Interview: Barry Schwabsky
by Caitlin Haskell
In February, London-based critic and poet Barry Schwabsky made a brief visit to Texas to review Jess: To and From the Printed Page at The Harry Ransom Center. While in Austin, Schwabsky gave a poetry reading at 12th Street Books with future UT art history faculty member Roberto Tejada and he sat down with Caitlin Haskell to discuss what it has been like to edit and write for some of the leading publishers of art criticism over the past twenty years. During his distinguished career as a critic, Schwabsky has been involved with a variety of art pulications. Today, he writes for The Nation and is co-editor of the international review section of Artforum. His interview here is the first in a series of discussions with outstanding art critics that …might be good will publish throughout 2008. Our second installment, an interview with Katy Siegel, will appear in the April 18 issue.
…mbg: Since you’re an editor as well as a critic, Barry, one topic that I was hoping you could shed some light on is the process of selecting which exhibitions will be reviewed in the publications you work for—what are the criteria for deciding if a show gets reviewed or not?
BS: At Artforum, with the international reviews that I co-edit, basically the writers pick their own assignments. We kind of approve them and make sure that they’re not repeating something that somebody else is doing and so on. But really we depend on the reviewers in each city to tell us what’s interesting there. With the New York reviews, when I was living there—and I assume it’s still done the same way now—again, the reviews weren’t really assigned. We would get a list of about ten to a dozen shows that they would ask us to look at, which basically was to make sure that every show was seen by somebody from the magazine. Then the individual reviewer could pick one from those ten or however many. Or, if there was something we wanted to cover that wasn’t on our list, we could ask to do it. So, from the editorial point of view, it’s rather free.
…mbg: As you describe it, the determining factor would seem to be the selection of the critics—who the magazine hires to write.
BS: Yeah, that’s right.
…mbg: When you are in the role of critic, what goes into your thought process for choosing a show to review?
BS: I used to try to see everything, but I really don’t have the time to do it anymore… Now, I see what I can and I look for a show I have something to say about.
…mbg: What was your particular attraction to the Jess show?
BS: He’s an artist I’ve been long interested in, and I’ve never had a chance to see such a big concentration of his work at once. I think the last exhibition—bigger than this one—was in 1984, but I didn’t get to see it. I’ve only gotten to see his work in scattered ways.
…mbg: Given the discretion critics have to determine which shows are written about, what artists get attention—is there any intellectual disposition or academic preparation that you think is particularly well suited to being a critic today?
BS: Well, I think basically art critics are drawn from three pools: one is art historians who want to be involved somehow in the art of their time, the second group is artists who want to write and articulate their ideas about art, and the third are people who are primarily writers who are drawn to art as a subject. I would fall in the third category, but I think all three have something to offer. I don’t think the field would be complete if it just had one of those or two of those. I think it needs all of them.
…mbg: Since you’re a published poet as well as a critic, I wanted to get your take on a situation that got a bit of attention in these parts last fall. When Roberta Smith spoke in Houston last November—at the invitation of Artlies—she made a claim that seemed to strike a lot of Texas artists, and maybe even some critics, as far-fetched. Basically, what Smith suggested was that critics are just as vulnerable as artists when they put their work before the public. Where do you come down on that issue?
BS: I think in principle what she says must be right, in that you’re putting your work out in public and anyone can read it and form their own opinion of it, and so in that sense you’re laying yourself open to the judgment of the public just as much as an artist is. But, since there’s very little actual written criticism of the critics, somehow that is not formalized in any way. So, people might be talking about, “Oh my God, did you see the stupid thing Barry wrote in The Nation last month?” But, since nobody is putting it down on paper, I don’t hear it. So in that sense, maybe the critic isn’t as vulnerable as the artist, who may get a written review that could be damaging and will have to somehow face that, or who may get no review and think that’s damaging, too—but on the other hand, the critic doesn’t get the reward of that sort of attention.
…mbg: What was the project—you mentioned this briefly at your poetry reading last night—where a visual artist asked you to compose haiku to go along with prints she had made?
BS: She didn’t ask me to write haiku—she asked me to write poetry and I decided I’d try doing the corniest thing possible and see if I’d survive that. That was an artist from New York called K. K. Kozik.
…mbg: I thought the haiku turned out well.
…mbg: Do you have an interest in writing collaboratively with artists, as opposed to writing in an evaluative mode?
BS: I’ve done other books with artwork and my poetry and I don’t known how collaborative—really—they are. In this case, with K. K., I certainly worked off of—not the finished prints—but her preparatory materials that she sent me. And the poems are pretty obliquely related to the images. They’re not, so to speak, illustrating the images. In a way, the most collaborative venture I’ve ever been involved with was a book that I did with Jessica Stockholder where we did it in a two-stage process where I wrote a sequence of poems and then she did some artwork in reaction to that, and then I wrote some more in reaction to what she did, and she made some more work in reaction to my second stage... But, usually I have text written and the artist deals with that however they want, or the artist has the art that they’ve done and I deal with that however I want.
…mbg: How have your interactions with artists affected the way you approach writing?
BS: From quite early on I was very interested to see how artists dealt with material and I think that led me to want to deal with language as a material in a somewhat related manner. In a way, there are two faces of language: one is very inward and the other is material. A lot of poetry works with that inwardness and I think I wanted to work with the material.
…mbg: Could you elaborate on what you mean by the inward quality of language?
BS: I’d rather elaborate on the other, since that’s what I want to deal with to some extent. When I got to meet artists and go to their studios and see what they were doing, it was fundamentally obvious that what they were doing was taking some stuff from here and putting it over there. And somehow that made me see that in writing what you’re doing is taking stuff—words or parts of words—and you’re almost physically putting them together, or breaking them apart and recombining them. Somehow that was a very freeing notion for me at the time. I think until then I sort of understood poetry as something that came out of myself—out of some mysterious inner resource. But no, there’s just all of this language out there in the world and, in a mundane way, you can take it and use it and go to work on it. Observing artists at work showed me that I had the whole world to work from and not some unseen mysterious self to try and depend on to generate whatever this was.
…mbg: Does the same sense of moving language, or working with it in a material way, figure into your critical writing?
BS: More as a poet, just because in my poetry I’m working with the form of it in a more thoroughgoing way. But somehow I’m sure that it must have had some effect on my critical writing as well.
Going back to your question about how the articles are assigned. I answered that in terms of Artforum, but maybe I should say something about The Nation as well. There it’s a very different situation because it’s not an art magazine. There’s only a certain amount of art coverage and, basically, there are two people who are writing it. One is Arthur Danto—he has been the chief art critic there for 25 years, but he’s doing much less these days and I’m kind of taking up the slack. So the politics of assigning reviews [at that magazine] is basically that Arthur gets first dibs on anything—for the most part we’re only talking about things in NY since I don’t suppose he would have felt the same impetus to find his way to Austin for a show of Jess. As with Artforum, my editor at The Nation depends on me to propose what might be interesting for the readership, but there’s a bit more of a dialogue because he has to see how my proposal fits into a broader picture than just the art world. And, remember, for them I’m not only writing about contemporary art—the piece I have coming out imminently is on Courbet.
…mbg: Do you find that your writing changes when you’re writing for a general audience?
BS: I do write differently for different situations and different readerships. When you’re writing for Artforum you can assume a lot more, without having to fill it in. There are advantages to that but, actually, I find that, having done that for so long, I like having to fill in more of the steps, or the background to things because it makes you clarify your ideas about what you think you already know.
…mbg: It seems that in the situation you’ve described—particularly with regard to the selection of reviews for Artforum—we have a recipe for a lot of favorable criticism, which is to say writing that will reinforce trends we know we like. As a writer, one will opt to write about work that is appealing and leave the difficult critique to somebody else.
BS: I think you’re right. Although there are people who seem to get a lot of energy from being able to go on the attack, for most writers it’s more fun to be able to talk about something you like—you have more to say about it. It might be interesting to see what the results would be if people were assigned more often to write about things they wouldn’t necessarily have chosen for themselves. That would make them work at understanding better something they wouldn’t have been sympathetic to originally, or to really explain to themselves why they still don’t like it. Back when I was editing Arts Magazine, between 1988 and 1992, instead of having many reviewers each writing about one or two shows, I had just four New York reviewers each reviewing about ten shows. So they really had to push themselves past what they were most comfortable with, and if I recall correctly there was more critical criticism going on there than in the review sections of most art magazines. It worked pretty well, I thought, and I wish someone would pick that idea up again.
* Barry Schwabsky will present a lecture on April 3 in Houston as part of the 2007-2008 Core Lectures series. For further information, see the announcement in the Events section of this issue.
Caitlin Haskell is Associate Director of Fluent~Collaborative.