The Blob That Launched a Passion

Jill Johnston didn’t know much about art, but she was pissed off. So she became an art critic.


In 1959 Jill Johnston was a married young mother who had just begun working in what she herself later termed “the minimal and margin­alized field of dance criticism,” most notably writing reviews for the Village Voice. But she broke through many of the limits of standard criticism, using her column to cover not just dance but her own interactions with the emerging scene of artists, writers, dancers, and provocateurs who were staging performances at the socially progressive Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. By 1964 Johnston (1929–2010) was divorced and her writing was becoming ever more adventurous. As she wrote in a later bio, “Though a surpassingly partisan critic, standby of everything avant-garde, I retained the more objective vision of capturing movement on the page.” By 1973 she had long been publicly out as a lesbian and that year she collected a number of essays from her Voice columns into the book Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution.

In 1979 she wrote a wild ’n’ wooly memoir for the paper about another cultural love affair, this one with the visual arts. Early on she writes, “I saw art everywhere because I had it on my mind constantly. I took photo-mental shots of images all along the way. I have the modern, decadent, and pretentious idea that art is whatever I say it is. When you see the view all the way around that means you’re still on top of the world. Even conceptual artists have to conceive…. I met one little boy who said he just realized everything has color in the world except the wind.” In the essay (reproduced in its entirety below), Johnston remembers a 1963 Fluxus performance at Carnegie Hall in which an electric fan had rustled sheets of music: “Those were the days when art as we (thought we) knew it was being redefined by lots of people or at least by artists.”

It was a blob that first got Johnston involved in art criticism. She’d read an article that pissed her off, and she fired off a response: “The reason I wrote my passionate letter to Art News was that I felt personally offended by John Canaday’s equation of Pollock’s dripping with a blob. This was as much as I knew. But Tom Hess at Art News replied immediately to my letter, asking me if I wanted to apply for a position as reviewer. I was astounded and delighted and wrote back right away accepting his offer to apply for such a position. Due to a blob, it could be said, I became an art critic. Due also to the hated Canaday, it might as well be noted. In a hated profession, I had an excellent start. I was already taking sides, and I knew nothing about my subject.”

It’s no surprise that Johnston, who sought to capture “movement on the page,” was caught up in the rhythmic physicality of Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist canvases. Beyond her dance criticism she was happy to express her own carnality in an infamous performance at the 1971 Town Hall debate between the always pugnacious Norman Mailer and such feminists as Germaine Greer and Jacqueline Ceballos. Johnston began to read an extended poem, and the artist-writer Rosalyn Drexler, covering the event for the Voice, documented Mailer’s reaction: “Norman said, ‘You may use your time like the flight of birds, but I’ll have to call you in ten minutes.’ Jill took fifteen, and even then had not finished her statement. Norman tried to stop her from continuing by asking her to ‘be a lady.’ Diana Trilling had not spoken yet. Some of Jill’s partisans in the audience urged her to go on…others shouted for her to sit down. Finally, Norman asked for a show of hands and then for another vote, with the audience yelling yeas, and then nays. The nays were louder and took it, the way they take everything. I hadn’t known there were that many nays in the auditorium, I thought we had banished them to the suburbs. But Jill wasn’t finished, she had planned a ‘Do it…Don’t talk it!’ demonstration with two of her girl friends. They came up on stage and proceeded to caress and embrace one another and to roll on the floor in a playful simulation of play.”

By the early 1970s Johnston had long since moved on in her enthusiasms: “Blob art was an old-fashioned rectangular canvas hanging in a museum or a rich collector’s house.” In this “blob” essay, Johnston’s prose — as it often did throughout her career — veered into off-kilter, evocative verse: “If all went wrong, I planned to see the Pope in Chicago. When I called Mark in Petaluma he said he was loading 50,000 pounds of steel on a truck to go to Chicago for a show there October 5 and that the Pope writes poetry. Then somebody else told me the Pope doesn’t like modern art. I should definitely go to Chicago.” Johnston retains a quaint notion of not identifying some artists who are her friends, noting at one point, “During the ’60s when I wrote the sort of art criticism defined as encompassing objects or events called art I was corrupted completely by my inability to distinguish friends from art works.” The “Mark” above is undoubtedly Mark di Suvero (born 1933), well-known for his soaring metal sculpture and also as the founder of Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens. The Pope in 1979 was John Paul II.

In 1964 the underground auteur Jack Smith wrote an essay for the Voice, which — in what was most assuredly not infinite wisdom — the editors rejected. At one point Smith appealed directly to our shared corporeal experience: “You are led by your bodies, Village Voice Readers, whether you know it or not — Most of the terrible tensions of your lives come from the discrepancies between what your bodies ask of you and your crabbed gratifications.”

Like Smith’s films, Johnston’s criticism sought to fill that gap.