Jed Perl (b. 1951) has been a surprising, thoughtful, and often dissident voice in the New York art world since the 1970s. He began writing for The New Criterion shortly after its founding in 1982, and contributed to many other magazines before becoming the art critic for The New Republic in 1994, a post he held for twenty years. His historical books include Paris Without End (1988), New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century (2005), and Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World (2008); he’s also published three collections of criticism—Gallery Going (1991), Eyewitness (2000) and Magicians and Charlatans (2012). Recently, he brought out the first volume of his full-length biography, Calder: The Conquest of Time: The Early Years 1898-1940 (2017). He publishes regularly in The New York Review of Books.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): Let’s start by talking about your early childhood. What was the culture like in your house growing up?
Jed Perl: My parents were New Yorkers. I was born here when my father was in graduate school at Columbia, working on a PhD in physics. They were artistically and intellectually inclined—I have some of my mother's Museum of Modern Art books with her maiden name written in them. I grew up in a family where going to museums, concerts, and talking about ideas was the air we breathed. We always got The New Yorker and The New Republic, and started getting The New York Review of Books when it first appeared in the ‘60s. I remember my parents coming home from a dinner party talking about Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Obviously, there’s little distance between the world I grew up in and where I am now.
From the very beginning I was interested in the intense experiences that the arts can provide—that all the arts provide, whether visual, literary, musical, or theatrical. These experiences are very mysterious—they’re both immediate and lasting, peremptory and penetrating. As a critic, I’ve wanted to describe these experiences. But I’ve also wanted to try to understand them—and understand how they help shape the world we live in. What I’ve come to believe is that the arts—all the arts—are powered by a dramatic interaction between the authority of tradition and the freedom of the individual. Art is an expression of one’s uniqueness, but an expression that depends on forms and values—visual, literary, musical, and so forth—that have a history, a genealogy. It’s the tension between authority and freedom that gives the arts their life-giving impact. I believe that holds true for all art in all periods—whether the carvings done by an anonymous craftsman on a medieval cathedral or the work done by a modern giant like Matisse, Stravinsky, or Colette.
Rail: What are some early aesthetic experiences that were important to you?
Perl: I always drew and painted. I was also fascinated by the lives of artists — I had that book The Private World of Pablo Picasso, with David Douglas Duncan’s photographs of Picasso, which were taken in the ‘50s, when Picasso was living in the South of France. I loved going to museums at a very early age. In my early teens we lived in California, and I would come back to New York to stay with my grandparents in Brooklyn—that was back when you got on the subway by yourself at a fairly early age, and nobody thought anything of it. I would go up to the Metropolitan or the Museum of Modern Art by myself and just take everything in. At the same time, in my teens I got really interested in criticism. The New Yorker had incredibly exciting critics—Pauline Kael in particular.
Rail: And you were drawing and painting. In your teens were you primarily interested in being an “artist,” or were you writing too?
Perl: I stopped drawing and painting for a number of years—around thirteen. I wrote movie reviews for the high school paper and then went to Columbia for college, though I really didn’t know what I was going to do. By then I hadn't painted in four or so years. After taking some art history I found myself wanting to try a drawing course; then I got very involved in painting again. One of the men I studied with at Columbia, Leon Goldin—a very good painter—said, “You should go to Skowhegan,” the summer art school in Maine, which I did. I hadn’t been in an art school environment before, and at Skowhegan almost everybody was from an art school. I also began writing art criticism for the Columbia Spectator, the school paper. I met my wife, the painter Deborah Rosenthal, at Columbia—we’ve been married a long time. She had been a printmaker and then was working on a degree in English. She went back to printmaking and then to graduate school at Pratt. She became an abstract painter and has been showing in New York for thirty years; she’s been an influential teacher of painting and also written a good deal, often about the modernist painters who’ve meant the most to her, among them Paul Klee and André Masson. By the time I graduated, I wanted to be a painter, and for a number of years I was painting and writing—for Arts, Art in America, and a couple of other places. Then sometime in the ‘80s, when I was in my early thirties, I came to a fork in the road and decided to focus on writing.
Rail: When you were studying art history at Columbia, what were you studying, and who were you working with?
Perl: I was into a whole range of things. There was this amazing course on Venetian painting given by David Rosand—a formidable teacher and scholar. I took the last undergraduate course Meyer Schapiro taught on the sociology of art. I was just kind of into everything, though I was never really interested in studying contemporary or modern art in an academic setting.
Rail: You edited the terrific collection Art in America: 1945–1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism (2014) for the Library of America. It’s such a loving celebration of the complexities of art writing. It’s also a kind of revisionist history of that period, including a lot of idiosyncratic and minor writers from obscure places. When you started writing criticism, who were your models?
Perl: Criticism for me has never meant just “art criticism”—it’s always been about criticism in general. Edmund Wilson is one of my great heroes—I don’t quite know why he became my hero when I was in my teens, but he did. I’ve read everything he’s written, even his poems and plays. Among the critics who’ve been important for me are the dance critics Edwin Denby and Arlene Croce. Pauline Kael, who I read for years and who became a friend, was very important. What spurred me to write about art in college was finding myself in a specific community of artists. I never painted abstractly; I painted representationally, I saw myself as part of a cohort of people, some of whom were much older, whose work I felt hadn’t been seen to the degree it should be, or whose voices hadn’t been heard in the way that they deserved. I began writing to advocate for and celebrate those artists. One of the first pieces I wrote for Arts Magazine was about contemporary still life painting—it’s called “The Life of the Object.” I don’t have the article in front of me now, but as best as I can recall, the dozen or so artists I discussed included Gabriel Laderman, Louisa Matthiasdottir, and Fairfield Porter. As I shifted from being a painter who writes to being just a writer, my perspective started to broaden. I remember thinking, “I want to be able to deal with all different kinds of things—to test my sensibility against a wide range of stuff—to understand the whole range of what's going on in art.”
I came into the scene with my passions. For example, I was very interested in Balthus. My first book, Paris Without End (1988), was about trying to trace a different lineage in French art since World War I, emphasizing people who didn’t move into abstraction. Eventually, I ended up at The New Criterion and then at The New Republic for twenty years, where I had this wonderful mandate to cover the scene however I wanted to. I began to feel that it was really important for me to understand where other people were coming from. I remember when Rosalind Krauss did a book and a show about surrealist photography, L’Amour fou (1985)—it was a whole world of thinking about the theory of language, that I’d never looked at before. I was skeptical about a lot of what Krauss was saying, but I had to get up to speed before I could articulate my qualms. It was wonderful and exciting to learn on the job. At some point I remember thinking, “I really do have to understand Michael Fried, not because I want to engage with him directly—his arguments are so interwoven and inbred that it’s finally impossible to really engage with them, at least in a critical way—but I did want to try to place Fried in a broader context. I’ve always wanted to react to things in my own way—as me—but you can’t do that until you understand where the other person is coming from. I don't feel an obligation to engage with a lot of the “theory” around the art—that doesn’t interest me. But I do feel an obligation to understand enough about the theory such that I’m aware of what’s going on around me. I want to know what the issues are. I want to have a sense of what people might say in response to my arguments so that I can take all that into account as I'm articulating my own position.
I’ve just finished writing a piece for The New York Review of Books about Donald Judd’s collected writings, published last year. Judd is someone whose work I love—especially the hundred aluminum boxes in Marfa. And I love his writing. I don’t agree with a lot of it, and I don’t agree with a lot of his taste, but I find the vigor of the writing, the vision of it, incredibly exciting. It’s fun to interact with that sensibility, that voice.
Rail: When I first read Judd’s criticism in art school it was like jumping into a clean mountain stream—Oh! This is description! Judd seemed to offer a way of describing that was itself analysis. Of course he was writing from this particular perspective as an artist. When you started out as a “painter-advocate” for a group of representational painters in the 1970s, did you see that as a reactionary position?
Perl: We didn’t feel we were reactionary. If anything, we felt we were revolutionaries—that we were reasserting fundamental, foundational values. But it’s also important to remember that the art world was smaller then, and so we didn’t feel Balkanized. There was still a sense that we were all in it together—that artists who were working in many different ways were part of the same great adventure. Maybe younger artists and critics still feel that way today; I’m not sure. In any event, one of the things I wanted to do in the Art in America anthology—this was also part of the impulse behind my book New Art City—was to knit together different strands of the story. I wanted to find a way to tell the story of art in New York that brought together what are regarded as the “major” and the so-called “minor” players. There’s a mainstream history—Pollock-de Kooning-Judd-Warhol-whatever—but there are always other voices. History as it’s happening is much richer and messier than many historians later want to admit. Most people writing about art focus on what they regard as the major players and act as if the rest of the voices are off in some other room—way “over there.” Or else they focus on what they regard as the minor players and treat them as if they were operating on a totally different wavelength. One of the things I try to do—whether I’m writing about the present or the past—is remind people that the situation is always complicated, interwoven. I try to suggest that some of the artists who haven’t gotten the lion’s share of the attention are much more important, or of more profound quality, than they are given credit for; and maybe some of the people who, for one reason or another, are seen as the “key figures” are really not quite as satisfactory as we’ve been told. I’ve always liked the idea of trying to knit together these stories in new ways.
In Calder: the Conquest of Time, one of the things I wanted to do was bring in a lot of the people who were important to Calder but are overlooked, so that he can be seen in a broad context—so that it’s not just always Calder-and-Miró. It’s difficult to write that kind of history—history in which you have a lot of variegated strands woven together. Part of the reason people write either about the mainstream artists or what are now called the “outsiders” is because it’s simpler to do one or the other. When I put together the anthology for the Library of America, I wanted to include critics from very different “camps”—both the painter-poets who tended to write for ARTnews and include John Ashbery and James Schuyler and the critics who took what many have described as a more theoretical approach to art, including Michael Fried in his long essay “Art and Objecthood” (1967). What I wanted to show is that all these writers are part of a larger story. When you open your eyes and your mind, you can begin to see that artists whose work looks very different are often reacting to the same things. Lots of abstract artists have credited de Kooning as a key influence; but there are many representational artists for whom de Kooning was important, too. People tend to think things connect in straight lines, but the reality is much more complicated. A single artist or idea can impact different people in radically different—and equally valuable—ways.
Another problem that many people have when they try to understand the visual arts is that they fail to look at influences and impacts that may lie beyond the visual arts. One of the really interesting things about Calder is that he was close to a lot of literary people—Malcolm Cowley, the important critic, was a very close friend. Calder and Cowley had political connections and interests in common, and all too often the art historians fail to examine that kind of relationship. Another too often overlooked aspect of Calder’s career is his lifelong fascination and engagement with theater. I’ll give one example. Much too little focus has been put on Calder’s collaboration with Virgil Thomson on a 1936 production of Satie’s Socrate, a work for voice and orchestra. This was one of the most important things Calder did in the 1930s, but to get into it means you need to get into who Virgil Thomson was and Satie’s critical place in modern and contemporary music. I suspect that many art historians are put off by all those connections. I love following them wherever they lead—it helps to enlarge the picture.
Rail: You have these panoramic historical chronicles in New Art City and Paris Without End. Now you’ve written this Calder biography and I’m interested in the differences between those forms and their attending intellectual questions. How did you approach writing a biography of an artist?
Perl: Well, first I’d say, I find the challenge of writing different kinds of books fun—exciting. I’d never written biography before and I don't have the plan of doing so again—not that I haven’t had a totally fabulous time working on this. I’ve always read biographies, and one of the things I found myself asking at the beginning was, “What are the biographies that are really wonderful? And why do they work?” In the very early phases of working on Calder I read Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce (1959) and Oscar Wilde (1969), which are both phenomenal biographies. One of the interesting things about these two biographies written by the same man is that they’re totally different. That’s because they’re about very different people—and Ellmann responds completely to the needs of his subject. The Wilde is incredibly social and includes all these secondary figures, while the Joyce, which is the story of a rather solitary man, is much more monolithic. Leon Edel, who wrote the great biography of Henry James, published a series of lectures called Literary Biography (1957). I found them unbelievably useful. He addresses questions such as, “What do you do with a secondary character who appears at three different chronological points in the story?” What he says is, “You decide on the most important point in the story where this person appears, and you bring them in then, get us up-to-date on where they were before and where they’re going to go—you do that all right there.” Writing about Calder got me interested in the techniques of biography.
Rail: I’m curious about how you ended up at The New Republic. Can you describe the process of getting out of college and starting to write?
Perl: I came of age in the late ‘60s, when nobody thought about how they were ever going to earn a living or have money when they were old. We were very idealistic—which somehow involved being somewhat impractical. I went to graduate school—I got an MFA in painting from Brooklyn College. I had weird part-time jobs, like working for a company that did fundraising auctions for Jewish organizations—mostly selling schlock paintings and Salvador Dalí prints. They were really nice people. I started writing criticism—you don’t make much money writing short reviews. I got involved with Aperture Magazine a little bit. Then I started writing for The New Criterion. I hated the politics. Hilton Kramer was the founding editor, and we almost came to blows about his crazy right-wing politics, which got crazier as the years went by. Then I was approached by an agent. She got me connected with Vogue around ‘83, and I started writing things for them. That was when Alexander Liberman was still the creative director of Condé Nast. Another book I had loved as a kid—do you know it?—was Liberman’s book The Artist in His Studio (1960).
Rail: Of course!
Perl: I never owned a copy but I took it out from the public library a lot. Early in my time writing for Vogue, I went to the Vogue Christmas party. Alex was there, and I told him how much I loved The Artist in His Studio. He had been reading my work in the New Criterion; he read everything. He took me out to lunch, and we talked about a great many things—and the long and short of it was, I ended up with a Condé Nast contract. I was writing about six or eight pieces a year and was suddenly making an amount of money that you could kind of live on. I was also teaching part-time, some at Pratt, some at Parsons.
Leon Wieseltier was the literary editor at The New Republic from 1983 until a couple of years after Chris Hughes, a man with a Facebook fortune, bought the magazine. I went to college with Leon—we actually met in Meyer Schapiro’s seminar and stayed in touch. I had been writing a little bit for the magazine, and eventually Leon asked me to be the art critic, which evolved into a full-time job. For much of the twenty years I was at The New Republic I was a full-time staff member, with full salary, benefits, an expense account—although I lived in New York and the magazine’s offices were in Washington. As somebody who is interested in non-fiction writing in general, I loved publishing my essays in The New Republic, where a piece about a visual artist could be right next to an essay about a novel or a political or philosophical idea. For me, criticism has always been about engaging with that larger world.
Much has been said and written lately about the culture of The New Republic. Leon Wieseltier has been accused of sexual harassment and inappropriate advances towards colleagues, for which he has apologized. I will only say that Leon could be a visionary editor, who gave writers of many different ages and sensibilities a chance to develop their ideas in public; that was true for me, as it was true for Paul Berman, Ruth Franklin, Adam Kirsch, Cynthia Ozick, and James Wood. I shaped the art coverage—I just said what we were going to do, and we did it. I would sometimes go to fifty or more gallery shows a week, just walking around. After a couple of months I’d think, “I have a theme here.” Leon didn’t always know what I was going to do. I’d say, “We'll do this big show at MoMA this month, but I’m going to do a piece about contemporary galleries next month. I’ve got enough to make a story.” It was an incredible privilege to be able to do that.
I worked with many tremendous editors over the years—both at publishing houses and magazines. It was a great honor to work with Bob Silvers at The New York Review of Books in the last couple of years of his life; the first thing he asked me to do was a review of the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney, and he enthusiastically embraced the long, highly critical essay that I handed in. My first book, Paris Without End, was published by Jack Shoemaker, who founded North Point Press. And I was brought to Knopf by the extraordinary Carol Brown Janeway, who is well-known not only as an editor but also as a translator and who became a very close friend. Carol published not only New Art City but also Antoine’s Alphabet, which is my most personal book. We worked together on Calder until her untimely death; the Calder biography is dedicated to her.
Rail: How did you get to know Hilton Kramer?
Perl: That connection came through a friend of my parents—a woman named Anita Ventura Mosley, who’d been with Hilton at Arts Magazine. My father was a physicist, and she married a colleague of my father’s. What people don’t understand about Hilton is that at heart he was an old New York bohemian; his eventual rejection of liberalism, however misconceived, was grounded in a belief that liberals had somehow betrayed the arts. Most of Hilton’s old friends eventually found that they couldn’t talk with him about politics. I’d met him when he was still at the Times, and when he started the New Criterion, he asked me to write. I didn’t really know what the orientation of the magazine was going to be. In the first issue he presented a virulent attack on the ‘60s and the student movement, and I wrote him a letter that said, “Look, I just I can't work with you!” Then a year later we crossed paths, and I did begin to write for him on a regular basis. However far apart we were politically—and we were very far apart—we did have kindred sensibilities when it came to the arts. And he liked the idea that I was going out and writing about art other people weren’t writing about. He never second-guessed anything I did—even when I attacked people who were his friends. If you notice, a lot of Judd’s criticism was written for Arts Magazine when Hilton was the editor. In the introduction to Judd’s Complete Writings 1959-1975, there is a laconic line where Judd says something like, “People ask me what it was like working for Hilton Kramer—he was fine.”
For Hilton, I came to represent in the magazine the values of an artists’ world, which had always been important to him but which he was stepping away from as he became more engaged in political matters. By the third year or so of the magazine I was writing all the time. Hilton had some of the quality of a broken-hearted lover when it came to the art world; he couldn’t face what Warholism had done to the New York bohemia that he loved. He said to me one day over lunch, after he had been meeting with some students at Parsons, “It was so great to just sit with a bunch of painting students”—and he meant it! The tragedy of Hilton was that he couldn’t accept that his own taste and sensibility hadn’t prevailed. The Age of the Avant-Garde (1973) and The Revenge of the Philistines (1985) are remarkable chronicles of their times. If you look at them, you see that a lot of the things he believed in didn’t triumph, and a lot of the things he disparaged did. It’s hard to face that. To write finely thought-through essays, as Hilton did, and then to realize that in the end they haven’t made all that much difference—that can be very hard. You have to face the fact that the world just goes on, that the artist you thought was a fool may well have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, while many of the artists you admired are still largely unknown. I think all this broke his heart. Eventually—unfortunately—he looked for simplistic explanations. I remember he once said to me, “Warholism is the thing that brought everything down.” I remember thinking, “Yeah, Warholism is a problem, but what about Reaganomics?—That’s a problem too!”
When the Robert Mapplethorpe controversy blew up, the comment that I’ve always liked the best was Helen Frankenthaler’s. She said, “This is not the thing that I would have voted for, but once a committee of our peers has voted for it, I support it. Because I support the whole enterprise of the NEA.” But Hilton started acting like a kid who hadn’t gotten the party favor he wanted. Okay, he didn’t agree with the panel’s decision, I understand that. What I don’t understand is why he wasn’t uncomfortable when he found himself in league with Jesse Helms and the philistines. Maybe he was uncomfortable. But he certainly didn’t act as if he was.
If you look at a lot of the really great journalistic critics—figures like Edwin Denby, Clement Greenberg, Randall Jarrell, and James Agee—you realize that most of them only wrote on a very regular basis for a relatively brief period of years. They did it for five or ten years; but then they stepped away a little bit, kept writing, but less frequently. Greenberg never stopped writing completely, but he stopped writing regularly. The same is true with Denby. I think they felt they had said what they could. They came to criticism with a particular sensibility, a particular vantage point. They put in their oar; they surveyed the scene; they helped shape taste, at least to some degree; and then they withdrew. The thing about Hilton was that he could never bear to withdraw. He loved the hurly-burly, the controversy, the drama. He couldn’t do without that.
Rail: How have you dealt with that: advocating for the things you believe in, which remain disregarded by the culture, while watching the things that you hate being celebrated?
Perl: When you’ve done a couple of hit jobs that people have talked about, one of the dangers is that people want you to keep doing them. At The New Republic Leon would say, “Are you’re going to do a “job” on so and so?”—I’d say, “No. I can’t just do that all the time.” Partly, you have to be engaged in the craft of what you’re doing in a way that stays interesting for you. Criticism doesn’t have all that much to do with going thumbs-up or thumbs-down—although that’s often what people talk about. Criticism is about articulating a set of values—a sensibility, a philosophy—as you explore works of art. If you’re going to attack something, you’re obliged to explain on what basis you’re attacking it. You can’t just say that you don’t like such-and-such; implicit in your argument must be an affirmation, a sense of what you value. Something I'm always concerned about when I write an attack on an artist is that I understand where the artist’s supporters are coming from. I don’t want to just blindly lob grenades. You want your readers to feel that you’re fully engaged in what you’re seeing and feeling. I was very pleased, sometime after I published a takedown of Gerhard Richter, to see Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker say something like, “Now you can’t deal with Richter without considering Jed Perl’s essay somewhere in there.” For me, that’s saying that we’re all engaged in a conversation. However tough a critic gets, it’s got to be a conversation, not a shouting match. People like it when a piece of tough criticism is done with a bit of wit—sometimes, when you’re describing a depressing situation in the arts, it's good to have a few jokes.
Rail: Your books focus on the first half of the 20th century. What’s the difference between writing from a historical and a contemporary perspective?
Perl: I think the “me” has a different place in criticism. What we want in criticism is a particular person confronting things. And, over a period of time as you read that critic, you begin to have a sense of where that person is coming from. I’ve had people say insightful things to me about my sensibility which they’ve deduced not from knowing me personally but from reading me over the years. When I’m sitting down to write a piece of criticism, the first question is, “What did I think and feel about it?” Even if it’s something like that Judd review—where the writing is fifty years old, what I’m writing about is my engagement with the book right now. People do write whole books that way, but for me the book writing—the historical writing—tends to submerge the “me” into some larger or different kind of movement.
Rail: How have you dealt with writing about people you know personally?
Perl: It’s hard. When I write about somebody I don’t know, I almost try to imagine I know them. And when I write about somebody I do know, I try to forget them. Truly. Inevitably you end up knowing people you write about, to one degree or another. When I started out, I didn’t know if any of it mattered—I couldn’t imagine that I actually had an audience—so I felt completely free to say whatever I wanted. When you start writing, you don’t know if people are reading, and you don't know if anybody is going to care. And then, after a while, you realize people do care. One of the things that's amazed me over the years is that sometimes I'll write something I think is really tough about someone I know and I’ll think, “Oh, God. This is going to be awful.” And then they turn out to be fine with it. A person will say, “I really thought it was interesting what you said; I don’t totally agree but—.” Basically, I’ve always felt my job as a critic is to try to be me and figure out who I am. Your obligation as a critic is to yourself, and to the craft of writing. No matter how sophisticated you are as a critic—no matter how much you know about the intricacies of the arts and the complexities of the art world—you need to retain some fundamental simplicity. It’s those basic, immediate reactions that fuel your thinking and your writing. When you’ve lost that, you’ve lost the core, the source.
People in the art world—I suppose it’s true of any professional world—can get so obsessed with their “insider” knowledge that they lose track of the big picture. There’s a danger of overcomplicating things. In New York everybody’s always trying to figure out the backstory. Sometimes the explanations that people come up with are much more complicated than the reality. For example, when I was starting out as a critic I was friends with the painter-critic Sidney Tillim. Sidney was a wonderful critic, but he did have a tendency to over-intellectualize things. I would go and have coffee with him—this was before I really knew any of the players at the magazines—and he would be saying, “Jed, they cut two paragraphs from my article. And it was because of this editor and this critic and this artist and this…” And once I got to know some of the people at the magazines he was talking about, I realized they cut it because there wasn’t space on the page. It was much simpler than he imagined. You know what I mean?
Rail: I do! But what is it in particular about criticism that brings out these conspiracy theories?
Well, criticism is about our passions. From a critic you want clarity’ you want clear thinking, but mostly, I think you want huge passion. One of the great things about loving the arts is those moments when you lose yourself in them, like, “Yes. This is it!”
All my favorite critics are lovers at the core.
Rail: Especially when they’re mad!
Perl: Exactly! A really compelling critique is a critique that’s grounded in love—in the love of an art form and all its possibilities. And love is not a science!—that’s where it gets complicated. There are many different reasons to respond to a work of art. Not everything we respond to strongly is necessarily a masterpiece. It can be a work of art that expresses certain feelings, certain emotions, certain sensations. The critic Thomas B. Hess, in his writings about de Kooning, was very good at picking out striking qualities in works that I suspect he didn’t think were masterpieces. In some of the things he wrote about de Kooning in the 1960s, Hess found ways to talk about the work—in relation to the experience of the city or of Long Island—without insisting on a strict valuation of the work. That is something you can do as a critic—you can highlight particular qualities or characteristics. In other words you can say, “I don't really feel like grading this—I’m not into giving it a B- or a B+. Instead I want to talk about what interests me about it.” One of the things I’ve realized as I’ve followed artists for a couple decades is that often really interesting artists will have a show that doesn't knock your socks off the way an earlier one did, but that doesn't necessarily mean all that much. It may mean that they’re in a transitional phase—and for a critic that may be a moment to think, “I'm going to hold off a little.” Is it then dishonest to not run to your word processor and write, “This show is not as good as the last one?” Maybe. But now I’m more inclined to think, “I’m going to let this be, and see where this artist goes from here.”
Rail: There is a lot of sensitivity in your writing about the layers we experience in an artwork. Particularly in your Watteau book, Antoine’s Alphabet (2008), there’s a beautiful parsing of the simultaneous, ambiguous, emotional situations latent in those paintings.
Perl: I couldn’t live without the arts. I mean—I couldn’t live without my friends and family, but I also I really couldn’t live without the pleasure of paintings and books and music. And those pleasures are multi-layered. That’s why any simplistic political litmus test for art really drives me crazy—from any side. I’m thinking of people who are tempted to say, “Ezra Pound was an anti-Semite, therefore we shouldn’t read the Cantos.” Believe me, I understand who Pound was, but that doesn’t change the fact there are pages of ravishing beauty in the Cantos.
Rail: I’m especially interested in the “fictional” qualities of your Watteau book—you imaginatively inhabit the inner lives of historical figures and write from their perspectives. That is a real departure for you, and something that few art critics would do. I think Dave Hickey does it in a fanciful way, and of course something like it happens in Diderot too.
Perl: Facts can become very oppressive. I’ve spent so much of my life dealing with and worrying about facts. Is this true? Is this how you’d describe that color? Or, if you’re talking about someone else’s responses, Is that fair? Is that measured? Is that exaggerating their opinions? It was just a tremendous liberation to try to imagine situations and tell stories. An example in Antoine’s Alphabet is the section in which I describe Cézanne painting his son dressed as a harlequin. I jumped off from little bits of what was known; then I took off with it. I imagined this loving relationship between a father and a son. I did actually get a scholar of Watteau to look at the book. He pointed out places where I hadn’t been aware of certain situations. The playfulness of Antoine’s Alphabet gave me wonderful opportunities to experiment with my writing—and that goes back to the fact that writing itself is what I’m passionate about. I look back at pieces I wrote a long time ago, and I will agree down to the ground with every opinion stated—Thank God—but I will see things in the writing that I’d like to do differently.
Rail: What do you think the function of criticism is today?
Perl: I think criticism is a fundamental human impulse. Styles of criticism may change, but something essential remains. When people walk out of a movie theater, the first thing they say is, What did you think? Criticism is not some weird esoteric activity. It’s a natural outgrowth of our concern for the world around us. My vision of criticism today is still based on what the work of certain critics meant to me in my teens and 20s. As a reader, I found myself interacting with writers who cared about the same things I did. With the critics I loved then—again, I go back to Edmund Wilson and Pauline Kael—I was engaged in an exchange of ideas and feelings about the world. I got to see things the way somebody else saw them. They guided me, excited me, turned me on to things. They sharpened and deepened my responses.
Rail: Something I think New Art City shows perfectly, is that there were a number of structural factors after the Second World War that produced this exceptional thing that we call cultural life in New York City, and that the economic, social and intellectual forces that fostered serious criticism no longer exist. Like mid-to-late- twentieth century art criticism is actually very specific and historically bounded entity.
Perl: Look, the first thing I’ll say is you and your generation—How old are you?
Perl: Okay. I think it’s up to your generation to find the way forward. I’m not planning to stop writing, but I do think the ball is literally in your court. The art of criticism has never been an easy one to practice; like any serious creative endeavor, it’s a struggle. But the circumstances are especially challenging now. There are fewer outlets for serious criticism, at least in the print media. And the scale of the art world—and the outrageous amounts of money now involved—has become oppressive; it’s a weight that threatens to flatten all of us. If you want to take a dark view of things, you can argue that a great period of cultural expansion and enlightenment may be ending. There was a dream that began in the 19th century that the audience for “serious things”—whether scientific knowledge or artistic experience—was going to continuously expand in democratic societies. There was an idea that as education expanded more and more people were going to be able to embrace the arts and the sciences. It’s possible that the mid-twentieth century was the climax of that kind of expansion, at least in Western Europe and the United States. In the early- to mid-twentieth century more and more people were being exposed to complicated artistic, literary, musical, theatrical, scientific, intellectual experiences. Those were relatively pure experiences; they weren’t being dumbed down, at least not to the extent that a lot of experiences are dumbed down and diluted today. By now the scale may have tipped in the other direction. The desire for an ever-expanding audience for the arts may be diluting the power of the arts.
When I say that the weight of the art world—the weight of the blue chip galleries, the art fairs, the gonzo auction prices—oppresses all of us, I don’t mean to say that people don’t go on doing what they do, or that there isn’t a lot of really good work being done. There is. But we’re living in a new Gilded Age. And there’s a lot of stress involved in trying to keep our bearings. A poet friend recently sent me this line from Wendell Berry: “To be sane in a mad time is bad for the brain, worse for the heart.” That’s how the art world often leaves me feeling.The art world used to be a smaller world. People could map the whole thing. When I walk around Chelsea today, I often feel I’m not an art critic so much as I’m a sociologist. I’m not looking at the art; I’m looking at the size of the space and calculating the cost of running it. Of course all of that can be interesting; I’ve certainly written about that kind of thing from time to time. But in the end there shouldn’t be any difference between how one responds to art in a big gallery or a smaller gallery. You know what I'm saying?
Perl: When you go back and look at ARTnews in the fifties and sixties, you find that by and large the criticism reflected a sense that everybody was here because they had complicated passionate feelings about the nature and possibilities of art. Of course there was art world politics back then, too. There was lots of it. But now we’re in a situation where the art world politics threatens to overtake the art. It's not just the art world, the book world is that way too. I think it does have to do with scale—the scale of success right now is downright crazy. DeKooning and Pollock were still living quite modestly in the postwar years, despite having developed major critical reputations. Alexander Calder had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. It was a huge success—it was extended and it was a turning point for him. He went at that moment from being an artist enormously admired among a vanguard audience to being known to a wider public. But even in the late ‘40s, he and his wife were still living month-to-month; they had very little money. My point is: there's a crazy scale of success today that has nothing to do with the things we really care about. No matter how much we may understand this intellectually, I think it’s really affecting us.
One of the things that upsets me now is that when there's a big show of a contemporary artist at one of the New York museums, you read reviews in New York, The New Yorker and the Times—and basically everybody's on the same page. It would be very good for that mythical “general public” everybody is always taking about if somebody would come out with a different point of view—then people could go to the show and work things out for themselves, thinking, Okay, the person at The New Yorker really loved it but the Times thought there were a lot of problems. Then you would have some options—you could begin to navigate it for yourself. I think I’ve sometimes provided that alternate view. Until my review of the Koons retrospective at the Whitney came out in The New York Review of Books, there had pretty much been lockstep critical praise—at New York, The New Yorker, and the Times.
Rail: Do you feel like people expect contrary views from you?
Perl: I think people expect me to call it however I see it. People who read me are not always sure where I'll come out on things, which is probably the way it should be. I’m not sorry that people remember some of my takedowns—of Richter and Koons and Rauschenberg. But I also hope people remember how enthusiastic I’ve been about artists including Joan Snyder, Bill Jensen, Louisa Matthiasdottir, Barbara Goodstein, Robert Gober, Duane Michals, Douglas Blau, and Jean Hélion. I carry a torch for Balthus’s late work and some people have mocked me for that. But generally I think people are disappointed when they feel like I'm just saying what is more a generally accepted view. They expect me to walk my own path—whatever that may be.
Rail: That must be an expectation for a critic in general.
Perl: Well, it should be.