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The National Gallery director Nicholas Penny. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

A byway in Frieze week, a small tributary running into the main stream, has been the simultaneous publication of two interviews, by Frieze Masters magazine and the Art Newspaper, with the director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny.

Some of what he says is a shot to the arm: yes, to keeping biography separate from criticism. Yes, to question the absolute authority of museum exhibition as a guide to quality, and to note that the connection between museum exhibition/acquisition and the market is, well, a little queasy-making (we all know museums that have a lot of questionable works that must have seemed a great idea to have collected at the time). On his rather startling write-off of video art, conceptual art and performance art one can’t help feeling that this this a rather de haut-en-bas attitude, and to write off entire categories of artistic practice is, while bracing, also a little foolish, especially as Penny does not give the impression of having spent large tracts of time studying such work. (Though he’s of course right about some video art.)

Highlights from the interviews:

On art forms he does not relate to: “The art form I don’t relate to – I’d put it more strongly actually – is video because it seems to me so often merely to be an incompetent form of film, made with the excuse that it is untainted by the professionalism associated with the entertainment industry. I’m not very impressed by conceptual art nor very often by performance art. I’m uneasy with some aspects of the legacy of Marcel Duchamp.

On “modern” wings in American art museums: “frankly these wings impress me as deadly: the same white walls with the same loud, large, obvious, instantly recognisable products lined up on them. Nothing in the so-called academic institutions of the 19th century approach them in orthodoxy and predictability.”

On criticism: “There is a lamentable lack of critical debate about contemporary art. If you think about the way Modern and contemporary art was received in the 19th century, there was always a tremendous amount of critical defence and attack, far more than is the case today.”

On museums and the market: “Exhibition in a museum – and, even more so, acquisition – is an endorsement which has become a substitute for critical appraisal. There seems to be a belief that the reputations of artists in museums will never be challenged. This is a valuable myth for the market. It may be that once a certain amount of public money has been invested in art it will be valued forever. But I doubt it.”

On looking at contemporary art: “I try not to think of contemporary art as a separate category. I object to being asked whether I ‘like contemporary art’. The question betrays the assumption that one will look at the art of today without a critical eye.”

On meeting artists: “I think it is a mistake to suppose that meeting an artist would help to understand their art. The intelligence and imagination of many artists really exists only in what they painted or carved or modelled.”


Charlotte Higgins


Art criticisim isn’t dead, just in eclipse. Party:; Eclipse: Getty Images

If you had to name the major development in art discourse during the 2000s, it would undoubtedly be the ascent of “art news,” which has definitely replaced “art criticism” at the center of discussion. There’s been an enormous proliferation of writing about the art scene…A simple logic governs this proliferation of “art news”: Readers care a lot more about reporting on the art world than they do about reviews of art. By whatever metric you use — Web traffic, reader feedback, or just percentage of the collective brain taken up — people are more inflamed by the latest institutional scandal or art-related celebrity sighting than they are by quaint, old-fashioned discussions of what, exactly, makes an artwork good.


Ben Davis

If you know the system, it’s easy to understand the hierarchy of quality and authority. Critics X’s opinion in the New York Times or LA Times is worth more than Critic Y’s in the Johnny Falls Daily News. A system of official critics and editors and publications lends authority to judgments of quality. So take away that system and what do you have? Chaos, surely. Remember that famous New Yorker cartoon with the picture of the dog in front of a computer: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can get on and express an opinion.

And they do. And how will you know if that opinion is any good or not? And worse – if everyone weighs in and we’re so crushed by the volume, how will anyone have the time or interest to read more complicated arguments? If the easy opinion dominates (even if that “opinion” consists of nothing more than texting a vote for Your Next American Idol) will there be anyone left to write those more complicated or informed criticism? Will there be an audience for it? And even if there is, how will readers find the experts?

Martin [Bernheimer] suggests that this new free-for-all produces a culture of lazy consumers who don’t know and/or don’t care about quality. The thumbs-up has as much weight as the Financial Times Sunday essay.

This is undoubtedly true for a huge number of people. But perhaps those people weren’t paying attention before anyway. And so what if this easy insta-expert business is nothing more than a way to get people paying attention, even at the most basic level? Look at the dance shows on TV right now. Who thought people would watch dance? Yet Dancing with the Stars and So you think you can Dance have been at the top of the ratings. They’ve occasionally been the most-watched shows on their nights. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but more people than ever have been at least watching some form of dance in the past year. Anything wrong with that?

Anything that encourages people to respond to art (even it’s just voting) is a good thing. Too many people (believe it or not) are afraid to express an opinion about that symphony or ballet they’ve just heard. We elevated the expert opinion about the arts to such a high level that many “regular” people were afraid to express an opinion because they weren’t experts.

But I think the larger answer to Martin’s concern is that human nature doesn’t change that much. The reason critics have been important is because we have a need to find people who can help guide us to the “good” stuff. That need hasn’t gone away; to the contrary, we need that kind of help now more than ever. The volume of art available to us now is greater than ever before. Everywhere a wail of complaints has gone up about being overwhelmed by how much there is.

Two final points: First – I think the ocean of creative work out there forces people to become more sophisticated in order to deal with it, not less. Don’t mistake quick judgment for short attention spans. With more things competing for our attention, we can afford to be pickier. And we are. We have also expanded our cultural palates, and our tastes and expertise are more wide-ranging than they used to be. Some culture we like we engage with only casually (again the voting), while other culture we devote more of our attentions.

Second – I think that what’s happening here as far as criticism goes is not the disappearance of good critics, but the realignment of critical authority. In a way, we are coming out of the Model T era of criticism. In most cities in this country, the number of arts critics narrowed to less than a handful over the past decade. Our traditional structure of bestowing critical authority in the press had become threadbare. A lot of what has passed for arts journalism has been on auto-pilot. Want proof? We’re not seeing significant protests from the arts community as critics are eliminated at local papers.
So where do you find the new critical authority? One answer is that you-the-reader have to work harder. First, because of the internet, we have more access to critics at traditional publications all over the planet. Living in Seattle, I couldn’t read the LA Times regularly before the internet came along. Now I can make a daily habit of stories in the Times, The Guardian, The Age, and dozens of other excellent publications. I have to have criteria in this expanded menu for who I want to pay attention to.

Technorati currently tracks 300,000 arts blogs. Many (most) aren’t very interesting. But some are. Many are. Slowly the landscape is realigning and signs of where authority lives are becoming more visible. And I think readers are becoming more and more sophisticated about how to find it. For those who aren’t? Well, they probably never were.

Douglas McLennan

Philip Guston, the Abstract Expressionist who late in life became a painter of dark, comic images, was a great as-if artist. He wanted, he said, “to paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet.” He aspired “to paint as a cave man would.”

Of course Guston (1913-1980) was no troglodyte, with all due respect to the Geico cave men. He was an erudite cosmopolitan who revered Italian Renaissance painting and counted among his friends the novelist Philip Roth, the composer Morton Feldman and the poets Stanley Kunitz and Clark Coolidge, with whom he collaborated in the 1970s on drawings combining words and images.

Yet working from primal instinct was his driving fantasy. It animated both the abstraction of his 1950s and ’60s work and the cartoon-style representations of the 70s. And as a continuing impulse it gives a powerful autobiographical momentum to a spellbinding survey of Guston’s drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum…

The show skips the first chapter of Guston’s career, the politically charged, social-surrealist paintings and murals of the 1930s and ’40s. In so doing it gives a clearer picture of the continual struggle with abstraction and representation that defined his mature art.

Its earliest drawings have fragmentary images in them: a boy who might have been drawn by Ben Shahn in a congested room in “Untitled” from 1946; a vaguely theatrical tableau in “Study for ‘Tormentors’ ” from 1947-8.

Clocks, shoes, glasses and other objects can be discerned in drawings of the early ’50s, but abstract, linear improvisation prevails. Here Guston’s drive to eliminate artifice — to get rid of his abundant traditional skills — takes over.

Despite his efforts, however, the drawings look elegant. Skittery, scrawly and staccato lines in black ink with quill pen or brushes play on loosely gridded, Cubist scaffoldings, producing a kind of suavely roughed-up Chinese calligraphy. In the late ’50s and the first half of the ’60s, the lines become more willfully clumsy and irregular. The drawings parallel the trend in Guston’s painting from atmospheric fields of colorful marks in the ’50s, which earned him the label “Abstract Impressionist,” to smudgy gray paintings of lumpy shapes in the ’60s.

In 1966 Guston stopped painting and did nothing but draw for two years. He wanted, he said, “to clear the decks.” Here the impulse to get down to basics asserts itself in rigorously spare, black ink compositions: a single vertical mark at the top of a page; two vertical lines from top to bottom; a horizontal line meeting a vertical line; a sagging, flat-bottomed circle made with short strokes as though by a careful child. In such drawings it does look as if Guston were going back to the prehistoric origins of drawing.

Then a surprising thing happened. He started making cartoonish images: a jar of brushes, pens and pencils; open books with texts represented by rows of dashes; three people in Ku Klux Klan hoods and robes.

For two years Guston oscillated between abstraction and representation, a process whose transformative flow can best be appreciated in studio photographs showing scores of drawings sequentially pinned to the walls. He finally decided in favor of representation, and so, at the end of the decade, his famous last chapter began. That final phase, from 1970 to 1980, the year he died, is given its own room at the Morgan, and it is thrilling. Suddenly all the ideas and preoccupations that abstraction had no use for come pouring out in almost 50 works of joyful graphic invention.

It begins with images of the mysterious yet funny, conspiratorial Klansmen, who are said to be symbols of political protest but are, more likely, surrogates for Guston’s own enigmatic creative self. On the other hand, the monstrous caricature of Richard M. Nixon dragging a horribly swollen, phlebitis-afflicted leg is blatantly political. But if the drawings seem at first to open up to the world, they quickly shut us into the studio with his Guston mordant anxieties about art, eating, smoking, drinking and death. And then they open up again to visionary landscapes, dreams and nightmares.

Guston still drew like a cave man in these works, but instead of basic formal elements he made archetypal images in bold, wobbly lines and, in the case of a few paintings on paper or cardboard, colored them in dull reds, fleshy pinks, pale blues and dirty grays.

He told stories of Sisyphean ennui. The beat-up, bandaged head with the big sad eye gazing uphill; the boards with nails pounded into them; the empty shoes; the man smoking in bed, staring at the ceiling: these images exude that sense of futility that almost all artists must periodically endure.

Sometimes there is the relief of simple pleasures: a pile of cherries, a sandwich, sitting with one’s wife and looking out the window at the sunset. And then there is the junk-covered hillside with the gravestone at its foot presciently marked P. G. 1980.

Today the drawings don’t look as shockingly crude as they did to critics in the 1970s. They look like the work of a brilliant cartoonist knowingly inspired by “Mutt and Jeff,” “Krazy Kat” and other classic Sunday funnies. They may appear Neanderthal, but they are the products of a sophisticated performance, a kind of method acting. The mandarin playing the stumblebum with passionate, Brando-esque conviction.

Ken Johnson
New York Times

“What Hopper reflects is something quite different, the unheroic loneliness of everyday people, people like you and me: ushers, secretaries, apartment dwellers. The Hemingway hero, another paragon of American individualism, is in control of his apartness. Hopper’s people are not. It’s imposed on them by the circumstances of life. Their plight reminds us that individualism without ruggedness simply means being alone – alone even when, as in Hopper’s “Room in New York,” someone else is there.

“E pluribus unum,” one out of many, bespeaks a citizenry coming together, uniting into something larger. What haunts the American imagination is the possibility of one lost among many, the individual trapped in his or her own solitude. American society, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America,” “throws [the individual] back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” What’s most American about Hopper is his bearing witness to that threat.”

Mark Feeney
Quoted on
The Exhibitionist


Many a critical stone has been cast since it opened last year, but this week the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum got a very big boost when Condé Nast Traveler magazine named architect Daniel Libeskind’s controversial creation one of the “new seven wonders of the world.”

With a paid monthly circulation of 800,000, Condé Nast Traveler is a highly influential magazine. And by giving the Crystal the full-colour double-page treatment along with the six other artificial “wonders” – they include the 160-storey Burj Dubai complex in the United Arab Emirates, Manhattan’s New Museum and the rebuilt Wembley Stadium in London – “it puts it into a global context,” a delighted ROM president William Thorsell said yesterday.

The article, in the magazine’s April issue, acknowledges that the $135-million Crystal and its jagged thrusts of steel, glass and aluminum have “received mixed reviews from the locals – and that’s putting it mildly.” But it goes on to suggest that “the aggressively deconstructionist addition is just the shock of the new that this slow-to-change city needs.”

Mr. Thorsell said he had “heard a rumour that [the article] was coming but I didn’t know until Tuesday that they’d done it.” The approbation of Condé Nast Traveler, to his mind, is “a real tribute to Libeskind,” the Polish-born, New York-based architect whose now-famous yarn of drawing the first iteration of the Crystal on a cocktail napkin is dutifully repeated in the article. “It’s really nice to see that kind of notice.”

Asked if it was also a vindication of his own unstinting devotion to the Crystal, Mr. Thorsell demurred somewhat. “A lot of people think the Crystal was built in the face of all this public opposition. But if you go back to the actual selection process [in 2001-2002], when we had the exhibitions, the lectures and all that, he was the favourite” among the three finalists, Mr. Thorsell said. “That was a very open process and the people of Toronto did not come out and say, ‘Don’t do the Crystal.’ I think if we’d announced something ordinary, there would have been a great sense of disappointment in the city. So I think it’s a tribute to the city; the city embraced it by the end of the selection process, for the most part.”

Late last year The Globe and Mail’s architecture critic Lisa Rochon named the Crystal as “the building most likely to come down in the next 20 years.” Wednesday Mr. Thorsell was begging to differ.

“Over time, I think it will prevail.”

Condé Nast Traveler, in the meantime, already thinks it’s one for the ages.

James Adams
Globe and Mail