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PETER CLOTHIER

I AM NOT AN ART CRITIC


Let me begin with a very personal decision: I will write no more reviews. Having written scores of them in the past thirty (really?) years (really!) and seen them published at various times in most of the major art publications, I came to understand just recently what many readers likely knew long before I did but were too polite to tell me. I am not a critic.

In fact, I always felt uncomfortable when I was called one, or introduced as one. Instead, I took care to call myself an “art writer,” or some such weasely term. And yet I can’t deny that I chose to wear that mantle, and made valiant efforts to look as though it fit me. In writing reviews, I thought, I should really carry that responsibility, and live up to what I thought a critic ought to be: a person with extensive knowledge of his subject, possessed of a discrimination above the ordinary, having a sound theoretical aesthetic base from which to make--and justify--his judgments, and finally, familiar enough with the art of writing to put his thoughts down with precision and clarity.


Lucien Freud, “Leigh Bowrey
(Seated),” 1994, o/c, 96 x 72”.

Clothier’s “One Hour/One Painting” series of talks sought to connect participants more deeply to art rather than analyze it for them.

But it was only recently that I arrived at this epiphany, a decisive realization to make the choice to cast that particular mantle aside. It happened casually enough: a review I had submitted in response to a request from a New York publication sparked an exchange of emails with the reviews editor. The magazine, she said, was looking for something more “blatant.” I replied with the click of a mouse to the effect that I don’t do blatant. Well, she asked next, could I not do something along the lines of an additional adjective or two? A “stunning” here, or an “abysmal” there, to indicate what I actually thought about the show?
Well, I thought my review had done exactly that. I’d had different, even conflicting thoughts about what I’d seen. My response to it had been a subtle exchange between head and heart, and I had wanted, in my review, to say something about the subtlety of that exchange. I had brought with me no latest theory about painting, no set of standards by which I could measure out the painting’s quality or its relevance to current issues. I was not prepared, nor even interested, in saying “good” or “bad”--nor anything along those scales in either direction. I was interested in the subtlety of my entire reaction, an integration of body and feeling, mind and spirit, and in using my own art--writing--as a medium though which to give expression to that complexity.

True, throughout my thirty years in the role of art critic, I had frequently suffered through the agony of self-doubt. I had questioned my qualifications: my education had been in literature, not in art. I had next to no knowledge of art history, in which I had never taken a single course of study, still less in visual aesthetics or contemporary art theory. I once accepted, many years ago, the invitation to teach a course in criticism at a major university--driven more by hunger for the salary, I regret to say, than by a passion to teach the course. The experience confronted me with just how little I knew and, truth to tell, how little I wanted to know about critical theory. I just did my best to keep ahead of the class, a week at a time, with agonizing attempts to read--let alone understand--the screeds of others more adept at critical thought than I.



Willem de Koonig, “Montauk
Highway,” 1955, o/c, 72 x 66”.

Is modernist theory necessary to appreciate de Koonig’s achievement? Was it ever really necessary?
Which brings me to my skills and capabilities. My mind, I realized many years ago, is not one of those that readily retains information. Most frequently, no sooner do I learn something new than I forget it. I’m very good, I flatter myself at least, at remembering experiences. But facts, like the quasi-infinite roster of important or emerging contemporary artists, no. And abstract thought is nearly meaningless to me. In my undergraduate days and beyond, through graduate school and doctoral programs, I struggled mightily to comprehend the words of philosophers and aestheticians. Alas, with pitifully modest success. My mind all too often simply bogged down with the effort. It was the same with a vast amount of that criticism that I read, more out of a sense of professional duty than from interest. I confess now before the world that I did not understand the half of it, though I did experience pangs of guilt for reading so little of it while I ostensibly laid claim to being a practitioner myself.

So it was with absolute clarity--though perhaps decades too late--that I came to acknowledge unambiguously that I am not a critic. Instead, I have settled for another way of thinking about art writing that feels comfortable to me. I am a translator. I have played with that notion for quite some time now, even though it seems an odd one when applied to writing about visual art. But I started out that way: a natural linguist, I started translating at the age of just six, when school work included the rendering of large chunks of Caesar or La Fontaine into English. And as my interest in poetry developed, along with my own skills, I found myself translating poetry from their French and German originals; even, in collaboration, from the Japanese and other Asian languages. It was always a delight, as engaging as a crossword puzzle, and infinitely more rewarding when successful.

Translation, especially the translation of poetry, involves an act of experiential empathy, a kind of identification that requires not the suspension of self so much as the merger of self with another. It’s a kind of making love, a way of opening to another and allowing voice or vision to that other through oneself. It’s the work of a medium. And that’s what I think I do instead of criticism, except that rather than translate from one language to another, I translate from visual into verbal language. It has always been a source of satisfaction to me when an artist says: “You really got it.” That feels like the highest praise. And if I only get a part of it, well, as they say about the more conventional art of translation: Better a live sparrow than a stuffed eagle.

As I write these words, it’s partly for my own clarity: I have always worked with that fine old adage, “How do I know what I think ‘til I see what I say?” But I want to say these things also to all those who, like me, have struggled for years to live up to images of themselves that have more to do with externally created labels and expectations other than their own. The more we learn to integrate ourselves with our true nature and vision of the world, the better we avoid hiding under “isms” and titles, then the closer we come to achieving the happiness and wisdom we so desperately seek. I for one am happy with these small flashes of wisdom that I’m granted nowadays, and with a slowly, slowly more appropriate sense of who I am and what I’m given to do. That said, I have chosen to release myself from the struggle with writing “criticism,” and to shed the uncomfortable guise of being the “critic.”

So don’t ask me to review another show. But if you want a translator, I’m your man.


R.B. Kitaj, “Los Angeles No. 20,”
1990-2003, o/c, 60 x 60 1/4 “.
Photo courtesy L.A. Louver Gallery.

Rather than lending a structure of theory to works as personal to the artist as this, why not serve it as translator?