TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT Summer 2000

books

Jed Perl

JED PERL ISN’T WRONG about everything, but even when he’s right, he’s wrong. Perl is right to be suspicious of academics—most of us are far from brilliant. And he’s right to be suspicious of journalism, almost all of which is dreadful. And he’s probably also right that many dealers only like what sells. But in turning away from the “vanguard” of the contemporary art world, he is wrong to look to the tweedy, “cultured” intelligentsia for the true vine: Whether neo-con or old left, their ideas about art tend to be obtuse.

A Hilton Kramer protegé formerly of the New Criterion, Perl has been the art critic of the New Republic for the past six years, but while writing for one of the few literate magazines in America, he is little read by what he calls the “public” art world, that of slick art magazines and big galleries. Along with John Canaday (who wrote for the New York Times), Kramer (formerly of the New York Times, currently of the New Criterion and the New York Observer), and Robert Hughes (Time magazine), Perl belongs to that strange tradition of art critics who are at odds with the art world at large—something for which there is no precise parallel, certainly not in the worlds of mass-circulation film or music criticism, for example.

As revealed in this collection of his writings, Perl’s critique of the current art situation in New York is right-wing, but curiously not unlike that made by the art world’s more liberal denizens. One often hears left-leaning artists of a certain age complaining that SoHo in the ’70s was about art, while Chelsea today is all about money, and Perl couldn’t agree more. In the opening essay, entitled “The Entertainment Industry,” Perl rehearses these charges, arguing that the culture of celebrity is destroying the art world—again, a position often echoed by liberals. But oddly, Perl singles out Cindy Sherman to represent the corruption of the art-star system. This is ridiculous. While Sherman certainly has received a great deal of attention, she is hardly a no-talent schemer duping an unsuspecting audience—she is no Damian Loeb. But perhaps there’s something else bothering Perl. Sherman represents the self as constructed from the outside, usually through the media, rather than as expressing itself from the inside. She also hints that art objects have a life beyond the studio. Perl, on the other hand, champions the art object (and artist) that stands “free” of external concerns, which is to say everything from market pressures to historical conditions.

Perl’s willful disavowal of any kind of non-art context amounts to nothing more than intellectual breeziness. Like Dave Hickey, to whom he gives mixed reviews, Perl seems to fancy himself an enlightened man of the world (or at least a man about town) dodging crowds of stuffy academics. But Perl’s world, unlike Hickey’s, is quite small, filled with a very particular kind of painting. Perl prefers figurative work (Stanley Lewis), although some of his examples are abstract (Bill Jensen). He tends to favor simplified, semi-cubist figures arranged in complex compositions that bear allegorical meaning (Gabriel Laderman). The paintings often depict the artist in the studio (Leland Bell); those that don’t dwell on the creative crucible tend nonetheless to be expressive in a conventional way.

Much of this work is simply mediocre, and since Perl’s claim to “sensibility” is his whole game, bad judgments destroy his credibility. He is the kind of middlebrow contrarian who fancies himself shocking when making an argument for the late Braque (as he does here). But while Braque is a decent artist, he simply doesn’t have Picasso’s brilliance, and his late work is boring and mucky. Similarly, preferring Gabriel Laderman to Chuck Close isn’t original thinking—it’s blind nostalgia for something that never was.

In general, Perl has a peculiar sense of time. “The Art of Seeing,” the final section of the book, amounts to a jeremiad against “the big-bang theory of seeing”—what he perceives as the conspiracy to make art that caters to our short attention span. Conflating cultural phenomena like the desire for the new (Pop) and the desire for immediacy or the “now” (Minimalism), his argument caricatures the ideas of Michael Fried and other serious, ambitious critics. The work that he champions as soliciting a “long look” belongs exclusively to the past (Chardin) or to older artists (Joan Snyder). Perl allows neither for the possibility of art that addresses contemporary habits of seeing in an ambivalent way, such as the paintings of Agnes Martin and David Reed, nor, ironically, for works in those very media—video, performance—that demand our time.

In a way Perl seems to be arguing for a culture and for artists who are no more accomplished, brilliant, or relevant than Perl himself. It’s a middlebrow context that makes him look good. He complains that artists Barbara Goodstein and Trevor Winkfield are insufficiently known and rewarded, but he seems to be making a sideways complaint about his own position of being beside-the-point. A bad review in Artforum, house organ of the mainstream New York art world, can only be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Katy Siegel is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

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Jed Perl, Eyewitness: Reports From an Art World in Crisis. New York: Basic Books, 2000, 330 pages.