PRINT March 2019



Gary Indiana, 1977. Photo: Marcia Resnick.

Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns 1985–1988, by Gary Indiana, edited by Bruce Hainley. New York: Semiotext(e). 600 pages.

THE FIRST THING to say about Gary Indiana as an art critic is that he was humane. His harshest judgments were arrayed against various forms of cruelty, lifelessness, and greed. That cruelty might be found in the glib sadism of a work like Tom Otterness’s Shot Dog Film, 1977, in which the artist executed an animal he got from a shelter; lifelessness, in the practice of exhibiting art in bank lobbies in the manner of a Chanel display (even if no fault of the work itself), or creating it by computer program. Greed was always in the air during the years Indiana was senior art critic for the Village Voice, writing the weekly columns from 1985 to 1988 now collected in Vile Days. These were the waning Reagan years. New York University was beginning to gobble up the East Village, and the fading vogue for neo-expressionism had set new standards for macho art-world hype. Indiana’s art writing registered the ongoing, US-abetted Contra massacres in Nicaragua, the apartheid torture regime still in place in South Africa, and the hole in the ozone layer (a crisis that now seems a quaint prologue to climate change). In his final Village Voice column, he mentioned that a writer for this magazine had once accused him of being “obsessed with AIDS.” What read to some at that time as obsession during an official looking-the-other-way phase reads three decades on as compassion and sanity amid horror.

Gary Indiana, Paris, 1981. Photo: Jean-Jacques Schuhl.

The second thing to say about Indiana as an art critic is that he was a meticulous reporter, routinely delivering exquisite descriptions of art objects. His warmest and most striking critical responses come in reaction to works that give off the strongest signs of life. His review of Garnett Puett’s 1985 show of beehive sculptures prompts a scrupulous elucidation of the artist’s process, the details of beekeeping, and the ways bees reproduce, make honey, and build hives. “Puett manipulates the populations of his beehives,” Indiana writes, “but maintains the integrity of their organic environment and the natural progression of the bees’ lives. His work involves nature as a friend and collaborator rather than an antagonist, animal husbandry instead of animal exploitation.” Life carries on, Indiana knew, both in liminal states and when our eyes are shut. He views Louise Bourgeois’s sculptures through the lens of the insomniac who, he says, “is used to seeing arms and legs growing out of walls and furniture.” Cindy Sherman’s photographs appeal for their archetype-shifting oneiric qualities, “a woman barking back at old myths quite ferociously.” Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, blasted as pornographic by right-wing scolds, “defines strong experience more intensely than an uninvolved, moralizing observer could.” He prized appropriation art for doing double duty as cultural criticism. He had no time for swollen canvases that functioned as posters advertising the egos of the bright boys who painted them.

Gary Indiana, New Delhi, 1995. Photo: Sylvia Plachy.

I point up Indiana’s decency and his technical virtuosity because these aren’t the qualities he’s known for, either by those who were around in the Village Voice era or by the younger generation currently curling up with Vile Days, a rather uncuddly title. In pointing out his “cynicism,” his “spleen,” and the ways he could be “acerbic” and “scathing,” none of his critics are wrong. These traits, uncommon at any time among professional critics, stand out all the more today because we live in an age of boosterism, filtered publicity, and cheery consensus. Ignore the trolls and you’ll notice what the late British critic Mark Fisher called “a kind of networked solipsism, a global system of individuals consuming an increasingly homogeneous culture alone in front of computer screens.” Mainstream critics are now expected to be flag wavers for the media they criticize, catering to audiences whose attention spans can’t be assumed and therefore must be constantly courted, lest they click away to something simple, narcotizing, like a streaming video or a top-ten list. In its heyday, the Village Voice, whose online incarnation was shuttered a year after it ceased print and about six weeks before the release of Vile Days, had a circulation of 150,000 and was the only New York paper besides the Times that reliably reviewed gallery shows while they were still up. Indiana was then (as now) a genuine renegade with a bullhorn. He was a gadfly with a prose style gorgeous enough to justify his strenuous dissents without recourse to institutional authority.

He’d been a playwright, a poet, an actor, and a contributor to both this magazine and Art in America before the Voice picked him up. After he ceased his art column, he continued as a reporter and occasional critic for the paper, and went on to write novels and make films and art, forging a multifarious and ongoing career conducted against the grain, to which Vile Days is an intriguing prelude. (Thanks to Semiotext[e] and Seven Stories Press, Indiana’s novels, such as Horse Crazy [1989], with its art-critic narrator, and Resentment [1997]—about the trial of the Menendez brothers, the first volume in his midcareer true-crime trilogy—have been creeping back into print.) In these columns, Indiana often betrayed his restlessness with the form of the art review. He had absorbed Renata Adler’s “unforgettable and long-needed evisceration” of Pauline Kael in 1980 as a warning that “the ante of hyperbole rises in proportion to just how frequently one is obliged to turn up the newest, the best, the most interesting thing in one’s field.” And indeed, Indiana was immune to superlatives, and always aware that he had to offer readers more than the sound of his own voice. 

Indiana was then (as now) a genuine renegade with a bullhorn.

His inaugural column sets out a portrait of a fictional artist he calls “Gaston Porcile Vitrine”—a celebrated, then discarded, practitioner of “Expressive Jismism,” a victim of his own hype, “failure being the equivalent of leprosy among the highest rollers in the art game,” now abandoned at an empty table in an overpriced restaurant—and prevails on the reader to order the sad man a kir royale. He occasionally enters a quasi-fictional diaristic mode in the manner of Adler’s 1976 novel, Speedboat (and his own 2003 novel, Do Everything in the Dark). There’s a column about spending Christmas and New Year’s Eves with a crowd of friends in front of a television set playing hours of a crackling Yule log (“the Warhol log”), the gay-porn video Inch by Inch (“video porn will undoubtedly replace all other kinds”), and the 1963 B movie They Saved Hitler’s Brain (“a sublime film noir about the origins of the Moral Majority”). One review elides all proper names to paint a dystopian picture of the East Village scene with a mixture of fiction and blind items. There are columns written in numbered paragraphs in homage to Kathy Acker: “3. Fuck you”; “9. To paraphrase Kathy Acker, I like this structure because it’s stupid. Language needs to be freed to do what it wants to and can’t do when it’s supposed to give you the satisfaction of thinking I care about jerking you off.” He writes of a reader who regularly rings him up at the Voice: “A deranged person figured out which three hours I spend every week at the newspaper office and started calling, barking congratulations for ‘really giving it to them.’ . . . ‘You’d know me,’ she threatened one day, ‘if you ran into me on Second Avenue!’ Quite unconsciously, I started to avoid Second Avenue whenever I could.”

These days, Indiana would have to avoid the internet. In his introduction to the collection, he acknowledges that he worked under very different conditions than those operative now. He was burdened with neither generating traffic nor anticipating the reactions of social media. You can imagine gangs of stans instantly calling for his scalp over his cutting down, say, painter Julian Schnabel (whom Indiana eviscerated by collaging quotations from his own adoring press with news snippets about Reagan and Rambo), or New Yorker doyenne Janet Malcolm, a writer governed by “the inner logic of the intractable bourgeoisie,” when she ventured into bohemia to profile the then editor of this magazine, Ingrid Sischy, in 1986. I wince imagining his columns being printed under SEO-friendly headlines: “Sherrie Levine’s New Show Is the Allergic Reaction to the Commodified Art World We Need Now.” Early on, the internet offered a few liberations to cultural journalists, but lately it’s mostly freed writers to be lazy with their prose while it straitens the acceptable forms of discourse. Indiana’s strong opinions and experiments in style and structure testify to his and his editors’ confidence in their mission to treat criticism as a practice that at least matches its objects. Vile Days is a jolting reminder that there were once prominent critics who viewed the dominant culture of their day not with occasional skepticism but permanent hostility.

Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in New York.