Barry Schwabsky
Art Critic

Photo by Isabelle Le Normand

"The encounters that are more important are the ones that also create a disturbance, maybe also a pleasure, and take time to process."

Barry Schwabsky is an art critic, art historian and poet based in New York City. He is currently an art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His essays have also appeared in publications such as Flash Art, Contemporary, Artforum, London Review of Books, and Art in America. He has written the art criticism books Words for Art: Criticism, History, Theory, Practice and The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art, as well as books on Jessica Stockholder, Mel Bochner, Chloe Piene, Karin Davie, Dana Schutz, Alex Katz, Gillian Wearing: Mass Observation, Henri Matisse and Alighiero Boetti, among others.

In this interview, Barry Schwabsky shares why he quit graduate school to move to Italy, his most beautiful encounters with art, and how being an art critic affects his poetry.

TGL: How was your childhood?

BS: I was born in Paterson, New Jersey. It was a pretty uneventful childhood. No particularly great dramas or tragedies or anything like that. I was a fairly introverted kid. I was the kid that was bad at sports and liked to read. It wasn't a normal thing for my family to come to New York City. When I was a teenager, I became interested in what was going on in New York and started to come in on my own. I would have liked to be a musician, but I didn't have any talent. That was my dream as a teenager.

TGL: Did you start writing as a child?

BS: In the way that every child is an artist - the question isn't when did somebody start becoming an artist, it's when did they stop making art? Every teenager probably writes poetry. They're in love, and they write something, or now many teenagers rap. So then the question is, did you stop writing or not?

TGL: When did you start writing about art?

BS: As a high school student, I came to New York City with my class and went to the Museum of Modern Art. It made a big impression on me. I really liked the painter Mark Rothko and some others. I started to visit museums more often. I didn't know anything about contemporary art galleries yet.

TGL: What did you study in college?

BS: I double-majored in English and Philosophy, and I went to graduate school for English with the intention of getting a doctorate and going into academia. In the end, it didn't agree with me, and I didn't finish my degree.

TGL: What did you do when you quit graduate school?

BS: When I was in graduate school, my girlfriend at the time was studying art history, and she got a grant to go to Italy to do research for her dissertation. I quit school and went with her to Italy. I found a job teaching English and lived there for a year. When we came back to New York in 1983, I worked in book publishing. I met poets who were older than me and wrote for art magazines, through them I got to know artists and the art world. I started to write for a magazine called Arts Magazine. I never intended to make a profession of it, it was just an extra thing that I did in my spare time. I began doing that regularly and then started to write for other magazines, including Flash Art in Milan.

At a certain point, Flash Art had the brilliant realization that since they were publishing a magazine in English, they should have somebody on their editorial staff whose native language was English. Since I had editorial experience from the book publishing house, and I knew Italian because I’d lived in Italy, it was a good match. I went to work for them as an editor in their office in Milan in 1987. That's when I became a full-time operative of the art world.

TGL: How long did you work in Italy?

BS: I did that job for a year in Italy. Then, the editor of Arts Magazine resigned, and they were looking for a new editor so I applied. I got the job, and I came back to New York. I was there from 1988 to '92, because in 1992, the magazine closed down. Since then, I've been a freelancer writer, editor, and occasionally curator.

TGL: Do you do your own research for what shows to review or does a magazine commission you for specific exhibitions?

BS: Normally, I do. I usually write a short review for every issue of Artforum 10 months a year. I propose what I want to review. They don't tell me to review this or that. Likewise, normally I'll write a longer piece for The Nation every month. Those are about 3,000 words, and I choose my own topic.

TGL: What topics do you gravitate towards writing about?

BS: Not everything that could be interesting leads me to think I have something to say about it. It’s pretty intuitive.

TGL: What have been your most beautiful encounters with art, artists or galleries or areas?

BS: There are all sorts of encounters, and you don't necessarily know exactly where or when you're going to find them. Sometimes you see something and it's a great exhibition and it's beautifully curated and has great pieces in it and so on. You understand that and you feel it, but it doesn't necessarily shake you, because you already expected that you would feel this way. It's a confirmation of something, and that's important. However, the encounters that are more important are the ones that also create a disturbance, maybe also a pleasure, and take time to process. Those things happen less often the older you get. They're more likely to happen when you're younger, partly because you're more receptive, but also because you literally know less. I can even go back to that moment in high school at the Museum of Modern Art when I saw the Mark Rothko painting and thought, what's that? Even if Mark Rothko isn't my favorite painter anymore, that moment is still part of determining my course through life.

TGL: Who is your favorite artist, the artist you always come back to?

BS: My most recurrent reference point is always Matisse. After Matisse, they are mostly artists of modernism, such as de Kooning and Degas. In terms of contemporary artists, I don't think there are any that I come back to quite in that way, but in their own way, there are a lot of artists that are important to me, from Lawrence Weiner to Alex Katz to Joan Jonas to Jessica Stockholder.

I can't avoid mentioning that my wife is an artist, so this is a conversation about art that involves all of our waking hours. I understand more about art from being with her, from seeing her work and how she works, seeing the integrity with which she works and having arguments with her about different things. That's been a really profound thing for what's shortly going to be 30 years.

TGL: You’ve just published a book called The Observer Effect. How did you develop your eye and your intellect?

BS: I don't have the sensation of it being a coherent development or clear stages. I've always had many interests, which possibly can't be reconciled. I haven't tried to force a reconciliation or synthesis, but I've always had the sensation that there should be one and it is time-based. That's probably what keeps me going: the sense that I'm still just in the beginning of the process of seeing how to put the pieces together.

I'm always trying to encompass everything, the whole question of what is or can be art today. I think there is a lot of conflict about what that is, a lot of interest in politics. Even though I'm not an activist, I like to have a political perspective on the present, and I think it's difficult to reconcile political perspectives with aesthetic ones. I don't intend to have either one of them subordinated to the other.

As a critic in particular, I've dedicated myself to being reactive or, you could say, responsive. I'm waiting for other people to propose things, and then I respond to them. I have never constructed an intellectual structure that I fit other people's ideas into. I'm not like an academic who has a certain research project which culminates in a book, and then finds another area to research.

TGL: Has being an art critic influenced your poetry?

BS: When I was young, I had a sense of poetry that was involved in subjectivity. Getting involved with art and seeing how artists work made me realize that I could look at poetry differently. I could see writing poetry like the way a painter takes some paint from here and puts it there on the canvas, or a sculptor takes some material from one place and puts it next to another piece of material he's already put there. Language is part of the world and is part of my environment. I can take language in pieces and build things out of it as a manifestation of the external world.

TGL: What is your dream project?

BS: I have a number of book projects that are hard for me to make the time for, because I've built this modus operandi for myself that has a constant flow of different things. The most immediate book project and one I hope will happen soon, is based on a series of lectures that I gave a couple of years ago in Baltimore. It's a project about the mid-career of an artist, which is the most neglected aspect of an artist’s career. There is interest in the beginnings of artists and then in late works and the end of an artist's career at a high theoretical level from writers like Adorno and Edward Said, but nobody discusses the middle of it as something that is a phase with its own problems and difficulties. To be honest though, my real dream is to not have any project whatsoever and just wake up every morning and think, what do I want to do today? What's on my mind today?

TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?

BS: It would probably be a musician. As I told you before, when I was young, I would have liked to be a musician, and I'm still passionate about music and fascinated by it. You can only go so deeply into music without becoming a musician, unlike other art forms. Sometimes I think I've reached my limit as to how deeply I can go into it, but somehow, I feel like if I could have deeper conversations with musicians to understand how they understand what they do, I could go a little bit further. Who would that musician be? I don't know, because, again, I don't have a coherent, consistent viewpoint. There are many types of music that interest me that might among themselves be incompatible. I don't know whether I'd choose a jazz musician or a classical musician or a rock musician or an electronic musician. Maybe somebody who combines all of them. I'm not sure who that is...Maybe Polly Jean Harvey, who I think has an artist’s approach to music making.

TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?

BS: I don't think there is any universal advice. I think that advice is always dependent on the problem that someone has. The only universal problems are the ones that I can't give any advice about, like how to stop climate change.