A few years ago I got a gig writing art criticism for a small magazine. I’m not sure what the editors were thinking. I’d taken a few classes, but as far as being an art critic I was mostly self-taught. Still I was excited. I’d seen an exhibit at a local gallery that I thought was amazing and I thought I could say a lot about it so I went back to the gallery, notebook and pen in hand, and the exhibit was gone. It had been replaced by another, a series of paintings. And I couldn’t make sense of them. It also didn’t help that I didn’t know anything about the artist aside from a brief bio on the gallery wall, and I started wondering if I’d made a mistake. I was doing the job pro bono even though I wasn’t a pro and feeling less bono every minute. And then a couple of things happened. For one thing I remembered a piece I’d read by the art critic David Sylvester. Sylvester was an interesting character. In spite of not having any formal art education himself Sylvester managed to become a major art critic, promoting the work of artists like Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. He was a friend of Alberto Giacometti, and for a while worked as an assistant for the sculptor Henry Moore. He lost the job because he and Moore spent so much time arguing about art neither one of them could get any work done, which makes me think that if you’re working for a major artist you should agree with whatever their opinions are, unless that’s not what they want in which case agree to disagree, but that’s another story. Anyway I remembered that in one piece of criticism Sylvester started off by admitting he didn’t know anything about the artist, but he sort of muddled through, mostly by describing the artists’ works on display and extrapolating some ideas.
And so I did the same thing.
And the funny thing is the more I looked at the works in the gallery the more I liked them, the more I felt I understood them. The great Yogi Berra said “You can observe a lot by watching,” and it’s true that you can also see a lot by looking.