on art criticism
interview by BILL POWERS
BILL POWERS — You made a sign for The Women’s March in January that read “Women Own Language.”
ROBERTA SMITH — I was reacting to all the great signs I sawon social media. All these women making signs, not just10 male comedy writers. It became such a pervasive, widespread thing. The march was like an enormous writer’s room.
BILL POWERS — Is part of the ethical code at The New York Times, that you are not to show any overt political slant? I mean, isn’t it sort of a given that writers like you and your husband, Jerry Saltz, lean left?
ROBERTA SMITH — Yes, but I think as a critic one of the things that creates trust with your readers is the idea that you don’t only write about things you believe in politically, that you have a sort of disinterest in your own reactions. I think one of the principles of being a critic is the willingness to be betrayed by your own taste.
BILL POWERS — So you can look at a Leni Riefenstahl picture without factoring in her politics?
ROBERTA SMITH — I don’t think I could. Even without knowing those politics there’s a spectacle and manipulative quality that can be repulsive. But I think our reactions to art are instinctive. Just like you don’t control who you fall in love with. Just like we don’t control which sex we are attracted to. That’s one of the points of art, that artists can only do what they feel most intensely. If what they truly feel most intensely concerns politics then, with luck and diligence, they’ll find a great form for it.
BILL POWERS — Seeing is believing?
ROBERTA SMITH — No, but your feelings can’t be ignored. Being honest about what you are experiencing is the first step toward critical expression in any form, which includes art, teaching, and written criticism. You have a response that’s raw material, and you have to interrogate that response. The Modern sees itself as having a global, ecumenical mission in terms of including who makes art and where it comes from, but a very narrow view stylistically when it comes to contemporary art. In contrast, it collects rather widely, so as to cover its ass in the future.
BILL POWERS — I was talking to an art student last week who asked, “What if contemporary art wasn’t an era, but thought of as a genre in art?” Because so often contemporary art will swallow up folk art or outsider art once it achieves a certain price point.
ROBERTA SMITH — At The New York Times, I’m constantly battling about whether “modern” should be with a capital “M” or not. I prefer a lowercase “m,” although I may not have an argument for it.
BILL POWERS — By the same token, contemporary art should be with a lowercase “c”?
ROBERTA SMITH — As long as the artists are still living, then you keep it lowercase. I think “contemporary” is too broad and generic a word to be capped, and I have the same problem with the term “modern,” although I could be completely deluded, at least about modern.
BILL POWERS — When I interviewed Mark Grotjahn, he said that his interest was shifting away from abstract art toward nonobjective. I wondered whether nonobjective art is becoming an endangered species these days.
ROBERTA SMITH — What you are saying is, does all art describe something else? And I would say no. The first person who makes that distinction is [Donald] Judd, who used to say of Abstract Expressionism, “It’s not abstract, and it’s not expressionistic.” And he was really adamant that his work was not abstracted from anything.
BILL POWERS — Speaking of money, can we talk about Jeff Koons?
ROBERTA SMITH — There are a lot of artists who have an ability to transcend the art world, that’s the nice way of putting it. Or they wind up in a situation where the general public pays more attention to them than the art world. I think Jeff Koons is in that position now. I think David Hockney was in a similar situation for a while. It’s been interesting to see him come back. Partly that’s due to all this figurative painting going on. Hockney has regained serious art world status, which is great.
BILL POWERS — Had David Hockney fallen into that Salvador Dalí category, where he’s kind of cheesy and yet we recognize his importance?
ROBERTA SMITH — The usual opinion with Dalí is that he was great in the 1920s and then there’s a “falling off,” as Greenberg would say, starting in the 1930s. But, for example, David Salle came along, and he makes you look at Dalí’s Crucifixion at The Met differently, which is to say that
everything is in flux.
BILL POWERS — Picabia is another example of a 20th-century painter who had become sort of a joke.
ROBERTA SMITH — Or even late Picasso. The retrieval you’re talking about is done by other artists or by younger generations who rediscover the work.
BILL POWERS — Did you read that new book Tell Them I Said No [by Martin Herbert] about artists who reject the system? It had chapters on Cady Noland, Albert York, and David Hammons. Why is it that we love our artists either dead or elusive?
ROBERTA SMITH — Because the art world gives us such guilt. We are so ambivalent. We live off it. We enjoy it in a way, and yet it’s this completely weird thing. So to see someone survive without having to truck along is pretty incredible. I mean, I think David Hammons might be in another category. He
has such a persona. I remember the first time I saw him was at Documenta; I swear he was wearing Issey Miyake. He just looked so fabulous and stylish. He didn’t seem to be rejecting much.
BILL POWERS — Did you talk to him?
ROBERTA SMITH — Of course not.
BILL POWERS — Does your job — being forced to maintain this firewall with artists — put you in sort of a lonely position?
ROBERTA SMITH — WelI, I definitely prefer their art to them, but I also like them for making the art, so there is a kind of disconnect. But let’s be honest, I’ve known and know plenty of artists, I just keep a certain distance.
BILL POWERS — Are you jealous of a writer like Calvin Tomkins, who spends an enormous amount of time with the artists as he profiles them for The New Yorker?
ROBERTA SMITH — Not at all. He’s very good at a kind of short-term intimacy, but he also subtly asserts his own point of view. It’s not like he’s a camera recording what’s in front of him. I’m just less drawn to artists’ personal stories than to what they do with the understanding that most people will be seeing their work without having them, the artists, around. I like looking at art in kind of a neutral way. When I wrote on [Philip] Guston and [Richard] Artschwager for Art in America, I talked to them at length. Then I wrote a big piece on [Frank] Stella for AiA [Art in America] and I didn’t talk to him at all. For me, that was much more exciting. Riskier.
BILL POWERS — Personally, I want maximum context if it’s available. I want deep background.
ROBERTA SMITH — So you think I’m working in the dark?
BILL POWERS — I think you are protecting yourself from hype.
ROBERTA SMITH — I may be protecting myself. I may be lazy. I may be self-centered. There are all kinds of unattractive characterizations. When I’ve looked at the work enough and have my own sense of it and also some questions, then I’m happy to learn more and fit it into my own sense of things or expand that sense. But it doesn’t often change things much. The notion that if a dealer floods the critic with ancillary information, they’ll like the work more, that usually doesn’t work. Let’s talk when I have a need to know.
BILL POWERS — Has art criticism unhitched itself from commercial repercussions the way that a theater critic at The New York Times can still destroy a Broadway show with one scathing review?
ROBERTA SMITH — I don’t think it matters in that way and maybe never did. You have power among the people who value your opinion. The power of art critics has always been exaggerated. Art criticism is part of a conversation. It’s your voice. You’re taking positions, making mistakes, having insights.
Others are talking.
BILL POWERS — Okay, so who have you been wrong about?
ROBERTA SMITH — First of all, I don’t think there is any right or wrong in the art world, but I do think I have come around to certain artists. My main example would again be Hockney. I once wrote an article asking if his work was even art and not just illustration. The article also included Dale
Chihuly and — gasp! — Robert Mapplethorpe, two artists about whom my opinions haven’t changed as much.
BILL POWERS — Why is it that the art world can’t get its hands on enough material by a dead artist — any little scrap of paper with half an idea on it — but is quick to punish living artists for overproducing?
ROBERTA SMITH — Death is a huge separation. And you’re actually talking about two different things: finished artworks in the market and information being collected by art historians. I think that lots of dead artists overproduced, and we know it perfectly well. I mean, Louis Michel Eilshemius didn’t need to make all those paintings, except for himself.
BILL POWERS — What about Picasso?
ROBERTA SMITH — Probably he overproduced, but we make so many allowances for Picasso. There’s really nothing like him in the history of art: that kind of talent and ambition, surrounded by other talented, ambitious artists, plus his early success and a long life. It was a perfect storm in the
hothouse of art.
BILL POWERS — John Currin says that good art should be open to all sorts of cockamamie interpretations. Do you agree?
ROBERTA SMITH — We throw stuff at an artwork and see what sticks. Some ideas do because they are useful. They can help people to see the art better. Good art is like a meteor traveling through time, constantly picking up interpretations and shedding them. It just keeps going.
BILL POWERS — At its most fundamental level, can you define art?
ROBERTA SMITH — Yikes. It is this thing, this intensity or concentration of feeling, intention, and liberty that is a little or a lot different from the stuff of the world. And it communicates this difference by some essential element of form, by which I mean the nonverbal component, something that just hits us and also carries the subject matter.
BILL POWERS — Are there lines still to be crossed over? Let’s say Jeff Koons announces that as his next work of art he has cloned himself.
ROBERTA SMITH — Do you know something I don’t?
BILL POWERS — Aren’t we waiting for someone to declare that their very act of existence is performance art?
ROBERTA SMITH — I think that’s already been done.
BILL POWERS — When the art world takes a passing interest in George Bush’s paintings, is it to our detriment? Do his cute dog portraits somehow humanize an otherwise suspect political legacy?
ROBERTA SMITH — Just because he’s a complete bastard and one of the villains of recent American history doesn’t mean that he can’t make a painting that has a certain impact on you. It’s weird, because it’s not like Hitler’s art. I liked the early George Bush works, the two paintings he made in the bathroom.
BILL POWERS — Don’t we want to believe that only good people can make something beautiful?
ROBERTA SMITH — That’s different. George Bush isn’t repentant, at least not explicitly. Artists on the whole can be difficult people. A lot of them have some horrific traits. It takes incredible concentration to believe in and make or do something that no one believes in until they see it. And I think everyone in the art world probably has an exaggerated need for love and attention. It’s a morass of intense and conflicting drives and convictions. That, in a way, is how it happens. I’m sure the fashion world and the music world have similar dynamics.
BILL POWERS — Has technology killed photography? It seems like there’s a lot less reverence for it as a medium now that everyone has an iPhone.
ROBERTA SMITH — I like that it changes our idea about exceptionalism. It has a democratizing effect and makes visible the reality of creativity, which is that it’s widespread.
BILL POWERS — You bring up the term “democratization” as if it’s always a good thing. The writer Martin Amis once said that the problem with America is that we believe in a democracy of feelings, that your feelings are as important as my feelings when we should really be making decision based on facts, not emotions.
ROBERTA SMITH — Totally. But what I think he’s addressing is the failure of our education system. Americans aren’t taught to think anymore, which leads to all these bitter, unfulfilled people across the country who have no consciousness and no idea what life offers because they can’t access it. After decades of dismantling public education, as well as other safety nets, they have now gone understandably nuts. If public education were truly democratized, I don’t think we’d be in the hellacious fix we’re in now.
BILL POWERS — Looking around your apartment, you have a considerable amount of fake art. I see a fake Wade Guyton and a fake Alice Neel. Why do you let Jerry put all this up?
ROBERTA SMITH — I have no choice. I know it’s kind of horrible. Jerry challenges younger artists to make this stuff, partly because they may learn from it and partly because he gets something he could never afford. Also, it’s a form of gambling. You might end up with something almost as good in its own way, if different. Behind you there is a copy of Picasso’s Weeping Woman, but it’s painted grisaille and it’s bigger than the original. I’m a stickler about copies being the exact same size, which, ahem, Jerry is not. That Alice Neel painting is an inch and a half too high. But maybe it seems big because I know it mostly from reproductions, which was the point of Sherrie Levine’s watercolors of artworks copied from books, including the poor color quality. If the colors of a Mondrian were off in the reproduction, then so were her colors. I remember one copy that had a green tint, which Mondrian hated. The thing about our fake Alice Neel is that it’s a self-portrait that doesn’t actually exist. It’s “in the style of,” which I love.
BILL POWERS — Have you ever been starstruck by an artist?
ROBERTA SMITH — Of course. I was starstruck by Frank Stella when I met him. I was young, and he was at the height of his influence.
BILL POWERS — Why does the art world largely shun collaborative work? I’m thinking of the Warhol / Basquiat paintings, for instance, or Mike Kelley versus Destroy All Monsters.
ROBERTA SMITH — I’m not sure that’s true. A collaboration just has to be as good as the artists are on their own. I remember Ken Johnson saying, or maybe writing, that all the members of rock ’n’ roll bands are essential; each makes a necessary contribution. That’s less the case in art, thank God.
It’s not built into the discipline.
BILL POWERS — What about the shrinkage of art history?
ROBERTA SMITH — Art history is like an hourglass. Abstract Expressionism was big and then it got little and now it’s big again. At a certain point things get winnowed down, and obviously there’s a relationship to the market. Then people start excavating: dealers, historians, other artists. That excavation expands our sense of a time period. We learn about things we hadn’t seen or that were otherwise written off. On the other hand, however, there’s this feeling that anyone who was ignored deserves our attention, and that’s simply not true. Also, we arein a place now where we try to compensate for the art world’s biases, be they gender or race or nationality. Like Gulliver’s map, we are trying to go back to actual size, one foot equals one foot.
BILL POWERS — In the last year, you had some very serious health issues. What did you learn in that process?
ROBERTA SMITH — I was thinking, “I’ve had a pretty good life. I’ve been incredibly lucky. And I’ve done some work that might survive me. If I have to, I can go now.” But I also discovered a kind of determination in myself that I hadn’t quite known. I always thought if I got cancer, well, then I’m quitting. I’m not getting any treatment. I’m just going to withdraw and die. But when I actually got cancer, I had the great honor of learning that I am fucking strong. And my husband is, too, and we were able to carry each other through it.
BILL POWERS — Is there an epiphany about life you’ve had?
ROBERTA SMITH — I’ve always thought there is no hate, only self-hate. Most of the hate in the world is something that’s being deflected outward. That’s why education is so important — a social necessity. If people would really examine themselves or diligently, furiously pursue their own happiness and not try to exclude or control other people, a lot of that hate would go away.
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