James Yood (1952–2018)

James Yood. Photo: the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

IN 1989, the same year I started graduate school at Northwestern University, Jim Yood was hired as the college’s lecturer and assistant chair in the department of art theory and practice. He had stepped in to take the reins from the cantankerous art critic Dennis Adrian, who was proudly dispassionate about anything that diverged from a Chicago Imagist tradition. It was here where my deep and enduring respect for him began.

For the past twenty-nine years, Jim has never stopped teaching me. He taught me the virtue of the art review. As a spirited advocate for Chicago, he underscored the cultural value of living and working in Middle America. As a mentor, he impressed upon me the obligation to nurture and make room for new generations of critical voices. And, moreover, he understood contemporary art and art histories to be a vast and interconnected contextual whole.

Yet even before instilling in me an obligation to criticalness, Jim modeled a generous, supportive, and curious spirit. My time in graduate school coincided with the birth of my first kid. Jim was the only faculty member in the department who afforded me the dignity to work from home instead of in the assigned studio building on Colfax Street in Evanston, a few blocks from the Lakeside campus. At the same time, I was also swayed by his challenging curricula that commingled established Chicago practices with a new wave of yet untested conceptual artists who had recently emerged from of the School of the Art Institute. His was a classroom where Gaylen Gerber, Jeanne Dunning, Tony Tasset, Mitchell Kane, and Hirsch Perlman were examined and theorized alongside Hollis Sigler, Karl Wirsum, Edward Flood, Roger Brown, and Ellen Lanyon.

Critical analysis, for Jim, was not harsh, aggressive, or without imagination. He made it plain to his students that criticalness was not taste or discernment but instead active and committed in description and context-giving. With history and the cultural forces of contemporaneity, Jim measured material culture. Acting on his words and zeal, Jim contributed many hundreds of reviews to a wide variety of local and international publications throughout his life. Over the course of three decades, he contributed 203 reviews to Artforum alone. From his Midwestern perch, he deployed his freedom to reject the hierarchies that separated craft from art. A regular contributor to American Craft and GLASS Magazine, he championed ideas instead of technique, form instead of medium. Within the covers of GLASS, he fluently evaluated exhibitions by traditionally celebrated glass artists such as Dale Chihuly, Laura Donefer, Richard Whiteley, and Ginny Ruffner as readily as he reviewed the unsung work of Josiah McElheny, John Torreano, Dan Flavin, Tania Pérez Córdova, Keith Sonnier, Christine Tarkowski, Anne Wilson, and Monika Wulfers.

Jim also eschewed the authority afforded by academic specialization in favor of breadth and depth. He was a polymath who valued a generalist’s pursuit for critical well-roundedness. He shared his aptitude to write across varying artistic fields in his class offerings. The chair of the New Arts Journalism program at the School of the Art Institute, this past spring he was also teaching two art history classes: “Southern Baroque” and “Chicago in Art & Architecture.”

In a city that doesn't support a vast field of arts journalism, he made space for my urgent and presumptuously young voice. This was his first gift to me, but not his last; in Jim’s death, I lost a teacher, a mentor, and a colleague. His belief in a criticism of ethical engagement—one that demanded a lifelong dedication to writing and teaching—was also a gift to the history of artmaking in Chicago, and certainly to its future.

Michelle Grabner is an artist, curator, and writer.