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THE BIG CRIT
by Walter Robinson
 
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Well do I remember my first AICA meeting. It was in the 1970s, and the U.S. section of the UNESCO-affiliated French critics association, the Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art, was nothing if not moribund. Back then, Artforum was smart, Avalanche was smarter and Art & Language and Joseph Kosuth’s The Fox were smarter still, and the last thing art critics needed was some clueless professional association.

Nevertheless, an official AICA press card had its uses when touring Europe, and a meeting was called in a SoHo loft -- I forget whose -- with the idea of breathing new life into AICA USA. As co-editor of a punk-ass newsprint magazine that was left on gallery window ledges for anyone to take, I was invited no doubt through the good graces of Irving Sandler, the youthful 80-something critic who can still be found making gallery rounds today.

Among those present, sitting in chairs arranged in a large circle, was the late Paul Brach, whose raw looks and big cigar belied the kitschy galloping-horses-in-Western-landscape serigraphs he made later. I believe he may have been intoxicated; I have no doubt that I was.

Also present were Rosalind Krauss, formidable even then, an Artforum star and ex-girlfriend of the toughest artist in town, Robert Morris; and Gregory Battcock, a wit and all-around troublemaker who would always insert one fake article into the anthologies that he edited (his Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology was a must-read). He contributed an essay to our magazine on the joys of transcontinental luxury liner travel; later he was murdered by a trick in Puerto Rico.

So the question came down to which of these two characters would head AICA USA, and I voted for Krauss, because I thought she looked like Mary Tyler Moore, and she won. After, my partner in the magazine business chewed me out for what she called a stupid move, since Battcock would have been 100 times more fun as president. She may well have been right, because AICA went right on being moribund for years (or so it seemed to me).

Today, things are completely different. AICA does an annual awards show that is taken seriously (I notice that Guggenheim Museum Asian art curator Alexandra Munroe lists her AICA awards in her official bio), and the association sponsors an annual lecture by a leading art critic, the event that provides the pretense for this text.

So it was that on Nov. 11, 2010, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times art critic Holland Cotter took the podium at Vera List Center auditorium on West 12th Street in Greenwich Village to deliver the "AICA/USA Distinguished Critic Lecture at the New School," which was titled, "Art Critic, So What?" I liked the way he walked across the stage, gingerly, as if on feet made tender from too much gallery-going.

Holland’s talk was well received, as he speaks as he writes, exceptionally, with measured passion and wit. He said things that I liked: he’s interested in everything; he’s conscious of how much he doesn’t know; he uses "plain American which cats and dogs" can understand (quoting Marianne Moore); his early reviews were often "wrong-headed and mean-spirited," and "designed to call attention to himself."

He offered bits of his biography: he was born outside Boston, he is a poet, he’s gay, he worked as an orderly in an emergency room (which gave him a sensitivity to art that deals with life and death), he wrote first for the now-defunct Arts magazine and then for Art in America, where Betsy Baker was his mentor (as she was mine), and he filed his first New York Times review, written and rewritten with agonizing slowness, on New Year’s Day 19 years ago.

If you read Cotter you know his special interest is art from other cultures, and he stressed this view several times, mentioning that he thought the Museum of Modern Art’s current survey of its Abstract-Expressionist holdings should have provided the opportunity to dismantle a monolithic art movement that is patriarchal and parochial both (he called the show "atrophied").

By the end of his talk, Cotter had, in his own quiet way, delivered something of a polemic. He called the art world a "middle-class gated community, protecting its territorial and entrepreneurial interests, and thus inherently conservative," and seemed to wax a bit puritanical when he said "no selling art as pleasure to our over-pleasured audience."

But he spoke undeniable truth when he praised artists who were actively engaged with the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early ‘90s, heralding the "exceptional range of new art made in response to on-the-ground reality." We could certainly use a little more of that today.


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.