Lori Waxman writes a bi-weekly column in the Chicago Tribune about all things art-related. She also serves up reviews to artists with a hunger for serious and thoughtful criticism of their work during her 60 Wrd/Min Art Critic performances. One reason for this hunger, she says, is that there’s an enormous demand for art reviews and a scarcity of qualified art critics.
Waxman will be on hand at Herron School of Art & Design from Tuesday, April 30 through Thursday, May 2, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., writing 10 reviews a day to artists randomly selected for the opportunity.
While she sits typing her reviews on her laptop, artists are free to watch her performance. The reviews that she produces range from 100 to 200 words in length. The reviews are free, signed and available for the artist within the half-hour timeframe of the performance, and will be published in NUVO.net.
The project received an Andy Warhol Capital Arts Writers Grant in 2009.The 60 Wrd/Min Art Critic at Herron is funded through grants from the Indiana Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Waxman, who also teaches art history and criticism at the School of the Art Institute and has written several books, lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.
We spoke by phone on April 11.
DAN GROSSMAN: What got you interested in doing 60 Wrd/Min Art Critic in the first place?
LORI WAXMAN: I came up with the idea, I think, in 2005. At the time I was like a fledgeling wannabe art critic writing reviews for anybody who would have me for very little money. And my day job was the managing editor for D.A.P. Distributed Arts Publishers. And one of my jobs there -- I had many jobs there -- but one of them was that I wrote all of our catalog copy for the hundreds of books we distributed every year. And I got really good at writing quick text--quick sort of invented text -- about art related subjects with very minimal amounts of information provided. And I also really liked doing so. And then the third element to the story is that I had started dating the artist who I would eventually marry. I’m married to the artist Michael Rakowitz.
All of our friends like him were emerging artists who seemed particularly baffled by the artist/critic situation and how do you get a review, and how important it is it get a review, and how to get a review if you don’t have a show. It’s really not very transparent. And I kind of put all of that together and came up with this idea that I should make myself available to any artist who wanted a review because they seemed so hard to come by and I really liked writing them. And I sometimes got lonely writing them at home all by myself and thought it would be neat to try to do this publicly because writing is pretty lonely. And also [I wanted] to find out if these reviews would be of any value if anybody could have them, if they no longer were so tightly and almost invisibly held beyond reach to artists who need them. And I sort of came up with this experiment in performance art criticism to try out all of those questions.
GROSSMAN: There must have been some kind of evolution along the way, from when you first started. Are there some things that you did then that you don’t do now?
WAXMAN: It has definitely evolved. But the way that it looks and the way that it functions isn’t radically different to be quite honest. My thinking about it has evolved and the sort of system by which it runs gets tighter and tighter every time because it really is a system. So one of the things that I’ve improved is the way that artists or participants get an appointment for the reviews. So it’s meant to be a totally self-selecting process but I used to do it as a first come first serve basis so the first person to send me an email asking for a spot and they got the spot and I filled them until there were none left. What I realized was that kind of privileges the person who’s online all the time getting announcements … and can send an email off at one in the morning when the announcement gets sent around. So that limited the number of artists it immediately and sort of self-promote and it leaves out the person who needs a little more time to think this through if they’re willing to participate because I’ve become very aware in the first couple of years of doing it that this is very risky for most participants especially for anyone who doesn’t have professional intentions.
Anyone who’s an amateur, or some portion of people who do this as an amateur practice, aren’t used to showing their work to anyone. Even if they are interested in doing so it’s nerve-wracking. And it’s even nerve-wracking for a lot of professional artists, or [people] wanting to be professional artists. So the way that I do it now; I receive email requests up until a week before the performance, and then assign them all a number and then I put them into a digital hat, like it’s a numbers lottery, and I just I give the appointments out on whatever the first 30 numbers are that come up, so it’s completely random.
One other major thing that changed -- this happened early-on -- is my understanding of where it’s interesting to do this. Because the first time I did it was in Brooklyn where I lived, and the second time I did it was in Chicago where I moved to. It was fine, but it was very art-worldy. And then I got invited down to Knoxville, Tennessee to do it and like wow, it became much more radical, much more diverse, and much more needed locally and since then I only do it in places that are kind of off the major art map.
GROSSMAN: Well, that kind of brings me to the next question: what is the state of art criticism outside the major cities in the U.S.?
WAXMAN: It’s not much is what it is. It depends of course on the city because there’s the rare city here like Durham, North Carolina -- a couple of years ago when I was there -- where there’s three working art critics. Each one of the local papers, daily or alternative, had at least one critic. But I’d say that they’re like the exception to the rule; that most of the places I go to do not have a single art critic. In Knoxville Tennessee, they have a theater critic; and he sometimes gets sent around, or had. He would get sent around to review an important local art show occasionally. And he was sent to review me, actually. But there was no actual art critic in town, even though they had a neat little art scene and loads of artists, and I think that’s much more typical. So I end up being like the doctor on call. Not the doctor on call, but the travelling physician, you know? Kind of like the doctor who makes the rounds where there are no doctors.
GROSSMAN: On your website, you call the art review a challenge, an insult, a record, and a piece of advertising. what’s the biggest challenge in writing a review [in the performance]?
WAXMAN: Finding the interesting thing to write about. Because it’s often not apparent. I have no idea what’s going to walk in the door and I have to be really quick, actually. That’s also probably one of the top two challenges is responding really quickly but also intelligently. I have the skill set to do that but it’s hard.
GROSSMAN: Has one of your reviews ever landed an artist an opportunity that they might not otherwise have had or do you try to keep yourself out of the picture?
WAXMAN: In general, I have no idea. I know only because sometimes someone asks me for permission which they don’t realize they already have to include the text that I’ve written in the little catalog that they’re self-publishing. And they all have the right to do what they want with the text. I do know that there’s an artist -- his parents brought me his work -- because he was actually in jail. He painted in jail and he had some supplies and he was given a little bit of time for it but after he’d written the review, his parents took that review to the warden of the jail as a way of showing that the work was professionally valid and they managed to get him extra time and materials to make art in jail. But in general, I have no idea what anybody does with these, what validity it might end up having for them, or use.
GROSSMAN: And do you think that it’s a good thing that you’re kind of detached from that?
WAXMAN: I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I just think that it would change what I do. It would be interesting if somebody wanted to write to everybody who has taken part and ask what did you do with the review or what did it mean to you after you had it. But I don’t think it would change anything.
GROSSMAN: You’ve written a few books, the most recent of them titled Keep Walking Intently: The Ambulatory Art of the Surrealists, the Situationist International, and Fluxus. Can you tell me about that book?
WAXMAN: Sure. It’s a book of art history, that’s trying to map the history of walking as an art practice in the 20th century. And today walking is part of all kinds of art practices … But before I wrote this book there’s not been any art historian who took that tack; how did walking become an artistic tool; what’s the art history of that? Who were some of the first practitioners of it? So it’s in three sections; the first one’s about the Surrealists; the second one’s about the Situationists, the third about Fluxus because those three movements, they’re really handy art-historically because they were movements with membership lists and readers and manifestos and decades plus of work; and for all three of them walking is a central tactic, used in really different ways. Walking is actually central to so much of what those three groups did even though it almost never gets pointed out except between the lines; they all were really invested in the city as a place in which art happens and I’m especially interested in urban walking practices and others … like wilderness walking practices; like Richard Long’s and you could track that back to the Romantics ...
GROSSMAN: You live in Chicago, where you have the Magnificent Mile and that just just seems like a great place to walk. Do you walk a lot?
WAXMAN: I do walk a lot. I don’t think Chicago’s a great city for walking because of the grid and its so sprawling. Grids are really, really boring to walk on.
GROSSMAN: I guess I romanticize Chicago, living where I do.
WAXMAN: In the American landscape it’s one of the better, more interesting places to walk. But … even if you’re thinking of North America, New York is a better place to walk, it’s just a more exciting place to walk. It’s still gridded, which is boring, but it’s denser. So there’s still more to see, there’s more encounters potential on each block.
GROSSMAN: I see.
WAXMAN: Ditto San Francisco. And there you also have topography which is exciting. But if you leave North America and go to Europe, to the really old cities, those are the best cities for walking because they weren’t built for cars. They’re organic, right? Cities like Prague or London, Paris especially, actually came out of walking. Those cities were kind of walked into existence because before being the big sprawling cities that they are, there were a city center, and then all of these surrounding villages and walking was how you got between everywhere. And then those walking paths, of course, were just walks where it made sense to walk based on bodies and natural topography and land rights. The roads that now exist that we drive on are paved over those old walking paths.
GROSSMAN: I was listening to the Bad at Sports podcast in which you were interviewed. One thing kind of leaped out at me. You said, “Who’s writing a manifesto today, nobody” and I think it was in conjunction with your talking about Keep Walking Intently. Can you give me a little bit of context about that quote?
WAXMAN: Sure. That comes out of what I just said about these three art movements that I looked at in the Keep Walking book and noticing that, in the art world at least, these kinds of movements, they haven’t happened in decades. You don’t have avant garde artists coming together in a group with shared strange new practice and all write ... spelling out what their revolutionary goals are. I mean, you have protests in the art world, especially in the last couple of years around political issues. But when and if a manifesto statement gets written, it’s not as an art movement. It’s as a political protest and its got signatories all over the map; it’s just a very different way of being. Like, this is something I toss out at my grad students hoping someone will write a thesis on, but it’s not something that I’ve studied in any depth.
GROSSMAN: I read one of your recent reviews in the Chicago Tribune. One of them was called “What does Blackness Look Like?” And I found it really interesting. And it dovetails with some things that are happening now at the Indianapolis Museum of Art if you get to see that.
And it made me wonder whether museums these days are doing a better job of representing diversity. And then I saw a recent Williams College study that suggested maybe American museums aren’t doing such a good job. What’s your take on it?
WAXMAN: Oh. Before I answer, could you tell me a little bit more about the data in the study? What did they find? Because I’m surprised. I was kind of going with the assumption you started with, that they are doing better.
GROSSMAN: Yeah, yeah. Me too. It’s saying “A new study by a team of mathematicians, art scholars, and historians predominantly from Williams College found that an estimated 85 percent of artists in 18 major museums’ collections were white.” So that’s the thumbnail.
WAXMAN: But what did it used to be?
GROSSMAN: I don’t think it gets to that. It talks about Metropolitan Museum of Fine art in New York City, it talks about Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Detroit Museum of Art, for instance. Like that kind of surprised me a little bit, because some of what the Indianapolis Museum of Art is doing right now; they’re going very strongly in a direction of channeling diversity … My perspective is very limited because I don’t travel so much outside Indianapolis. So it’s interesting to hear that it was a surprise to you too.
WAXMAN: OK. One thing I’ll say is my perspective is limited to Chicago primarily. Like when I go in and do this performance, I’m in and I’m out. As much as I’d like to stay longer and actually go and look at the art that’s being shown, I almost never have the time because I have two kids and I have to get back to Chicago. That’s just it. It’s like boring life stuff. I can’t stay the extra time. So whatever walks in the door is what I see. But I keep up on this because this is a major story in the art world. Is how diversity is represented, how the canonical collections need to shift or are shifting.
So some stories that I’ve been following in the news; the way the Baltimore Museum of Art has decided to deaccession seven major works of art by blue chip white male artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg ... They had an expert go through the collection to find sort of redundancies, works that could be parted with without generating a hole in the collection and would generate millions and millions of dollars that the museum has said will go 100% to fund an expansion of the collection to be far more diverse and representative. So artists like Sam Gilliam who ought to be represented who maybe aren’t in the collection at all. And it’s a crime, and the only reason he’s not there is because he’s a Black abstract artist as opposed to a white abstract artist. So that’s a huge, thoughtful, radical move that that museum is making and I would bet that if it works out well other museums might follow suit.
You also have this huge story that’s just broken here at the Art Institute [of Chicago], where they’ve delayed a major travelling exhibition that’s supposed to open in like two or three weeks on native American pottery and they’re going to leave the galleries empty which I’ve never heard of before. The show has been postponed indefinitely because it was not curated from the get go with appropriate input from native American scholars and community. The reason why it’s so important with this particular work is they’re primarily funerary objects that were going to be displayed. That’s incredibly controversial unless you’re looking at them as primarily aesthetic objects but if you’re looking at them as cultural objects ... Those are the treasures of grave-robbing of peoples that are still alive in this country.
So under immense outside and inside pressure they just made this decision weeks before the show’s opening. I think that indicates as well a huge shift in museum consciousness about not just what gets presented but how it gets presented and who makes the decisions about how it gets presented. And that seems to be a part of this larger discussion about diversity as well … When you look at the Whitney Biennial which has the most diverse list that it has ever had and has been celebrated for that. I do think this is really changing.
GROSSMAN: You do think this is really changing and the Whitney Biennial list is kind of an example of how its changed?
WAXMAN: Yeah, and not least because if you look at the last time the Whitney Biennial list was really not very white ... Thelma Golden curated and it was called casually, and not formally, the affirmative action biennial; that was how people took it. Like: oh, you put a lot of Black artists in: we’re going to call it the affirmative action biennial -- like that’s how they all got in here. As opposed to the list this year, which no one’s questioned. It’s just been celebrated in terms of being really really diverse, more like the Obama biennial than the affirmative action biennial.