Barry Schwabsky’s new anthology, The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (2016), collects his columns for The Nation between 2006 and 2014, providing a clear record of a surprising variety of gallery and museum exhibitions. We get his response to shows of old masters and modernist heroes — Diego Velázquez, Gustave Courbet and Henri Matisse — and his often-critical views of famous senior contemporaries, such as Alighiero Boetti, Dan Graham and Ai Weiwei. We also get his sympathetic take on a number of lesser-known and emerging artists, including Laurel Nakadate, Zoe Strauss, Silke Otto-Knapp and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. And in the introduction, as well as in many of the reviews, readers get brief, instructive statements about the present-day role of art criticism, the contemporary art market, and about the role of art schools — three of the art world’s perpetual quandaries.
As art critic for The Nation, Schwabsky may be reasonably compared with the most famous holder of that post, Clement Greenberg. When Greenberg championed the Abstract Expressionists, calling them the only legitimate heirs to early French Modernist tradition, he appeared a prophet. By contrast, Schwabsky, modestly recognizing in his introduction that contemporary art critics have only a marginal practical role, aspires “to open up […] perspectives without, I hope, belaboring them.” While Greenberg provides a skeleton history of Modernism from Edouard Manet to Jackson Pollock, it’s abundantly clear that no such master narrative can conceivably extend into the present. But now, Schwabsky suggests, thanks to “an inner transformation in the nature of art itself,” it solicits “participants, collaborators, communities.” For this reason, the role of politics has also changed. Greenberg’s art writing, guided by Marxism, sententiously contrasts high art and kitsch. For Schwabsky, however, the goal is to “let the critical distance between art and politics — between my writing and its context — display itself.”
Schwabsky’s presentation of these important arguments is very elliptical, so I hope that elsewhere he will spell them out. Here is how I would place them: after art history became an academic subject, in the 1960s Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss (and her followers at the journal October) attempted also to turn art criticism into a discipline housed in the university. In pursuit of that goal, they introduced a methodology and technical vocabulary into writing about contemporary art. But this project failed. And so nowadays our best critics are poets (like Schwabsky), journalists, or perhaps moonlighting academics such as Schwabsky’s immediate predecessor at The Nation, Arthur Danto. And this means that Denis Diderot, Charles Baudelaire and even Adrian Stokes (the maverick 20th-century English writer who is repeatedly cited by Schwabsky) remain the most relevant role models for critics.
Schwabsky is an eloquent, compulsively quotable writer. His essays, he says, “aim to keep art unfinished.” Without ever seeming to try too hard, he is very effective at summarizing artists’ achievements in tightly coiled felicitous phrases. Kara Walker’s “instantly recognizable amalgamation of technique and content not previously associated with any other artist,” he nicely observes, is “the aesthetic equivalent of what the marketing gurus call a unique selling proposition.” Gauguin’s Polynesian women, he suggests, are “almost indecipherable. […] Something in them remained as mysterious to him as he was to himself.” I love it when he calls Courbet’s The Origin of the World (1866) an “immersive and synecdochical painting.” And I admire him when, in a surprising review linking the abstract paintings of Stanley Whitney and Jacqueline Humphries, he suggests that they both “aspire to grandeur — with a pictorial vocabulary that to some may seem painfully narrow.”
Critics, whose raison d’être is to scrutinize particular works, need to have a sensibility — which is to say that they are unavoidably more personal in their enthusiasms than art historians. But art historians deploy a method, and so generalize. Suppose, then, that an art historian devoted to contemporary art were to read The Perpetual Guest (as many no doubt will). What general view of the subtitle’s “art in the unfinished present” would she come away with? Schwabsky’s account of how Nancy Spero’s “effort to unmoor painting from the Western tradition finally did converge with Matisse’s earlier one” would show how our best critics link contemporary art with its antecedents. Reading in his discussion of Christopher Wool that “The price of things is crowding out the value of things” would reveal how skeptical our critics are about our overheated art market. And studying his account of Gordon Matta-Clark — “artist of fragments (who) left an oeuvre that feels whole” — could inspire the art historian to resist conventional critical clichés. Above all, I would hope that the contemporary art historian responded to his very dry sense of humor. His analysis linking the prospects of abstraction with Peggy Lee’s song “Is That All There Is?,” for example, is worth more than a lot of formalist or sociological analysis. “A dominant aesthetic,” says Schwabsky in his account of the 2009 Venice Biennale, “always undermines itself.” At this time — when older formalist and Marxist theorizing is no longer applicable, but has not, as yet, yielded to new approaches to art writing — he offers a reliable, necessarily unfinished guide to the dilemmas of the present.
Schwabsky, Barry. The Perpetual Guest. Art in the Unfinished Present (London & New York: Verso, 2016). ISBN-13: 978-1-78478-324-2. 304 pages. $24.95print