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James Yood (1952–2018)

Chicago-based arts writer and educator James Yood, who once distilled the role of the critic as one who fulfills a responsibility “to look and think as hard as possible,” has died. A committed and eloquent assessor of Chicago artists, Yood was a professor of art history, theory, and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he also directed its New Arts Journalism program.

In addition to being a regional correspondent for art ltd magazine, Yood was a regular contributor to Artforum, Aperture, GLASS Quarterly, and Visual Art Source, among other publications. Yood also taught contemporary art theory and criticism at Northwestern University, where he was a lecturer and assistant chairperson in the department of art theory and practice, and served as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include Spirited Visions: Portraits of Chicago Artists (1991) and William Morris: Animal/Artifact (2001). 

After earning his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin in 1974, Yood received advanced degrees from the University of Chicago, where he studied art history. He started freelancing for the New Art Examiner and then became its Chicago managing editor.

While Yood amplified Chicago artists, he was not one to offer blind praise. In an early essay for the New Art Examiner, for instance, he challenged the local trend of organizing group shows of “emerging" artists: “It would be, quite simply, impossible to gauge trends in Chicago art by the work of these emergent artists, besides noting that young artists are the same everywhere: anything goes,” he mused. “Perhaps part of the cosmopolitanization of Chicago will be the loss of what some see as its idiosyncratic and fussy style.” The piece made an impression, and soon after it was published in 1986, he began reviewing exhibitions for national and international outlets like Artforum and Aperture.

A generous and nimble critic with wide-ranging interests, Yood described Chicago art critics’ obligation to usher the city’s artists into the broader conversation about contemporary art—a term he often questioned. “The world will move on,” he concluded recently in an essay in which he mulled over the very idea of contemporary art. “All art was once contemporary art, but no contemporary art can ever remain so. And that is exactly the way it should be.” 

Throughout his career, Yood remained devoted to championing Chicago artists and mentoring a younger generation of arts journalists. (Among his lodestars in the Chicago art world was critic Dennis Adrian, who died in February.) “This is a great center for contemporary art and artists, and our critics are in an interesting position to inform the rest of the world about it and them,” he said in an interview with Chicago Artists Resource. “If our local critics don’t write about Chicago artists, who will?”