A Good Painting is Better and More Interesting Than a Stick in the Eyeby Stephen Westfall
I am a painter and a writer who, consequently, writes about painting a lot. I’m uncomfortable with the term “art critic” being applied to my own writing since my “criticism,” such as it is, is mostly in the form of an appreciative inquiry into what interests me. I used to write a lot of reviews for Art in America, but those have dwindled down to one or two a year. Reviews are fun to write because the subject is handed to me and the column space imposes greater concision than what comes naturally. I write a longer piece for Art in America about every year and a half. I also write catalogue essays, which often give me a longer space to consider an interesting painter: Jane Wilson, say, or Ralph Humphrey. I’m conscious of two tasks when I’m writing: 1) to describe the work and my interest in it from the standpoint of being an artist reasonably well-grounded in art history, psychology, phenomenology, citizenship, and general worldliness; and 2) to write sentences that are enjoyable to read. The first task supports the second without guaranteeing its success. So I’m a writer whose subject happens to be works of art. I’m not so much an art or social critic, although I’m an avid reader of those who are. My enthusiasm is for resonant painting, mostly, often different from the kind that I practice; the path not taken and all that. Since art is both particular and contextual I try to move back and forth in my writing.
I don’t think there is a crisis in criticism. There is amusing, trenchant, and beautiful writing everywhere I look. I wish there was a greater quantity of good writing on contemporary painting, but as I grow older the divide between historical and contemporary painting begins to blur. The pyscho/social ironies that T. J. Clark uncovers in the Modernist project haven’t evaporated from contemporary painting. If anything, they’ve ripened. But I’m also interested in how studio contingencies, impulses, whims, along with contemporary politics and economics affect present-day painting. I suppose I’m a formalist, even when writing about New York School landscape painting, because I tend to concentrate on and extrapolate from what is visible. I think that’s still valuable, since I imagine that I’m writing for painters and those interested in painting.
STEPHEN WESTFALL is a painter and writer living in Brooklyn. He is a contributing editor to Art in America.