Interview with Barry Schwabsky
“The fact remains that there have been no deep innovations in art for forty years.“
Based in London, American art critic Barry Schwabsky is chief art critic of The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. A prolific and respected writer, Schwabsky has made notable contributions to Vitamine P, Saatchi’s Triumph of Painting and The Painting of Modern Life at the Hayward Gallery, among others. This long ‘old school’ interview revolves basically around art criticism and painting today.
By Paco Barragán
Paco Barragán -You started writing about art already back in 1984, initially with Arts Magazine in New York, then with Artscribe in London and Flash Art in Milan. What do you remember of those days in terms of art writing?
Barry Schwabsky -I was educating myself in public. Luckily it was probably a small public. Personally I would be afraid to reread the things I wrote during my first couple of years as an art critic. But those were the years dominated first by Neo-Expressionism, then by Neo-Geo, neither of which I was very sympathetic too, so at least I got a quick training in independence.
P.B. -But what are the important differences? Possibilities to publish, pressure in terms of time… I mean that many young curators and art critics today find it very normal to take the plane and go to London, Basel, Venice, and so on, which before was practically impossible and really expensive. Also, I remember I had to send the articles three weeks before over the post and get those big photographs. So, I would like to hear what has changed in your opinion.
B.S. -In that sense, nearly everything. When I was editing Arts Magazine, between 1988 and 1992, we still had to paste up the pages by hand… The whole way of working with a magazine is totally different and of course much quicker now. But I think you are wrong to bracket curators and critics. Most critics are local, they travel very little because they are not paid enough. I don’t know who pays for the curators! But even if they travel more widely, the results are not necessarily to the benefit of the curators. The curators all know more or less the same things, while the critics may have deeper local knowledge (and the limitations that come with it). Take Jerry Saltz for example. Not that he doesn’t travel, of course, but the way he’s taken on a role that he’s created for himself as a voice of the New York art community-most curators don’t aspire to root themselves in a specific metropolitan situation in that way.
Art Critic vs Curator
P.B. -Yes, Jerry Saltz has good knowledge of the art scene in New York, but a very limited knowledge of what happens in other art scenes like Berlin, Paris or London. And the curator may not necessarily have such a profound knowledge of the local art scene if he’s travelling, but have a more global view of what’s going on internationally. So I guess both are complementary. But basically what you are comparing is a more specialized local vision from the art critic versus a more non-specialized global view of the curator. Is that correct?
B.S. -Superficial acquaintance versus in-depth knowledge?
P.B. -This would mean that in your opinion the art critic (he who is not involved in curating) is not all contaminated by the market, nor by the dealers, nor by the institutions, and that he is able to provide a more transparent and serious judgment?
B.S. -No one is completely “uncontaminated,” and maybe that wouldn’t even be desirable-but it is very important that there be people articulating views that come from a tangent to both the market and the institutions.
P.B. -Well, in this sense I think that at this point not only art critics and curators, but also other writers with a less theoretical background like cultural journalists, cultural brokers or even dealers are writing reviews and opinionated pieces. Obviously the scope has widened. How has this affected the status of the art critic?
B.S. - That dealers are writing reviews is news to me! I hope it’s not so. But in the age of the blog, anyone who cares to can put their views out in public. To me that’s a healthy development. Critics are not power brokers any more in any case-the age of Clement Greenberg is long past. Our role is to develop and formalize the conversation around art-to circulate ideas and perceptions. We are not gatekeepers. Artists often ask me if I can help them find a dealer. I tell them that just as I don’t let the dealers tell me what to write about, I don’t want to tell the dealers who they should be exhibiting. There’s a separation of powers. My distrust of the figure of the curator may come from the fact that they claim to fulfill a critical function but are operating by means of monetary resources that belong either to markets or bureaucracies, both of which tend to be corrosive of critical thought.
P.B. -Well, Christian Viveros-Fauné directed Roebling Hall during various years, and he writes now for The Village Voice. I guess you’re right in mentioning this paradoxical position of the curator, but many art critics these days curate too, in addition to writing and teaching. I guess this is due to the fact that it’s very complicated to make a living out of writing or curating alone…which indicates that the economical structures in the art world are insufficient.
B.S. - I’ve curated a few shows myself, but not for economic reasons-just because it is very interesting to work with artworks in a very immediate, physical, tactile way, and to work with them in relation to a real space rather than to a mental space, a discursive space, such as you have in writing. But for me it’s an aside. Basically I do it if someone asks me and the situation seems sympathetic. I would never write up a proposal for a show and then try and find a place to do it.
As for the economic structures of the art world, they certainly seem to be more than sufficient for a few people. Art is about wasting money, isn’t it? It’s part of what Bataille called the general rather than the restricted economy. It has nothing to do with efficiency, despite the fact that a small number of people know how to succeed in channeling art through the restricted economy.
Role and Power of Art Criticism
P.B. -Let’s get back to art criticism. What should its role be in your opinion?
B.S. -I think I’ve said it already: to develop and formalize the conversation around art-to circulate ideas and perceptions. If that sounds vague, it’s only as it should be, because there are many different kinds of criticism and all of them should be welcomed. One thing a lot of people ask about regarding criticism is the role of judgment-whether the critic is supposed to say what’s good and bad, or simply to interpret. Personally, I don’t see how those two functions, interpretation and evaluation, can be separated. You have to take a stand. My complaint about a lot of art criticism today is that the critic’s stand-especially about what he or she is against-is too implicit. I’d like to see Peter Schjeldahl write a serious and thorough attack on Michael Asher, or Benjamin Buchloh do the same to Elizabeth Peyton. (I’m just guessing at what those two critics probably can’t stand.) But when I say “serious and thorough” I really mean it-not just those snide offhand comments we are all good at. Of course, that would be hard work compared to writing about something you are enthusiastic about. Maybe that’s why art critics need to be paid more-what else will get us to overcome our normal laziness?
P.B. -You just mentioned the role of judgment and the importance of taking a stand. And the fact that especially what she or he is against is too implicit. Maybe it’s what the reader expects? Maybe it’s implicit in the verb itself, “to criticize”:to exercise a “critical” comment or judgment, as it has assumed a somewhat negative connotation?
B.S. -Sure, but who is certain who has the right to make negative judgments and on what grounds? And when you do, are you doing any more than confirming those who already agree with you in their existing opinions while encouraging those who don’t agree to just ignore you? If so, then your critical comments are actually not contributing to the cultivation of critical thinking but quite the opposite, inviting complacency. Criticism is crucially concerned with questions of value, but the best way to pose those questions may not be to play a rating game: 5 stars to Gerhard Richter, 3 stars to Matthew Barney, and so on. I’ve just been re-reading the famous chapter on Olympia in T.J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life, and I notice that in the two final sentences of that chapter, he more or less makes “art criticism” synonymous with “play, metaphor, irony, and finally tolerance.” I can live with that.
P.B. -Well, since you mentioned the question of value and rating, my last question about art critics and art criticism, would be: how important can a critic be in an artist’s career? I mean, for example, if a respected critic like you writes a good review about a certain painter, what can that mean for his career? You know as well as I that quite a lot of collectors only need to hear a name two times to run and buy it if it has been ‘sanctified’ by acknowledged voices…
B.S. -I’ve never noticed any such effect.
P.B. -Well, that should not be a surprise to you. I know some important dealers that have said to a collector, and even to me: Barry Schwabsky likes this or that painter very much! I understand that you write about what you like or what you consider merits a critical reading, but it’s a fact that for other people you’re an opinion maker, especially for dealers and collectors, and it’s normal that your opinion is taken into consideration as you have written, among other texts, the introductory essay for Phaidon’s Vitamin P and Saatchi’s exhibition “The Triumph of Painting”? Why the triumph of painting?
B.S. -That was Charles Saatchi’s title, of course, not mine. I always sort of made fun of it. I’m not into that kind of grandiosity, though I guess it sells tickets. But the initial “Triumph of Painting” exhibition was very good, and I’m sorry the sequence was never completed. One thing that I found very striking during the process of preparing to write that text: One artist whose works I wasn’t crazy about was Jörg Immendorf. Without coming out and saying as much, I asked Saatchi how he’d come to get interested in Immendorf’s work, and he told me it was because when he talked to younger painters in Germany, they often cited Immendorf as one of the artists they were interested in or who had influenced them. So this convinced him that Immendorf must be important. Well, that’s an intelligent way for a collector to proceed. On the other hand I never heard him say he got interested in such-and-such a painter because I wrote about them, or because Adrian Searle said they were good, or any other critic. I’m sure that what we critics say becomes part of the atmosphere that influences collectors, but fundamentally, they are either buying what pleases them personally, or else they are buying as an investment, and in neither of those two cases is any critic likely to have that much influence. On the other hand, if someone is already interested in buying the work of a given artist, but maybe isn’t sure, I can well imagine that it is very reassuring to see that some respected critics have taken a positive stance-but that’s a very different thing from the idea that they are running out and buying something because the critic said so.
P.B. -I respect your opinion, but I do think that many collectors buy with their ears and not with their eyes, but that is of course their own choice.
B.S. -But their ears are only bent toward the lips of some dealer or other.
Painting and the Market
P.B. -But let’s get back to “The Triumph of Painting.” It is grandiose, but at the same time very academic. It reminded me immediately Cocteau’s “Le Rappel a l’Ordre,” and especially because as what happened after 1915 with Picasso, Carra, Severini and many others that went back to a more traditional figurative painting. But by then it was the academy who heralded this return, and this time it was a collector like Saatchi who heralded a return to a more classical but at the same time very commercial painting.
B.S. -How many classical elements can you show me in the paintings in that book? Do you really consider Martin Kippenberger a classicist? In what sense is Peter Doig or Marlene Dumas or Dana Schutz repeating a traditional formula? It seems to me you are pulling this reference out of the blue. If you would look, you would see that these artists have nothing to do with traditional representation. Or, alternately, you could read my essay where this is explained, albeit rather hastily: I make the distinction between “image” and “representation.” These are image painters, not representational painters, and the kind of work they do could only have been done after the break with traditional representation-after abstraction, in fact. And incidentally, your account of the post-war “return to order” is a bit askew too. It was the artists themselves who initiated this return. Picasso followed no academy. Nor did Cocteau. And of course collectors and dealers loved this new turn. Just as later they would fall in love with Pop art!
P.B. -You have addressed different issues here, so I want to answer in parts. First, since the 1980s and neo-conservative reign with Reagan, Thatcher, later Bush, and even with Clinton and Obama-who both beat the Republicans in corporate fundraising for the first time in history, and in exchange have to defend the rights of the corporations that put them on the job as we have seen now with the financial crisis-the world is a place with fewer democratic rights in exchange for more security; for example the Patriot Act and the shameless violation of our civil liberties. Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Sheldon S. Wolin, Naomi Klein, David Korten and Andrew Bacevich are some of the political philosophers that have signaled this destruction of democratic values. And the art world is just a reflection of the rest of society and has turned equally more reserved and less progressive. And 9/11 has only accentuated this moral decay. Remember early censorship on Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Saatchi’s YBA exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, and more recently David Wojnarowicz at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., just to mention a few… And this has led to a subtle self-censorship in the arts because museums and other institutions were and are afraid of losing funding and which, finally, has ended up affecting artistic practices. So the return to a more traditional painting is very logical within this context and the rise of figurative paintings like Neo Rauch, Dresden and Leipzig School.
Secondly, about Dumas, Peter Doig, and Dana Schutz, they use contemporary imagery but the painterly approach, the style comes out of 19th and early 20th century painting: Impressionism, German Expressionism, Picasso, Picabia, Matisse… In fact pre-1940s-50s, the period in painting that gets the biggest financial reward. You don’t need 1940s-60s Abstraction to get there. And it’s something that continued throughout the 20th century-with Bacon, Lucian Freud and Malcolm Morley-to now. The formula exists because we immediately recognize it from art history and reward it for being good painting. It has a clear precedent. Dealers, collectors and the general public know how to judge it. Pop Art and most other movements that we recognize from art history initially shocked and challenged the viewer. Saatchi got it right with the YBA’s. Post mid-1990s, once he became the “taste maker,” too many dealers caught his ear, each also aware of what sells and can bring in the biggest buck, like Peter Doig’s White Canoe, auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2007 for 10 million dollars! Saatchi’s painting collection reflects that. Kippenberger wasn’t a classicist, and Picasso was a brilliant painter. His most boring work during the war was maybe a coincidence or pure strategy…
B.S. -The ellipsis in your first paragraph represents an enormous non sequitur. The fact that you can point to the dire historical situation in which we find ourselves does not allow you to arbitrarily pick and choose a few cultural manifestations as symptomatic while ignoring all the others. Why don’t you say it’s logical that we have a revival of conceptualism during this period, or that we have a revival of assemblage sculpture, or whatever? They are all part of the same situation. The fact is that, as I already pointed out in Vitamin P in 2002, we are in a period of mannerism in art. This is true across the board. To me it is profoundly insignificant whether one artist is using a mode that was pioneered in the 1970s and another is using ways of working that were pioneered in the 1890s. They are both reworking existing modes that they did not invent and are not the invention of their own generation. If anything, the one who uses the older methods may have more scope for variation and be less slavish in his or her use of the existing idiom. The fact remains that there have been no deep innovations in art for forty years. That doesn’t mean that art can’t speak to this time, but it seems that it can only do so by traversing a historical reference. If one doesn’t like this, then it is possible to become an art historian rather than a critic in the present, and to immerse oneself in a past period of innovation. That’s also a form of nostalgia. I prefer to come to terms with the situation of the present and to recognize that there is an art in and of this situation and that this is the art that speaks to me.
P.B. -Yes, there is an important point in what you say about Picasso and Matisse. Now, this mannerism and nostalgia you just mentioned applies to art in general, be it installation, video, sculpture, conceptualism, performance, etc., but especially and even more so in painting. And the painters that you mentioned are not adding anything new to the artistic discourse, not with the idea of what painting should be or how painting can question its own history or discourse because they are acting if we were still living in a ‘literal’ society, and we are not. We are living in a ‘visual’ society: a media- and technologically-driven society in which information, tools and gadgets-like Photoshop, cameras, iPhones, scanners, satellites, Google Earth, 3D programs, and the Internet-have totally changed the way we receive, manipulate, and circulate information. And actual pictorial practice doesn’t reside (or not only) in its referentiality, but in visual culture and its creation and reception strategies. Painting has to do less with the history of art and more with the circulation of images. If we accept that an artist that has stood the test of time is an artist that has engaged critically with his own time, like, let’s say, Velázquez, Rembrandt or Picasso, then this has to be reflected in the process, because if not, painting becomes just a mannerist and false provocative exercise, but very market-driven. Albert Oehlen and Franz Ackermann are examples of artists that are critically investigating the pictorial discourse, but those are only two examples.
B.S. -“Nothing new?” That complaint is the oldest trick in the book on avoiding seeing what’s new. Manet? He’s just redoing Velázquez and Goya! Nothing new there. Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns? Neo-Dada, just a rerun of 1920. There’s nothing in a painting by Oehlen that you can’t find in any number of 20th century paintings. If you think there is something new about it, then you must think there is something different about his way of recombining them. I don’t think so. But moving on from your names versus my names, which now that we’ve named them leaves nothing much for us to do but to agree to disagree, I’d say that I completely disagree with your view about what painting is engaged with today. The circulation of images has nothing to do with painting. If someone wants to engage that artistically, they would do better to make a photoblog. Cameras, iPhones, all that-you can make art directly with those. It’s absurd to think you need to paint the results to make them into art. Painting that imitates the phenomena of the digital will always remain a mere imitation-secondary. This can have a certain interest-like Futurism imitating the look of movement in a still painting, when they could have just gone ahead and made films-but it will always remain a rather limited interest. Futurism only became first-rate when it became paradoxical, as in Boccioni’s sculpture of the bottle: the “motion” of a still object rather than the motion of an object in motion-now that’s something. But otherwise, Futurism was a very minor episode compared to Matisse or the Cubists. You are betting on the Futurists of today. I think it’s a bad bet. But despite the absurdity of the idea that you have to paint something that emerged through the digital ether to turn it into art, there is at least this much to be said for the idea: That if you feel you need to add painting to that mix, it’s because painting adds something that the digital media don’t have. My thought is that the painting that is the most interesting is the painting that is investigating precisely that something. It is not exclusively or even primarily a visual experience. I sometimes call it tactility because it involves touch as well as vision. It has to do with what Merleau-Ponty called “the flesh of the world.”
P.B. -Yes, there is nothing new anymore, nor has there been anything new for a thousand years. Everything has a precedent. Picasso breaks from Cezanne and arrives at Cubism. Is it still painting? Yes, and we still see Cezanne in it. Does he bring African sculpture and other non-western ways of representation into the equation? Yes. Is it new? No. Though he ends up with a way of painting that in a sense is new, in that it is at first admonished for looking too different from what came before. The same happened with Abstract Expressionism: it came from Surrealism and Cubism, not new though new enough that no one wanted anything to do with it initially. Same with Richter, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Yves Klein, Van Gogh and even Goya’s late work. So nothing is new but some things are newer than others. The point is that all these movements or attempts to do something ‘new’ move the dialogue forward. They allow for the subtle shifts that slowly add to the language of painting, expanding it and making it richer and more rewarding. Technology is adding to the language of painting, allowing for more references, for a more sophisticated, complex language to evolve, one that references the world we live in. Oehlen (the pixel -a printed cube as mark- in painting was new!), Marcaccio, Ritchie and Barbeito have opened up the dialogue in ways far more interesting than Doig, Schutz and Dumas, who have added absolutely nothing to the language of painting. All they’ve done is reassure rich collectors that painting is not a complex language but a simple one that reflects what they already know, allowing them to feel intelligent. The painting as trophy is assured of its worth because it looks just like what has come before. Are they good paintings? Yes. But this isn’t about the better painting, that is the criteria that kept academic painting in power for hundreds of years. The 20th century taught us that lesson. It’s about expanding the language of painting whether failing or succeeding, and technology/digital imaging, today’s most powerful visual reference, is what’s adding the most to the language of painting.
B.S. -I can’t accept something as trivial as the mimicry of pixels in paint as a significant artistic accomplishment. Anyway, since you are now repeating yourself, perhaps that means we have come to the end of our discussion.
Western Canon and Globalization
P.B. -I respect your opinion, but it’s clear that we’re dealing with two different interpretations of contemporary painting. Before we put an end to this discussion, and as I know that you’re working on your text for Vitamin P2, which will come out in some months, I would like to discuss with you the relationship between painting and globalization. In Vitamin P more than 50% of the painters were from three countries: USA, UK and Germany; and there was only one Belgian, one Austrian, one Spaniard, one Cuban, three Chinese, one Venezuelan… What is the reason for this in your opinion?
B.S. -The reasons why any particular nation may be less represented in the book are varied; it’s hard to generalize. As you know, the selections for Vitamin P were made in the following manner: the editors at Phaidon Press invited nominations from about seventy curators and critics from around the world. When the nominations came in, basically any artist who got two nominations was in, except that in consultation with me the editors also included a few of those who received only one nomination if we felt their inclusion added something to the book that would otherwise have been missing. So the process was pretty hands-off on the editors’ and my part-they chose the nominators but not really the artists. I think this is part of what made the book such a success: It doesn’t represent any one individual’s point of view, nor even that of a committee, with all the horse-trading and compromises that it inevitably involves. The book included about a hundred painters, each of whom had at least two enthusiastic supporters among a large group of supposedly knowledgeable and committed followers of contemporary art. That’s why it gave such a broad view of the state of painting at the beginning of the last decade. Vitamin P2 was put together in a similar way, except that because of a much larger number of nominations, this time it took three votes to automatically get in rather than two.
Now as for the representation of Spain in Vitamin P. There were several Spanish nominators-three or four if I remember correctly. So there are really two possibilities as to why only one Spanish artist was finally included. Either the Spanish curators and critics felt compelled to nominate non-Spanish painters because they sincerely didn’t feel as strongly about many Spanish painters compared to some from other countries whom they preferred to nominate-in other words, they chose aesthetic criteria over nationalism. Or else the Spanish critics and curators did nominate Spanish artists-but they all nominated different ones, so that except in one instance none of the Spanish artists got the necessary two votes. Maybe the best-known Spanish curators don’t think so highly of Spanish artists. I don’t know. I can tell you that a few years ago I contributed to a book, published in Spain, called 100 Video Artists, which had a format similar to Vitamin P, although without the system of nominations. As far as I understand it, all the artists in the book were selected directly by the editors, who were Spanish. And just two out of the hundred video artists were Spaniards, while there was a large representation of American and British artists, just as in Vitamin P, but also a lot of artists from Northern Europe and Latin America.
As for China, that’s a different case. It’s actually rather surprising that Vitamin P included as many as three Chinese artists, because there was only one Chinese nominator-Hou Hanru, who in any case doesn’t himself live in China, though he is of course an expert on the Chinese scene. Obviously the editors at that time did not know who to go to in China for credible nominations. But clearly Chinese artists were starting to make inroads into the Western art scene, since at least some of those three artists must have had nominations from someone other than Hou Hanru. You won’t be surprised to hear that in Vitamin P2 you will encounter a much higher quantity of Chinese painting. More painting from India too, I might add.
Still, it’s clear that the globalization of the art world has been exaggerated. It’s not surprising that most of us know more about what goes on in our own backyards. Only a small percentage of artists gain a truly international reputation, and those are not necessarily the best. Vitamin P was published by a company whose main offices are in London and New York, so it’s natural that although it attempted to cast an eye across the whole world, it did so in a way that reflects the book’s Anglo-American origins. Still, I think that it did contribute a bit to making the boundaries more porous. But personally, I wouldn’t want the distinction between national cultures to disappear completely. Wouldn’t it be boring if everything was the same everywhere?
P.B. -I suppose there are different reasons, as you clearly mention, among which a weak art market, for the absence of certain countries or the weak presence of, let’s say, Belgian and Brazilian painters, not to mention other parts of the world. The problem I see with the nominators is that they’re 99% from the West, and this keeps perpetuating a kind of Western canon of contemporary art. Maybe Phaidon could invite more nominators from, let’s say, Latin America, Australia and China so that we have a more global vision?
B.S. -I don’t know. As I understand it, Belgium has a rather strong art market with some very big collections, so I don’t think you can make such a direct correlation between the strength of the local art market and international impact. Of course it’s true that if the editors had found more nominators from outside Europe and the U.S., the content of the book would have been different, but the problem is that those nominators-curators and critics-would already have had to have made a name for themselves internationally for the editors to know about them. Remember, these editors are not claiming to shape what we call the international art world, only to reflect it as broadly as possible. If Australian artists, for instance, are having a hard time gaining recognition beyond their own borders, is it really possible for one book to change that? In order to appreciate paintings you can’t just look at reproductions. You have to see the work in person. The work has to be exhibited. I’d love to explore what the painters (and other artists) in Australia are doing, but the only way to really do it would be to spend some time there. Unfortunately I don’t have the means to do so. What about you jet-setting curators? Anyway, as I said, you’ll find China, at least, much better represented in Vitamin P2. And if we are to believe what we read about the irresistible rise of the Chinese economy, it will probably be a Chinese publisher that comes out with Vitamin P4. They’ll create their own canon.
P.B. -Yes, there is a point in what you say, and I guess it’s maybe up to them to create their own counter-canon, although, for example, China Artbook, which showcased the 80 most renowned Chinese artists, was published by DUMONT, a German publisher, and edited by the Germans Uta Grosenick and Caspar H. Schubbe. And yes, once again, I admit that I suppose that it’s up to the Australian art critics, curators and dealers to gain more visibility so that they can push their artists internationally. By the way, I actually have curated some shows in Australia and there are interesting painters like Peter Atkins, Dani Marti, and Imants Tillers, just to mention a few.
B.S. -But what a sad idea, that the job of Australian critics and curators is to push Australian artists! And fundamentally useless, too, since it contradicts the idea of a genuine artistic dialogue across national borders, which is presumably what we want. The search for artistic recognition is not comparable to the pursuit of markets for agricultural products or manufactured goods.
P.B - It’s about creating a counter-canon. And speaking of artistic dialogues, thank you for this one. I think it’s been very fruitful.
B.S. -What the diplomats call “a vigorous exchange of views.” Yes, I’ve enjoyed it, thank you very much.