The Pleasure of the Text said, ‘The text you write must prove that it desires me’. Expressions of desire are inseparable from expressions of vulnerability. In turn, they are acknowledgements of the needs and limitations of the writer. (In Barthes’ formulation we read to be seduced by an ‘other’ consciousness, write in order to cruise, negotiate and become intimate with an ‘other’ sensibility.) And when one says, as Baudelaire does, that criticism ‘must be partial, passionate and political’, the term ‘partial’ not only signifies partisanship but also avows a lack of omniscience coupled with the unapologetic assertion of the right to make judgments in one’s own name, based on one’s own necessarily incomplete perspective.

So, doubling back on my ‘sentimental education’, when I write, it is always to someone – like the letters I sent to my art world mentor – though that someone remains unidentified and may be unknown to me except as the longed-for interlocutor. When I write, I always describe in detail what I have seen, not only to be fair to its creator or to provide the reader grounds for trusting my opinion, but also in the hope that he or she may find pleasure or pain where I do and reason, therefore, to spend time with me. When I write, I usually avoid the first person yet try hard to let the reader understand that embedded within the text is a personality that takes very little about itself for granted, and is constantly being reminded of identity’s flux by its responsiveness to disparate artistic forms and temperaments. Sorting through this variety, judgments are made, but on no authority other than that of an alert, improvising intelligence and an avid but exigent appetite. Never do I desire to have the last word, only the chance to start a conversation about things that matter with anyone possessing a reciprocal hunger for images and ideas. Criticism is the unprotected exchange of mental fluids.

Robert Storr is a critic and curator.