April 13, 2021

Artists and Critics


Honoré Daumier, "Well, if you look very closely you might ending finding some quality; the color seems to be good."

In Jean Frémon's marvelous little book, The Paradoxes of Robert Ryman, he writes almost apologetically about his role as a writer on art:

All of us who write on art or artists have an extreme presumptuousness. We hold forth on the ins and outs, means and ends, and in reality we know nothing; nothing of what it is to truly take, on the end of a brush, the color from a palette and put it on a panel. We dissect thoughts while the painter searches for the form. Thought is within it and cannot be formulated in words. The thought of a painting is not discursive. It matters to the greatest degree and at the same time is on no consequence. It is everything, but it is nothing. It is there. In any case. Before and after. The only thing that matters is the form that it takes here and now: a little bit of white pigment taken up the this palette, on the end of a brush, and set down on that surface. 
In this modest declaration, Frémon shows himself to be a most sensitive and thoughtful writer. He has so many insightful things to say in this book that go beyond referencing just Ryman, such as:
Miro, Rothko, Ryman....deepened their thought in order to enlarge our understanding of the work of art, and our perception of the world. They do it not as historians or as sociologists but as artists; the proposition that they advance is not along the lines of semiotic analysis or chemical experiment; it is an object, an unexpected object, even if all the steps of its production have been carefully prepared, an object with no other purpose than itself, made to be seen, simple, and whose mystery holds us attentive, whose mystery touches us. 
This quality, obviousness and mystery, is what one speaks of the least when one speaks of a painting, because it is that whereof one cannot speaki. Thus, it is necessary to fall silent. Wittgenstein would say, Fall silent and look.
Frémon has not fallen silent, for which I am grateful because he's a wonderful writer. Artists cannot fall totally silent either, not about their own work or that of others. I've long believed that it is a good thing to be somewhat articulate about one's own work, to think about it as clearly as possible, as it allows us to move forward intelligently. But as the maker of the work, we can't ever have a new eye to see it in a different way.

Many years ago I was at a lecture given by Lucy Lippard, and one thing that she said has stayed with me because it is so important: she believed that the role of the critic was to be a "sympathetic observer". The critic can look at the art object and find connections, explore meanings of both form and content,  respond in an open and intelligent way to what they are seeing; this enlarges our understanding.  Over my long career I've been lucky to have had many reviews in which the writer was certainly sympathetic, and observant, pointing things out in my work that I hadn't thought of. Having the physical object of a painting translated into poetic prose is a delight and a gift. I did once get a nasty negative review, almost 40 years ago, and in the NY Times. I was a young artist and it crushed me (I did get other laudatory reviews in that paper). I now wonder what the point was of writing something so mean spirited? I don't read these kinds of blistering reviews any more, or perhaps I'm just not aware of them. It seems to me that writers on art have adopted Lippard's credo and  have provided us with a rich and informative range of texts, and the arts are definitely better for it. 


  1. Well said - both your words and Fremon's. Thanks so much for introducing me to his book. I was obsessed with Ryman many many years ago and have several books on his work. This will be a welcome addition. Good to be reminded of these issues from time to time. Thanks Altoon.

    1. Thank you, Tom. I hope you enjoy the Frémon book on Ryman; I loved it.