The Curse of Critical Laziness
Amy Sillman, P, 2007
Modern Art Notes (MAN) yesterday mentioned the critical reception of Amy Sillman’s exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. in the Washington Post. The review by Michael O’Sullivan is symptomatic of many, many other reviews that appear in newspapers across the nation as it seems some critics simply lack understanding of the art they are assigned to review. It is almost as if they write a review to match how their audience might feel about a certain artist, which is not the job of an art critic. It is lazy, it is intellectually dishonest, and it is a disservice to the readers of the Washington Post.
I’ve restrained myself more than once from citing specific examples, but the review in the Washington Post is so unbelievably bad that it cannot pass without strong objection from myself. Construing Sillman as a conceptual artist is inaccurate, she’s also an abstract painter and later on is described as such. O’Sullivan frames his assertion as if the artist describes herself as simply a conceptualist, writing: “The artist, a rising star in the contemporary art scene, calls it “conceptualism.” I say it’s a gimmick.” This is quote mining, giving no further context what else she said. O’Sullivan appears to not understand the difference between Conceptual art and the method an abstract artist might use to produce their work (see inspiration). He goes on to complain, “Rather, the artist says, they’re “investigations” of the space between figuration and abstraction. More artspeak? Yup.” What is O’Sullivan’s objection to this simplest of explanations (this is not artspeak, if you as a critic don’t understand what figuration and abstraction are and how they relate to each other you should not be writing on art) of what her work is about? The transposition of the three-dimensional onto the two-dimensional has been a concern of abstract art since Picasso and Braque continuing through Gerhard Richter and most likely, will continue to be. Which is the point that O’Sullivan laments he cannot find.
At the end of the review one is left with the feeling that O’Sullivan has no vocabulary or understanding of abstract art. O’Sullivan seems adrift in a sea of abstraction without any recognizable realism to anchor him. Thus he searches desperately for “any visual clues that connect one image to its source.” He laments that the paintings look “like inanimate objects,” which they are. Under the accompanying image to the article he writes “Amy Sillman’s “investigations” of the space between figuration and abstraction lack depth,” in what sense does he mean ‘depth’? I’m sure he means it pejoratively, but in abstract art one doesn’t want depth, and it comes out as an unintended compliment. At the end of his article, besides confusing High Conceptualism with Sillman’s work yet again, O’Sullivan tries to take another swipe at her through quote mining her own words and only ends up confused yet again. While implying that portraiture would be more interesting than abstraction, he tries to negatively spin Sillman’s quote: “It’s basically just moving from being in a relationship with those people to being in a relationship with an oil painting.” Sillman is essentially re-phrasing a Pollock quote, and O’Sullivan doesn’t pick up on that, or address the formalist issues it raises, instead he implies that this is why in his book her paintings lack “passion.” From beginning to end this article lacks knowledge of art, bungles vocabulary, misrepresents Sillman and never gives exact reasons for his own distaste for the work.
Sharon L. Butler at Two Coats of Paint, suggests that O’Sullivan “might be more comfortable writing for the sports section.” Others have thought this a little strong, but I think she is exactly correct for the reasons I have just mentioned, if you don’t understand basic tenets of 20th century art you shouldn’t be writing about it, you should be writing for sports. It’s a disservice to the readers, the artist, the paper and the field in general.