BY Taylor Dafoe in Opinion | 28 MAR 24

A Few Thoughts on Roberta Smith

After 32 years at The New York Times, the famed art critic leaves behind a literary form that she helped usher into a new millennium 

BY Taylor Dafoe in Opinion | 28 MAR 24

I’ve never known an art world in which Roberta Smith wasn’t broadly – anecdotally – considered to be the doyen of working critics. My own writing career began shortly after she was named co-chief art critic at the New York Times (the first woman to hold the title) in 2011, and, even then her pre-eminence seemed almost boringly uncontested. In 2019 her peers agreed, voting her the country’s ‘most influential’ art critic by a wide margin. (The five writers ranked below her were all men; three have Pulitzers.) By the time she announced her retirement from the Times last week, nothing had changed: Smith’s reputation appeared unimpeachable.

And yet, her reputation has come to have an ironic consequence. Smith’s status has cast an aura around her in recent years, insulating her work from the kind of active engagement that catalyses good criticism, makes it feel dynamic and alive. But that’s not a Roberta Smith problem.

Portrait of Roberta Smith. Courtesy: The New York Times 

Smith is an observationalist – she tends to look in to look out. That she gleaned real insight from Damien Hirst’s ‘Spot Paintings’ (1986-2011) remains a remarkable testament to the potency of her method: ‘The relentless evenness of formula and technique reflects Mr. Hirst’s stated desire to make paintings that seem to have been made by a machine’, she wrote in a 2012 review. ‘Yet what’s striking is the unevenness, the variations of touch and finish, and the way that even within their narrow confines the spot paintings do the usual Hirst thing: that is, they range from good to atrocious.’

This strategy has, at times, thrown her off beat from the brand of wide-angled, out-to-in criticism that’s become de rigueur. When Smith weighed in on the controversy around Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016) painting of Emmett Till in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, she did so through a rather strict art historical lens, then came to a circumspect conclusion about the autonomy of images and the responsibilities facing their creators: ‘Artists don’t ask permission’, she reasoned. 

You could call this kind of close-eyed approach near-sighted or argue that Smith buffers against a certain level of scrutiny by establishing a tight loop in which to operate. It’s true that this style of criticism has fallen out of fashion, but her earnest commitment to it keeps her version from feeling moribund. She wants to commune with art so we can too, and the swift elegance with which she goes about it only makes our job easier. She demands of her writing what she demands of the art she’s reviewing: for it to insist on our attention. 

Recently, a colleague of mine called Smith the ‘standard bearer’ among critics. I thought that description was dead-on – a kind of double entendre that speaks to both the accomplishment that is consistent excellence and the burden that comes with it: you have to be excellent consistently. The more reliable your work the more it can disappear, in a way. You set the bar and eventually people start seeing you as the bar. Smith is also in the unique position of having the opposite problem, too. Because she represents The Times – a 2011 illustration by artist William Powhida jokingly called her a ‘Living Embodiment of the Grey Lady’ – people misdirect onto her work a generalized frustration with the status quo. She is not the bad part about the status quo.

William Powhida, An Incomplete and Biased Guide to Some Critics, 2011, coloured pencil, graphite, and watercolour on paper, 51 × 38 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Compared to other prominent critics of her generation, Smith resists easy characterization. She prefers nuance over polemics. Her body of work is deep but contained, and the extratextual evidence is spare. There is no big book, no manifesto, no overarching idea that we can point to and say: ‘That’s what her project was all about.’ But her signatures aren’t the out-loud kind. To fully appreciate her work requires a thorough, Roberta Smith-like engagement with it. 

Smith has not always sought the spotlight, and it’s a matter of fact that she has not been rewarded like her male peers. (She has still never been nominated for a Pulitzer!) I feel grateful to have entered the art world during a time when the ‘most influential’ critic was a woman of real grace and principle. Let us put in the work to appreciate the work she’s put in for us. 

Main image: Copies of the New York Times sit for sale in a rack, 2008. Courtesy: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Taylor Dafoe is a writer and photographer based in New York. His work has appeared in BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Cultured, Interview, and Modern Painters, among others.