When John Ashbery Was New York’s Art Critic

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John Ashbery in 1984. Photo: Chris Felver/Getty

In 1975, John Ashbery, already a celebrated poet (he was to win the Pulitzer Prize the next year for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror), began a five-year stint as the art critic for New York Magazine. Ashbery, then 48, had previously been the art editor for the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune and a Paris correspondent for Art News, and back in New York, was close with the Warhol crew, especially Gerard Malanga. Since then he’s remained inspired by art (see: his poem published in 1999, “Girls on the Run,” which is loosely based in the imagined world of outsider artist Henry Darger.)

With Memorial Day here (which means more time for reading!), we wanted to revisit and share some of his best pieces of criticism, which were at times biting but always colorful and perspicuous. Here are 12 of his takes on the art scene of the late 1970s, covering everything from sculpture to photography to painting.

1. On John Cage’s etchings: “Cheering Up Our Knowing” (April 10, 1978).

Cage’s etchings seem likewise to have given birth to themselves. The meandering lines, sometimes trapped in the impression of a found object (grass or a piece of netting), have a life of their own that is closer to life than to art. The randomness isn’t tentative. Cage’s etchings have a physical presence so strong that it would be almost frightening if it weren’t also so good-humored ... The show is like a marvelous overdose of spring tonic. After you come out of it, everything and everybody you see looks like a new percussion instrument.

2. On Lucian Freud’s first show in America: “Lucian Freud: Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (April 24, 1978)

His subjects are solemn, even grim-faced; they tend to stare, slightly spaced-out, at the ceiling or the floor, but they don’t look upset and are certainly not metaphors for human suffering. Only one, a naked youth holding a rat rather too close to his genitalia for most people’s comfort, seems to be making some kind of point, but he is counterbalanced by the almost respectful portrait of “Big Man,” a Pooh-Bah in a three-piece suit who is a very distant cousin of Bacon’s snarling executives. The only hint of anything sardonic is in the style, which is almost a send-up of the corporate academic portrait.

3. On an installation by conceptual artist Owen Morrel, perched atop a building:  “‘Asylum’ in the Sky” (August 28, 1978)

But it is true that at some point in the last 30 years the traditional wariness of the art-collecting public reversed itself and became bland acceptance of anything new that called itself art. The more outrageous you got, the better it was liked, and a young artist suddenly was faced with the pitfall of becoming rich and famous. This Midas syndrome has prompted dissident artists to invent ingenious flanking stratagems: earthworks in inaccessible sites, wall drawings which cannot be removed from the gallery, “information art” consisting of a non-negotiable sheet of statistics — just about anything, in fact, that can’t be bought or sold.

4. On a group exhibition of sculpture at the Whitney: “Anxious Architecture” (October 16, 1978)

... recent environmental work has moved away from humanist visions to the dark, private, neurotic ones that most of us, unfortunately, feel more at home with. “Architectural Analogues,” at the downtown Whitney, calls itself an exhibition of recent sculpture but is actually a bunch of artists telling us nightmares about space — not “space” as a requisite plastic ingredient in sculpture but the inner kind. None of these sculptures is intended to improve your mental health, and some may be hazardous to it.

5. On the renewed trend of color field painting: “Out of Left Field” (April 2, 1979)

“Color field” has proved especially attractive to painters of no great talent because it seems so easy to do. In the wrong hands it can get terribly tiresome, and several recent one-man shows have looked as though painted by the same committee, armed with squeegees. In the right hands, e.g. Frankenthaler, Louis, Olitski, and other originators of the genre, it can be an elevating experience.

6. On an Edvard Munch show at MoMA: “Make Mine Munch” (April 9, 1979)

... there is a sensuous richness in the paint and in the decorative Art Nouveau swirl of sunset clouds, an excitement in the vertiginously receding perspective of the bridge, that gild this too bitter pill and persuade one to swallow it, to accept it and not just as the nightmare of a disturbed and alcoholic northern misfit but as a moment of truth. Had Munch not been the superb craftsman he was, The Scream would have gone unheard.

7. On outdoor sculpture at Wave Hill: “The Sculptures of Summer” (July 23, 1979)

I’ve always had an aversion to sculpture gardens, even that of the Kröller-Müller Museum near Amsterdam and the Middleheim in Antwerp. There is something depressing about nature and art squaring off for unequal combat. Only God can make a tree, but lots of people can turn out pseudo-Henry Moore monuments. But the show at Wave Hill is different. For one thing, the garden has been a garden for so long that the art now displayed there couldn’t compete with it if it wanted to.

8. On an exhibition of Old Master paintings at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.: “Fly With the Baron” (December 24, 1979)

There are also some not very wondrous pictures on view, including two “Turkish” fantasies by Guardi. Though one trusts a collector of the baron’s means and connoisseurship to get his attributions straight, Guardi surely did these on an off day, perhaps after a lunch of overcooked fegato alla veneziana.

9. On a series of 19th-century Japanese photographs at the Japan House: “The Japanning of Japan” (January 14, 1980)

The Japanese, with their long tradition of woodblock printing and their inborn “fascination with paper,” as [curator] Mr. Worswick says, were able to elevate this usually creepy medium to the level of a fine art. As usual, the tints were wrong, yet they are applied with such skill that they impose their own rightness — the artifice ends up looking natural.

10. On Carl Andre at Paula Cooper: “Major Andre” (April 14, 1980)

Nevertheless, on most of this side of the Atlantic it is hard to see what all the fuss is about. Andre’s work seems no more shocking than that of many accepted avant-garde artists. Why are his “floor” sculptures more intimidating than, say, a Robert Morris felt piece or a Flavin fluorescent tube? In Andre’s rough-cut timbers and their ritualistic deployment there are even vestiges of a sensuality that his colleagues have rigorously purged from their work. Maybe that’s why he infuriates some people — they are angry not because his work has some sensory appeal but because there isn’t more (or less) of it.

11. On MoMA’s gargantuan survey of Picasso’s eight decades of work: “The Glory of Picasso” (May 12, 1980)

But in any case, [Picasso] seems always to have considered art a mere by-product of the act of creation. What then are we to make of an art whose real existence, for the man who made it, was elsewhere, not to be found in the substance of the works themselves? That’s our problem. And that is why, I think, one experiences a feeling of dislocation in looking at a Picasso. The brilliance overwhelms and frustrates at the same moment, because the center of gravity is elsewhere.

12. On the Brooklyn Museum show, “Photographic Surrealism”:  “Lives of Our Time” (June 2, 1980)

I still don’t quite understand, though. If Atget (who is included in the show) is a Surrealist, why aren’t Walker Evans and Weegee? If Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s photograph of a grotesque gnome-like child in a forest is Surreal, why not include Diane Arbus’s Halloween-masked figures? In fact almost any photograph can be considered Surreal, because it records a moment of reality that no longer exists and is therefore beyond the confines of time and probability.