“By greatly upsizing found objects into bronze, steel, porcelain or wood — thereby establishing, by means of scale, a readily identifiable distinction between the work of art and the thing it’s mimicking — Koons is returning thought to sense experience, but a form of sense experience that is both highly materialistic and deeply conservative, relying on orthodox, costly mediums to affirm the elevation of his lowborn subject matter into art. His lack of adventurousness and invention in this regard is in sharp contrast to the silkscreening (then considered solely a commercial process) adopted by Warhol for his paintings, or the soft vinyl sculptures of everyday objects concocted by Claes Oldenburg (who can be seen, in many respects, as the anti-Koons, outclassing him on every count of wit, irony, and imagination). Koons’s bravura handling of granite and bronze, the materials of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, reflects the reactionary attitude toward materials that cost Marcia Tucker, the founder of the New Museum, her job at the Whitney in 1977 after she exhibited Richard Tuttle’s sculptures made out of wire and rags.”

Thomas Michelli, “Have a Nice Day: Jeff Koons and the End of Art,”, June 28, 2014

Thomas Michelli on Jeff Koons and the End of Art

Art & Development

Art Publishing Now & Critical Sources II

I am so proud to be involved with Art Practical. With its mission to cultivate and art critical writing and writers, Art Practical the result of the hard work and generosity of lots of bright, interesting people. I think the San Francisco Bay Area is lucky to have them, and that you should know about their programs and projects.

Art Publishing Now
October 9-10, 2010
Southern Exposure, San Francisco, CA

This coming weekend, October 9 and 10, Art Practical will participate in Art Publishing Now, a Summit, Afterparty and Library organized by Southern Exposure and a slew of publishing dynamos. The list of participants in the Fair looks killer. I love ‘zine fairs and I love art criticism (especially presented by writers and editors). Just go!

Critical Sources II
October 16, 2010, 12 – 4 p.m.
The Lab, San Francisco, CA

Art Practical and The Lab are hosting Critical Sources II, the second in a series of workshops on art criticism. Among the workshop instructors is Kevin Killian, whose charming presence I spent many hours in while at CCA. His class on writing reviews was one of my favorites. (I once drove to Fresno for a field trip—a seven-hour round trip—but cut it short to get back for Kevin’s class.)

I’m sure all the instructors are great. At that price, it’s like they’re paying you to be there. [J.L.!]

It gets better: The class includes workshop-ing your reviews, and the two exhibitions you can choose to write about include Huckleberry Finn at the CCA Wattis Institute. I previously exhibited artwork and worked at the Wattis; I’m very fond of the literary series. I’ve heard very sharp critics say that this is the best of the series so far. Judging by last years’ no-holds-barred Moby-Dick, it must be impressive.

So, not only are they paying you to improve your art writing, they’re giving you an excuse to make it out to Dogpatch and see an amazing exhibition.


Schjeldahl on Rist

In “Feeling Good” (New Yorker, September 27, 2010; abstract here ), Peter Schjeldahl reviews Pipolotti Rist’s show at Luhring Augustine in NYC, and in the process, extols the singular artist and her commitment to pleasure.

I savored the subject and the conveyance. I admire Rist’s work for it fearless optimism and exuberance. She manages to make massive installations that are friendly and participatory. Schjeldahl’s words brim with enthusiasm, and he also contextualizes Rist’s work with a preternaturally long view.

A few of my favorite passages are:

The first two lines:

The Swiss video- and installation-maker Pipilotti Rist is an evangelist for happiness like no other first-rate artist that I can think of, except, perhaps, Alexander Calder. Like Calder, she is immune to solemnity, and her work appeals to more or less everybody.

This gem:

Color is more than the keynote of Rist’s art—it’s practially the theology.

Her pop cultural affinities don’t unite high and low so much as make them seem like interchangeable engines of pleasure. Rist resolves no critical problems of contemporary art. She just makes you forget there are any.

(I wondered about this same dialectic—this addiction to criticality as radical opposition—in my show Irrational Exuberance, and it was discussed in the closing dialogue, As Is: Pop and Complicity.)

…not that thought is allowed much traction. There’s a steady state of wonderment at having a body right here, right now…. Imagine, as Rist makes easy in the show’s main room, being a sheep in a lush meadow entirely surrounded, as far as you can see, by what you like to eat. Life surely vitiates such sublime contentment most of the time, but numbness to it seems an optional tragedy.

Just as positive psychologists want you to know: Optimism is a choice.

Schjeldahl takes a strong position in the course of explaining Rist’s significance:

Pleasure is a serious matter in and for art, which must justify itself continually in a global culture of mass entertainments. Glumness is an understandable but self-defeating reaction of people determined to somehow make a difference. Rist is remarkable for having insisted on bliss in an era, which peaked in the nineteen-nineties, when a parade of artists ambitiously expanded art’s physical scale and social address only to burden it, self-importantly, with theoretical arcana and political sanctimony.

As a critical writer, I aspire to this level of expertise and confidence.

Proof that writing about art need not be burdened by art-speak, pretension, or obfuscation:

Responsible as well as responsive to contemporary art’s enlarged public sphere, she maintains standards of craft and sincerity—outward discipline, inward necessity—that speak for themselves, without critical gloss or winking irony.


Why Not Blog About Art?

Do bloggers have the right to have opinions about art?

On March 28, as reported by Lisa Radon on on March 29, Richard Flood, chief curator at the New Museum, said

I just found out about blogs three months ago…

The internet is still a ghetto.

[Does Flood really only research artists in person or via 35 mm slide?]

Blogs … are not communicating with each other. They have no idea. History means nothing to them. Truth means nothing to them. They have no mechanism in place for checking [facts].

Flood then called out New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz, who wrote a response entitled, “How the New Museum Might Stop Annoying People” in which he advised Flood

Don’t hate the Internet.

A few days before that, on March 23, James Foumberg posted “The State of the (Visual) Art” on New City:

…information tailored to a digital audience promotes emotionally reactive and flippant responses, and somehow seems unserious. This is not, traditionally, how critics like to proceed.

As the Internet is all about audience,… the voice of the critic fades. For some types of art, … it’s an unwelcome flood of amateurs, hobbyists and Sunday critics. …the need for expertise, and good writing, will resurface….

Foumberg’s remarks strike me as rather tired re-hash of the blogger-vs-journalist debate. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend following how critics traditionally “like to proceed.” For example, I once read two reviews by Clement Greenberg in a writing course. In the first, he slams a painting by Piet Mondrian. In the follow-up, he decided that he liked it—a lot. He also recanted his initial observation about the color (something along the lines of mistaking yellow for lavender). This demonstrates two ideas. First, just because Greenberg, the critic of critics, published his ideas in print, it doesn’t mean that he enjoyed what Flood holds so dearly, “a mechanism in place for checking [facts].” Second, the appeal of tradition for its own sake is conservative, and its place in contemporary art ought not be so sacrosanct.

It’s also interesting that Foumberg appropriates the term Sunday painter in the service of maligning recreational critics. I hardly think sanctioned art critics will gain sympathy from the artist-bloggers who Foumberg sees as infringing on their turf, because just as any yahoo can open a WordPress account and call themselves an art critic (myself included), so too can amateurs set up online portfolios and call themselves artists. While I also chafe at being lumped together with hobbyists — it disregards the years of education, work and sacrifice I’ve invested into my practice — I wouldn’t make the mistakes of blaming the Internet and finding fault in other people’s right to share their hobbies online.

On March 26, Bad at Sports contributor Claudine Ise posted “Hot (okay maybe only lukewarm at the moment) Topic Alert: the Crisis in Art Criticism” in response to Foumberg and more chatter on another blog post about art criticism. She helpfully points out that

…ALL writers need editors. …writing for a publication that actually employs an editor … has become a luxury that only the luckiest of us is afforded from time to time….

From their inception blogs have always been about commentary derived from a personal standpoint…. It’s not really fair to criticize art bloggers for their lack of objectivity, or for not holding to certain journalistic or critical standards.

I stand with Ise’s points here. Most bloggers aren’t purporting to be journalists or vying to usurp seasoned art critics from their dwindling numbers of staff positions.

Readers of art blogs are fairly intelligent. We’ve got critical faculties of our own. We read, dissect and disagree with opinionated blogs and critical publishing alike.



In “Manchester United,” Kate Sutton writes up the big-name art events in the Manchester International Festival on Unfortunately it was in Scene and Herd, the mag’s gossip column/photos-of-beautiful-people section.

MIF sounds phenomenal — few cities are brave enough to host a festival of new visual arts and performance commissions of that scale. It’s nice to see coverage of the Marina Abramovich-curated exhibition at the Whitworth and Jeremy Deller’s populist-meets-conceptualist Procession, though Sutton overlooked local and emerging artists, and their varied and experimental MIF initiative, Contemporary Art Manchester.

I could have done without the author’s dishy commentary. She punctuates her reportage with snarky asides, as well as needless and predictable snooty (and classist) jabs at Mancunians at large. The “unity” conjured in the title contrasts sharply with her cynical dismissal of the very publics who host these events–and her as an art-tourist.

Art & Development, Values

Criticism v. opinions

I really wish I was in NYC right now to see Charles Ray’s show at Matthew Marks. It sounds amazing.

I also appreciate Jerry Saltz’s write-up of Ray’s installations:

all brilliant examples of post-minimalist/conceptual sculpture, each created in the late eighties and new to New York, rattled my perceptions, jangled my faculties, and made me go “Wow!” … Ray’s sculptures, part of a long tradition of minimal installations, are also forerunners to much of the theatrical Festivalism of recent times (e.g., Maurizio Cattelan and Olafur Eliasson). Each piece is nearly invisible and formally economical. Yet each is outrageously labor-intensive….

–Jerry Saltz, “Dude, You’ve Gotta See This”, New York Magazine, June 7, 2009

Brilliant! I’m impressed with how concisely Saltz formally and historically situates the art, and conveys his viewing experience, enthusiasm and rationales.

And, I love that Saltz seems to be taking a stand. The public (including artists!) can harbor so much skepticism (if not outright antipathy) towards postmodern/minimalist/post-minimalist art, it’s nice to see a critic try to bridge the gap, and say, Yes, this is art, even if it looks like nearly nothing. And it’s hard work to make this kind of art.

He goes on to tell the viewer You have to look closely and think before you get your rewards.

All three of Ray’s pieces … are more than Merry Prankster sight gags. Each makes you ultra-aware of spaces outside the one you’re in, of rooms above and below you, the things that make these rooms and effects possible, and how your own body relates to all of this. They put you back in the realm of the unknown, of double vision and oddity.

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for great art and arts coverage is sometimes marred by readers’ comment boards.

It takes a lot of time, work, consideration and nerve to make art and to write art criticism. So when it’s met with knee-jerk reactions from people who are convinced they could do the job better, I’m reminded of drunken ringside smack-talkers. The reality is that few people have the heart to wake up for 6am runs, much less step into the ring–not just once for their fantasy Rocky moment, but again and again, in spite of the anxiety, exhaustion, injuries and the constant availability of easier paths in life.

Likewise, in art, anyone can make an expressive gesture, but few have the nerve to dedicate themselves to a lifelong creative pursuit.

And in art criticism, any yahoo can have an opinion, but few have the patience and skill to form thoughts into well-reasoned, timely essays.

Recently, I’ve heard from artists who believed that MFA programs are scams, grad students are mindless sheep, and if they leave with anything, it’s how to regurgitate trends. Attacking participants in order to critique a system is lazy and immature. I attribute this attitude to learned helplessness and inadequate self-actualization. When you see the art world as a separate entity from yourself–rather than a group of people that includes yourself, in which you participate and shape with your words and actions–you cease to be accountable for it. You’re free to bash it, thereby legitimizing your own disappointments.

As one of my esteemed professors liked to ask,

What’s at stake?

When it comes to offering knee-jerk reactions, I’d like to see more armchair critics toe the line. You think you can make better art? Write better criticism?

Game on.

Art & Development

art that speaks for itself v. artist that speaks for herself

Rage is all the rage right now, particularly the populist sort.

–Geoff Nunberg, “The Ghost of Populism Walks Again, “Fresh Air” Commentary, 3/30/09 (Read the transcript or listen on

I prefer art that speaks for itself.

–Comment by Amateur on “Christine Wong Yap, Oakland, CA,”, February 17, 2008.

To explain why artists who let the work “speak for itself” are vulnerable, Adrian Piper presents a hypothetical example of an artist whose work is misinterpreted by a critic:

The important point is that if you have not developed the tools–and guts–to correct this edgy, but mistaken, interpretation of your work…, you have effectively lost control of [your art’s] public meaning. You’ll become rich, inarticulate and misunderstood. If the systematic public misinterpretation of your artwork … worries you, then you better learn to write about it, the way art critics do, so as to correct the misunderstanding.

Once an artist has that tool in hand, she has a voice in the cycle of critical and institutional legitimation that may work to her benefit, or to her disadvantage. It may work to her artistic benefit, if her main interest is in encouraging accurate understanding of her intentions in doing the work. But for that very reason, it may work to her professional disadvantage, if her more spoiled critical fans get really excited [about their interpretations], but don’t want to hear about [her actual intentions]. An artist who publicly corrects a critic’s factual mistakes or mistaken interpretations of her work or even worse, the critic’s fuzzy thinking, bad grammar or sick personal agendas, may draw attention while she also makes a lot of enemies. So if you decide to speak up, just don’t expect to be loved. If you want to be loved, let everyone think [their own interpretations.]

Adrian Piper, “Criticizing the Critics,” keynote lecture at Frieze, 9/27/07