Jarrett Earnest has devoted the past few years to interviewing many of the art critics who came before him. David Zwirner Books recently anthologized these conversations into an exciting new book, which invites us into an oral history of art criticism in the US in the 20th and early 21st centuries.
What It Means to Write About Art: Interviews with Art Critics is a rare kind of book. Most art-world interview compilations include artists, curators, dealers, and critics. Books on critics usually present their most discussed essays. So this book is a departure from these formats.
According to Earnest, putting the collection together wasn’t an easy task. Some subjects were reluctant to grant interviews, but were eventually won over by the project and Earnest’s relentless work ethic. And yes, not everyone embraces the term “critic,” even though they write about art. But semantics aside, this book is a must-read for anyone who cares about art writing in the US.
However, the book’s title, What It Means to Write About Art, is too broad. The book focuses on 20th-century art critics working in the US, many of whom were involved in the New York art scene. This is not a fatal flaw or a literary deal breaker. But let’s not kid ourselves — what it means to write about art in Paris, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Sydney, Cairo, Montreal, or Mumbai is different. So, a narrower title would have been more accurate.
Earnest has skin in the game when it comes to art criticism in New York. He has been publishing art reviews and interviews for years in the Brooklyn Rail, and his writing has also appeared in Art and America and The Village Voice. Some of us, like myself, were lucky enough to takes his art school classes at the Bruce High Quality Foundation University between 2014 and 2017. This book reveals the scale of his ambition and the depth of his dedication to the discipline of art criticism.
“I tried to get people to say something fresh — perhaps something publicly for the first time,” Earnest said to me over tea. And he succeeded at creating a safe space for many famous critics to open up and put into print parts of their story they’ve never revealed to the public before.
There is the running theme of how critics have had their fair share of alienating social situations in the art world, as well as work outside the arts to pay the bills. Lucy Lippard talks about how Clement Greenberg once demeaned her at an event by telling her she looked like a school teacher from Queens. To add insult to injury, he invited her to a party but then ignored her. Darby English was ostracized by other black students in colleges because of his reluctance to turn up at the Black Student Union meetings because of nuanced, intellectual reasons. Thyrza Nicholas-Goodeve opens up about becoming entangled in a lesbian love triangle with a graduate school professor. Jerry Saltz once worked as a truck driver to pay the bills. This is the tip of the iceberg.
What It Means to Write About Art broadly defines the art critic. It includes interviews with university professors like Darby English, Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Michael Fried, Douglas Crimp, Huey Copeland, Molly Nesbit, and Kellie Jones. It also includes many writers who contribute to newspapers and other art periodicals, like Hilton Als, Roberta Smith, Barbara Rose, John Yau, Peter Schjeldahl, Jerry Saltz, and Lucy Lippard. There are also poets, novelists, essayists, and songwriters whose forays into art writing have enriched the discourse, like Siri Hustvedt, John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, Dave Hickey, Eileen Myles, and Lynne Tillman. The book does, however, leave out younger critics. “I wanted to focus on people who’ve been in it for the long haul, with 20- or 30-plus years of writing,” Earnest explained.
At the book launch at the New York Art Book Fair this past Sunday, a room at MoMA PS1 dubbed “The Classroom” was completely packed. Earnest held a conversation with Lynne Tillman that culminated with a lively question-and-answer session with the audience. It was surprising to watch the room focus like a laser on unpacking a statement Rosalind Krauss shared with Earnest during their interview. “One of the things that absolutely drove me crazy was the notion of pluralism that dominated art criticism in the 1970s — anything goes,” she says. “I was completing obsessed with torpedoing the idea of pluralism … I think my need for structuralism had to do with finding a way to demonstrate the inevitability of one and, and only one, possibility. ” That obviously doesn’t sit well with today’s sensibilities. The public was so excited about responding to Krauss that we ran past the allotted time. And seriously, that’s a sentence I never thought I would ever write.
The good news is that the conversation will continue. A book tour and a series of public events are planned, including an upcoming conversation between Molly Nesbit, Earnest, and Krauss herself.
What It Means to Write About Art: Interviews with Art Critics by Jarret Earnest is now out from David Zwirner Books. As part of a series of upcoming events, Jarret Earnest will be in conversation with Rosalind Krauss and Molly Nesbit at David Zwirner (525 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) on Wednesday, October 24, 7pm.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.