New York

Kim Levin

“I make lists of things to do and follow them. Lately, my pocket calendar doesn’t seem adequate, so I’ve taken to making out a list on a new three-by-five card every two or three days. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to cross an item off the list. The items even include things like ‘studio,’ which simply means go to the studio that day and paint.” The words are Peter Plagens’s, from a 2005 lecture at the University of Southern California, but they might just as easily have been uttered by Kim Levin.

Except that Levin doesn’t even paint—she’s “just” a veteran New York critic and curator—though she does share Plagens’s organizational penchant, and recently conjured up an exhibition at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts from little more than her own lists (identified, more precisely, as “Notes and Itineraries, 1976–2004”). Levin’s rundowns, most written on the backs of galleries’ invitation cards, are of exhibitions in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens—hundreds and hundreds of them—and were compiled, prioritized, color-coded, annotated, and (at the suggestion of a European museum director) squirreled away over the course of a twenty-year career as a regular contributor to the Village Voice.

Such a meta project (it is perhaps only the curatorial input of John Salvest, who also organized an exhibition of material from Levin’s archive at Marshall Arts, Memphis, in 2003, that might qualify these records as art in their own right) recalls other self-reflexive gambits like Simon Linke’s paintings of gallery advertisements, as well as the many and varied uses to which lists have been put by artists including Angela Bulloch, Danica Phelps, and Emma Kay. They also, of course, recall the kinds of jottings, doodles, and shopping lists that, when they’re the products of famous hands, often end up preserved in museums or selling for outrageous sums on eBay; while extremely well respected in her field, though, Levin is hardly famous enough to attract attention from the autograph-hunting crowd.

So where precisely does the interest of these artifacts—which include pristine-looking cards and annotated press releases as well as lists—lie? Part of their appeal is surely that of the snapshot or time capsule: Viewers responded differently according to the extent to which their own exhibition-visiting histories intersected with Levin’s, but most clearly appreciated the way in which this collection continues to map an ever-changing scene. The ebb and flow of artists’ names, thematic curatorial conceits, and trends in graphic design is immediately absorbing, while the number of cards and press releases promoting once powerful dealerships that are no longer extant (John Gibson Gallery, John Weber Gallery, International With Monument), neighborhoods currently peripheral to the main art drag (the East Village, especially), and personalities that are no longer with us (an invitation to a 1987 show at Nature Morte paid tribute to Steven Parrino) gave sobering pause.

But beyond the ephemera’s commemorative souvenir value was something a little less geekish. Ultimately, what makes Levin’s lists significant is their function as diagrams of the thought processes of an individual working critic. Even if we can’t precisely decipher her system of stars and circlings, we can observe her finding her way, changing her mind, deciding what’s important, and recording first impressions. The dense, detailed look of the installation was attractive, but more telling—and often hilarious—were the spontaneous, personal reminders: FOR SQUIRRELS? by a sketch of a spiral staircase from a Jene Highstein show at Pamela Auchincloss Project Space; STILL IN SCHOOL! jotted incredulously on a Jules de Balincourt card from LFL. Levin is a consummate insider but here arrived at a kind of unlikely outsider art, complete with the graphomania with which it is often associated—though viewers doubtful of the sanity of critics in general will perhaps have been less surprised by the parallel.

Michael Wilson