« Art Critics' Reading List


Maria Elena Buszek, Ph.D., is a scholar, critic, curator and associate professor of art history at the University of Colorado Denver. Her recent publications include the books Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture (Duke University Press Books, 2006) and Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art (Duke, 2011). She has also contributed writing to numerous international exhibition catalogues and scholarly journals, including, most recently, essays in Dorothy Iannone: Censorship and the Irrepressible Drive Toward Divinity (JRP-Ringier, 2014)​ and Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014). Her current book project, Art of Noise, explores the ties between contemporary activist art and popular music.

Ellen Willis. The Essential Ellen Willis. Edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

It’s thrilling that the University of Minnesota Press has begun its new series publishing the essays and criticism of the late feminist journalist and educator Ellen Willis. I grew up a working-class kid in the Midwest who didn’t know art history existed as well, a thing one could study until halfway through undergrad. But as a music nerd and record collector who avidly read the popular music press, I longed for the kinds of edgy-but-erudite sensibilities I found in music criticism in the art writing I discovered when I finally found my calling. Ellen Willis was my “bridge” between these fields, and even now I find myself returning to her decades-old, even-handed, whip-smart and lusty takes on everything from the Sex Pistols to pornography to parenthood when I’m looking for inspiration—or courage—in my own scholarship. Every volume is worth reading, but for the uninitiated, The Essential Ellen Willis is a perfect primer.

Joanna Frueh. Erotic Faculties. Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1996.

Frueh’s book was published at precisely the moment in my life when I was working out whether an Ellen Willis was even possible in the comparatively elitist field of art history—and Frueh was it! I’ve been somewhat evangelical about her work ever since. This book is a formidable defense of eroticism’s intellectual potential, with essays written for both the page and (as performance lectures for) the stage. Frueh’s flamboyant style, humor and warmth liberated me to approach art writing from what she calls one’s “soul-and-mind-inseparable-from-body.” I feel that Erotic Faculties represents the best kind of intimate, embodied art writing, alongside kindred spirits like Chris Kraus and Lynne Tillman, that emerged in the between-the-waves era artist-critic Mira Schor once dubbed feminism’s “Generation 2.5,” which increasingly feels poised to eclipse the influence of the then-dominant, theory-jock October school.

Jennifer Doyle. Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.

Jennifer Doyle is the heir apparent to writers like Willis and Frueh—her intelligence and fearlessness are awe-inspiring, as are the wide swaths she cuts through visual culture since the 1960s in Hold It Against Me. In her latest book, she takes on “difficulty and emotion” in controversial, activist art with a perspective and style that admits collusion with these very subjects she’s analyzing. To borrow from one of her chapter titles, Doyle is “thinking feeling,” and vice-versa, in a way that art historians rarely allow themselves for fear of being dismissed as sentimental or subjective—positions that Doyle here champions for offering opportunities for us to “feel history moving through us.” As both an art historian and educator, I strive for just this effect (affect?) in my own work and envy the seeming effortlessness with which Doyle manages it in hers.