There's nothing like a nasty battle between art critics to add vitality to art discourse. As the new art season got under way in Los Angeles, a feud between conceptual-irony and anti-irony camps in the L.A. art world came into focus.
"Art/Journalism," Aug. 13-Sept. 14, 1999, at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, organized by Laurence A. Rickles, took on some of the biggest art critics in town -- Los Angeles Times writers Christopher Knight and David Pagel, and Art Issues columnist Dave Hickey (who actually lives in Las Vegas).
The gauntlet was thrown by a two-year-old art journal called X-Tra, which published an issue that served as a de facto catalogue for the "Art/Journalism" exhibition. X-Tra managing editor Elizabeth Pulsinelli accused the Los Angeles Times and Art Issues of forgoing social and critical analysis in favor of "writing that privileges a direct experience of something called "beauty." The manifesto for this kind of writing was Dave Hickey's The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, a 64-page book published by Art Issues Press, which has catapulted the author to rock star status in the international art community.
In his X-Tra essay on "Art/Journalism," Rickles pointed out that Los Angeles is an art center because of the good art schools in the region. New York, on the other hand, is an art-market center, where art magazines and the New York Times can wield real influence. By contrast, Rickles says, Los Angeles critics are provincial and relatively powerless, a circumstance that has made them intransigent and malicious.
Christopher Knight in particular has long been a lightning rod for controversy. Most recently, X-Tra published a letter written by two local artists, Diana Thater and T. Kelly Mason, attacking the Times critic. Here is an excerpt:
"Over the course of the past few years, Christopher Knight and his cronies at the Times have gradually exchanged art criticism for character assassination. It has become a paper where writers are paid not to discuss issues in art but to engage regularly in anti-intellectualism and red-baiting. All issues which are mulled over by the mandarin theorists at October magazine are deemed conceptual and therefore not worthy of being addressed...
"Like Joe McCarthy waving his little list, Knight and his lapdogs wave their paper and demand, Down with academics! Down with theorists! Down with art about language! and more insidiously, Down with female curators! We note that Knight's nastiest remarks are always reserved for the work of female curators such as Ann Goldstein ... and Documenta curator Catherine David."
Hickey and Pagel gave their answer to the provocations in X-Tra by sending two flamboyant bouquets of flowers to the opening of "Art/Journalism." Hickey's flowers had a card with the message, "My Sincerest Regrets, Dave." Pagel's card read, "With Deepest Sympathy, David."
The actual works in the exhibition are somewhat less pungent. Stephen Berens' The L.A. Times and Me is a series of charts that compare the usage of words like "important" by Knight, Pagel and Susan Kandel, another Los Angeles Times writer, to their use by Berens himself in his X-Tra articles. These charts proclaim the seriousness of Berens' own writing, a conclusion that comes across as pompous.
A collage by T. Kelly Mason, The Ecology of Evil, critiques the 1972 Artforum review of Reyner Banham's classic study of L.A., Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, by Peter Plagens, which chastised Banham as an "outsider" (he is British) and an "academic."
John Boskovich's Signifiers for Being Smart #1: Disco October, is a kind of fetish made from the cover of the journal October from the winter of 1987, which focused on the AIDS epidemic and was published just after the death of Andy Warhol. Edited by Douglas Crimp, that number of October is considered a classic, and has been reissued in hardcover by MIT Press. The topics discussed in the journal became the theoretical basis for such important activist organizations such as ACT UP and its art-making branch Grand Fury. Boskovich's piece shows how writing can be a powerful poetic and mnemonic device.
Other standouts in the show are Meg Cranston's Artist for President, Steve Prina's Dom-Hotel, Room 101 and Christopher Williams' Jorgen Gammelgaard.