Art Criticism and Writing | MFA Program

Friday May 10th, 2013
Filed under News, News, Events and Alumni, Spring 2013

What Is Art Criticism, And Why Do We Need It?

By Peter Simek

May 7th, 2013 12:12pm

A few weeks ago I participated in a panel about art criticism at CentralTrak, the latest in the UT Artist Residency’s Next Topic discussion series. The conversation was at moments illuminating, at others disheartening. The largest disappointment for me was that we did not clearly mark out in the course of our conversation just what the value of arts criticism is, both to art in general, but also to its role in developing and deepening the work of artists locally.

That’s why I wanted to point to this article from the Brooklyn Rail that was written a year ago by David Levi Strauss, who now heads the MFA graduate program in Art Criticism & Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York. If you are interested in art, his entire piece is necessary reading. It carefully outlines the relationship between the art object and the words written about it, while highlighting some recent attitudinal trends. These include the tendency among some of his students to seek “protection” from the experience of art behind a critical methodology (which he rightly holds is an altogether different thing than criticism), as well as the belief among artists that criticism is unnecessary — or an attitude which too easily accepts the substitution of the market for criticism as the only means by which a work of art is evaluated.

This situation of artists “being rated only by price,” Strauss argues, results from a devaluation of criticism.

Among other things, criticism involves making finer and finer distinctions among like things. If criticism is devalued, artists and curators have no other choice in the current crisis of relative values but to heed the market’s siren song.

For local artists, this situation should be concerning, particularly because for the vast majority (I could say all, but for three or four exceptions) their art work does not come into contact with the market. Even for local artists who sell work through galleries and have a decent number of committed collectors who buy their work locally, the difficulty of establishing secondary market value for artists working in a city like Dallas inhibits the possibility of market value growth of any artist’s work (which in most cases means the inhibiting of a sustained career as a working artist). In other words, Dallas’ irrelevance as a city where art is made is directly related to the locale’s insufficient market provenance. Irrelevant, that is, only in so far as the market is concerned.

Criticism, therefore, is of paramount importance in a city like Dallas precisely because it creates a place for a work of art to mean, irrelevant of market forces. Or, as Strauss puts it:

[Art] needs something outside of itself as a place of reflection, discernment, and connection with the larger world. Art for art’s sake is fine, if you can get it. But then the connection to the real becomes tenuous, and the connection to the social disappears. If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism.

What I like about this sentence is not just how it describes the role of criticism in establishing the relation between a work of art and society, but also that in the description Strauss lays out the criteria for arts writing that can be accurately called “criticism.” On the CentralTrak panel, the question was raised whether or not critics should write negative reviews, and a few of the participants said they don’t have the time or interest to write about “bad art.” In light of Strauss’ comments, however, the question itself seems miss-framed at best, idiotic at worst. Even reviews that seem to disparage the quality of a work of art can’t be called “negative” precisely because they should be an attempt to extrapolate a work of art’s implication for — and relation to — the larger world. A review that argues that a particular work of art does not adequately or effectively bear relation or significance to society is positive in that it elucidates those shortcomings both for the viewer and the artist. For critics to say they don’t write “negative” reviews is the same thing as a critic saying they don’t write criticism.

Dallas doesn’t have enough art critics, but then no place could be said it has enough critics of any sort, particularly these days. Because of criticism’s role in connecting a work of art to public discourse, there is always a need for more and more varied perspectives on this relationship. But Dallas is perhaps worse off in terms of art criticism than many other places (I couldn’t say this, however, about the state of local theater criticism, classical music criticism, and even, perhaps, pop music criticism). The problem is, in part, that there just aren’t enough people writing criticism. The other frustration is that many publications treat visual art as a kind of creative phenomenon, and not the starting point of critical dialogue. The art work is treated as a kind of artifact of creative intent. The personality of the artist (or their fashion sense) is of more interest than the art. Creativity is celebrated, creative enthusiasm is embraced as an end in itself. We want to “support” art and artists like we would a child in a youth sporting event, in which the effort and the fun is the point and the game is of no consequence. Thus there is a tendency to champion anything that is merely presented, anyone who slaps a painting on a wall, or locks themselves in a box, or declares the fruit of their solitary doodling “art.”

This is one of the challenges to arts criticism in Dallas. It stems from an attitude shared by some artists, arts supporters, writers, and editors that implicitly suggests that critical friction is a negative force on forward progress. It is a rejection, as Strauss puts it, of one the very intentions and consequences of artistic practice.

I used to think that the plight of criticism was to be always the lover, never the beloved. Criticism needs the art object, but the art object doesn’t need criticism. Now I agree with Baudelaire: “It is from the womb of art that criticism was born.” Artists who disparage criticism are attacking their own progeny, and future.

Thursday January 1, 1970
Filed under Events, News, News, Events and Alumni

Call for Proposals and Projects: Critical Information Graduate Student Conference

Hosted by the MFA program in Art Criticism & Writing

at the School of Visual Arts, New York City, December 1, 2013

Proposals due June 30, 2013 to email hidden; JavaScript is required

Critical Information is an interdisciplinary graduate student conference, which provides a platform to assess current scholarship and research at the intersection of art, media, and society. Critical Information is particularly interested in engaging both collaborative and individual papers or projects that address the following issues: Art and Social Theory, Philosophy and Media, Mediated Image Making, the Work of Art in the Information Age, Media and Memory, Identity and Representation in the Mediated Environment, Mediated Intercultural Exchange, Media Excess, and the History and Future of the Image, and more. All themes pertaining to the juncture of media, theory, society and the visual arts will be considered.

Open to all current graduate students and those who have received a graduate degree within the last year, Critical Information is sponsored by the MFA Art Criticism & Writing Department at the School of Visual Arts.

Submission Requirements:

Name, School, Department Affiliation, Academic Status

Phone Number, Email Address

Title of Paper or Project

Abstract including thesis statement and main argument. 100-150 words

Please submit the above information and your abstract within the body of an email. No attached word documents.

Important Dates:

Abstract Deadline: June 30, 2013

Decision Email: September 30, 2013

Paper Deadline; November 1, 2013

Conference Date: December 1, 2013

Wednesday April 24th, 2013
Filed under News, News, Events and Alumni

Chair of MFA Art Crit, David Levi Strauss for Time Lightbox

Wednesday April 24th, 2013
Filed under News, News, Events and Alumni

Faculty Member Trinie Dalton reviews Urs Fischer for the NY Times Blog

Wednesday April 24th, 2013
Filed under News, News, Events and Alumni, Spring 2013

Aimee Walleston (class of 2009) reviews Aki Sasamoto in Art In America, April 2013

Wednesday April 10th, 2013
Filed under Alumni, News, Events and Alumni

Kareem Estefan (class of 2012) review of Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige’s exhibition at CRG’s Gallery

View of Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige’s “The Lebanese Rocket Society – A Tribute to Dreamers (Parts II, III, IV, and V),” CRG Gallery, New York, 2013. Image courtesy of CRG Gallery, New York. Photo by Susan Alzner.

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige’s

“The Lebanese Rocket Society – A

Tribute to Dreamers (Parts II, III, IV, and V)” at CRG Gallery, New York

February 28–April 20, 2013

Much to their surprise, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige recently came across a half-century-old Lebanese postage stamp depicting a rocket emblazoned with a cedar tree. Though enshrined in official history, this inscrutable, fantastic image—seemingly the stuff of science fiction—commemorated an event no one could remember. An enigma, it intrigued the artists enough to do some research. They discovered that between 1960 and 1967, as the global superpowers vied for superiority in the space race, Armenian students at Beirut’s Haigazian University had successfully produced the Middle East’s first rockets intended for space exploration. The Lebanese Rocket Society launched more than ten of what were called “Cedar” rockets (after the country’s national emblem), reaching an altitude of two hundred kilometers with the “Cedar IV” rocket and briefly becoming the pride of a small nation riding the hopeful, modernizing wave of pan-Arabism. The amateur space program fell apart in 1967, and later, with Lebanon besieged by sectarian strife, it was forgotten.

Like many Lebanese artists who came of age during the country’s civil war (1975–1990), a period excluded from national textbooks to this day, Hadjithomas and Joreige have investigated—and invented—unofficial histories both to redress public amnesia and to question the select images and narratives that have endured. Like The Atlas Group (a fictional art collective, created by their peer Walid Raad, that has fabricated both protagonists and producers of its narratives), Hadjithomas and Joreige sometimes blur fact and fiction. Take their project Wonder Beirut (1997–2006), for instance, which posits a photographer who, in 1968, produced postcards showcasing Beirut’s luxurious beachfront. Seven years later he ostensibly seared the images—in precise correlation to real-life bombings—as war broke out. Wonder Beirut is a fantasy of a tormented, but cathartic relation between representation and reality, in which the commodified image is scarred in tandem with its referent. The actuality is more tragic: anachronistic postcards of a pristine, idealized pre-war Beirut continued to be sold after many of the buildings they depicted had been destroyed. Displaying the postcards as a series of disfigured prints and burnt negatives by the “pyromaniac photographer” Abdallah Farah, Hadjithomas and Joreige—like Raad and other contemporary Lebanese artists—symbolize the devastation of the civil war from an imaginary perspective, which becomes a necessary foil to the hollow position of official knowledge.

Though the history it charts has dissipated in collective memory, “The Lebanese Rocket Society: A Tribute to Dreamers” is entirely rooted in fact. Hadjithomas and Joreige construct a porous, layered narrative from actual events, opening the field of inquiry outwards from the Lebanese Rocket Society to its cultural context, while accentuating the spectral character this remote subject has acquired. In so doing, the artists generate traces of a past that cannot be historically integrated because it remains, in its fragmentary reconstruction, more potential than real. To be real again, they suggest, this past must first reenter the collective imagination, which has suppressed it since 1967—a “moment of disenchantment,” in the artists’ words, when revolutionary dreams of pan-Arab modernism were defeated.

The result of extensive research, the exhibition invites viewers to look and listen across layers and intervals, connecting, sifting, and unraveling. In The President’s Album (2011), photographic fragments of the “Cedar IV” rocket form an interrupted, to-scale model of the projectile across thirty-two panels, even as most of the rocket remains concealed beneath the folds of each image. Eight meters long yet irremediably partial, The President’s Album is less a monument than a symbolic testament to the chasms preventing this historical achievement from surfacing in the present.

Indeed, wary of nostalgia and triumphalism alike, Hadjithomas and Joreige guard against notions of monumentality. The artists produced a sculptural model of a “Cedar” rocket and donated it to Haigazian, where it now stands as a public tribute to the university’s forgotten space program; but rather than reproduce this model here, they reveal glimpses of yet another replica against the backdrop of Beirut’s streets. In order to transport what looked like a missile, they needed multiple authorizations and a police convoy; hence, requiring more time to document this passage, they restaged the action with yet another replica. The photographic series Restaged (2012) records their reproduced reproduction, an indistinct projectile coasting past a crisp background that has likewise undergone many stages of reproduction: Beirut’s gaudily reconstructed downtown.

The survival of the past, and its imperceptibility to the present, is also at stake with The Golden Record (2011), a twenty-minute sound collage accompanied by a video of a spinning gold disc. Inspired by a radio transmitter embedded in each “Cedar” rocket, as well as the time capsules that Americans sent into space with each Voyager mission, The Golden Record evokes the culture and politics surrounding the Lebanese Rocket Society. A radio news report on riots in Lebanon gives way to the iconic voice of Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum; the hum of a British fighter jet intermingles with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s resignation speech.

The artists selected these sounds in conversation with people close to the Rocket Society, whose memories and affiliations likewise instigated A Carpet (2012). A wool rug depicting the 1964 stamp that led Hadjithomas and Joreige to their project, the piece is modeled after carpets produced by young Armenian girls in a Lebanese orphanage—in particular, a carpet they gave US Presiden Calvin Coolidge in 1926, in gratitude for American support of their shelter and education outside Turkey. Among the children of these refugees, the artists learned, were students at Haigazian who took part in the Lebanese Rocket Society.

It’s just such interlinked acts of hope, idealism, and generosity that were once dramatically played out on the international stage that Hadjithomas and Joreige’s project excavates. Yet even as the artists pay tribute to dreamers—notably, Armenian refugees of genocide who dedicated themselves to the pursuit of art and science—they resist naïve laments for a lost age of peace and progressivism. Instead, they are dutifully engaged with the challenges of historical recuperation, chief among these being the privileged structures through which past events become visible, whether a web search—the most popular results being, in this case, reports on the latest rockets fired between Hezbollah and Israel—or a monument, which forecloses reappraisals, petrifying a single perspective. Hadjithomas and Joreige respond to these challenges with a paradox: by paying tribute to the dreamers of the Lebanese Rocket Society, it is necessary to recover their history as a dream, unraveling fugitive associations that are shaped by—but never bound to—subjectivity, time, and place.

Kareem Estefan is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. He is Associate Editor of Creative Time Reports.

Thursday April 11, 2013
Filed under Events, Spring 2013

SHELLEY RICE, “Apple Juice: Blogging for the Jeu de Paume”

Thursday, April 11, 2013, 7 pm
333 West 23rd Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues), New York, NY 10011

For most of 2012, Shelley Rice was the “Invited Blogger” for the online magazine of Paris’ contemporary art museum Jeu de Paume. Pronounced with a funky American accent, the museum’s name sounds like jus de pomme: apple juice. Since the blog was based in New York City but published in Paris, “Apple Juice” became its in-house nickname. A veteran of the Downtown NY Scene of the 1970s and 1980s, Rice wrote columns for the Village Voice, the Soho Weekly News, and Artforum. She’ll discuss the similarities and differences, pros and cons, high points and low of her various forays into arts journalism.

free and open to the public

Monday March 25th, 2013
Filed under News, News, Events and Alumni

Faculty member Alan Gilbert on Gianni Colombo at Greene Naftali, New York

View of Gianni Colombo, Greene Naftali, New York, 2013. Image courtesy of Greene Naftali, New York. Photo by Martha Fleming-Ives.

Gianni Colombo at
Greene Naftali, New York

February 28–March 30, 2013

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen—and experienced—as much unadulterated glee in an art gallery or museum as I did at the opening of Gelitin’s “The Fall Show” at Greene Naftali last September. The gallery was filled with makeshift sculptures of different shapes fashioned from relatively cheap materials and placed on variously sized pedestals. Each pedestal had a foot pedal attached that rocked or jolted it, sending the sculpture perched on top crashing to the floor, usually with a loud thud or a sharp clatter. Some of the sculptures were dented and chipped by the end of the evening, and I can only imagine their condition by the close of the show. At the opening and in the weeks that followed, people took iconoclastic pleasure in toppling Gelitin’s artworks, which seems appropriate given the aura of exclusivity that still generally surrounds art (and its institutions), even after a decade or more of frequently overheated rhetoric—pro and con—regarding participatory and interactive art (along with its kissing cousin, relational aesthetics). In certain ways, Gelitin’s show felt like an absurdist exclamation mark emphatically inserted into this debate.

The much quieter, although not entirely silent, current exhibition at Greene Naftali follows participatory and interactive art back to a largely unacknowledged precursor, the Italian artist Gianni Colombo (1937–1993). In the 1950s and 1960s, this kind of work was called Kinetic art; but these days, revisionist art-historical discourse tends to downplay the formal for the social dimension. Following a retrospective organized by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev at Turin’s Castello di Rivoli in 2009, Colombo’s first solo show in the United States features selections from three decades worth of work before he moved more exclusively toward architecture in the 1980s. Thus, some of the chronologically most recent pieces on display are small-scale models of built environments, one of which, Spazio Elastico (1968), consists of a dark, room-sized cube illuminated by black lights and crisscrossed with elastic cords that form a swaying grid large enough to walk through. When installed at the 1968 Venice Biennale, it won the top prize for painting, a fitting achievement for Colombo and his fellow members of Gruppo T, who exhibited in Italy from 1959–1962, and whose goals were the blurring of artistic mediums and increased viewer participation.

This is apparent at Greene Naftali where much of the work on display superficially resembles painting. Upon closer inspection, these are “paintings” made with elastic string, polystyrene blocks, foam, felt, and fabric, a few of which have knobs and levers attached that allow the viewer to adjust their materials. For instance, Superficie Pulsante (1959) consists of a small wooden frame filled with slices of polyurethane foam that pucker forward and back when a little knob is turned. The larger Superficie in Variazione (1959) features a row of metal levers at the bottom that when pulled create indentations in the fuzzy surface fabric. Two of the works move on their own via motors, the sounds of which fill parts of the gallery with a low whir. Strutturazione Pulsante (1959) gently pushes blocks of vertically aligned polystyrene away from the picture plane in a seemingly random pattern. A companion piece of sorts to the installation sharing its name, Spazio Elastico (1966–1967) makes nine, long strands of white elastic cord wiggle right and left in unison against a black background.

With a little encouragement from gallery staff, strings of elastic on a number of the paintings can be moved across the work’s surface, allowing viewers to create their own geometries. Alongside these interactive features, many of the pieces anticipate Arte Povera in their use of common, everyday materials (including Colombo’s earliest work on display, a set of ceramics, a few of which were meant to be turned by hand on their vertical axes). Colombo expanded this nudging of art into life—and vice versa—with his participatory installations. Along with the aforementioned models, a fully realized companion piece anchors the exhibition. Bariestesia delle scale (1974–1975) includes three sets of ascending and descending steps, each slightly tilted or pitched so that walking over them is somewhat difficult, making you feel a bit tipsy. Besides extending the artwork beyond the modernist regime of the purely optical, the proprioceptive experience in this and related works is meant to instigate a more substantial awareness of durational time.

Yet the steps aren’t so off-center that gallery-goers need to sign a waiver, as is occasionally now the case when experiencing interactive art, and the range of participation available with Colombo’s work is relatively limited. Unlike other earlier practitioners of participatory art such as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, both of whose work feels more fluid and permeable in comparison, Colombo sticks much closer to the grid (as does his German contemporary Franz Erhard Walther). This isn’t unrelated to the way bodies traversed new social spaces produced by the architecture and urban design of European post-war rebuilding efforts within a solidifying capitalist system. As historical understanding radically contracts to the present’s all-consuming maw (witness the New Museum’s current “1993″ exhibition as historical survey, and the fact that contemporary art is the most rapidly expanding field in professional art history), this carefully curated mini-retrospective of Colombo’s work helps push a sense of history back outward.

Alan Gilbert is the author of the poetry books The Treatment of Monuments (Split Level Texts) and Late in the Antenna Fields (Futurepoem), as well as a collection of essays, articles, and reviews entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight (Wesleyan University Press). He lives in New York.



Monday March 25th, 2013
Filed under Alumni, News, News, Events and Alumni

Philosophy and the Arts Conference, Sophie Landres (class of 2008)

March 29-30 is the 6th annual Philosophy and the Arts Conference: Soundscapes and Territories.

Sophie Landres (class of 2008) is scheduled to present her paper, “Out of Itself: Vito Acconci and the Body of the Listener,” at 3:10pm on Saturday.  The complete schedule of panels and presentations is  posted on the conference website:

The conference will take place at The Alchemical Theater Laboratory
137 W. 14th St. New York, NY 10011
Alchemical is easily accessible via the 1, 2, 3, F, M, and L trains.

Wednesday March 13th, 2013
Filed under News, News, Events and Alumni, Spring 2013

David Levi Strauss in “Art and America”

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