Poetry News

Words on Barry Schwabsky's New Volume of Essays, Words for Art

By Harriet Staff


Poet Barry Schwabsky is well known for his criticism--as art editor of The Nation, frequent contributor to Hyperallergic, among others— "one has the sense that casting so wide a net was Schwabsky’s way of orienting himself to the task of criticism after returning to the U.S. from an extended European stay," writes Barbara Rose for The Brooklyn Rail.

For example, he analyzes Walter Benjamin’s remarks on color, which were never published together as an essay, both because he is (rightly) fascinated by Benjamin and because he seems to be trying to define the role of color in painting for himself.

He's even written about Amelia Rosselli and Denise Riley. His new book, Words for Art, was published last year by Berlin-based Sternberg Press. Words for Art "compiles his reviews of essays by historians, philosophers, curators, critics, artists, and journalists published in English (some in translation) over the past two decades," writes Rose. More:

Schwabsky’s critique of criticism begins with Art Since 1900, the textbook written by the four principle editors of October: Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Hal Foster, and Benjamin Buchloh. He notes that the weighty tome, whose size is suggestive more of a coffee table than a textbook, presents various views of the “new art history” that has dominated academia, exalting theory over iconography, psychology, biography, social and literary context, and the other démodé approaches of yesteryear. Pointing out the incoherence of Art Since 1900 as a textbook, Schwabsky exposes the contradiction of Buchloh’s assertion that the human figure was expunged from most modern art for the first two decades of the century while Bois and Krauss concentrate on Matisse and Picasso, both consistently figurative artists. He gives deserved kudos to Bois’s and Krauss’s examinations of individual works, but ultimately he hits the whole quadriga hard, accusing them of being victims of precisely what they purport to abjure: the subjectivity of individual taste.

Taste is also an issue in his review of Alice Goldfarb Marquis’s biography Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg. Schwabsky is, as everyone should be, bothered that Greenberg insisted that his judgments were correct because they were made in the name of objective historical inevitability. By now we can judge the accuracy of Greenberg’s tea-leaf readings. True or false, his prophetic utterances in no way detracted from his ability to write really well in a liquid, transparent style until he lapsed into an alcoholic haze late in life when facing the triumph of everything he hated (Duchamp, theater, political propaganda) over the purist lyrical abstraction he defended and promoted.

Read it all at The Brooklyn Rail.