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Back to Reviews 96

Edouard Toudouze 
(1848-1907): Eros 
and Aphrodite, 1872.
Musee des Beaux-
Arts, Rennes.

Kim Levin. Drawing by Frank Harris

critic's chronicle 

by Alexandra Anderson-Spivy

For the first time in its history, the 

International Association of Art Critics 

has voted in a North American president. At 

this summer's AICA International Congress 

in Rennes, France, veteran Village Voice

critic Kim Levin was elected to a three-

year term as head of the Paris-based 

organization. Outrunning other candidates 

from Sweden, Poland and Slovenia, Levin won 

on the third round of voting in the most 

democratic election the organization has 

ever held. She succeeds Jacques Leonhardt, 

a French sociology professor who had 

presided unopposed for six years.

A lot of people have heard of AICA (which 

goes by an acronym formed from the 

organization's French name), but most 

probably have no real idea of what it does. 

Levin inheritss a surprisingly large, 50-

year-old organization whose most valued 

members' benefit is probably the membership 

card, which allows critics free access to 

museums and galleries worldwide. Chartered 

by UNESCO as an NGO (non-governmental 

organization) in the late 1940s, AICA was 

launched by an international group 

that included James Johnson Sweeney, 

who became the first director of the 

Guggenheim Museum, and critic George 

Heard Hamilton, as well as a few other 

American art-world heavies. Among its aims

--and I quote from the original by-laws--

were "to promote art criticism as a 

discipline and to contribute to its 

methodology," "to ensure a permanent 

liaison among members by encouraging 

international meetings" and "to facilitate 

exchange of information in the field of 

plastic arts at an international level." 

AICA's membership is open only through 

invitation; for entry to the U.S. chapter, 

critics must submit three texts written in 

the past two years for review by the group's 


From the beginning the French have dominated the 

organization, which now has over 4,000 

members enrolled through some 70 different 

national chapters. Chapters operate in 

Haiti, Zaire, Hong Kong and Kazakhstan as 

well as in Great Britain, France, Germany 

and every other country in Western Europe 

and North and South America. The XXXth 

International AICA Congress, held in Rennes 

Aug. 25-Sept. 1, threw together some 250 

art critics, art historians and scholars 

from as far away as Tokyo, Zagreb, Moscow, 

Kinshasa and Sydney. There were critics 

from Macedonia and critics from Argentina 

and Canada and Finland.

Such a mix creates a stew of international 

cultural politics, political opinion and 

critical jockeying for power. A subtext of 

politics virtually unknown in American 

cultural life inflects this organization 

because of its far-flung membership and 

European base. During the Cold War, AICA 

frequently became involved in issues of 

cultural freedom because of its members in 

Iron Curtain countries. After the war in 

Bosnia broke out, AICA was instrumental in 

helping some Bosnian critics by channeling 

funds to them in 1994-95.

As current president of the AICA U.S. 

section, I attended this summer's congress, 

drawn by the potential drama of the 

election (and to hand-deliver the U.S. 

mail-in presidential votes) and by the 

prospect of meeting other critics from all 

over the world. As at any professional 

convention, gossiping in the corridors with 

your peers is an attraction far outweighing 

that of the scholarly discussions in the 


The conference theme was "What Memories for 

Contemporary Art?" Its format was four 

packed days of papers and panels delivered 

in French, English and Spanish via 

simultaneous translators plus a day of 

elections, punctuated by several outings to 

art sites and regional museums; wrapped up 

by two days of cultural tourism through 

Brittany and one museum-going day in gay 


Pierre Restany, the closest thing in France 

to a celebrity critic, delivered the 

keynote address that opened the Congress on 

Aug. 26 at the Language Center--one of the 

antiseptic "international style" newer 

buildings at the University of Rennes. 

White beard flying, French blue shirt 

askew, the cherubic founder of "La Nouvelle 

Realisme" cheerfully told his stories of 

Yves Klein and Arman. Many had heard these 

tales before--even though his title was 

"Entre geographies nouvelles et 

technologies nouvelles." Still, if Restany 

offered more warmed-over memories than 

insights, his was one of the liveliest 

talks of the week and his presence 

contributed an antique and charming 

bohemian energy to proceedings otherwise 

notable for their intellectual tameness.

Subsequent papers mostly ignored the theme 

topic and of course heedlessly overran the 

allotted times, which even Ramon Tio 

Bellido, the young president of the French 

AICA section and chief organizer of the 

Congress, seemed powerless to enforce. This 

occupational hazard, derived from 

overexposure to academic practices and 

critics who like to hear themselves talk, 

produced a huge consumption of Advil and 

rapid audience attrition. By the third day 

of paper delivery, a healthy portion of 

Congress-goers had abandoned the auditorium 

for visits to local museums and roadside 

attractions. Trapped in their glass booths, 

the simultaneous translators remained. As 

they tried to clarify the references to 

Derrida and Lacan, "transparence," and 

"marginality" and other signs that post-

structuralism and multiculturalism codes are 

still alive, if not entirely well, these 

valiant women looked like they all needed a 

shot of good French cognac.

Of course this was, by definition, a 

certifiably genuine multicultural 

gathering, an aspect that could be 

wonderfully bewildering. What a mind-bender 

to hear some of the critics and historians 

from the more "marginal" regions sometimes 

most vigorously defending old-fashioned 

humanist views of art while those in the 

trendier "centers" denounced them.

The biggest concern of the Congress 

discussions turned out to be the cultural 

effects of digital technologies. A second 

re-occurring and related concern, expressed 

by several curators, was the difficulty of 

dealing with too much work and too much 

information. (Or, what do you do when you 

can't throw anything out?) Christian 

Bernard, dapper director of the Modern and 

Contemporary Art Museum in Geneva, was all 

for getting rid of older modern art in 

favor of utterly contemporary items. He 

claimed that there weren't enough venues in 

Europe for new art and emerging artists. 

Other speakers hoped the new technologies 

would replace the art object with the 

virtual art work. The curator from 

Australia's Museum of New South Wales 

described the challenges and vagaries of 

receiving shipped "installation" works and 

installing them guided by "phoned-in" 

artist-instructions that don't take into 

account different gallery dimensions or 

proportions. He explored the effects of 

such production responsibility on the 

meaning of the art. At a Monday afternoon 

roundtable, French artist Orlan (notorious 

for her public plastic surgery designed to 

re-form her into the ideal woman) showed 

bits of her new CD-ROM (it seemed made up 

out of old videos).

Meanwhile, though e-mail privileges were 

promised, trying to e-mail messages from 

the university computer center made it 

clear France needs a lot more hard wiring 

and modem upgrades before it can abandon 

the Minitel. Right now the Web is more 

popular and easier for individuals to 

access in Japan, Slovenia and Poland than 

it seems to be in France or Germany. An 

older generation of curators and critics 

has little interest in the technology and a 

younger generation is finding it hard to 

get at it.

In the sessions, art itself was in notably 

short supply, marginalized by theory 

abundant enough to reclassify the 

definition of "the French disease" (which 

is of course code for sexually transmitted 

disease in England or Germany--while in 

France gonorrhea or syphillis are called 

"the English disease"). The witty freelance 

critic from Slovenia identified this 

European critical tendency as a kind of 

advanced "clerisy." It was refreshing to 

find that some speakers (and all the 

Americans) did talk about specific artists 

and actually showed slides of their work. 

Phyllis Tuchman, who grew up in Passaic, 

N.J., carefully identified the sites of 

Smithson's Monuments of Passiac. Tuchman 

revealed that what one lazy critic had 

labeled an "unknown wall," was in fact the 

wall of the Passaic High School football 

stadium. Her point: Faulty art-historical 

information is propagated (then validated 

by repetition as others pick it up 

consulting secondary sources) by people who 

don't bother to go and check out the 

readily available sites and sources artists 

use. Jacqueline Burckhardt, Swiss editor of 

Parkett, and Frank Perrin, editor of the 

Paris-based Bloc-notes, vied for the "most 

shameless editorial self-promotion" award, 

unfortunately contributing nothing 

progressive about art-magazine publishing 

in the process.

While the days of panels produced nothing 

earth-shaking in terms of critical 

perception or contemporary artistic 

developments (eg: archives are important; 

computers will alter everything), what they 

did demonstrate is that there is widening 

activity in the field across the world and 

that interesting new art exists in Asia, 

South America, Australia and Scandinavia, 

which we hear very little about in American 

publications and see less of in our 

museums. What the AICA Congress produced in 

abundance (as do all professional get-

togethers worth the airfare) was 

international networking among 

participants. My favorite international 

networking moment was when the critic from 

Kinshasa asked me whom he might see in New 

York to get his book published when he was 

on his way to visit his son at Harvard 

Business School. Also it did not go 

unremarked that the mention of Rosalyn 

Krauss excites a detectable level of global 


Other highlights: Oyster dinners with 

critics from the formerly Communist 

countries and the British Isles who all 

like good food and lots of it and who all 

still smoke. The provincial museums in 

Rennes, Quimper, Nantes (the Rennes 

Municipal Art Museum owns the great Georges 

de La Tour, The Newborn, which it has 

installed without fanfare in a modest 

first-floor gallery. It also houses an 

over-the-top version of Eros and Aphrodite 

painted by the once sought-after but now 

utterly obscure Edouard Toudouze in the 

final decadent days of the Second Empire. 

His bored-looking Venus pulled by a team of 

butterflies over Paris with blind cupid as 

a bowsprit to her shell captivated every 

single male art critic who strolled past 

it. The meeting with the second-generation 

French synthetic Cubist, Jean Bazine, now 

92, in the rural Breton church where he 

made the stained glass windows. The tiny 

golf course at St. Briac next to an 

abandoned 1920s seaside hotel where the 

French regional art council FRAC Bretagne 

(Fonds Regional d'Art Contemporain) had 

installed some distinctly weary pieces by 

artists such as Jackie Winsor and Rebecca 

Horn. This and other installations 

convinced several of us that there must be 

an international pool of cutting-edge art 

from the 1970s and 1980s traveling 

endlessly around the world to more and more 

"marginal" sites, like a troupe of aging 

vaudevillians consigned to a cicuit of 

ever-smaller and more remote provincial 

theatres. In the beautifully renovated 

Municipal Museum at Quimper was a 

fascinating room devoted to native-son Max 

Jacob as well several galleries dedicated 

to the School of Pont Aven, worth the 

detour for every critic who saw them.

The wrap-up--a couple of days in Paris--

produced a notable exhibition at last. The 

Alexander Calder show at the Musée de l'Art 

Moderne on Avenue Woodrow Wilson (on view 

through Oct. 6, 1996) concentrated on the 

American sculptor's output from the 1930s 

through the late 1960s, largely avoiding 

the gross posthumously manufactured blow-

ups of earlier pieces that briefly became 

obligatory accessories to commercial 

architecture. The delicacy, wit and 

refinement of the best of his work was 

reclaimed in this excellent retrospective. 

The AICA critics were once again in their 



writer who lives in New York. Currently the 

President of the United States Section of 

AICA, she is also editor-in-chief of The 

Craftsman on CD-ROM.

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