“Self-portrait” (detail), 1973, Francis Bacon (Photo, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Remember the furor when Dale Peck anointed Rick Moody “the worst writer of his generation” in the New Republic a few years back? Or when James Wood said, also in TNR, that John Updike was so solipsistic that he might, at times, not even qualify as a novelist?

This month, it’s the art critic Jed Perl who’s hopping aboard the magazine’s trademark negative-superlative train. Perl returns from a Francis Bacon exhibition in New York to pronounce the artist “The Worst Painter of the 20th-century.”

Many critics, including the Globe’s Sebastian Smee, have mixed feelings about Bacon (although others consider him Britain’s finest post-war painter). But there is zero ambivalence in Perl’s take:

What Bacon produced are not paintings … They are little more than rectangles of canvas inscribed with nouirish graffiti: angst for dummies. Bacon turned his clever little quotations from the masters, old or modern, into the twentieth century’s most august visual claptrap.

Bacon’s essential problem, to Perl: he subordinated artisanal craft to “attitudinizing” and the fashioning of a renegade-artist persona. (In 1962, Vogue ran a photo of Bacon posing shirtless beside two animal carcasses; carcasses had appeared in some of his paintings.) Viewing an artist’s temperament, or the events of his life, as the source of an artist’s power is a fatal mistake, Perl suggests. It renders the work itself an afterthought. It can’t stand on its own. This is notably the case, Perl argues, with a painting that shows one of Bacon’s former lovers sprawling on a toilet, dying of an overdose (as actually happened): it relies on “tabloid frisson” for its limited power.

Bacon’s error of elevating biography and identity over craft is hardly his alone, Perl contends. It is, rather, a besetting artistic sin of our time.

Christopher Shea
Boston Globe

Note: For several other reviews of the show, search this site under Francis Bacon.