A Few Ideas about Art Criticism: Part 2

Jeff Koons “Gazing Ball (Manet Luncheon on the Grass)” (2015)
Jeff Koons “Gazing Ball (Manet Luncheon on the Grass” (2015)

When I wandered into Gagosian in 2016 at the very beginning of my career as an art critic and saw Jeff Koons’ Gazing Balls, I went up to look closely at the reproduction of Manet’s Picnic on the Grass, recoiled in horror and ran out. I thought I could ignore it. Later after I had seen some reviews that said the reproductions were good (though they hated the balls) and then even a painter I know agreed, I wished I had written about it. The reproductions of the paintings are not good.

Here is a quote from Art Observed:
“Yet, as noted, the gazing ball, a gleaming blue orb, sits before each, offering a point of focus just before the work that continually distances the viewer’s concentration from the painting itself.”
The reviewer seems to be saying that there is “a painting itself”? It may seem to be a small point and many critics have deplored Koons’ work (which has not hurt him at all) but to hate the blue ball—the vulgarity of it! but not to notice the dead forgery behind it is disturbing.

(In 2019 Koons photographed the Manet version, printed an edition of 20—they are available for $30,000. The supposed point of the work: “continuously distancing” blah, blah, blah and “reflecting the viewer” are not part of the experience of the print, obviously.)
I have other objections. There are a lot of painters hired to paint Koons’ work. Why are their names not mentioned? I regret the loss of their time.

Last week a viewer broke a Koons balloon dog. CNN Style calls it “heartbreaking.” I wonder if the editors of CNN Style read the news section. There are still 798 balloon dogs remaining in this edition.


John Currin, “Thanksgiving” (2003)

It’s fashionable to say “who cares?” or “can’t you take a joke?” — but I love what David Cohen wrote about John Currin in 2003. At the time, the Guggenheim and many critics were considering his technique to be virtuosic. Currin has other virtues but emphatically not that one. This is why Cohen thought it was important:
“If old-master technique is merely an abstraction to be referenced, like a brand or celebrity’s name knowingly dropped, then we are in trouble. If you think… that the old masters can stand their own, that a bit of lighthearted iconophobic misreading won’t do them any lasting harm, just stand back and think through the practical consequences of such bad taste. Where are future picture conservators coming from? Museum curators? Art dealers? What degrees of nuance and sensibility are going to inform the people who decide what to put in national collections, and how to clean them, and what to hang them next to…?” Artcritical, January 1, 2003

If there are no real critics, that simply means that everything you hear about art will be from someone who is “selling” it.


Paul Cezanne, “Still Life with Apples” (circa 1878)

I suppose if you think this is all about painting, it might seem inconsequential. But it isn’t.
Can you tell the difference between an apple from the Green Market here in NYC and a supermarket apple by looking at them?  Believe me, there would have been no Cezanne as we know him if he’d only had the uniformly sized perfectly round plane-less apples from Ideal Supermarket to draw.
(If you can’t see the difference, can you smell it or taste it?)
How about the difference between a suburban lawn and a meadow—or even a weedy lot? A dead polluted river and a living stream?
Visual discrimination and critical thinking are important in life too.

Asger Jorn, “A Soul for Sale” (1958-9)

In the artist-curated show “Artistic License” at the Guggenheim, Julie Mehretu, who focused her area on art post WWII, suggested that abstraction itself might have been a reaction to the war years—a turning away from the horror of reality.

Do you understand the significance of Mehretu’s statement? It is that abstraction is a reaction to the real world—not an art historical inevitable progression that never intersects with the daily lived experience of human beings.

Georges Braque “Homage to J. S. Bach” (1911-12)

Jason Farago was thrilled by the show “Cubism and The trompe l’oeil Tradition” (as I was too). However, here is a not great excerpt from his great review:

“You could say that those times demanded an art of that ambition, but ours do too, and    everyone knows it’s not happening. Intolerable brutality. Savage technologies. Epidemics not seen for a century. Climatic upheavals not seen for a whole geological epoch. And against this backdrop of disruption — nothing new? Autofiction and Anna Weyant? Self-esteem and “Stranger Things”? “The goal,” said Braque, “was not to be concerned with the reconstitution of an anecdotal fact, but with the constitution of a pictorial fact.” Who is going to face our time head-on, dive into the wreck, and constitute something new?”
Made You Look: The Cubist Art of Deception, NYT, November 11, 2022

“Everyone knows it’s not happening”? And yet I rarely read a negative review. The negative reviews are mostly general—about group shows—they are usually blanket statements like “nothing new”—and newness in itself is not necessarily a good thing.
I’d say that the critic’s job is to describe what they see, their reaction and why. They might also search far and wide for something better—not stand around like bored teenagers at the Biennials and the blue chips.

In 1908, Louis Vauxcelles, a French art critic, called Braque “a daring man who despises form, reducing everything, places and a figures and houses, to geometric schemas, to cubes.”
Thank you Wikipedia.
I like that he said that—he gave a description, he was shocked and he made it clear why. Also, that’s how the Cubists got their name.


Calvin Marcus, “Conspiracy of Asses” (2018)

In the recent news, Hyperallergic asked AI to review an AI “artwork.”

(I cannot bring myself to include an AI picture here. Conspiracy of Asses is from The Whitney Biennial 2019. See my review below.)

The chatbot says upfront that it has “no personal emotions or opinions.”
Unfortunately, it goes on to opine “unique experience” (there’s “new” for you if you want it!) Also “mesmerizing”, “beautiful and meaningful,” and “not only aesthetically pleasing but also intellectually stimulating.”

It’s uncannily like common art criticism and other art writing—no specific physical descriptions, no comparisons and clichéd enthusiasm. I suppose it goes without saying that it’s not possible to be mesmerized, stimulated, pleased, etc. if you have no senses.
Hilariously it includes the idea so popular in reviews, museum notes and press releases that if the hypothetical viewer doesn’t like it, it would be because “the installations [are] too abstract or difficult to understand.”

After reading my review of a Philip Guston show in which I comment that some of the paintings are better than others, a painter of my acquaintance said, “It wouldn’t occur to me to compare one Guston to another.” I suppose the word for it is “taste” which is completely different from the pejorative “tasteful” and is for every person a process of evolution. At 18 I loved Chagall and hated Mondrian. Now I love Mondrian and Chagall is the memory of a childhood friend.

I have a respectful question: What else separates us from the machines?

It wouldn’t matter at all if this chatbot took over the press releases and art brochures— what a waste of time they are anyway—for the writer and the reader.  But I hope the critics will read this AI review very carefully—and do the opposite.


Read “A Few Ideas About Art Criticism: Part 1” here

To read my review of Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition, The Whitney Biennial 2019, and Artistic License at The Guggenheim, see below.

Three-Dimensional Space: Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition

Artistic License at the Guggenheim Part: 2

The Whitney Biennial 2019: Is it Safe?