Wayne Koestenbaum


    1. I REMEMBER driving away from Tanglewood one summer night in 1987 after having heard Jessye Norman sing a concert performance of Salome’s last scene, a soprano’s autoerotic orgy with the head of John the Baptist. (Long ago, I wrote about that pivotal night, but the memory of the performance and its aftermath rises up now, untainted by the sentences with which I once clothed the experience.) I remember driving into the night and wondering what on earth I would do with my life. My life, struck by Norman’s artistry, had become a thing worth interrogating. My life had become, suddenly, very very


    IF INGRES HAD PAINTED STILL LIFES while staying in Blanche DuBois’s ratty Chateau Marmont bungalow, they might have resembled David Gilbert’s delicately trompe l’oeil photographs of do-it-yourself, Judy-inflected domestic tableaux. Judy Garland almost appeared in “House & Garden,” Gilbert’s fourth solo show at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery in New York, but he wisely kept her offstage. She would have dominated. We needed, instead, to see what Judy left behind.


    Or skip Judy altogether. As Ezra Pound said, at the beginning of The Cantos: “Lie quiet Divus.” Lie quiet, Judy.


    Gilbert assembles

  • “‘My’ Masculinity”


    IN 1994, I WROTE AN ESSAY—“‘My’ Masculinity”—for Artforum’s “Man Trouble” feature, organized by Maurice Berger. Twenty-two years later, I revoke my earlier version and start the composition all over again. (Consider the two essays mismatched nipples.) Did anyone own masculinity in 1994? Aren’t we finished with possessiveness—its sodden betrayals, its puerilities, its cuts?


    I only half-mean what I say; identity remains in the half-meaning, the ruse I fall into when I begin this odd dance called thinking. I don’t have an identity, only

    a vast fatigue—

    did I once call it


  • Wayne Koestenbaum

    1 MARIA LASSNIG (MoMA PS1, NEW YORK; CURATED BY PETER ELEEY WITH JOCELYN MILLER) Lassnig meets my eye’s hunger by offering the entire banquet of “body,” rendered with expressionistic ease and candor, as if the Blue Rider had ridden straight over patriarchy and found itself in a post-apocalyptic world where virtuosity doesn’t shun the messy, the morbid, or the pugilistic. Swift, unforced lines and impossibly up-front colors limn bodies exploding with a joyful anger that elucidates rather than shatters.

    Co-organized with the Neue Galerie Graz, Austria.



    IMAGINE SLASHER FILMS WITHOUT BLOOD; porn without nudity; the Sistine Chapel without God; the New York Stock Exchange without capital. Pretend that Hieronymus Bosch’s intermeshed figures could text. Ryan Trecartin’s videos depict a vertiginous world I’m barely stable enough to describe. Watching them, I face the identity-flux of Internet existence: surfing-as-dwelling. Images evaporate, bleed, spill, metamorphose, and explode. Through frenetic pacing, rapid cuts, and destabilizing overlaps between representational planes (3-D turns into 2-D and then into 5-D), Trecartin violently repositions




    The financial crisis of fall 2008 is one symptom of a transition in the nature and form of global order. The most important question this transition raises is what new possibilities it is opening up; but before asking that, one has to understand also what the transition is closing down. Two of the best books I have read in the past year, Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (Verso) and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Picador),

  • the best books of the year

    Twelve scholars, critics, and artists choose the year's outstanding titles.


    A book like Alastair Wright’s Matisse and the Subject of Modernism (Princeton University Press) is enough to rekindle my faith in the future of art history as a discipline. (Here I could also mention two other such rare pearls from 2005: Maria Gough’s The Artist as Producer: Russian Constructivism in Revolution [University of California Press] and Christina Kiaer’s Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism [MIT Press]). The first amazing trait of Wright’s book is that it manages

  • Wayne Koestenbaum

    Susan Sontag, my prose’s prime mover, ate the world. In 1963, on the subject of Sartre’s Saint Genet (her finest ideas occasionally hinged on gay men), she wrote, “Corresponding to the primitive rite of anthropophagy, the eating of human beings, is the philosophical rite of cosmophagy, the eating of the world.” Cosmophagic, Sontag gobbled up sensations, genres, concepts. She swallowed political and aesthetic movements. She devoured roles: diplomat, filmmaker, scourge, novelist, gadfly, essayist, night owl, bibliophile, cineaste . . . She tried to prove how much a human life—a writer’s life—could


    Critic, activist, novelist, filmmaker, Susan Sontag exceeded even that elastic and amorphous category of “public intellectual” so often linked to her name. To mark Sontag’s passing last December at the age of seventy-one, Artforum asked ARTHUR C. DANTO, HAL FOSTER, ABIGAIL SOLOMON-GODEAU, and WAYNE KOESTENBAUM to reflect on her achievements and legacy, which challenge us to reconsider the role of the critic today.

  • Wayne Koestenbaum

    WARHOL CHEERS ME UP ABOUT GETTING BAD REVIEWS. Lousy press didn’t stop him, so he’s my role model for the shat-upon artist who bucks up (despite harsh criticism) and continues to produce. Being unlikable was his endeavor’s foundation.

    Warhol cheers me up about never transcending kindergarten, never shedding infantile fascinations. Often my brain can’t accommodate what it receives; information glut shuts down my mainframe. Warhol processed perceptions in a peculiar way: He listed, atomized, cut, reformatted, and hybridized the angry corpuscles of fact that streamed into his system. His example

  • “Andy Warhol: Screen Tests”

    For a time in the 1960s, anyone interesting who visited Warhol’s Factory would be invited to sit for a screen test: Starting in 1964, he made more than 500, of which, so far, 277 have been preserved. The Factory camera (not necessarily operated by Warhol) would record the subject on a single unedited one-hundred-foot 16 mm silent cartridge. The tests were shot at sound speed (twenty-four frames per second), but Warhol wanted them projected at silent speed (sixteen frames per second), so they take longer to see than they did to make: They retard time. (The viewing duration of each is four and a

  • MY ’80s: CALLED ME

    The 1993 appearance of WAYNE KOESTENBAUM’s third book, The Queen's Throat, confirmed the author’s singular presence on the literary landscape—and it signaled a fresh turn in American criticism. Forecasting an appetite for “mythologies” as divergent as Jackie O and Andy W, his ecstatic meditation on opera, homosexuality, and desire revitalized cultural studies just as they threatened to succumb to disciplinary dreariness. For this issue, Koestenbaum revisits his own literary coming of age in the 1980s.

    Les Fleuves m’ont laissé descendre où je voulais.

    —Arthur Rimbaud

    I met Tama Janowitz once in


    FOR YEARS BRUCE HAINLEY AND I have been antically conversing about literature, theory, art, film, porn, fashion, food, and Andy Warhol. Hainley, a contributing editor of Artforum (his beat is LA), is one of my favorite writers, and his sensibility has had a huge influence on my work: I count on him to be the first to notice and valorize (to understand the profundity of) any aesthetic manifestation that channels the strange, the obscene, or the quiescent. He’s always a decade ahead of us—our cultural learning curves a belated simulation of his quickness. Highly stylish, his writing combines the

  • Wayne Koestenbaum


    1 Men’s Shoes Liberated from their long sleep of black and brown, men’s shoes have discovered blue, pink, red, and other bright, inappropriate colors: a major revisionary moment in the history of Western sartorial masculinity. I will wear my vintage 2000 yellow Prada driving slippers into the ground.

    2 Tristan und Isolde/Chuck & Buck Couples in heat: The Metropolitan Opera’s new production, magnanimously sung by Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen, taught me about torment and postponement (and caused me to murmur, “Now at last I understand the nineteenth century”), while Miguel Arteta’s


    LITERATURE MIGHT BE THE WRONG PLACE TO BEGIN. Invoking words, when looking at pictures, is cheating. Yet Cindy Sherman's work has consistently sidestepped photography's silent modality and seduced viewers with murmured tales, or their trappings. First came the Hollywood B-movie stories. Later, stories from pornography and horror films. Always, characters pulled her mise-en-scène's strings—the fetishist, the pervert, the voyeur, the cineast, the necrophiliac, the mad scientist, and the department-store window dresser left alone at night with undead, plastic incubi.

    The story I remembered on

  • James Schuyler

    WHY WRITE ART CRITICISM? FOR LOVE. Also, sometimes, for money. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why poet James Schuyler wrote so much of it. He was an associate editor of ARTnews from 1957 to 1962, and during that period he composed the bulk of the reviews and reflections gathered in the inestimably nourishing volume Selected Art Writings, edited by poet Simon Pettet and recently published by Black Sparrow Press. (Although Schuyler is always associated with the New York School poets, including Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, and Ron Padgett, his work, particularly his art criticism,

  • Wayne Koestenbaum

    1. Yayoi Kusama (Museum of Modern Art, Robert Miller Gallery, Peter Blum Gallery, New York) Nude bodies deserve to be seen and then covered with polka dots. One point of painting, after all, is to touch the body, repeatedly, obsessively. I love Kusama’s return from obscurity; her self-dramatization; her indefatigability; her one-after-another seriality; her willingness to baffle and bore and outlast her critics. Three cheers.

    2. The Gaiety This noble relic—strip bar, dance hall, tryst station, priapic parlor, variety show—still features consistently better performances than anywhere on

  • Todd Solondz’s Happiness

    THE EXPERIENCE OF CONFRONTING a work of art ideally disorganizes ones systems. Therefore it is difficult, as a critic, to organize one’s responses. Here again I display my disarray not out of careless disregard for common sense and the rules of exposition; rather, I write in a disjunct mode because Happiness, a film by Todd Solondz, has disorganized me.

    Rule no. 1 of criticism: Always blame the artifact.

    Happiness is one of those philosophical categories, strict and unfathomable, on which life depends but which no one understands and which no one has patented. Few have it, many want it; its

  • Vanessa Beecroft

    MY DESTINATION ON THURSDAY, April 23, 1998, was Vanessa Beecroft’s Show, at the Guggenheim Museum, but I began at the Tibor di Nagy Gallery, where Jane Freilicher’s new exhibition of paintings opened. I spent forty-five minutes absorbing their colors. I wish I had been a drop more moved. If I am not bowled over by a work of art, I usually blame myself: it’s the viewer’s duty to manufacture a passionate response. I certainly wanted to lose consciousness within Freilicher’s represented flowers, but I found myself wondering instead whether the time when I could undertake joyous fits of immobility


    A few hours after dawn I went to Rite Aid to research Andy Warhol.

    I was pleased to be up and about so early in the day.

    I discovered objects, variously priced, brightly boxed.

    I bought two rolls of Polaroid film and went home and took pictures of the interior of my medicine chest. They came out ugly and unfocused. To take a good Polaroid is more difficult than is commonly acknowledged.

    I visited Rite Aid because Warhol’s cosmetics and toiletries are on display in a vitrine at the Whitney Museum’s show, “The Warhol Look/Glamour Style Fashion.”

    If he used these products to prep his face for his Polaroid