PRINT September 1993

*ARTFORUM ’80 - ’93*

Waldo Rising

THE MOMENT HE opened his mouth, I fell in love with Waldo Lydecker. For most, I assume, Gene Tierney was the star of Otto Preminger’s Laura, of 1944, but I remained steadfastly focused on Clifton Webb, Laura’s caustic mentor. It was my first look at a critic and I liked what I saw—and heard. It didn’t matter that he was an unapologetic murderer. No, what I responded to was an acidic esthete who used language like a polo player uses a mallet—to keep the game moving and score.

The film essentially pits a man of action (Dana Andrews) against a man of words (Webb), and from my then-adolescent point of view, the words were winning right up until the wordsmith became full-stop punctuation for a shotgun blast. However, long before his buckshot blackout, I could have cared less if Waldo was innocent or guilty. I was particularly enthralled by the way he revenged himself on a painter named Jacobi, who dared to compete with him for Laura’s affections. Lydecker gleefully removed his opponent by means of a review. Airily describing his strategy to Dana Andrews, he says: “I demolished his affectations, exposed his camouflaged imitations of better painters, ridiculed his theories.” And, he adds, “I did it for her. . . . ”

Après Waldo
The movies adore critics and treat them like critics treat each other—abominably. Frequently they’re portrayed as evil, often as effete, and inevitably as cynics. After Waldo, my favorites were that silken viper Addison DeWitt (George Sanders, All About Eve, 1950), the murderously egalitarian Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas in the movie version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, 1949), and the exquisitely melancholy Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave, Secret Beyond the Door, 1948). DeWitt is a gloriously, wickedly opportunistic twin of Lydecker. Toohey and Lamphere are, however, something entirely different. Not content to merely tussle on the upholstered wrestling mat of esthetic discourse, they are out to choreograph crucifixions. Toohey is a virtual Inspector Javert of conservatism. There is, in his campaign against difference (waged in a column entitled “One Small Voice”), something creepily akin to his fancifully named, real-life comrade, Hilton Kramer.

Lamphere is harder to pin down. He has a rather lovely theory that revolves around “felicity,” but, in application, his theory is bonkers—the kind of bonkers that, applied medicinally, could kill. Still, his search for the felicitous does not take place in opposition to the new; it simply asks that the new be given the time to be acted upon by its own period. The problem is, of course, that nobody has that kind of time. It also suggests that there is something truly laudable in the spontaneous willfulness of a Lydecker or a DeWitt. Their worth is in their ability to secure a position on the mat. Sometimes they’re on top; sometimes on the bottom. That’s not the point. The point is their expertise at the holds and their eagerness for a competitor who’s worthy of engagement.

Title Search
I am constantly on the lookout for Waldo’s real-life counterparts—critics who create a consistent persona from which their criticism flows—but have met with scant success. By 1980, most of the great polemicists had, like the bison, wandered over the horizon. What replaced them were essentially recipe writers, fortune tellers, quota counters, bricklayers, and coroners. Art criticism had moved from the barricades to the census bureau and seemed to be heading for the morgue. One searched with growing desperation through the dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies for a voice that could carry over the oceans of white noise. Infrequently, as if from a great distance, one heard the laconic drawl of Dave Hickey or the high-strung bark of Stuart Morgan (the clarity of their diction perhaps enhanced by their remove from New York). Closer to home, the voices were somewhat more collegial, with Peter Schjeldahl as the wryly detached housemaster and Roberta Smith as the dedicated, thermometer-wielding school physician. Other voices trembled in the air—Arthur Danto, Herbert Muschamp, Carter Ratcliff—only to drift back off into the academic grove. Then too came sounds that, for a moment, miraculously altered the way one heard. I am thinking of Rene Ricard’s remarkable belcanto arias for Schnabel and Basquiat and Edit deAk’s chansons d’amour for Clemente. Equally remarkable—as much for its sustained pitch as for its content—was Gary Indiana’s schizy, weekly scherzo in The Village Voice.

Indiana came as close as we’re likely to get to a flesh-and-blood Lydecker. Week after week, in a column that resembled nothing so much as a brilliantly idiosyncratic lounge act, he matched the jittery rhythm of an art world dancing on the edge of the abyss. He started out with a tempo that was impossible to sustain and gradually began to display signs, as Longfellow said of Poe, of “the irritation of a sensitive nature chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong.” The wrong, I suspect, was the obvious economic and social inequality between a writer and his subject—an inequality that grew ever more pronounced as the gluttonous ’80s careened forward. Finally there was a column where Indiana was in a gallery looking out the window at a Marlboro billboard (and away from an exhibition he had intended to review) and rambling on about his attempts to quit smoking. I knew he had come to the end and so, I believe, did he. Not long after, he stopped the column. Nonetheless, Indiana went out as he had arrived—completely, uninhibitedly himself. Reading him addictively, being allowed to share in his struggle to find reasons to keep writing and looking, was an exhilarating roller coaster ride. He was a perfect example of H. L. Mencken’s theory that “all the best criticism of the world has been written by men who have had within them, not only the reflective and analytical faculty of critics, but also the gusto of artists.”

Give Me a Club
Now, we’re in the ’90s. Indiana isn’t writing about art. DeAk isn’t writing. Ricard is reminiscing. Hickey and Morgan, Schjeldahl and Smith, are, thank God, still on the beat. Muschamp is filing some of the best architectural columns ever to run in the New York Times. And, good news, there are some writers new to the decade (I’ll apply Lamphere’s “felicity” theory and let them age into their time) who are producing some appropriately edgy harmonies.

Still, I am troubled by signs of rising Tooheyism, as, for example, when the lead critic for the New York Times begins his review of the last Whitney Biennial with the phrase “I hate it.” Never mind that Smith had already written a provocatively measured piece to coincide with the public opening. Weeks later—with presumably much more time to analyze the exhibition—encountering “I hate it” was like walking out your front door to find a cross burning on the lawn. Indiana earned his first-person pronouns; he had clearly established who “I” was. The lead critic for the Times had not. Coming from him, the phrase was the petulant whine of a spoiled consumer, and that is exactly what a critic is not. A critic must be a creator, must fight against the emptiness that is the artist’s greatest enemy and challenge. Without that goal—the desire to craft something that is competitive with and, at best, equal to its subject—there is no criticism. There is only a tired butler passing a tray of stale hors d’oeuvres.

Richard Flood is currently the director of the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York. He worked in various capacities at Artforum in the early 1980s and was managing editor of the magazine from April 1980 to November 1980.