Art

John Perreault, Artist, Critic, and Author, 1937–2015

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John Perreault, the artist and critic, died at age 78 in Manhattan on Sunday. A champion of art outside the gallery-world mainstream, Perreault, the Voice‘s chief art critic from 1966 to 1974, wrote urgent, forward-thinking criticism illuminating and taxonomizing that era’s riot of movements. At the Voice and the SoHo Weekly News, where he served as chief critic from 1975 until 1982, Perreault celebrated the too often uncelebrated: feminist art, Land Art, work that flouted heteronormative sexuality, the Pattern and Decoration movements.

Perreault’s criticism balanced clear-eyed appraisals of the art world with persuasive evocations of the work itself. From his November 1972 celebration of the sculptor Louise Nevelson: “She is living proof that no group of pedants can ever sew up art for long and that no system of rules, in which rules are mandates rather than rules of thumb, can explain away or hold down art to formulae, simplified art history, or limited taste.”

In that same piece, after ruefully upbraiding the Met for including only one woman in its show “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940 to 1970,” Perreault set Nevelson’s work in words with a clarity and power unusual in all but the finest art writing: “In her best work the surprise has always been that, through the force of her inspiration and her sensitivity to the fine line between control and disorder, she has been able to use humble materials — monochromatically painted scrap wood or wood fragments, with and without a visible history of previous use — to create works of stature, mystery, and, more often than not, a grandeur rare in contemporary sculpture.”

Like Nevelson’s sculpture, Perreault’s criticism has stature. (Relish his recent work on his Artopia blog at Arts Journal.) So does his art, much of which is available for viewing at www.johnperreault.info

Of Perreault’s alternative-media canvases, current Voice art critic R.C. Baker writes:

I remember laughing out loud at my first sight of John Perreault’s white-toothpaste tondos — so many ideas gamboled off those roiling, bright surfaces: Robert Ryman’s thickly applied oil paint; the toxicity of traditional art materials (artists contracted “painter’s colic” from contact with white lead); the hoary art-school prohibition against using paint straight from the tube; and, since Perreault was a well-known writer, Jasper Johns’s “The Critic Smiles,” which substitutes teeth for the bristles of a toothbrush. But taut theory and tangy wit were ultimately subsumed in the chunky litheness of Perreault’s unexpected medium and in his gregarious handling, which combined to imbue this work with a beguiling and bodily presence.

Perreault traversed a kindred realm when he began splattering instant coffee onto canvas, but now abstract-expressionist verve trumped minimalist contemplation. Delivering that initial caffeine jolt which brings the world succinctly into focus, Perreault leavened these bold-as-all-get-out compositions with exquisite sepia revelations among the rivulets.

Perreault knew well his antecedents, somehow combining Pollock’s grace with Warhol’s piss to marry boffo formalism with thrilling intimacy. Much will be said in the coming days about Perreault’s criticism; more should be written about his art. 

Much also could be written about Perreault’s many other achievements: his curatorial work at the American Craft Museum and Staten Island’s Snug Harbor Cultural Center, his teaching and fiction writing, his organization of the initial “Day Without Art,” in 1989, to center attention on all the art community had lost due to AIDS.

His marriage, to critic, editor, and consummate union rep Jeff Weinstein, was honored in one of the most moving of all of the Times‘ “Vows” columns; in 2001, Weinstein penned an account for the Philadelphia Inquirer about the terror of being far away from and out of touch with Perreault, who swam at a gym near the World Trade Center, on September 11.

On their first date in 1976, Perreault and Weinstein went to a bowling alley in San Diego to hear a country band, and the pair has brought life, art, and joy to each other and to the world ever since. Perreault is survived by Weinstein. 

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