PRINT March 1999


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, makes as much sense in a variety of other contexts, from its American Renaissance precursors [Thoreau’s journals, Dickinson’s letters] to the Francophone novelistic essay [Edmond Jabès, Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, Georges Perec].)

In writing art reviews as intensively as he did in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Schuyler found a way to indulge his taste for descriptive sentences that needn’t be teleological, autobiographical, or narrative—sentences that could focus on an object (the artwork) but could also replace and dominate it. His art reviews were often hyperliterary, but they achieved their literariness by seeming to evade the literary altogether. Criticism, not a parasitic genre, is governed by the same charmed tenets as poetry, as Schuyler intimates in a review of the artist Seymour Remenick: “His work had a kind of clumsiness, a telling lack of facility, a crabbed independence, like that of Thoreau: ‘What care I where the off-ox treads? I plough another furrow than you see.’ Those sentences scan: but Thoreau wrote them out as prose. Well, Emerson told him he wasn’t a poet so he stopped writing verse. But he couldn’t help it; he was an artist beyond Emerson’s conceiving.” So, too, was Schuyler an artist of an elusiveness beyond the pat division of labor between poetry and essay.

The aesthetic that emerges from his reviews (which resemble, in their playful syntax and their cheerful compactness, the arch squibs that Marianne Moore wrote for The Dial) is a devotion to his present moment—not because he nursed a soft-focus Jove for ineffable blooming Woolfian instants, but because he understood that now, even if ugly or abrasive, may be all we are allowed. In a review of Fairfield Porter’s paintings, Schuyler states what might be taken as his own credo: “Look now. It will never be more fascinating.” Taking pleasure in presentness involves a necessary fondness for accident and error: “It is a play of ideas, as beautiful as briefly grasping a logical sequence, or perceiving how one might come into being, a sequence of which the canceled steps, the false turns or hesitancies are not lost, and whose consideration is found a necessary prelude to the blue, yellow and red formulations of a process which evolves toward no conclusion, but whose direction is its proof, whose offshoots—its pauses and incidentals—are its aim.” That grand sentence describes a Paul Burlin painting (who is Paul Burlin?), but it also sketches the movement of a poem or an essay, or a poem-essay like Schuyler’s “The Morning of the Poem,” which begins and ends with an address to his friend the painter Darragh Park and is therefore also an essay on painting. Schuyler saw, in art, a liberty that was absent from the more calcified literary circles: He found, in looking at and writing about expressionist painting, whether figurative or abstract, a pretext for focused, eye-rewarding, felicitously paced play.

Schuyler was an appreciator. Most of his reviews are favorable. He didn’t bother to go into print hating something. Liking is itself an art, and a difficult one. Schuyler especially liked painting. (He may also have appreciated photography and after his years at ARTnews, performance and installation, but he didn’t review them.) Indeed, his tastes in art may strike some readers as tame, even conservative. Among the painters he sympathetically discussed are Fairfield Porter (with whom he lived, as permanent houseguest, for many years), Alex Katz, John Button, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Roy Lichtenstein, Anne Dunn, Kenneth Noland, Michael Goldberg, Joe Brainard, and a host of others whose names are, to me, less familiar and don’t, I imagine, much appear in the pages of this magazine. The list of painters he appreciated cannot be advanced as his canon: These were simply the painters in his milieu, or else the painters whose shows ARTnews was in the business of covering. Schuyler didn’t foresee the directions that vanguard art would take in the ’60s and ’70s (or beyond), but he didn’t set out to be an influential critic. That he wrote about paintings, and not roses, is partly happenstance; he might have written just as eloquently and perceptively about gardening or cooking.

Unconcerned with shaping art history, Schuyler used his understated reviews to practice certain poetic effects, with rare, idiosyncratic density. He put unusual words together to short-circuit humdrum comprehension; he found new ways to describe color and to enter the life of paint; he used negation to express something present, not absent; he employed dissolves, largely through the verb “to be,” so that perceived objects metamorphose into their likenesses; he used repetition to flatten differences; he spread syntactic members out with deceptive evenness so that the entire sentence seems to be happening on a single plane, as in an “allover” painting.

Unusual words. His exacerbated, mellifluent diction calls attention to the surfaces of his sentences. He notes a Burlin painting’s “rough reds and blues on the blue-occluded white, scumbled with pink”; he enjoys an Edward Hopper painting’s depiction of “tense walls, calm, fat furniture, a complex of shadows and apertures, the unregimentable arithmetic of the ocean”; and in an Esteban Vicente collage he notes “the sharpness of eye that values an ooze of glue” (emphases mine).

The coloristic life of paint. Schuyler makes theater of a painting’s expressive surface, as when he describes, in a canvas by Antoni Tàpies, “a wriggle of pigment perched, like a slipped wig, on a corner of a pocked chunk,” or when a woman’s brown jumper in a Hilda Ward painting is “an earthy bed from which the bright tube colors flourish and curve, ” or when, for Lyonel Feininger, “blue light hastens into violet, ” and “brown is discriminated from black for the joy of making fine distinctions.”

Negations that express presence. This effect he borrowed, perhaps, from Marianne Moore, with her predilect ion for words like “unegoistic,” “gossipless,” “unexaggeratedly denominated,” and “unpanoplied.” Such negatives provide the pleasure of an atmosphere half-there, half-gone. He notes in Ludwig Sander “a dulled un-heavy purple”; he finds in a Nell Blaine painting that “the no-color city in the soot-colored air turns out to be all color” ; in Porter he seizes “a bouquet of not-too-defined phlox,” and then “a silkily-stroked unobtrusiveness” ; and he understands that “the quickening calm of swift orange, red, yellow” in a Franz Kline can be “unharrowing as laughter.”

Dissolves that hasten metamorphosis. His most characteristic dissolves happen through the use of the verb “to be,” as in the lovely sentence describing Rauschenberg’s 1958 Talisman: “A stain is slowed under silk.” Past, present, and future perception shape each other: Schuyler cares about “things as they are in the light of what they were, of what it seemed they would become.” Geography, too, plays musical chairs: A Jane Wilson painting depicts “a New York room on a brilliant winter day in Iowa.” Schuyler often savors sky’s waveringness: In a Freilicher painting he sees that “the blue that centers one is not a river, for all its skyness,” and in a Darragh Park painting, “sky as light source is everywhere adumbrated, though often scarcely in the picture, and sometimes not at all. ”

Repetitions. Like Gertrude Stein, Schuyler is interested in attaining or mimicking the state of still life, the somnolence of objects on tables and. of bodies on chairs, and he repeats words so that the thing depicted can evaporate and then reappear, more solid because of its episode of evaporation. In a Milton Resnick picture, Schuyler appreciates “showers of petals that aren’t petals.” Admiring Friedel Dzubas’s painterly skill, Schuyler writes, “ It is conquering it that has allowed it to express itself”: Four forms of “it,” in one sentence, baffle the difference between expression and containment.

Syntactic members spread out for an “allover” simultaneity. All parts of the sentence sometimes seem to be existing on the same plane, in the same instant of apprehension. In the following sentence about a Freilicher painting, the verb “is” is pivot for an equation that holds true only for the duration of the sentence and then dissipates: “An arabesque of paint is a stroke securely attached to a thin scrubbing it abuts on.” The movement of a blob of paint across the screen of perception exists for the exact length of the following sentence about a Michael Goldberg painting: “Gratuitously wandering across the surface a fat white blob tails off.” A missing comma gives that sentence its poetry. Put the comma back in, and see what happens: “Gratuitously wandering across the surface, a fat white blob tails off.” The comma imposes a temporal grid; “wandering” becomes subordinate to the fat blob’s static identity as a subject. Without the comma, the fat white blob is free to wander across the surface for an unmeasured stretch of time.

For all of Schuyler’s connection to a heroic moment in painting, I take him, in his critical and poetic practice, to be an entirely postheroic artist, a consciously indolent and anti psychological observer mostly interested in the drift of static across an unpoliced surface, a movement compelling because of its apparent randomness. He was a major apostle of extraneous, minor pleasures. I eagerly await the (re)publication of his complete prose—novels, stories, letters.