Frank Stella at Paul Kasmin Gallery

Shrieking Ugly Ongeries
Frank Stella and art criticism
By Joan Altabe

Artists and critics. They go together like Chivas Regal and chocolate Kisses. Never mind which is which.

The time-worn contention between the two is like moving forever around one of those Grecian urns Keats poeticized. But there's nothing pretty about brickbats. Peter Schjeldahl's recent review in the New Yorker is so jeering, it's worthy of a black belt in computer karate. He called Frank Stella's paintings at Paul Kasmin Gallery "shrieking ugly ongeries of tortured aluminum (that) would make wake the dead and make them want to be dead again."

In seeming stony surprise at Schjeldahl's barb, Art News' April edition made a special note of it in the current issue, along with a line from another critic's blast at Stella's work, this time at his sculpture at the National Gallery last year: Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post said the artist "made an action sculpture that is a calculated monument to mess." You could almost hear Art News giving out with a collective whistle of astonishment. I don't get it.

This isn't the first time that Art News' breath left its institutional body in the face of harsh reviews. A decade ago editor Milton Esterow opined under the headline: "Have the Critics Become Meaner? Yes. No. Maybe." There was no maybe about it, according to Esterow. It was as Art News were longing to recapture some remembered gentility among critics.

But nothing in art history fits the description. This goes for literature, as well. Some of my favorite books have gotten lambasted:

Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. In 1973, Peter Prescott of Newsweek said: "From time to time it‚s nice to have a book you can hate—it clears the pipes—and I hate this book."

John Updike's Rabbit Redux. In 1971 Book World jabbed it with this: "It is leering, erratic, and gimmicky; it is disingenuous and trite... at worst the shabby outrage of an imagination damaged by indulgence..."

Of course, the success of these books suggests how much critics matter, even when I agree with them. In 1971, the New Statesman said of Erica Jong‚s novel Fear of Flying that it "devalues imagination in every line (and) represents everything that is to be loathed in American fiction today."

That 10 million copies got into print from Japanese to Serbo-Croat and 20 other languages suggests how much critics' views matter, mean or not.

Frank Stella at Paul Kasmin Gallery

But criticism has mattered in another way. Consider all the mean reviews in art history that have turned into respectable art speak.

Baroque comes from the disparaging old Portuguese word "barrueco," meaning an ill-shaped pearl. On account of its exaggerated colors and shapes, baroque art, considered grotesque to lovers of proportion and symmetry in the Renaissance, enjoys a reputation today as the ancestor of modern art.

And while critic Louis Vauxalles intended the word fauves (beasts in French) as ridicule of wildly colorful works, the word ended up as a high-falutin' description of intensely colored expressionist painting—fauvism.

Even the word gothic came out of a jibe. Renaissance writer Giorgio Vasari, looking down on artists living across the Alps from him for their brand of beauty, referred to them as "these goths, these barbarians untutored in the true classics." Today, the term gothic is held in high regard as a style that celebrates spiritual longing.

Which makes the century-old Art News' quick breaths of astonishment, well, astonishing. Who should know better than a long-lived art magazine that today's hard-hitting reviews may be tomorrow's fields of glory from which art movements are made?

A possibility for a new one comes to mind. The word grim, which Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes has used to describe the National Museum of Women in the Arts, may end up in art dictionaries as, say, grim-ism.

The term would mean dogged guerrilla girlishness—sort of an artsy counterpart to a hard-hearted Hannah.

Not that high praise always defines high art. Remember the wife of Willem de Kooning who had sex with two Art News critics, Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess? Their high praise helped to make the artist famous.

Stella had the right idea. When asked for his take on the recent slams, he told Art News: "This clearly doesn't have much to do with me. It all has to do with the viewer."