New York

“Critics as Artists”

Andre Zarre Gallery

It goes without saying that every critic is a failed artist, bitterly transforming his resentment and disaffection into superfluous analytical bitchiness. Those who can, do, and those who can’t, write criticism. As if to give credence to the stereotype, by and large the works in “Critics as Artists” demonstrated about the same level of quality as a collection of thrift-store paintings; if you were looking for technical virtuosity or esthetic vision, there was no point in looking here, even though taken as a whole the works could have comprised a great conceptual maneuver à la Jim Shaw. To be fair, a few critics/artists managed not to embarrass themselves (such as Peter Plagens and Robert Storr, who both began their artworld careers as painters), and many of the works in the show were small in scale, tentative, private, experimental, indicative more of learning by doing than of tilting at Art windmills. Surely it’s a bit mean-spirited to beat up on critics who have been forced to enter the SoHo grand prix with training wheels; then again, though we rarely have to draw pictures to accompany our texts, we do like to pick apart those awkwardly written artist statements so maybe we deserve it.

One of the show’s avowed aims was to enable you to compare a critic’s verbal and visual work, to see how he puts the proof in the pudding. This aim was undermined by the fact that few of the critics were exactly household names, so you were left comparing, say, Vivien Raynor’s watercolor doodling A Size 8 Cat in a Size 7 Box, with thin air—or worse, with a preconceived notion about what bad critics/artists are. To this end, a presentation of some biographical or critical information would have been helpful. In the case of better-known critics such as Clement Greenberg, the compare/contrast exercise still seemed relatively pointless. In his case it’s not even a matter of putting the proof in the pudding, since it would be overdoing it to say that his well-executed if conservative and nondescript watercolors contradict his championship of Abstract Expressionism; the simple phrase “For Vera” inscribed at the bottom of each picture situates the work better than Greenberg’s exegetical oeuvre does.

In the final analysis, the relations between Greenberg’s (or anyone else’s) art and criticism may be less significant than the underlying question of whether someone who excels at a verbal medium can master a visual one, or vice versa. Are there different mental faculties at play in the two different kinds of work? It’s a question that has puzzled philosophers as great as Spinoza, though today it seems to have become the province of child psychologists and curators. “Critics as Artists” ended up making a case for the separation of the faculties, providing enough proof to convince anyone who still needs convincing that those who prevail in one area tend to fail rather miserably in the other.

Keith Seward