I first met Karen Wilkin in the early 1990s when I was completing my undergraduate degree in art history at the University of Toronto. I remember being taken aback by the thought of a New York critic and art historian who flew in from New York every week to teach modern art. Her distinguished manner, independent spirit and the clarity with which she spoke about modernism made me an instant fan. She taught me the history of art criticism and lit a fire within me that continues to burn.
A New York native, Wilkin is an independent curator and critic specializing in 20th century modernism. She is the author of countless monographs, including volumes on Anthony Caro, Stuart Davis, Helen Frankenthaler, Edward Gorey, Hans Hofmann, Kenneth Noland, and David Smith.
She teaches at the Master of Fine Arts program of the New York Studio School. She is the contributing editor for art at the Hudson Review and a regular contributor to The New Criterion, Art in America, and the Wall Street Journal. She is also a board member of the Triangle Arts Association, which is headquartered in DUMBO, Brooklyn.
Our conversation emerged out of an informal exchange that made me wonder why I never interviewed her before about her perspective on the art world.
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Hrag Vartanian: One of the reasons I wanted to talk with you was that a while ago you mentioned how marginalized you felt in the art world and then I thought to myself, “Doesn’t most of the art world feel marginalized by the art world?” Can you explain what you meant?
Karen Wilkin: One of the things that I and my colleagues who teach at the Studio School often say to our students is that there’s art and there’s the art world, and they don’t necessarily overlap. Your phrase about most of the art world’s feeling marginalized by the art world seems accurate, although I tend to think of “the art world” as the public, publicity-driven, chic side of it. (See Derrida and the instability of meaning!)
What I mean is that the artists I’m interested in, whose work I follow closely, and with whom I’m often fortunate enough to have studio relationships are unlikely to be on the cover of Flash Art any time soon or to represent their countries at the Venice Biennale. That I was on the jury for the 2009 US pavilion still strikes me as one of the most improbable things I’ve ever done. I don’t go to art fairs and I go to openings only if I have a strong connection with the artist or it’s a show I’ve organized. I suppose I function as much as an art historian, which is my training, as a contemporary critic — I have close friends among artists and also among museum curators of various disciplines. My curatorial expertise is 20th century modernism. If I feel marginalized by the contemporary scene that doesn’t mean I wish I were at the center of it. Far from it. My sporadic contacts with the modish, elegant center — even before the bottom dropped out of things — haven’t made me wish to stay there permanently. I’m probably just too old and too set in my ways. Critics often get stuck with their generation. I’m probably missing the point and most of the mass culture allusions with a good deal of recent work, although I tend to think that if the work is good enough, meaning, however arcane will come through.
HV: That’s a fascinating point about resisting the “center” of the supposed art world. But then I wonder, is it all a media fabrication? Coincidentally, where do you receive your news about art and who do you read?
KW: Interesting question. It’s not all a media fabrication but there’s certainly an aspect of style or more accurately, stylishness, involved in what gets attention, sometimes at the expense of other qualities — to oversimplify. Enthusiasm for contemporary art, especially if it can be described as “challenging,” “provocative,” or “cutting edge” — all good things, when they’re real — and/or if it comes from somewhere exotic, confers status. Collecting art that can be described that way confers even more status, the way collecting old masters conferred status on newly minted millionaires in the late 19th century. And the cliche about current art professionals’ and art lovers’ being afraid of appearing reactionary or being afraid of missing out on something, if they don’t embrace the newest, most apparently outrageous thing, is, like most cliches, not untrue. How much of this will remain true given the change in the economy, I have no idea.
What do I read? I don’t subscribe to any art magazines, which avoids having my life invaded every month by things that infuriate or depress me. I receive publications I write for, of course, and the Studio School, where I teach in the Masters program, subscribes to everything, for the library, so I can skim, as needed. If there’s something I shouldn’t miss, I usually hear about it — sometimes from the subject or the author — so I make a point of finding it. I read regularly the arts coverage in the Times, the Observer (which has gotten a lot less interesting lately) and the Brooklyn Rail, regularly, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Peter Schjeldahl often surprises me, Arthur Danto always interests me, even when we have very different takes. I am a big fan of Michael Fried. Media savvy friends, as you know, send me links to specific things that they feel I should know about. I receive a lot of e-mail announcements from artists, galleries, and museums. Colleagues — curators and critics — and artist friends will recommend particular shows of people I may not otherwise know about. I visit a fair number of studios, and I try to get to all the exhibitions that include people I’m interested in or have connections with, or that have been recommended. It’s not very systematic.
HV: What advice do you generally give to young art critics who want to write about art and seem confused about how to pursue their passion? Also, in your view has the nature of the job of art criticism changed much over the years?
KW: Yikes! The best advice is probably “keep your day job.” This is not a well rewarded profession. The best perks are things like access to exhibitions without crowds. A few publications pay decently but most do not. The crucial thing is to keep looking, read critics who see and write well — and absorb Strunk and White The Elements of Style — and keep writing. Be willing to be wrong in public. There are no provable right answers. Resist fashion. Learn as much art history as you can. Read as widely as you can, to get a sense of the context of what you’re looking at — not everything was made last week. You know that I believe that the best criticism is informed by studio experience. It helps to know the nuts and bolts of what you’re looking at and knowing what artists think about and talk about is invaluable — or at least, I used to believe this, before pretentious artists’ statements and proscriptive artists’ explications began routinely to accompany works of art. Many established publications welcome short reviews by new voices, but you have to be willing to face rejection. I’m told the online world offers opportunities but you know a LOT more about that than I do.
Has the nature of the job changed? I think the critic’s responsibility remains to be faithful to his or her experience and to try to bring the reader along with that. There’s an obligation to think your way into the work and to inform yourself as widely and deeply as you can about the context in which the work was made. Ideally, criticism illuminates the work of art. One of the most interesting “critic’s credos” was written by the late, legendary Lane Faison, the professor of art history at Williams College who was responsible for turning what is now an astonishing number of present day American museum directors and curators onto art in the first place. They’d come to Williams as pre-med jocks and leave as passionate art historians. He succeeded Clem Greenberg as art critic of The Nation, in the early 1950s:
“First, to speak favorably of whatever promising new work I am able to review within the limits of a monthly column. Second, not to speak unfavorably of what I do not like unless the artist has an established reputation. Third, not to hesitate to attack an inflated reputation. Fourth, to balance to claims of past and present. Fifth, to write for informed consumers, not producers, of art — on the theory that criticism has little reason to expect to influence an artist — who, if he is any good, knows what he is about — and much reason to hope to develop a sympathetic audience for quality in art, wherever it may appear.”
HV: That’s an interesting argument about not criticizing artists that haven’t “arrived” yet but I honestly don’t understand that logic. Young artists need objective criticism of their work, don’t they? Shouldn’t we heed Oscar Wilde’s suggestion that the only thing worse that being talked about badly is not being talked about at all?
KW: I think Faison is saying that there’s no point in attacking something negatively if the artist is unformed and new. Give whoever it is time to mature and learn from seeing the work out in public. Just leave it alone and save your brilliant invective for a serious target. He wrote this, of course, long before it was not unusual for people just out of art school or not yet out of art school who had made six works to be showing. Young artists need rigorous criticism, but I think it’s more useful in the studio than when the work is out there. (Is there such a thing as objective criticism?)
HV: You’re absolutely right about there being no such thing as objective criticism, but I know that many artists don’t know where to turn for another opinion about their work from someone who isn’t their professor, friend or family member, but at the same time informed about art and articulate about what they like or dislike. And why do you think there is a craze for super young artists? What ever happened to the idea that artists should mature?
KW: A response from friends, colleagues, etc. is just fine, as long as the artist trusts the eye of the person responding. And sometimes people stay in touch with former professors. Family members probably carry too much baggage. Usually just looking at work in the presence of someone else sharpens the maker’s perceptions somehow. Ultimately, artists have to learn to take responsibility for their own decisions. The worst thing is being too easily pleased but at the same time, a certain amount of stubbornness born of confidence is required. It’s difficult and there are no simple answers or simple recipes. What works for some people is disastrous for others, but no one (except outsider artists) makes art in a vacuum. People build their own support systems. I get responses from the artists I write about or the curators whose shows I review that I find helpful and encouraging, and I spend a lot time talking to artists and looking at their work with them, or talking with curator colleagues.
What did happen to the idea that artists should mature? I suspect the craze for young, often unformed artists has something to do with the old fear of missing something, rejecting something later recognized as having merit or terror of appearing reactionary, un-hip, etc. — the usual hoary stories about how the Impressionists were seen as inept, etc. But it probably has more to do with the craze for youth culture in general, the wish to eliminate signs of aging and all the rest of it. It may have something to do with the short attention spans and desire for speed, in all aspects of life, in people who grew up with the rhythms and pace of MTV, TV news, and now tweeting. Art has become a pretty expendable commodity in some circles — check out the next new thing and then move on. There’s no need for staying power or evolution, just the quick fix, rapidly apprehended (to mix metaphors). A lot of the work of very young artists seems made with minimum effort, as a fast one liner, rather than as part of a growing body of work. But part of the explanation must be that much of the audience for contemporary art is young and likes to see work that speaks from its own set of assumptions and its own context. But I wonder if the willingness — or eagerness — of dealers to show half-baked work might not change, given the way the art world is changing in response to the economic climate, giving priority to artists with something of a track record. That’s speculation, of course.