Tuesday, 8 July 2008


As a coda to recent debates on art criticism, what follows is a selection of books highlighting a range of art writing practices. As recent posts here have outlined, I'm interested in critical writing where individual articles and essays are part of a broader project, and each of the following titles can be read as a different response to that idea: be it through the editing of articles to form a novel of social and artistic manners; the desire to explore a certain configuration of the political and the aesthetic; or the practical need to earn money by piecemeal journalism.

As I began to think about what books I would include I came across the discussion of criticism in the June 2008 issue of Texte Zur Kunst, which - writing of the legacy of the journal's founder, Stefan Germer - outlines the kind of writing reflected in different ways in all of the books listed below:

[A style of writing which is] ambitiously extending into social theory and then bringing the issues down to a few pointed hypotheses; meeting academic standards and the criteria of journalism. They [Germer's writings] seemed to present an almost ideal fusion of the heritage of Critical Theory and more recent intellectual currents with the subjective voice of "New Journalism." (122)

All of which can seem a bit programmatic quoted out of context. But the four books below offer a primer as to how such an approach can lead to rich, engaged critical writing:

Alan Gilbert, Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight (Wesleyan Univeristy Press, 2006)

Gilbert's book is one of the few that connects trends in contemporary poetry with investigations in the art world. In poetry this means following a line from Williams and Olson, through the engagements of Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, into younger writers such as Mark Nowak and C.S.Giscombe. This is juxtaposed with considerations of art world figures such as Waalid Raad, Martha Rosler, and Andrea Gursky, with American-nods back to Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and the folk song collector Harry Smith.

A useful over view of Gilbert's concerns is the essay "Form and Culture" which explores four thesis - all art is site specific; all cultures are hybrid; different works of art have different effects in different contexts; form is never more than an extension of culture - through a range of broadly-conceived documentary practice. As the choice of poets and artists indicates, Gilbert is attracted to work that explores the social through a concern with representation, embodying an attitude of "hope" and "resistance", which also serves to outline the ambitions and contexts of his own criticism:

Perhaps by hope one means something more like resistance; and not the grim stone-faced image one usually associates with this idea... but resistance as creative act, as tactics imaginatively employed on a daily, local, and global basis (with the knowledge that when the effects of globalization reside everywhere, local activities have global ramifications, and vice versa). Not a resistance of the imagination, but an imaginative resistance. A resistance that is as fluid and ubiquitous as power. And most importantly, a resistance in dialogue with the creative forms used by other individuals and communities. There's obviously a strong need for mass based movements with broad social visions (as recent anti-globalization and anti-war demonstrations illustrate); but these movements will more and more resemble gatherings of collective and discrete singularities, configured in a manner that will survive only if rooted in mutual respect and dialogue. (8)

Chris Kraus, Video Green: Los Angeles Art and The Triumph of Nothingness (Semiotext(e), 2004)

As Kraus herself observes: "These essays were written over several years after moving to LA from New York City. Teaching at the Art Center College of Deisgn, I was fortunate to be at the center of an expanding local art scene that, during the mid 1990s, was fast becoming international. Finding it impossible to separate the careers and works of individual artists from the politics and values of the art world at large, I was trying, in these pieces, to understand it." (9)

Thus many of the essays that follow chart associative paths through art schools, and galleries, formalist analysis and gossip. But if the associative is one way to understand Kraus' approach to art writing, it's also important how she always seeks to put things, almost sculpturally, into relief - be it her emphasis on the different ages and generations amongst artists, or where art history is figured as, in part, personal biography: of people met, talked to, slept with.

If this happens in individual pieces, it also happens in the book as a whole, and constitutes the books critical project. Kraus' juxtaposition of the landscape of LA, its art world and her own explorations of sado-masochism, show how her writing attempts to animate its subject by placing it within a charged, contradictory, and always potentially dialogic context:

Los Angeles, sometime in the the late 1990's; I've been living here a year or two, and the landscape is an empty screen of white sky days. There's nothing here except for what you're able to project on to it. No information, stimulation. No digression. No references, associations, promises and so your own reality expands to fill the day. And this is freedom. Driving from the GlenFed bank to FedEx to the library to the type designer out in Pasadena, I have become an independent contractor of my own consciousness. There is no social web here, only single units, and 1 is more efficient. Los Angeles is a triumph of the New Age.

The only experience that comes close to the totalizing effect of theater now is sadomasochism. "It's so - theatrical," is about the worst thing you can say about anybody's work in the contemporary art world. Theatricality implies an embarrassing excess of presence, i.e, of sentiment. Because it's more advisable to be everywhere than somewhere, we like it better when the work is cool. And so S/m emerges as the most utopian effect of diaspora, because anyone who wants to can consent to play. Contained within itself, S/m does not rely on urbanist associative meaning-threads that were once described as "chemistry." It's portable, it's emotionally high-tech: the most time-efficient method of creating context and complicity between highly mobile units. (85)

Bob Nickas, Theft is Vision (JRP Ringier & Les Presses Du Reel, 2008)

After Saul Anton's Warhol's Dream, Nickas' volume of essays is the second in JRP Ringier's excellent Documents series. Nickas brings together a range of essays written between 1995 and the present, arranging them into four novel like chapters. The groupings are broadly chronological, but also show how historical time is interwoven with personal histories and memories.

Nickas is less autobiographical than Kraus, but is always looking to show art works within a range of social and political contexts. He conceives of criticism as a kind of detective work, keen to take particular iconographic images - such as the US flag as conceived by Jasper Johns - and see how the same image is re-worked by a diverse range of subsequent artists and designers, such as Cady Noland and Tommy Hilfiger. Interviews, too, focus less on formal analysis than on a kind of social archaeology where relationships, assumptions and contexts are made clear.

Through a range of art works and artists - and critical styles - Nickas repeatedly returns to several key themes, notably the history of appropriation and the legacy of Warhol. By the end of the book - discussing the artist Jules de Balincourt - Nickas sees the contemporary artistic use of such strategies as "increasingly covert... politically-charged subject matter is more of an undertow, pulling you in from beneath a calm or welcoming surface." (225)

All of which should never be separated from the pleasure and wit of Nickas writing, his refusal to write reviews or pre-show essays that could be read as press releases, and the range of forms that this collection demonstrates - interviews, various essay forms, a number of image-text collaborations. Nickas also includes a questionaire where he answers questions about his work:

I prefer art writing that is more free-associative than analytical, more poetic than polemical, that moves almost promicuously from one idea to another. At the same time (while you're having all this fun), I think you shouldn't lose sight of the fact that you want to have a serious engagement with the works themselves. (206)

Also seeing criticism symbiotically in relation to his work as a curator:

Art criticism is a literary pursuit arising from visual culture. I am committed to the idea that a show can also be an essay - in real space, with reproductions morphed into the actual objects, with other "readers" flowing in and around you. There are, of course, no footnotes (a small price to pay), but those other readers, as you encounter them in the gallery or the museum or, even better, out on the street, contribute to the text in ways you - and they - wouldn't have expected. (207)

Kathy Acker, Bodies of Work (Serpent's Tail, 1997)

I was unsure about including Acker's book here. Each of the other titles has a particular concern or focus, a particular sense of form and language, and acts it out. They also embody a hard wrought sense of why someone should write criticism at all. Acker's book, in contrast, remains consumed with doubt. But like much of Acker's work it engages as a site of possibility and potential, and even when incomplete and unsatisfying, it has a dynamic energy. Essays such as "Realism for the Cause of Future Revolution" remain a key source for recent experiments in criticism such as the use of fiction and fiction-derived writing techniques.

In this context, Acker is valuable for a model of someone moving further than the other books here from a, say, Artforum-model of good writing (Nickas and Gilbert), or even from the highly conscious and theorised autobiography of Kraus (and the particular theoretical allegiances of Semiotext(e)). There's a rawer sense both of Acker's own obsessions and of her need to earn money by writing articles, but this isn't to deny a sharp and penetrating insight, both on a diverse range of topics - William Burroughs, Richard Prince, body building, the city, and Colette, amongst others - and on her own motivations for her critical activity:

Why write in such a time as this? I'm writing down the question.

My first questions, about the value, literary or otherwise, of the essays you're about to read, is relatively easy to approach. For me writing is freedom. Therein lies (my) indentity. I prefer writing fiction to essays because there is more freedom in fiction and so, I question my essays. To be precise, essay-writing seems, at least at first glance, tied to expression. The problem with expression is that it is too narrow a basis for writing, for it is pinned to knowledge, knowledge which is mainly rational. I trust neither my ability to know nor what I think I know. Moreover, the excitement of writing, for me, is that of a journey into strangeness: to write down what one thinks one knows is to destroy possibilities for joy. (viii)


Hans Ulrich Obrist and Olafur Eliasson: The Conversation Series 13 (Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig, Koln)

Between Artists: Paul Chan and Martha Rosler (Art Resources Transfer, 2006)

Given that this list is about criticism as project, I wanted to mention the interview project of Hans Ulrich Obrist, seemingly ever present in a huge range of art magazines, and published as single-subject books of interviews by Walther Konig books. Of the later, the volume on Olafur Eliasson is the best example of how, over time, conversations - in depth at the studio, grabbed quickly on a plane, or on a shared field trip across Iceland - can accumulate into a rare depository of oral lore on artistic process and context.

The Between Artists series is another valuable project, different to Conversations in that its pairings of artists seeks difference as well as similarity. Chan and Rosler's fierce, sometimes anatagonistic, conversations are informed by differences in gender and age, by shared commitments to political activism but radically different conclusions as to how such concerns relate to their production of art works.

This element of antagonism is another critical standpoint highlighted in the preface to Texte Zur Kunst, where the authors observe how Germer's writing was always willing to tackle perceived problematics in the works discussed:

even though that meant he ran the risk in each instance of (temporarily) anatgonizing one faction of the art world. It is this problem-oriented form of art-critical writing, one that momentarily infringes against the imperative of cooperation, that we would like to revive... (123)