Saturday, December 8, 2007


Issue #56 Winter 2007



Gilbert Vicario

Gilbert Vicario, a curator in the department of
Latin American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts,
Houston, speaks to preeminent New York Times
critic Roberta Smith about the state of the arts,
criticism and things to come. Smith will be
delivering a lecture on November 15, 2007, at the
Menil Collection as the fourth speaker in The
Annual Art Lies Critics Lecture series.

Gilbert Vicario: How did you become interested in writing art criticism?

Roberta Smith: Like many critics, I backed into
it, in my case through the letters to the editor
page of Artforum, during my first year or so in
New York after college. Robert Pincus-Witten, the
most prominent critic of the moment, published an
article on Donald Judd in Artforum. I had studied
Judd's work in depth the year before, during a
semester at the Whitney Independent Study
Program. I took great issue-umbrage, really-with
Pincus-Witten's piece. It was a perfectly fine
article; I was merely in the throes of what might
be called an unexamined sense of territoriality
about Judd. Anyway, I wrote a long, contentious,
probably incoherent letter that Artforum
eventually published, cut by half. Two people who
read the letter (at full length) said they
thought I might make a good critic.

The idea had never occurred to me consciously,
but it thrilled me and it made sudden sense. For
one thing, it explained why I felt so competitive
with Pincus-Witten's piece. For another, I had
loved reading Judd's criticism, which I had
largely memorized. Maybe it was luck that I
hadn't read much else. His example-a stylish
voice, plus compact, lucid description plus
opinion-made the basic mechanics of criticism
very clear. It was a great place to start.

GV: What do you think is the current state of art criticism?

RS: In many ways I think we live in an amazing
moment, when both art and language are very fluid
and alive. Thanks to the Internet, the world is
much, much smaller and everyone seems to be
writing, and a lot of what they are writing is
opinions. There are art magazines all over the

In other ways I don't think it is so great. The
kind of criticism I'm most interested in is daily
or weekly criticism in newspapers or magazines.
"Written in heat and published at once," as H. L.
Mencken put it. My heroes starting out were what
I call working critics like Pauline Kael and
Edmund Wilson. For me, criticism is something you
do regularly for a big audience in real time as
the medium you are covering unfolds; it may also
be that you have to have an editor, which means I
tend to discount a lot of the blogs. This also
means that the state of the criticism that
interests me most is very dependent upon how it
is viewed by executive editors and publishers,
and this is becoming a bit scary in some places.
But anyway, art magazines often have wonderful
essays, and I think the best people writing for
them are journalistic-Dave Hickey, Bruce Hainley,
Rhonda Lieberman and Barbara Kruger. But it is
hard to become a critic by writing once a month.

I also think that a lot of art criticism has
gotten too far from the object, from helping us
see art and basing judgments on what is seen. Too
many critics ignore their own responses and write
about what they think is in some way correct.
There is a lot of what I would call "wishful
looking" in art criticism these days.

GV: As a fellow American, what are your thoughts on the 2007 Venice Biennale?

RS: I found the Biennale very disappointing.
Orderly and clean and spacious, but stale-not
very daring. Or perhaps very out of balance. In
the Italian Pavilion, I felt that Robert Storr
did not go beyond the limits of his own
experience and knowledge, or that of his core
audience either. As far as I'm concerned, he
basically curated his résumé: a kind of medley of
artists he's long admired, been close to and
organized retrospectives of. Plus, at the Italian
Pavilion, the art seemed very segregated, with
most artists' work isolated in separate spaces
and almost nothing carrying over from gallery to
gallery. Then in the Arsenale, I felt Storr went
very far afield of his knowledge and his best
instincts, yet came up with the same kind of art
again and again-art with overt social or identity
concerns that was otherwise dry and didactic.
There were a handful of interesting new artists,
but everything tended to look and feel the same.

I heard that Storr, or defenders of the show,
said the Biennale was not for "us," not for the
art world, but the notion that you can't attract
multiple audiences-an informed one and a general
one at the same time -is a very lame excuse. You
hear it from the big American museums all the
time. And the Tate Modern, for one, has
demonstrated that museums can do both and it is
very exciting.

The tameness of the Biennale was further accented
by the nervy, innovative, bracing feel of
Documenta 12. It reflected an incredible amount
of thought that was available to the viewer
through the artworks themselves. Did art get used
to make points? Yes. Were there dull spots and
forced juxtapositions? Yes. Did I like all the
pinpoint lighting? No. But the show looked like
the curators, Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, had
set out with specific ideas and actually brought
them off with a degree of clarity and efficiency
that is very unusual in these big shows. I loved
the kind of accumulating surveys you got of
certain artists-John McCracken, Kerry James
Marshall, Mira Schendel-whose work appeared again
and again throughout the show in different
company and contexts.

The five main spaces really felt like five
separate curatorial ideas strung together by the
recurring artists. By the time I reached the
Schloss, I thought something had really happened
to my ability to see art and its place in the
world. What I admired most was the refusal to
separate anything-not by medium, style, period,
place of origin or supposed intention. I loved
the cultural breadth and historic depth. It was
truly global. And the show's greatest refusal was
the refusal to separate form and subject matter.
It seemed to assert that all art is political,
that all art is formal. And who knows? Maybe the
Documenta curators were also just curating their
CVs, but theirs just happened to be a lot less

GV: In my opinion, you've developed a great
reputation as the voice of contemporary art at
the New York Times. From a pedagogical
perspective, what helps? A knowledge of art
history or curatorial studies?

RS: I've learned just about everything on the
job. It also helped, when I was starting out, to
be given assignments that forced me to write
about all kinds of art that I felt unprepared to
deal with. Writing about lots of different kinds
of art makes you understand the promisicuity of
taste, which mitigates against rigid positions.
And of course, nothing makes you learn like a
deadline. To some extent we all learned that in
school, but this is for real. In addition, I
think most people are autodidacts, at least
around art, although this fits the biases of my
circumstances. I never went to graduate school;
my college had almost no art history when I was
there-just a few courses in the art department.
Curatorial or critical studies were a thing of
the future. In addition, I'm not sure you can
learn to be a critic; it takes a certain kind of
temperament, a balance of arrogance and modesty
that is very particular: you start out critical
and slightly bothered about lots of things, then
you narrow it down. Criticism is a form of

And, of course, looking is essential. Looking,
looking, looking and more looking. At all kinds
of art in all mediums, from all periods; good,
bad and indifferent, always trying to figure out
why something attracts, repels or merely
interests you. Doing this, you train your eye and
build up a personal image bank that each
subsequent artwork can both be measured against
and added to. I think the more you see and absorb
the more open you become, the more humbled. You
also learn that all you can be, at base, is
honest and that actually being honest about your
experience is very, very hard. This gets back to
wishful looking. You may know what you are
supposed to think, you may know what your friends
think, you know what you would like to think, but
in the end, you can only write what you actually
think or you won't keep on writing.

GV: What do you think has been the most
significant shift in contemporary art production
in the last seven years?

RS: I'm not sure that something distinct has yet
occurred in the twenty-first century. In fact, I
think we are still sorting out all the changes
that unfolded in the last thirty years of the
twentieth century. I guess the globalization of
the art world has become more complete. I think
that women artists, both contemporary and
historical, are coming more and more into their
own. I think these changes started in the
seventies and continue to expand on numerous
fronts, with South American modernism being
perhaps the most important. Generally the most
exciting thing for me is the way younger artists,
raised on theory, take it for granted and don't
see it as antithetical to art objects. But again,
that's probably my bias. I love performance and
all that stuff, but I am primarily interested in
what remains after the artist has left the
picture, when it is just me and the artwork and
the thought embedded therein. Basically my mind
works better in front of art than it does just
about anywhere else. Relatively speaking.

Copyright ©2007 ARTL!ES.


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