The sportswriter Red Smith notoriously remarked that when he sat down to write he opened a vein and let it pour. His fellow New York Timeser Roberta Smith agrees, citing "the importance of terror" to her working life in a fascinating, if occasionally dry, lecture on the craft of criticism delivered at George Washington University last summer and now viewable on YouTube.
Those who have mistakenly understood Roberta as an intimidating force will be surprised to learn that fear, essentially, drives her. Indeed, watching her lecture for an hour without once referring to a specific work of art while combing through the rebus of her career made me think of Smith as Papillion as memorably portrayed by Steve McQueen: bars, tests, drudgery and deprivation cannot contain her.
The dawn of the critic, as Roberta tells it, lay with her mother, an obsessive decorator who invited her daughter to critique each made-over room in their house. Smith was working as a secretary, when Robert Pincus-Witten mailed a review she had submitted to Artforum back to Smith’s boss with the imperious instruction that, if the boss would cut it in half, Pinky would print it.
The chores continue when Roberta takes all of her mentor Donald Judd’s published criticism and types it into a 150-page manuscript, and she imitates Judd’s style ("describe and judge") in her own work for many years. She works as a typist for Paula Cooper’s husband, and then starts reviewing shows for Arts, then Art in America, which Roberta describes as "no fun, because your pieces appear six to eight weeks after the shows close."
Becoming critic for the Village Voice is "the first time I felt I wasn’t a fraud." (Did I mention that the title of this talk is "Between a Rock and a Hard Place"?) She is particularly liberated by Philip Guston’s late paintings and describes her esthetic journey thusly: "Taste is like a parachute that has collapsed over you."
Soon someone at the Voice tells Roberta that "Gary Indiana is getting your job." She quits before she can be fired, calling her editor sexist, to which he replies, "No, I just think you should work for the Times," a paper which Smith disliked at the time. In a moment roughly analogous to Lou Gehrig replacing the suddenly ill Wally Pipp at first base for the New York Yankees, Times chief art critic John Russell tells Roberta, "Michael Brenson is having foot surgery next week. Can you fill in for him?"
Five years of freelance work at the Times follows. (Roberta drolly comments that the Times likes to torture its arts writers by having them freelance "for as long as possible, with Stephen Holden holding the record of 11 years.") Smith describes the editorial process at the Times as cumbersome, as one’s work proceeds like the makings of sausage through the first copy editor, the "backfield editor," and the final copy editor, "known as ’the slot’, who presses a button and you’re in print."
As to her own distinguished work, Roberta is both humble and jejune, saying that "she doesn’t mind being a consumer guide for art" and that art criticism itself is "pure, strange and peculiar." Hard to imagine, considering the unique power that Leo Castelli famously claimed for her ("all you have to do is read Roberta Smith on Friday morning to know what shows to see"), but Roberta maintains that dealers often say to her, "Why don’t you just review shows that you like?", to which she confesses to enjoying writing negative reviews as much as raves (here! here!).
As a stage presence, Smith recalls the actress Joanne Woodward, sharing that Oscar winner’s confessional common sense with a dose of true dignity. Here’s hoping that Roberta comes to your town or campus. Food for thought and no pictures necessary.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).