Early Criticism


The Early Criticism

… We thought we were simply looking at art but we were facing an abyss, an abgrund….

Here was a fundamental critique of art, of the ground of looking—and the derived and secondary position of criticism, and viewership, for that matter. So in those first few years of the late 1970s I was focused on a problem that would take two different forms of writing, dividing the issue in two, and then issuing in two ways. On the one hand, this problem of facing was played out as a critique of identity, in terms of a critique of both formalist and phenomenological art, and on the other hand, and more radically, as an exceeding and displacement or drift from the work of art enacted as writing itself (see the Article section "Theoretical Fiction" [link here].

Instead of the spectator coming into identity with the phenomenological intention or formalist structure of meaning of the work, an attempt was made to create a fissure between the two—spectator and work—in that very facing. After the formalist reductions of modernism and minimalism, “content” was thought of as a coming to speech of the excluded viewer through a force of interpretation conceived of as bodily excess. Today it would be called affect. Writing and viewership were one, allied in this tactic as the work’s two exclusions.

For better or worse, I introduced French theory into English Canadian art criticism [access video link here for my discussion of this]. But it was not then a pre-given model for application to contemporary art, a doxa in other words. The texts then were primary, not already quotable—or re-quotable. That came later in the 1980s. They had to be worked through, not applied as a pre-given judgement, dismissing an artist with an unelaborated quotation. Rather it was an inventive field where concepts were not just applied but transformed. These texts had no authority only a captivating fascination that levered writing into an other domain than was allowed at the time through orthodox art criticism: Greenbergian modernism or phenomenological formalism. Nonetheless, this is where one had to start as a young writer—in what was available in publication. And at that time American criticism reigned (and October and The Fox had just started publication). And so one worked away from one (foreign) model (American art criticism) while working through another (French theory). Coincidentally, it was in one of those phenomenological critics I most admired and rebelled against, Annette Michelson, that I first discovered reference in a footnote to Jacques Derrida, and then searched the reference out to what was barely published in English.

My example persuaded others to become writers, but looking back now I realize that my type of writing, heavily resisted in many quarters at the time (I received the “Get Out Your Dictionary” Award at an Artists Review ceremony in 1979), and better received in Montreal than Toronto, also dissuaded others already writing on the scene as critics. (I recall the story of one prominent art dealer, seeing me from afar, trying to lock the elevator access to his gallery, while an art critic ran out the back screaming!) However, I think one thing that distinguished me as an art critic in Toronto in the late 1970s was that I didn’t discriminate between uptown and downtown, between commercial galleries and artist-run spaces, that is, nor specialize as most did, but looked at and wrote about painting and sculpture as well as video, performance, and language works.