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Dishing It Out and Taking It: A Critic’s Comeuppance
Commentary by Richard Speer

Leslie Jones (curator of prints and drawings, LACMA), Hollis Goodall (curator of Japanese Art, LACMA) and Richard Speer (left to right) hold forth in front of Sam Francis, “Towards Disappearance,” 1957-1958


In my 21 years as an art critic, I’ve attended a lot of exhibition press previews. Most of them are way too early in the morning. They follow a predictable formula. You show up, shoot the breeze with your fellow writers, and pray there’s coffee and doughnuts. A museum bigwig welcomes you, P.R. staffers hand out press releases and thumb drives, then the curators introduce the show, take your questions, and set you loose. 


The press preview I attended on April 5 was different, though, because I was standing on the wrong side of the press line. The other side, I should say. This time I was there as curator, not critic, a disconcerting but instructive transposition.


It was a switcheroo many moons in the making. For thirteen years I was art critic for Portland, Oregon’s alternative paper, Willamette Week, all the while writing freelance for ARTnews, Art Papers, ArtPulse, Art Ltd., and Visual Art Source (VAS). When I stepped down from Willamette Week in 2015, having finally succumbed to alt-weekly burnout, I began in earnest to organize exhibitions of my own in addition to critiquing other people’s. It seemed fair that if I’d presumed to judge others’ work for thirteen years, I should have the gumption to put my own vision up for scrutiny.  


It’s pretty common these days for critics to curate shows. One discipline informs the other. Over the next several years I developed several shows that came to fruition. A couple of them had lectures and panels, but I never did a full-fledged press preview until the one I mentioned above, two months ago, for an exhibition I co-curated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, entitled “Sam Francis and Japan: Emptiness Overflowing.” It was an interesting feeling to interact with my VAS colleagues Bill Lasarow and Peter Frank from the opposite side of the invisible line separating critics from curators, and when it came time for the curator’s presentation, I will say it was a bit more nerve-wracking to hold forth than just to stand in the audience and listen. There were no doughnuts, by the way, nor coffee. But overall it was no big shakes. The real difference was waiting to see what, if anything, the press would say about the exhibition I’d devoted eight years of my life to. Naturally one wants rave reviews rather than a middling “Meh...” But there’s always the possibility of a scathing take-down — and Lord knows I’ve dispensed my share of those over the years. There I was on bated breath. If I could dish it out, could I take it?


A bit of background. I was 32 when I started critiquing art in 2002, at the bitter end, if not past the pull date, of the reign of the imperious critic as arbiter of public opinion, the archetypally haughty, tweedy reactionary epitomized by George Sanders as Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve.” Probably more mythical than real, this mode of critic could, with poison pen or honeyed praise, make or break a film, book, Broadway show, restaurant, or art exhibition. When I was young and impressionable the era of the almighty AbEx critics, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, had long passed. I was more influenced by film critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, and by leaders of the New Journalism such as Gay Talese, Joan Didion, and Hunter S. Thompson. When I started at Willamette Week, fresh from my first trip to Burning Man, I styled myself as a Thompson disciple, cultivating an outré persona, never hesitating to insert myself into my writing, pulling no punches, and making a lot of enemies.


If you’re a critic with any integrity, you’re going to piss people off. At Willamette Week I barbecued a lot of sacred cows in the Northwest art community. I don’t regret having done that. Nobody deserves a free pass just because they’re a “beloved veteran painter” or “local treasure.” But I certainly paid for it. Some artists I reviewed poorly won’t speak to me decades later. They literally walk past me when I extend my hand at a party. Nobody forgets a bad review, nor do their friends, nor their friends’ friends. Some of those folks were powerful and wound up in a position to help me, or not, years later when I was looking for a literary agent. You could hear the doors slamming a mile away. Blacklists are real. But I’d also acquired a reputation as someone who shot straight, consequences be damned. I’d like to think, in the long run, that helped me more than it hurt.


I’ve always felt critics and artists have a symbiotic relationship akin to a feedback loop, a dialogue that can last for decades. The artist’s work evolves, and sometimes the critic’s opinions change. I also know that anyone’s opinion, including or especially a critic’s, is informed by arbitrary biases. Some critics are predisposed to abstraction, others to figuration, some look down their noses at craft, while others celebrate it. I have come to see my role not as some anointed magistrate hurling thunderbolts or ladling schlag, but as one with the privilege and prerogative to educate, gently guide, and enthuse. After a few years in gonzo mode, I got bored with that persona, took myself out of my writing, and concentrated on what I probably should have all along: the question “What, if anything, is unique about this artwork, what is it trying to say, and is it successfully fulfilling its maker’s intent?”


Around this time, the publishing world was changing, too. Newspapers and art magazines were folding or going online-only. The epoch of the salaried critic ended in a whimper, with only a few holdouts in major cities. With the advent of Yelp and Twitter, criticism and social commentary have become so diffuse, they have lost their cachet and, arguably, their relevance. The arts publications that have survived are generally subsidized by advertising, and advertisers like shows to get good reviews. Better yet, they love previews and profiles, which can drive attendance and sales. 


The number of negative reviews I write has plummeted. Although VAS is a qualified exception, most art mags, ezines, and newsletters have no use for objective criticism. They have essentially become arms of the publicity machine of galleries, museums, nonprofits, and artists themselves. Fortunately, this has coincided with a shift within my own ethos as I’ve gone from nervy upstart to 50-something old guard. These days I’m more interested in praising the exceptional than lambasting the subpar, so that’s where I put my energies (although I’ll confess, sometimes after enduring a real howler, my fingers itch to really let ’er rip).


Which brings us back to LACMA and the Sam Francis show [currently on view through July 16 — Ed.]. It’s gotten some great press, which makes me very happy. As far as I’m aware, it has received only one less-than-stellar review. That’s the good news. The bad news is, that review was by Christopher Knight of The Los Angeles Times, the city’s major newspaper, which thereby commands a disproportionate editorial clout. Knight did write some thoughtful things about Francis and the show, but he also opined strongly that it didn’t have enough monumental Francis canvases, a shortcoming he believed made the exhibition feel “confused and thin” and “makeshift.” Ouch. You can imagine the pit in my stomach as I digested that, and you probably won’t be surprised that I didn’t sleep well that night or the next. Maybe it was about time karma came around and bit me in the ass. A critic’s comeuppance.


Naturally, my knee jerked. I noted that Knight had knocked us for not including any paintings by Toshimitsu Imai when, in fact, we had a big, blazing, red painting by Imai right there in plain sight, “L’Onde” (1962). Maybe he was wearing dark sunglasses and missed it. I also noted that we’d kept the oversized Francis works to a minimum so as not to overpower the more intimately scaled Japanese calligraphy and landscape paintings. This is a show about nuance, not bombast. But hey, Knight has a right to his opinion, and moreover, he has a Pulitzer Prize, and I don’t. If I feel he was at least partially off-base, I know just as surely that the artists I’ve taken issue with in the past have no doubt questioned my judgment, impugned my general competence, and maybe even had a few choice words for my immortal soul.


And so I walk away from this experience feeling oddly symmetrical. I have known both sides of the coin. The chastener has been chastened and lived to tell the tale. I remind myself that any publicity is good publicity, especially given the paucity of critical reviews in major newspapers nowadays. Still, it’s been a learning experience, and I feel more sensitive than ever to what reviews are and aren’t, the impact words can have, the importance of fact-checking, and the necessity of context. Life is a school, and I’d like to think I’m paying attention in class, whether I’m wearing my critic’s hat or my curator’s. Karma is as karma does. After that second night of insomnia, I’ve slept just fine.

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