When the pens of critics sting
Dealing with reviews, especially critical ones, is a difficult task forany artist.
AMHERST, MASS. — Negative reviews irritate and even depress painter Leon Golub. "Sometimes, I respond to criticism through my work," he says. Larry Rivers, another painter, says he can be stung by something he's read about his work, but "I try not to let it weigh on me."
Coping with criticism is one of the most difficult tasks for any artist. Is there any truth in what the critic is saying? Does a negative review mean that the work is bad? Do misinterpretations by a critic suggest that the work won't communicate clearly with the public?
Art criticism and reviews are written for the readers of a newspaper or magazine, most of whom are not artists and, in all likelihood, just want to know what's new. Those readers, however, usually don't communicate with the artists; much of outside feedback artists hear, other than from their dealers or friends ("nice show"), is through the writing of critics.
Robert Longo, a painter in New York City, says negative reviews are "harder to deal with now than in the past" because "the quality of my work demands a certain kind of attention, which is greater than when I first started out." Sculptor Donna Dennis also notes that "a poor review affects me financially now, whereas, when I first started out, it only hurt my feelings."
Reviews and criticism, of course, serve different purposes for the writer of the review than for the artist. Critics generally like to establish their own presence in a review - as a judge of the art or of the ideas conveyed in the art.
Perhaps surprisingly, the thing many artists say they want most from a review is a picture of their work accompanying it. "I don't care what they say about me, since people don't usually read it," painter James Rosenquist says. "But they may look at the picture and remember that."
A review, at its most basic, conveys information: that such-and-such an artist exists and his or her artwork may be seen at such-and-such a place. To the artist, the review can show that the artwork is being taken seriously.
Misinformation and misunderstandings are common complaints from artists about reviews. Conceptual artist Christo has noted that the titles of his work are frequently misspelled, as are his and his wife's names. Facts such as his nationality (he is Bulgarian) are often incorrect. "Some critics wrote that I am Czechoslovakian," he has said. "One person wrote that I was born in Belgium."
Ms. Dennis, the sculptor, points out that the point of view of the reviewer can affect the review. For example, the scale of her work doesn't reflect class differences (as a Marxist critic has written) but "the scale of my own body, which a feminist critic would have understood."
Most artists, however, see reasons to check the impulse to respond to reviews.
"I've never responded to criticism, even when I thought that facts needed to be corrected," painter Jules Olitski says. "It's unseemly, demeaning, and gives the critic too much importance. I compose the letter in my mind but never send it."
Beyond the questions of the critic's value in publicizing the artist and of whether to respond to potential misinterpretations is the deeper issue of whether the criticism resonates as true. Mr. Rivers, the painter, suggested that criticism may prove most valuable when it parallels one's own private doubts.
Artists may be able to take criticism from critics, friends, peers, family members - or perhaps, from no one. Criticism can come too early and too hard for some artists. Mr. Rosenquist, the painter, recommends that artists hold off displaying their work until they feel secure enough in what they have made to make it public.
Once artwork leaves the studio, it no longer belongs exclusively to the artist; rather, it belongs to the viewer. It is liked and understood according to the tastes and knowledge of the people who see it. The artist becomes just one person in this chain. He or she learns to step back, watch the processes, pick up what good can be gleaned, and go on to the next creation.
Artists who have achieved some recognition tend to be able to shrug off negative reviews. "One reviewer said about my work, and I'm paraphrasing, 'Is this art? Why did someone go to the bother to make this thing?' " sculptor Dennis says. "My problem with art critics is that they often have a set point of view to which they want your work to conform, and they refuse to open their minds to see where you're coming from."
Painter Andrew Wyeth is scorned by almost all the major critics, perhaps for being the Old Master of un-modernism. Wyeth's painting, according to Village Voice critic Peter Schjeldahl, is "formulaic stuff not very effective even as illustrational realism." Robert Storr, curator of contemporary painting and sculpture at New York's Museum of Modern Art, has written of Wyeth "as our greatest living kitsch-meister."
But Mr. Wyeth claims that he is not bitter about the quantity and intensity of criticism because "I've been so successful in my career. However, I don't feel I'll ever get another favorable review in my lifetime."
Some artists are even able to turn criticism into a positive tool. "Criticism has expanded my vision when the person has tried to make an intelligible and intelligent statement," says Mr. Golub, a painter. "It's like a goad, a provocation thrown at you, and it energizes me and my work."