Farewell Column

Damn, I am going to miss this place.


This is goodbye. After eight years with the Voice, I have been hired as the art critic of The New Yorker. Not long ago I wrote in these pages that to separate me from my column would be as simple as prying it from my cold, dead fingers. I meant that I could not imagine a happier working situation for someone of my vocational kink. I still can’t, actually.

This is my third time departing the Voice. As a tyro in 1966, torn between meeting deadlines and taking drugs, I went with the counterculturally popular option. Then in 1982, after two adrenaline-drenched years at ground zero of the ’80s art boom, I jumped to another uptown magazine–unwisely, as it turned out. Back again in 1990, I figured I was home for good.

Contemporary life is full of leaving. When does it get easy?

I am one of those people who, when nervous, may fall to counting things: ceiling tiles, our footsteps, like that. For want of anything more soothing to do last week, I found myself compiling an actuarial recap of my now concluding tour of duty here. With thanks for his painstaking help to Voice librarian Hervay Pétion, I will share some roughly but honestly calculated bottom lineage, then thoughts.

Writing every other week until 1995 and most weeks since, I tapped out 238 columns, devoting wholes or major parts of them to 185 individual artists — seven artists twice and Willem de Kooning three times. The women score: 38, breaking down into 34 out of 103 Americans and five of 65 foreigners. I covered 56 group shows or roundups of group shows and committed four issue-oriented think pieces and a movie review of Julian Schnabel’s not-all-that-bad Basquiat.

I discussed 88 painters, 45 sculptors or installers, 22 photographers or photographic artists, nine graphic artists, four ceramists, and a handful of ”other” (Outsider Henry Darger, for instance, and the odd architect or designer). Non-Americans included nine Germans and seven Brits (all but the German Caspar David Friedrich contemporary) and 10 Frenchmen (none contemporary). I did poorly by Latin America (six), and on this occasion I merit a gold-plated Good Riddance from Asia and Africa (one column apiece).

I reviewed shows in 69 New York private galleries and 25 museums and other more or less nonprofit venues. Main dealer repeats were Mary Boone (six), Pace and PaceWildenstein (six), Matthew Marks (five), and David Zwirner (five). Not on purpose, I Solomonically allotted from 16 to 19 columns per museum to the Metropolitan, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and MOMA. Prickly toward institutions like most journalists, I’ll say this only once: no city ever has been so well served by art museums as New York is in our era.

I took the column outside New York just eight times, never on the Gothamocentric Voice‘s travel nickel. That aspect of the job rankled. Art critics should move around pretty extensively, lest mold form on their Weltanschauungs.

Recurrent topics included the art world’s implosion via market crash and the end of the 1980s publicity jag; the rise, tumult, and fall of political virtue as a marching order for new art; and the uneven but inexorable return to glamour and bite of dear old painting, my favorite medium. I addressed the deaths of de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Donald Judd, Moira Dryer, Henry Geldzahler, Clement Greenberg, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Arnold Fern.

I hazard that about 80 percent of my Voice writing was strongly affirmative in tone, with about 10 percent strongly negative and the same proportion sullenly mixed. Regrets? A few, mostly in the ”mixed” category. Critics should shut up when they can’t decide how they feel, not that it’s always possible on a deadline.

However, I adore deadlines, without which I’d be inchoate, and, more than anything, I like to tinker up a New York art column. I’m fascinated by the column form in general. It is a rhetorical gizmo as compact and flexible as the sonnet or the sonata and a lot more supported by present-day culture. If journalism is history written by flashes of lightning, the column may be the literary equivalent of a roving flashlight.

An art column can weave aesthetic sensations and emotional and practically religious urgencies into urbane talk. A column can do this because art does it first and, in New York City, does it all over the place all the time, though much of the richness rushes by in a blur. That’s where your neighborhood art critic comes in. The art column’s job is to pick art up at the frontier of the artist’s solitude and set it down in the street.

So goes a theory that I got to practice here under conditions close to ideal. My thanks to the warmly supportive Donald H. Forst, the third of three editors in chief over this eight-year span who have known how to let writers be writers. Among the irreplaceable perks of the job has been the regular enhancement of my column by Robin Holland’s elegant, subtly canny photography. See ya, Robin.

How often do you become friends with someone who is paid to keep you on track? I am proud to think that Vince Aletti, besides being my infinitely thoughtful and tack-sharp line editor these past few years, is a friend of mine, as I will always be a friend of his. I nominate him as the epitome of New York cultural journalism at its finest: street-smart without being cynical.

Cynicism is New York sanctimony. This beats parts of the world whose sanctimony is sanctimony, but it can get bone-deep tiring. Vince makes it easier than not for people in his sphere to care unabashedly about things. Lucky people! Not to need a defensive carapace for one’s passions defines success in New York for me. Thank you, Vincent.

Thank you, everybody.

Thank you, managing editor Doug Simmons. When I requested the rare, always begrudged indulgence of an extra day to thrash out the present column, you said, ”Oh, all right. But really, Peter, this has to be the last time!” Damn, I am going to miss this place.