Lush, or why I became an art critic
Once upon a time (as all good stories should begin), I lived in a warehouse in East Oakland and had a business making hand painted tile. It was October of 1986. I had a mullet haircut, wore vests, and was frequently mistaken for a lesbian. One day, Jamie Brunson-- a painter then fresh out of the Mills grad program who lived in another studio in the building-- told me that she had just started to write reviews for Artweek, a weekly paper that covered northern California with contributors in other West Coast cities. “You could do this,” she said encouragingly. “You’re a writer.” And, in fact, I was. After completing an MFA in sculpture at the University of Chicago, I’d moved to the Bay area, where I had friends. I had also decided that maybe I really wasn’t an artist (having stalled completely after grad school), and had returned to writing seriously instead. I hung out with poets. Read my work in bookstores to tiny audiences. Published in tiny magazines. It felt good, but by the time Jamie urged me to indulge my penchant for describing, explaining, and judging, I had also begun to admit that I was just a tourist in the literary world. Art writing seemed like it was a way to prolong the vacation, as it were.
I clearly remember a review in Artweek in which a writer used the word lush to describe painting. “Lush?” I said, incredulous. “I could do better than THAT.” I carefully reread the entire issue, figuring out how reviews are structured and what must be accomplished in five hundred words. I went to see a show, wrote about it and mailed the text to Cecile McCann, the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Artweek, then located in an office in downtown Oakland. To my amazement, she called me the next day and asked me to start right away. The pay? $35. $50 for a longer piece on the front page.
The rules were strict: the article had to appear while it was still possible to see the art, should the reader be interested in doing so. Since gallery shows usually last only a month or so, publishing in a timely manner often meant seeing the exhibition in the first 48 hours it was open, writing quickly, and submitting copy. After a round of editing, the paper went to to the printer. There was no web version then. There were simply a few sheets of newsprint, sold at art supply stores or by subscription.
The first year, I wrote my drafts by hand, typing them laboriously on a friend’s computer (I didn’t have one yet). By the end of that time, I’d also started reviewing for American Ceramics—like Artweek, now extinct-- a glossy quarterly devoted to ceramic art. The year after that I started writing for Shift, the gorgeous publication of San Francisco Artspace, and began contributing a column from the Bay Area to Contemporanea, a short-lived international monthly. There were articles for American Craft and Sculpture Magazine. By the next year, I was making my own work and starting a successful exhibition career. I was also writing for Artforum, the publication I stayed with the longest.
There were others. Artcoast, Artspace, Artwest, Art Issues. I forget all the names. They came, they published, they disappeared. The pay got somewhat better, and then after the advent of the Internet, remarkably worse, as universal access for everyone to everything enabled an economy that expects art writers to write essentially for free. For one thing, a plethora of newly-minted grads from visual studies or curatorial practice programs, not to mention junior academics, are willing to write for nothing more than career advancement.
But that, as they say, is another story. This one, that started so long ago, ends in the post-millennial present, where I’ve surprised myself by returning to writing reviews-- producing between 12 and 20 a year for several web-based and print publications. I regard this, much as I always have, as my community service. I try to write mostly about California artists and/or exhibitions that are significant for other reasons. And I never, ever use the word lush.