artists write

Avalanche6

Soon I’ll start posting conversations with various people. These conversations are motivated by experiencing something – a film, a book, an event, an artwork – and wondering what a particular person thinks about it. There is pleasure in exchange, as well as that involved in refining a written or recorded exchange. But these conversations also become part of an extended process of research for current work. Conversations that appear to be at most obliquely related to a project often push a work forward more than those that have a direct relationship to it.

I was fortunate to come of age as an artist in the early 1980s, a period when artists’ writings – even of the intellectual sort – were valued, and publication and anthology editors were open to critical writings by artists. As a young artist I perceived it as the beginning of a period, but in retrospect I think that I caught a somewhat limited resurgence at the tail end of a period of such activity. It’s possible to go back to the 1960s and 1970s and find significant small-distribution magazines that published artist’s writings, or even to trace the writings of various artists in more mainstream art publications of that period. Avalanche is an important example of the former, and there are many examples of the latter, of which Donald Judd’s voluminous writings, for example in Arts Magazine and Art International, may be best known.

From 1983-1990 the editorships of various small and large publications in the U.S. and elsewhere were filled by people sympathetic to publishing criticism of all kinds by artists – Artforum, Art in America, ZG, Wedge, Afterimage, RealLife, Impulse, Parachute, etc.

ZG 81

In the 1990s I began to feel a distinctly different climate developing, and a return to more conservative ideas of the artist as a “type” and let’s just say that type was not one who wrote criticism. It’s not for nothing that at some point in the past decade I changed one heading in my bibliography from “Writings By” to “Writings By/Works in Print,” because the bulk of what I began to publish in the 90s turned out to be art projects of some kind. There were exceptions, although those also had their interesting quirks. I was commissioned by Texte zur Kunst in 1998 to write a text on the collective Parasite, but as an artist who had been briefly part of that artist collective. Publishing venues for artists who write still exist today – Fillip in Vancouver being one  – although there are less of them, and they tend not to be mainstream.

I was fortunate to be offered a co-editorship at October magazine in 1993. But no artist subsequently replaced me on the editorial board when, after seven years of fruitful but overly absorbing work,  I asked to move to the advisory board. Either I was irreplaceable, or the editors had their fill of artist editors.

All that said, I always had my personal rules about writing as an artist, which I never broke. I would write no criticism on the work of other artists unless the work was included under a broad thematic topic.  (Such writings seemed more likely than not to open the door to the polar pitfalls of cronyism or alienation.) And I could decide just how scholarly the writing would be. In general, I prefer to write in either a completely non-scholarly manner, or in a scholarly-ish manner (footnotes included). In the non-scholarly category I include aphorisms (when I can manage them), plays on genres, modulations of existing texts of various kinds by myself or others including, twice so far, song lyrics, etc. I am not an artist-scholar, can’t keep up with the reams of scholarly writings that come out every year on a particular topic, and my interests are too broad for any kind of specialized focus.  Plus, I have too much respect for scholarly writing, and too much knowledge of how scholars work, to think that I could write in that genre without the time-consuming and meticulous work involved in such endeavors.

And it’s for that very reason, sadly, that I do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of even writings by artists. Fortunately, the encyclopedic is not necessary for the timely exchanges that I plan to post.

***

Respectability [of writing non-fiction], however, comes with a price for a would-be artist. As eminent a critic as Malcolm Cowley once, after some kind words about a review of mine of James Joyce’s letters, wondered if I ought to be doing this sort of thing at all. I wondered too. Creativity is a delicate imp; it should dwell under toadstools and garb itself in cobwebs and not be smothered beneath a great load of discriminatory judgements.

John Updike, Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism

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