Critical response: Navigating treacherous artistic waters with a pencil and a grin

By Bruce Adams

hertel

“Art school fakery.” The words seared like a cranial cattle brand.

Former Buffalo News art critic Richard Huntington’s review of my 1986 solo painting exhibition seemed positive overall—even laudatory—but the flip little phrase kept bouncing incessantly around in my head. It wasn’t just that family and friends would read the cutting comment (I could practically hear their collective tsk-tsks); more painful was the fact that Huntington was right. He was alluding to surface brushstrokes I’d added to some paintings to jack up the expressionistic volume, but expressionism is a holistic endeavor, not a stylistic topcoat. I had been caught cadmium-red handed, found guilty of painterly posturing, and publicly pilloried for artistic charlatanism. Thing is, nobody seemed to notice. “Hey, good review,” everyone said, oddly unaware of the offending phrase. Not me, though; I was acutely aware.

An artist himself, Huntington would later become a close friend and studio-mate. Eventually he prodded me to try writing newspaper reviews myself. Lap-dissolve a few years later and my business card sports a new label—critic. In Buffalo’s spandex-tight art community where most members wear at least two hats and everyone knows everyone else, being a critic can be ticklish business. Turns out, the hide encasing many artists and curators is paper-thin.

Just ask Huntington. “One exhibition organizer—not even a fragile-egoed artist, mind you—would always walk by me, stony-faced, no matter how friendly my salutation,” says the recently retired critic, now a full-time artist. “If she saw me coming she would sidle off, like I was a dangerous evil presence out to spread my venom. And this was all because I criticized, not her choice of work, but how idiotically she’d hung a show.” When an artist pulled the same “take-that” silent treatment, Huntington suggested he nod if speaking was too painful. His response? “That will happen the day you apologize for what you wrote about me,” recalls Huntington. The artist kept his word. “He never spoke to me again…or nodded.”

Spend some time as a critic, and you’re bound to end up on the business end of a fiery riposte to a perceived attack, as Buffalo Spree associate editor, writer, artist, and critic Ron Ehmke knows: “I got a phone call at home once from the then-director of the UB Art Gallery telling me I was obviously new to the business of writing and didn’t know any better after I panned an Adrian Piper retrospective. That wasn’t a lot of fun.” Retribution was less direct for former curator, critic, and current Buffalo Spree editor Elizabeth Licata but potentially more lethal to her career. “There was an uproar when I gave a mixed—MIXED—review of an Albright-Knox video installation show. [A former staffer] from the museum actually called my boss and tried to use her influence to have my writing stopped.” Licata also reports being “badmouthed around town,” but “never to my face, oh no.”

Rancorous letters and e-mails account for the bulk of a critic’s feedback. Says Huntington, “I always enjoyed those letters that laid it out in the first punchy, declarative sentence, like “You are a complete idiot.” I got that one just before I retired, and to this day the letter writer probably thinks he pushed me out with the sheer force of his vitriol. But I really do admire such hell-bent bluntness. It keeps you on your toes.” Ehmke agrees. “Honestly, it feels good any time someone responds positively or negatively, because at least it means somebody read what I wrote.”

On occasion Buffalo critics find themselves with the thorny task of reviewing acquaintances, business associates, even friends. The Clorox bottle sculptor you pan today might be the curator you approach for a show tomorrow. I’ve personally reviewed artists who reviewed me. Yet the writers I talked to agree; it’s possible, even essential, to remain objective—hurt feelings aside. Ehmke avoids even the perception of a conflict of interest; “I’ve turned down several reviewing jobs because I had either taught the artist or collaborated with him or her.” By mutual agreement, Richard Huntington never discussed my art with me in our studio. As the only fulltime art critic writing for a major daily local newspaper he guarded his impartiality, eventually opting out of reviewing my exhibitions altogether.

With so much art-community interplay, are critics tempted to tone down their rhetoric in deference to touchy egos? For some it depends on the circumstances. Licata tends to go easier on hobbyists and amateur artists: “It depends on the venues and the artists—the more that’s at stake, the more important it is to be truthful, regardless of who might get pissed off. If an artist has work hanging in a group show at a coffee shop or tiny storefront, that’s different. I’m not going to go after them, guns blazing.”

Ehmke dreads reviewing bad art: “It’s the polite Southern boy in me; we’re raised to be diplomatic and pay compliments. The minute I’m aware of the individual fragile egos involved, I get all evasive.” Huntington, on the other hand, takes a damn-the-torpedoes approach: “There always is that kind, gentle, and thoroughly lovable person out there who also happens to be a really bad artist. But I could never throw any of that into the mix. When do you start—or stop—this ‘toning down’? With the nice people? The famous? The beautiful? The sweet? The intimidating? Anyway, the artwork always took over for me, and I would inevitably have to face up to what I really thought about it and put it down, good or bad.”

A panned artist will frequently arrive at the only reasonable assumption: the critic is whack. After all, it’s their work; who understands it better? But Huntington argues that once art leaves the studio and enters the gallery, artist intentions are secondary; the work is what it is. “Artists come to their art through a series of tentative moves and half-steps and reversals that often override any plotted-out first intentions. …I like art that takes on a life of its own and leaves its creator as flummoxed as the rest of us.”

Artist-critics have taken their share of review shrapnel. Ehmke admits to possessing “a keen sense of having been on the other side of the equation, as the reviewee.” Exhibitions curated by Licata have been trashed. “I accepted it. I certainly didn’t try to get anyone fired.” Huntington observes, “You’ve got your life in this stuff, so nobody’s going to manage full emotional detachment. All a critic can hope for is a little feigned civility.” Like the personal e-mail I once wrote thanking a critic friend for a review, even if she wasn’t “totally won over by the work.” I went on to say, “I know from personal experience how dicey it is to be critical of people you know, and I admire you for having the fortitude to do it.” Then I politely pointed out where she had gone wrong.

Critics occupy a crucial link in the artistic food chain. They educate and encourage the public to look thoughtfully at art. Reviews help artists and curators become established; galleries require them for grants. “On a really core level,” says Ehmke, “I think we’re all—artists, journalists, arts administrators—advocates for art as an essential part of daily existence, particularly in a culture that values its football team more than its art galleries.”

Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, writer, former president of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, skeptic, gardener, former magician, husband, and father.