“I’m like this little kind of a Geiger counter on wheels, you know? I just go around and things register.”
“I really thought about becoming a dealer.”
“Whatever gripes you have with the art world—and we all have them—this is the most open it’s ever been.”
“I always think of contemplation as being pretty God damned active if you’re really into it. I hate that phrase: ‘going beyond just contemplating an object in a museum’, we’re going to go down a slide, or we’re going to go into a sauna or something. That’s just total bullshit.”
Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and I’m joined today by Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic for The New York Times. Roberta, it’s such a pleasure to be here.
Roberta Smith: Likewise. I’m thrilled to do this.
Charlotte Burns: We’re in Roberta’s office, which is where the magic happens, and we’re surrounded by books. I think there are—is it 40,000 or 60,000 books in this apartment?
Roberta Smith: I have no idea. That’s the number Jerry just gave you?
Charlotte Burns: That’s the number Jerry just gave me.
Roberta Smith: I’ll go with that number.
Charlotte Burns: So, Roberta, tell us a little bit about your habits. How do you look at art? What choices do you make? How do you structure your time and your writing?
Roberta Smith: Well, I have a weekly deadline on Monday or Tuesday, so I tend to start writing on Friday. Basically, it’s sort of two to three days looking, three to four days writing, and then it starts all over again. I love that rhythm, because it’s like I’m propelled forward by forces other than myself. Deadlines are really a major part of my life.
Charlotte Burns: Do you procrastinate?
Roberta Smith: I procrastinate, yes. I have a huge procrastinating gene, and I put it off until people are not quite yelling at me. Some writers have these amazing habits. I mean, you think about, whatever: Thomas Mann or Novikov writing for very specific hours or certain people having, wanting 1,000 words or 10 pages or whatever. I’m not like that at all, but under pressure, I can really do amazing stuff. I just sort of concentrate on it; so I usually wait until that pressure arrives. Mostly, it works for me, but it doesn’t always. I’m getting better at summoning it. Let’s put it that way.
Charlotte Burns: Do you revise? Do you write it all in one big flurry and then file, or do you write, revise, revise as you go along? What’s your—
Roberta Smith: I get stuck, usually, in the top three ‘graphs, and I just rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until they’re incredibly solid, as nearly as I can tell. Then, the piece sort of starts to loosen up and unravel. That’s kind of like racing toward the end. You just have to think what do people need to know, and what’s going to attract them from the beginning and pull them through the piece. That’s my ideal: I write a piece that people can’t put down. I have no idea how often that happens, but that’s my goal.
Charlotte Burns: When you first began writing for the Times—you joined in 1986 as a freelancer—the audience, I guess, was more imaginary.
Roberta Smith: It was.
Charlotte Burns: You didn’t really have a sense of who was responding to what.
Roberta Smith: Yeah. All you got were either incredibly irate or incredibly enthusiastic letters. People had to be pushed to a certain point, and then they would write. So, I always thought every letter I got, pro or con, stood for about 20 other people who hadn’t quite gotten to the point of writing but were sharing the emotion.
Charlotte Burns: Yes, that’s interesting. Now, is your audience more known? Do you want to know it?
Roberta Smith: Well, I don’t particularly want to know it. My editors sometimes foist it on me. I mean, they’re definitely trying to get a younger readership. There’s more emphasis on writing thinking of one’s self as addressing people who don’t necessarily know the subject. I’m not sure how accurate that is, because I still think I’m writing for a fairly specialized group of people, just like the sports guys are and the film and classical music guys are, that they’re people—and girls—who are already kind of committed to your subject or at least curious about it in some way.
But, I write for a newspaper, so I’m very conscious of… I feel really great if I can write something that kind of is really snappy and people will be hooked by it. So, I’m not unaware of that. I’m not unaware of in my own pleasure of writing, I try to sense the pleasure of reading. It all works out. I mean, I can sort of read between the lines of what I get told, what my metrics are, I guess. [Laughter] They provide guidance, and then, when they’re not saying much, you just assume, well, they’re happy. But, there hasn’t been a lot of what I call intervention, at least in my writing. I don’t think there is. When you’re starting out, there’s a certain amount of that.
Charlotte Burns: Right, which is normal, because it’s—
Roberta Smith: Which it’s, yeah, totally normal.
Charlotte Burns: It’s training, essentially.
You said once in an interview that you got into criticism after you became furiously territorial over a review that Robert Pincus-Witten had written. He’d written an article about Donald Judd in Artforum, and it incensed you. It sort of was the propeller to become a critic yourself.
Roberta Smith: Yeah. I mean, unconsciously. Judd had been my subject of my senior thesis when I was in the Whitney Independent Study Program, so I was very familiar with his work. I was a very unconscious, young whatever, 22- or 23-year-old and very territorial about it because nobody else had really done much on him. I worked for a curator at the Modern at the time, and she said: “Well, write a letter.” So, I started to write a letter, and it became 10 pages of invective.
Charlotte Burns: You were one of the people who were pushed to an extreme. [Laughs]
Roberta Smith: Yes. Then, the editor of Artforum sent it back to my boss—a woman named Jennifer Licht, who was a curator there—and he said: “Well, this is a horrible way for a person who wants to be an art critic to get started, but if she cuts it in half, we’ll run it.” So, that was kind of a light bulb going on.
Charlotte Burns: Did you want to write when you were younger?
Roberta Smith: You know, I had such a kind of grub-like existence. I had ambition, but it really wasn’t focused anywhere. I went through college incredibly lazy and depressed. Coming to New York was just such a turning point in my life. It waked me up.
Charlotte Burns: Why were you feeling lazy and depressed in college?
Roberta Smith: Well, we would have to talk about my upbringing and my family if we went in that direction, Charlotte, and we’re not going to. [Laughs]
Charlotte Burns: You don’t want to go in that direction?
Roberta Smith: Well, I just think my parents were kind of naïve. My father was a college professor, but he wasn’t a very conscious person. I was encouraged to do a lot of things, and I enjoyed doing a lot of things, but I never fastened on them as something I could do. I never got that idea, like yeah, somebody says you have a talent for this, you practice it and you practice and you do this and pursue it. It wasn’t until I got around kids at college where I understood this kind of focus.
I grew up in Kansas, and I went to college in the middle of Iowa. Getting to, I don’t know, an urban situation was just so much better for me. It just kind of brought me to life. I love the city and I love the art world. You know, I had this really unformed very strong feeling that I just wanted to be here and that I could figure out something to do. I got enough feedback and enough encouragement.
Charlotte Burns: You were beginning to find what it is that you hadn’t been able to find?
Roberta Smith: Yes. I mean, the city was just the greatest thing. And then the art world… I think the thing that attracted me to the art world, as I’ve said before, was that it was unstructured. I was used to being in an academic situation where things were kind of determined. I liked the way everybody in the art world found their way.
Charlotte Burns: You were used to being in an academic situation because your father was an academic?
Roberta Smith: Yes. I grew up at the University of Kansas, and that was very busy politically, you know, just dinner table conversation was all about these different kinds of power situations.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Roberta Smith: The idea that people just found things that they wanted to do and started to do them, and either did or didn’t get attention for them, and then things evolved from there. Some people came here to be artists. That didn’t work out. They became something else, but they were attracted by this sphere and by art. They wanted to be here, and they wanted to be around art. It was all up to you, in a certain way.
Charlotte Burns: There was a kind of freedom to evolve that I guess was much more informal. Nowadays, things are more professionalized in the art world.
Roberta Smith: I guess. I think so. By professionalized, I always think of academicized. When I came into the art world, curators didn’t necessarily have PhDs and all of that thing. I still object to it. I mean, I don’t think you can get a PhD in criticism. At least, not the kind of criticism I’m interested in doing, which is basically journalistic, un-footnoted, you know.
Charlotte Burns: Yes, I think that’s really true. I remember when I was doing my master’s, it occurred to me that any original idea you had, you had to put in the footnotes, because you had to show that you’d got to that original idea through reading everybody else’s original ideas, and then the criticism and reevaluations of those original ideas. The idea that everything had to be so pinned down in terms of your thought was a little bit restricting, and it’s a habit that’s really hard to shake, as well.
Roberta Smith: I haven’t heard it put so precisely, but it’s that kind of thing that I object to, because I just think that the subjective and the perceptual side of the experience of art, it gets squeezed out in that setting. I also think that one’s style gets lost, your writing style and your voice. That’s crucial in terms of more journalistic criticism.
Charlotte Burns: You’ve described it just now as journalistic criticism. Tell me about your voice or the voice that you… You now have this voice, but how did you get there?
Roberta Smith: I think I always had it. I think that I started writing and really realizing I was kind of driven to write… Actually, to backtrack about what I didn’t know and when I didn’t know it: I do remember being kind of taken aback by how much I enjoyed letter writing. I would just sit down and start typing and write these single-spaced letters of several pages, just about what was going on, blah, blah, blah.
Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting.
Roberta Smith: One thing I tried to do was see my criticism as letters. If I get really stuck, I would think, well, what if I was writing this to my parents?
Charlotte Burns: Who did you think you were writing to? Your parents? Who was that audience on the other end of it?
Roberta Smith: Yes, I don’t think it was that clear to me, but I know that the recipient of… I had kind of just imagined the voice—that more intimate voice of writing in a letter and kind of explaining things, or—
Charlotte Burns: You’re not imagining yourself as delivering a lecture from a podium.
Roberta Smith: Not at all. Not at all. I’m very hung up on things like tone and pace, which I think form voice, in a way. Like the speed that your language moves. That’s what I like, that kind of pell-mell. I really want to feel like I’m pulling people along.
Charlotte Burns: To get kind of granular with it, do you think about, well, if I use monosyllabic words, I get there faster?
Roberta Smith: Absolutely. I’m always counting syllables. I would do that at the copy desk. I would say: “Oh, yeah, that’s great. Let’s do this. It’s one syllable less.”
Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting. Do you stick to those kind of rules like: it’s a thought per sentence? Do you have rules about clauses per sentence, things to slow it down, furniture?
Roberta Smith: No, not really. That’s interesting to me. I try to keep it clean, and I can get very multi-claused. Sometimes somebody will say: “Well, you need to put this in here,” and you put it in. Then, all of a sudden, you’ve got this blocky sentence.
But yeah, I like short sentences. I mean, I don’t want it to get too kind of choppy and rat-tat-tat-tat-tat. It’s a very interesting process.
Charlotte Burns: Do you think you would write if you didn’t have the deadline?
Roberta Smith: I’m not sure. I might write letters. I’m definitely a nonfiction writer. I mean, I don’t really think of myself as a really good writer. I always read all these other critics, and I think: “Wow, they are so smooth. They have such a vocabulary.” When I’m writing, I’m thinking: “Okay, there you go again. You’re using that word.” I’m very conscious that I have this—
Charlotte Burns: Do you have ticks in your writing?
Roberta Smith: Yeah, I probably do. I’m not going to name any of them. I mean, actually, I just feel like I have ticks because I don’t have this huge vocabulary. There’s a certain amount of repetition.
I’m very interested in compression in writing, and I think that that’s something that writing for newspapers, you really learn how to do: to get the most said in the least amount of words and to just keep packing it down, making it less and less. That’s why editing is so interesting. You write something, and then you think: “Okay, what’s the more efficient way of saying this?” Then, you’ll rewrite it, and then you’ll think: “Oh, well, this should be flipped, or I can take this out.”
Charlotte Burns: It’s like a jigsaw puzzle when you’re at that stage.
Roberta Smith: Yes, very much. I mean, it’s not so true anymore, but I was always really conscious of being on newsprint, that it had a very specific shelf life. People who were reading me had kind of short attention spans. They were looking at the paper as something that they were probably going to throw out at the end of the day. They were looking for information. They were looking for opinion. That was my job, was to sort of say, as quickly and as felicitously as possible: “You should see this because it’s great,” or “You should see this because it’s bad in a really interesting way.” Just pointing people at things was what I really wanted to do.
The idea that I could sort of expand people’s lives and demonstrate looking, like: “Okay, let’s look at this whatever. Let’s look at this attic vase, like what happens when you get up really close?” I’m very interested in the signs of process and just of somebody working on something to make something that didn’t exist.
Charlotte Burns: Would you classify that as the materiality of something?
Roberta Smith: I’m interested in material. I’m interested in process, yeah. What makes art something—what makes something art, I should say—is an activity by the artist. That can be any activity. It can be archiving. It can be scratching into wet clay. There is some kind of change that goes on.
Charlotte Burns: When I asked you about materiality, it’s because when I was researching for this interview, you’d said something about Judd and his materiality. Judd seems to have been this central figure in your career in so many ways. In a way, as we’ve discussed, that reaction to defend Judd’s work was something that got you into criticism. You wrote your thesis on Judd and his move from 2D to 3D in a time in which people weren’t really doing that. You compiled essays on Judd in a book that you did. So, there’s a lot of work at the beginning that you were doing on Donald Judd. How did you get there? Was it an accident? Did other people—
Roberta Smith: Well, it was kind of an accident. When you applied to the Whitney Independent Study Program, if you weren’t an artist, which I wasn’t, you proposed a topic of study. So, I proposed Judd, out of some dim memory of having seen Hilton Kramer’s review. We took the Sunday Times, and I remember seeing, spread out on the living room floor, a picture of a Judd work and Kramer’s review. I’m sure I didn’t read the review, but he just sort of stuck with me. So, when I had to make this proposal, and I may have been helped by my professor, I don’t know, who told me I should apply. Who made me apply, really, because I wasn’t going to. I was like: “What? You want me to go to New York?” [laughs]
Charlotte Burns: Did that scare you or excite you?
Roberta Smith: Oh, totally. Yeah, I think it scared me. I said to him: “If I get accepted, do I have to go?” He said: “Absolutely.” I mean, he sort of knew he was—
Charlotte Burns: Pushing you.
Roberta Smith: Yeah, and that it was an opportunity.
Charlotte Burns: Did your parents encourage you to go?
Roberta Smith: Yeah. I mean, my father, it took some talking. He was very practical about it. He had to pay tuition for me to go off to New York. What I was doing, what I was studying, was a little vague. A lot of what I did was just sort of on my own. My living arrangements were a little weird and—
Charlotte Burns: Weren’t you living in a living room in a room that you’d fashioned out of orange crates at the time?
Roberta Smith: That was the fourth place I lived, yeah.
Charlotte Burns: It was the fourth place in five months, right, or something like that?
Roberta Smith: Yeah, something like that. I would spend a lot of time in the library just reading through old magazines, which I think is a great way to understand what criticism can be and can’t be.
Charlotte Burns: What did you understand it to be at that stage?
Roberta Smith: I was reading mostly Judd, but he would be in these arts magazines—
Charlotte Burns: You were reading his writing?
Roberta Smith: Yeah, which was mostly the form of short reviews mixed in with other people. It was just very interesting, like how concrete and adamant his prose was and how opinionated he was an also how particularly, specifically descriptive—
Charlotte Burns: He’s a terrific writer.
Roberta Smith: Yeah, he really is. He has this kind of truncation and it’s just—
Charlotte Burns: It’s his focus and energy somehow.
Roberta Smith: Yeah, and you’re right in the middle of it—he just starts.
Charlotte Burns: And at the beginning it sounds like Judd’s voice was very much in your head. And now if I think if you’re writing, it doesn’t serve the artist’s voice. Your voice has now… your writing has shifted away from that very much.
It’s almost like the understanding is that, the artist makes the work and the artist can have their own understanding of the work, but you as a critic don’t have to hear that. Probably best if you don’t hear that and come to maybe even a completely separate understanding of what the work is about, and whether it’s good.
Roberta Smith: I don’t think artists own the meaning of their work, they couldn’t possibly. It’s not possible that they a) understand everything that they’re doing that’s motivating them at a given moment, and it’s certainly not possible for them to encompass in their own minds all of the future meanings that their work we’ll acquire, as it moves through time. And if it’s lucky as it keeps garnering attention, and people keep writing about it, and it will be changed in different times. So, it just seems like the artist is like, okay, you’ve done it, you’ve had your say now we’ll take it from here. And we being critics, art historians, the public, anybody who thinks about that work will be sort of taking it someplace else.
Charlotte Burns: And what do you look for when you’re deciding what to write about?
Roberta Smith: Well, I don’t know, I just sort of walk in and look at art and feel if I’m… what’s happening. By now I’m kind of an opinion machine, and I just have all these little asides and comments. And just seeing how these kinds of, I don’t know, waves of different kinds of activity in the art world, like thinking: well, there’s an awful lot coming from pattern and decoration right now in terms of painting, shored up by a renewed interest in textiles and all these… and in weaving.
It’s really interesting because you think, well, by the mid ’80s, pattern and decoration was kind of a failure, and Neo-expressionism was where it was at. And then you just realize that none of these ideas really get used up. They move forward, and then other artists come upon them and find other things that can be done. Things that haven’t been utilized, that haven’t been explored. I don’t know, you’re always just, I always am trying to make sense of something, and I’m always trying to figure out how it works on me, and if there’s a kind of intensity to that working, that engages me and makes me curious and want to know more about it, or just be in its presence.
Charlotte Burns: How many shows do you see a week?
Roberta Smith: Probably 15 or 20.
Charlotte Burns: Do you see any connection between those things that make you maybe want to write a review and the wealth of a gallery, as in therefore the ability that gallery has to attract “the best artists”?
Roberta Smith: Well, I do think that there are galleries, like there are artists who are better than others, at a given time. But I think that when you’re writing you really try to learn to see around or through that kind of thing. But it’s true, there are certain galleries that I will go to pretty much month in and month out, because they have a kind of proven track record, and then there are young galleries that come up you want to see what they’re doing every month.
Charlotte Burns: What are your biases?
Roberta Smith: Well, I’m pretty interested in painting [laughs], and I hope… I’m interested in a lot of other stuff, but for me painting has this kind of the continuity of it, and the fact that it’s a conversation that’s been going on for so long.
I mean, I’m interested in two dimensionality, I guess, probably more than other things, but I try not to be. I think there’s really great video art, and installation, and sculpture. But I guess I haven’t gotten into digital art much.
Charlotte Burns: Have you tried?
Roberta Smith: I think I’ve tried a little, but I don’t know. I’m still interested in things I can walk up to and see in real space, or walk through, or sit in front of while their narrative unfolds on a screen.
Charlotte Burns: Are there things you go back to? Are there paintings that you see as your family in a way? Old friends?
Roberta Smith: Well, there’s a certain kind of abstraction that I’m looking for in all art that I think… I don’t know if I have really old friends. I mean, probably the obvious ones. Like a Piero [della Francesca] here or there in London, or I don’t know. I can look at just about anything, but like a lot of people, I’m extremely interested in the late 19th-century and early 20th-century.
And again, I think that’s something that hasn’t been used up, even though we’re getting a lot of kind of faux cubism right now. I don’t know, I mean there’s certain artists that I like, I prefer Hartley to O’Keeffe, and that kind of thing, or—
Charlotte Burns: Do you know why?
Roberta Smith: Because he just has more interesting form. He does more with paint, and he’s kind of hot. He has a kind of emotionality in his touch, and his use of colors and his subjects that, you know, you sense his turmoil.
Charlotte Burns: That’s so true.
Roberta Smith: I think he’s sort of the greatest American of that period. Give or take Stuart Davis.
Charlotte Burns: Are there artists working now that you feel especially excited by?
Roberta Smith: I mean there are all kinds of people.
Charlotte Burns: Anyone you want to name?
Roberta Smith: No.
Charlotte Burns: Is that because you don’t want to be held to it?
Roberta Smith: I don’t know, it just seems like I’m going to be—
Charlotte Burns: You don’t want to single people out?
Roberta Smith: I’m going to be leaving people out, and I’m excited by a lot of things. I guess something that has really excited me recently has been, what I would call the return of Arthur Jafa, this amazing film maker/appropriator, and sculptor, and photographer. I just think he’s phenomenal.
Charlotte Burns: His work is so incredibly moving.
Roberta Smith: Right. See, I think he’s an artist who has a kind of subject matter, which is black life in America, and who also has this incredible sense of form. That great video that he showed, Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death (2016). And that, that’s one of the most amazing meetings of sound and image that I’ve ever seen. Because we’ve all sat through a lot of videos where we’re sitting there thinking, if it weren’t for this great pop tune that’s been selected as the accompaniment, I doubt that I’d be sitting here. That you’re really kind of in the music, not in what’s happening on the screen. And the way he put those together with that kind of forcefulness and—
Charlotte Burns: And precision.
Roberta Smith: —and this kind of use of different sounds and different imagery. Some of it violent, some of it incredibly creative. I just found that phenomenal. I think that’s really a masterpiece.
Charlotte Burns: I agree. I was absolutely dumbfounded I think when I first saw that I didn’t know what to think.
Roberta Smith: Well, particularly for white people, it’s really very— can be, should be, and is, I think—very transformative because it just packs so much in it.
Charlotte Burns: Do you think about politics in your writing?
Roberta Smith: Well, I think that the art world has too many simplistic binaries. And political art versus nonpolitical art is one of them.
Charlotte Burns: Do you believe that there’s such a thing as nonpolitical art?
Roberta Smith: No. I think that all art is political. I would say all art that’s sort of middling-to-great is a strike for freedom, is an expression of liberty—and that that’s what you’re looking at: somebody just making this move in a completely new territory and asserting themselves in a new way. And that kind of newness—you can hear it in jazz, you can see it in painting—that kind of assertion of the self and of the newness of a self—because I think most of ourselves have the potential for newness—that in itself is just an exhilarating, inspiring thing that carries over into all forms of life. I mean all forms of activity. But I don’t know. There are a lot of false dichotomies right now where you can do this, but you can’t do that.
There is this dichotomy is that participatory art is more active than art that’s just made for contemplation. I always think of contemplation as being pretty God damned active if you’re really into it, if you really are pursuing the artwork and your reaction to it. I hate that phrase: “going beyond just contemplating an object in a museum”, where we’re going to go down a slide, or we’re going to go into a sauna or something. That’s just total bullshit, that this active engagement is somehow… I mean, it can be just as mindless as anything, it seems to me.
And the other thing that is accompanying that—it’s all part of the same thing, I think—the idea that art for art’s sake is bad, and that there’s this other thing that is art that’s not for art’s sake. It just doesn’t… Again, I just think it’s a way of putting down something, of dividing things against themselves and people against themselves, and of claiming superiority that doesn’t exist.
Charlotte Burns: And also of formulating thought processes. I remember going to the Anne Frank Museum when I was doing my MA, which was in German art at the turn of the century. I was thinking of doing a PhD on memory and sites of memory, and I went to Dachau, too. I was thinking about when you go to museums, you’re often told what to think, and then maybe there’s a lack of thought in that. That if you walk through a place where you are meant to experience grief and overwhelming loss, and you do indeed feel those things, did you think about it yourself? Like did you get to that conclusion yourself? Or the whys of how you got to that place, the whys and hows of civilization arriving to such spots of horror. If you just come out with the understanding of “never again”, do you understand how it happened initially? And that maybe if things were less easily explicable, they’d be sort of better understood, if you had to work a little bit harder at the conclusion.
Roberta Smith: I think so. I mean I think there’s a great loss of… I mean, I don’t know how it goes. I think people need labels at a certain point, and then they need to be weaned off them, and they need to be… And there probably are labels that are doing this more, which are saying… giving them a certain amount of information and then say: “But what’s important is what’s going on in you, which you have to decipher yourself. You can use this as a point of departure to think about…” But, we don’t teach people about looking in our society. We teach them to read literature and writing, but we don’t think that there’s any point in teaching them how to look at art or teaching them the history of architecture. These things are seldom taught in the public school system, and I think that it would make a huge difference in this country, a huge economic difference.
The thing that’s going on right now with all these people diluting the education system and tearing it apart and all that stuff is, you just want to say: “Do you realize how many millions of dollars you are wasting in terms of just human talent?” That we’re not trying to educate everyone and find everyone’s potential, and strength, and originality is just so stupid, that it’s so self-destructive. But anyway, back to the subject.
Charlotte Burns: Agree. I agree.
I wanted to ask you about, power, actually. You’ve spoken about the fact that as a critic, your power is through the readers. If the readers stop reading, you don’t really have any power. You also have the power of The New York Times. I wanted to ask you, thinking about all of those things and having been a writer now in New York for decades, and at the forefront of that, do you think that media still has the power it once did? Criticism still has the same power? Is it new, is it different? Is it the same as ever as, as potent?
Roberta Smith: Certainly not the same as ever. No, I don’t think it’s as a potent because I think people who are interested in art are much more informed than previously. We’re no longer a primary source of information about what to see. And there are plenty of writing about art in other venues, many of them online. And the market is being so active; the market has a life of its own. I can’t get too upset about that. I still do my work, and it’s still has a role, and it still is appreciated. I just am probably… I don’t know. I don’t know what it means about my audience: if my audience is less, or if I’m just now one of a lot of things that people take in?
Criticism has always been fairly specialized, always about your credibility as a critic. You have to make your opinions matter, and people will use them as they will. People would say: “Well, you’re not affecting the market anymore.” I’m saying: “Okay, so what?” I’m writing for certain people that are not interested in the market, that are interested in figuring out their idea of the best art of their time, with some help from my ideas.
Charlotte Burns: When you say you’re not influencing the market anymore—
Roberta Smith: Well, I don’t know if I am. I’ve never known. It’s not something that I pay attention to. It’s something that is kind of, I hear about, but it’s only hearsay.
Charlotte Burns: I’ve heard the same thing. If have happened to meet a dealer in New York and anybody had a raving review from Roberta Smith, dealers have always been very, very happy about that. I think that has a weight absolutely in terms of how people feel about their exhibitions, and then leading people. I think a lot of people still need to be led towards things and probably more so than ever actually in that there is so much more information, but so much less emphasis on thoughtful—
Roberta Smith: Well, there’s a lot of art writing. There are a lot of listicles and things like that, and that’s fine for some people and it isn’t enough for others. And yes, I do think… That’s what I see the Times as, like pointing people at this saying: “There’s this.” And you get to draw attention to that. I mean, I love that aspect of the paper, that you can lead people.
I mean, what leads people in a way is a certain kind of authority. Or a reliability. I feel that people who read me, and keep reading me, know that I’m interested in a certain, for the most part, I’m interested in a certain level of visual engagement. I really want something where I don’t have to read a label to get it. And I think people who read me consistently think that they won’t be steered wrong, in a way, that I’ll send them to something that’s worth their time.
I don’t know. I think that opinions are kind of… they’re may be not valued or their bandied about more or they’re snarkier, but that’s just the way things go, you know. Criticism is constantly going up and down, and spreading out, and then consolidating I guess. I mean, the thing that’s scary for me is the number of… A lot of newspapers thinks they don’t have to have art critics or classical music critics. And I think that’s a big loss, for the public and for their own stature.
Charlotte Burns: I agree, but I think the realities of running papers are that you have to have the bread and butter of the news, and the arts are seen as the sort of delicatessen counter where you could maybe stop if you had enough money, but you probably don’t need to have that.
And I think that’s probably the reality of media. That seems to be having a great impact on criticism, too. When I was growing up and studying, you read about great critics, and now there are fewer critics writing with the same degree of authority.
I know Jerry says there are more critics than ever, but thinking about what you said about your power coming from the readers: if the readership is so much more diffuse, then the power is more diffuse, and that’s a problem. And the authority of old print publications used to consolidate that readership in a way that it has to fight a little bit more to do.
Roberta Smith: Well, I think there are more art writers than ever. I’m not sure that there are more people that… There are probably are more critics sort of coming up, but not everybody who’s online is a critic.
Charlotte Burns: No.
Roberta Smith: And I think that you have to see yourself as a critic and decide that your opinions matter. And decide that this is your work and it’s something you will be judged by, judged on so that you’re accruing a kind of record. I don’t know how that sounds even. Maybe that sounds awful, but you know—
Charlotte Burns: No, you’re working towards your reputation.
Roberta Smith: Yeah, how you control or how you make that work, there is a lot of intuition that goes [with it]. A lot of instinct. And again, it comes back to your voice. How are you going to say something is good or not good.
Charlotte Burns: I read in an interview somewhere that you were talking about how when you moved to Art in America, you’d been hired by Betsy Baker and it occurred to you, you said belatedly, that the real importance of having a female editor. And then at the Times, your editor was Danielle Mattoon under the culture section.
Roberta Smith: To be honest, she was about the 13th culture editor I worked under [laughter]. And the first woman, but that made a huge difference.
Charlotte Burns: So, tell me about the importance, you realized, of having a female editor.
Roberta Smith: Well, it’s my own feeling, I can’t generalize from it.
Charlotte Burns: No, for you specifically.
Roberta Smith: But it made a huge difference to me because the male ethos is just so oppressive in a lot of these places. Like New York, The New Yorker, Art World, The New York Times, and Art in America was the first really… I mean, my previous editor had been John Copelands who was like a complete testosteronic maniac, you know? So, Betsy was just an amazing change, I think, that I didn’t quite sense at the time, but I know that I felt a lot less tension and I felt a lot more openness. I could talk to her about things, which I don’t think I ever had before.
And most of my editors at the Times have actually been women, but to have Danielle come in and be head of the entire culture department made a big difference. She moved people around and made some interesting hires of women that also contributed to complete change in that department.
Charlotte Burns: In what way?
Roberta Smith: Well, it—for me—it relaxed the whole thing. Authority wasn’t this male thing. I mean, I had never… You know, again, it’s just me. I had never really, with a couple of exceptions, I sort of would stop breathing when those culture chiefs started walking around. I just couldn’t be at ease with it, and I could see that there was a certain way that men behaved with men that was different.
Charlotte Burns: To the way they behaved with you.
Roberta Smith: Yea, that other writers who were men were much more… But then I would think: “Oh, well, that’s just me because I didn’t come up with a newspaper.” But I found it very intimidating. It took a really long time for that to be different.
Charlotte Burns: Do you feel more comfortable now?
Roberta Smith: Oh, much more.
Charlotte Burns: Do you feel the sense of… Major broadsheets like the Times, they’re known for being competitive. Do you feel that competition?
Roberta Smith: Well, culture is a little bit of a by-water in terms of that kind of really tough, furious, fast and furious thing that happens where you have young reporters really trying to make their—
Charlotte Burns: Make their name.
Roberta Smith: Yeah. I feel that in a certain way, and I obviously wouldn’t have made it this far if I weren’t pretty competitive.
Charlotte Burns: Who were you competitive with, is it yourself? Is it your—
Roberta Smith: Everybody.
Charlotte Burns: Peers?
Roberta Smith: It’s everybody. [Laughs]
Charlotte Burns: Jerry?
Roberta Smith: Yeah, I’m competitive with him. And very aware that he has a much more kind of populist style than I do and that I’m kind of a little more uptight and, I don’t know.
Charlotte Burns: Would you like to be less uptight?
Roberta Smith: Well, I’d like to have a better vocabulary, and yeah, some sort of… I don’t know; it’s fine. I write for the Times, there’s just certain… You know, you’re writing inside something where there’s a certain amount of leeway, and there’s more and more actually because they are trying to loosen it up.
Charlotte Burns: It’s interesting. You are who you are, though, you can’t fundamentally change that.
Roberta Smith: I know, I know, you can’t.
Charlotte Burns: Recently, someone gave us some feedback on the podcast and said: “If you really want to be successful, you need to be more like Marc Maron and really have opinions and talk,” and I was like: “I don’t really want to do that. I’d rather ask questions than tell everyone what I think.” I don’t think that’s why people tune in, you know? It occurred to me that all the people that were being cited male hosts.
Roberta Smith: Exactly, that’s what I was wondering.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, and I thought: “I just don’t feel comfortable doing that.” And maybe that would be better, but I don’t think I can do it now. I can’t change course midway through my life, you know? [Laughs]
So, is there anything that we didn’t discuss that you’d like to discuss? We didn’t talk about innovation in criticism, is that something you want to talk about?
Roberta Smith: Well, that gets me back to what I was saying about false dichotomies. Is it Lori Waxman at The Walker? Who said that she wasn’t interested in criticism for criticism’s sake. You know, I thought: “Oh great, here we go again.”
Charlotte Burns: What does that mean?
Roberta Smith: I don’t quite know, but I think there’s a certain point where there’s criticism, criticism, criticism and then it starts going into this gray area and it becomes art writing and essay writing and kind of personal—
Charlotte Burns: Personal musings.
Roberta Smith: Personal musings. And I think all of those things are useful, but this whole idea that you’re going to now, that these earlier ways are now going to be overturned instead of just expanded. You know? And I mean, you know, I love what Carolina Miranda does at the LA Times.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, she’s great.
Roberta Smith: She’s really good and the way she mixes it up, and if you take her writing plus her on Twitter, you have this very fabulous thing.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, absolutely.
Roberta Smith: And this personality and this voice and this kind of humor. And that’s great. But it doesn’t preclude something—
Charlotte Burns: Something else.
Roberta Smith: Something else.
Charlotte Burns: It can be additive.
Roberta Smith: Yeah, it doesn’t preclude an older way. I do a particular kind of service. Maybe it will be less valued, but I’m really trying to help people figure out how to spend their time. I want to help people see art. And have some kind of a new appreciation of what they’re seeing and of their ability to assimilate it, and articulate it, and learn from it. You know, that it adds value to themselves.
The arts are incredibly… I mean, I understand about thinking of it as the deli or the icing on the cake, but the arts are really how we know ourselves. How we learn to figure out what our strengths are, what our attractions to different activities, our passions. They are very, very crucial, and that’s what makes me so sad about this country.
All these people who are really cut off from any kind of aesthetic experience, anything that takes them out of themselves and shows them how big the world is and shows them what other people can do and humbles them in the face of difference. You know, really where you think: “Oh my God, they were doing this in Egypt in 2,100 B.C.” And just that kind of awe of what mankind has managed.
Charlotte Burns: There is a sense when you’re growing up that history, you know, we are at the best possible point. You’re at this point in history that’s sort of the apex, things are only going to go forward from here. [Laughter] And you realize… I remember working in galleries, and it occurred to me that this idea of Father Time and this linear progress up a ladder was wrong. I worked at Hauser & Wirth in London, and there was a mezzanine and overlooking the space where we just installed a show and everybody was tired. And I thought: “Oh, it’s circular. You just keep circling the void, and you get to different points in progress. So, it’s made and then it’s unmade and then it’s up.”
Roberta Smith: Yeah, we’re in it.
Charlotte Burns: And a gallery exhibition is sort of the perfect metaphor for that because you have the show up and it’s fantastic and then you move on to the next thing. Or the deadline is another example. It’s not really progress, it’s just sort of repetition and loops.
Roberta Smith: Well, this country is definitely in an unmade situation right now. We’re plummeting backwards. But, I think the idea of progress is… Well, it’s weird because I also think that in certain ways—and maybe it’s in many, many walks of life—we’re really hardwired for the new. We really don’t like endless repetition. We do see things as different, as beyond something that we’ve known before. I mean, the example I’ve always used is—not always, but often use—is like we know that 30 Rock is progress beyond Friends. Or Arrested Development. We know that we’re watching a form, a genre—
Charlotte Burns: That’s being expanded.
Roberta Smith: —being messed with and expanded.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Roberta Smith: I think we can see this in art if we look really hard and believe that there is this. And that there’s some artist that repeat and are interesting, and there’s some artists that are just doing it mindlessly. And then there are some artists that you just walk in and you think: “I haven’t really seen this before.”
Charlotte Burns: It’s hard to be original.
Roberta Smith: Yeah. And I don’t know if I want to call it original, but it’s something different. It’s something new, and then you get to see if it stays that way. You know, like I think Carroll Dunham‘s recent show was just… This is somebody whose work I know really, really well, and yet I felt like he hasn’t quite done this before. This is really him pushing what he’s been working on for all this time.
I think, you have to sort of think that yours is the best time, if only to avoid getting in this kind of good old days mire.
Charlotte Burns: The painful.
Roberta Smith: Yeah, where you think: “Oh, it was so much better back then.” It wasn’t necessarily. It seems to me that it’s really… goes without saying almost because whatever gripes you have with the art world—and we all have then—this is the most open it’s ever been. This is the most open in terms of women working, in terms of non-white artists working, it’s just never been like this.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Roberta Smith: I don’t see how you can avoid being incredibly excited that we’re really kind of making things real. We’re really seeing—that’s both with contemporary artists and then the whole opening up of art history where you have all this Outsider art—like, we have a whole other art history that is now being meshed with the one—
Charlotte Burns: That we knew.
Roberta Smith: —that was in operation for a very long time. Everything, I think, has been destabilized in an interesting way.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, I agree. There are several new art histories. There are different countries, different peoples—
Roberta Smith: Totally.
Charlotte Burns: —whole movements and will be—
Roberta Smith: And also, different mediums. There are lots of things that you think: “Oh God, yet another woman artist who didn’t get any attention and now she’s getting it.” You know, it’s this assumption that anyone who’s been neglected has been neglected for the wrong reasons.
Charlotte Burns: Right, there are some people that are now being elevated that are maybe mediocre.
Roberta Smith: Right.
Charlotte Burns: But, that should all be sorted out in time.
Roberta Smith: I know, I think it will be.
Charlotte Burns: I didn’t ask you about working at Paula Cooper.
Roberta Smith: Well, that was fun.
Charlotte Burns: You were there for 2.5 years.
Roberta Smith: Yeah. And I really thought about becoming a dealer.
Charlotte Burns: You did?
Roberta Smith: Yeah. But criticism is so much more scarier, and also I think I wanted to do something that was more within my control. I didn’t want to collaborate, let’s just put it that way. And I knew I wasn’t that good at selling, so that seemed—
Charlotte Burns: Two problems in your burgeoning career
Roberta Smith: Yeah.
Roberta Smith: But it was good because I got to know… It was interesting because I was sort of inculcated by Judd, and then I went to this gallery that wasn’t towing the Post-Minimalist line at all. I mean, it was in its own way but you know, to continue the Judd line, I probably would have been at Castelli or Sonnabend, but Paula was out here sort of showing Jennifer Bartlett, showing Joel Shapiro, Elizabeth Murray, Jackie Winsor, Jon Borofsky, Michael Hurson. It was just a much weirder place to go. Alan Shields. And I think a lot of these people are quite relevant to the current moment. Well, it was a great place to be because of that.
Charlotte Burns: What did you learn there?
Roberta Smith: Well, I just sort of got the sense like, yeah, there really are these other people that are doing things that, for the most part, I knew Judd had no interest in. You know? And that was very kind of liberating for me.
Charlotte Burns: So, the art changed your—
Roberta Smith: Well, art is always… That’s the thing about being a critic is that you’re constantly being buffeted by the art. I mean, I was buffeted by Conceptual art. And then by Philip Guston‘s paintings, you know, I was constantly like: “Wait a minute, this is going to take a different kind of writing,” or “This brings out something in me that I haven’t quite realized is there.” As Judd said: “Criticism is after the fact, and art is the fact.” But it’s not necessarily such a bad place to be. Do you know?
Charlotte Burns: I like the openness. When you think of the kind of grand men critics—you know, like the Clement Greenbergs, that people always refer to and talk about—it seems at a certain stage there was lack of openness to—
Roberta Smith: Oh for sure, even in Judd.
Charlotte Burns: And in Judd, absolutely. There’s this closing off.
Roberta Smith: No, that was one of the things that interest me about having a career in criticism. I mean, I really wanted to do it for my life, I didn’t want to have this common burnout where all of the sudden you’re not relevant. I was very lucky because I worked in a time that made it unavoidably clear that it wasn’t going to be coherent or linear, that there was just more stuff going on than any one person could really comprehend.
So, I was really lucky. In the ‘70s, pluralism was seen as a poor excuse for… like, it meant we don’t have an art movement, you know? We sort of dropped of the ledge after Conceptualism.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Roberta Smith: But now, I think it’s been seen as what’s real.
Charlotte Burns: There’s a strength.
Roberta Smith: And that that’s the way it’s always been, which is why so much of this retrieval from the past is interesting. And, you know, Hilma af Klint and all these, all of a sudden you see: “Well, this guy didn’t just do Abstraction.” Like, it’s not just Malevich. It’s not just Pollock, you know. Pollock has Janet Sobel and Norman Lewis doing drips at pretty much the same time he is. Okay, Pollock really ran with it. But you have to—and it’s sort of understood that he made it into something maybe bigger than they did—but then they have a different kind of sensibility that also has its own merits, more multiplicitist sensibility.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, that sort of myth of the heroic, lone genius has been deconstructed a little bit more.
Roberta Smith: Yeah, yeah. I can’t imagine writing in any other time than this when there’s this kind of, just, explosion.
Charlotte Burns: So much going on.
Roberta Smith: Yeah, and so much being discovered. I just think it’s a great time. I’m really lucky.
Charlotte Burns: Do you enjoy talking about what you do, do you—
Roberta Smith: I love to, talking shop? Yeah, I love to. It’s interesting to me how other critics work. I see it as a very peculiar activity. When I got to The Voice, I guess, is when I really connected with the readership, which is really the engine in my work: taking this experience I’m having with an art work, it’s kind of just triangulation between me, the art and the reader.
The critic is like a very peculiar thing because, I mean you can be very erudite, or you can be like me, semi-erudite, with—
Charlotte Burns: I’m not buying that, I’m sorry.
Roberta Smith: I mean, everything I know, virtually everything I know has been acquired writing criticism. That’s why I say it’s not an academic thing. You know, to quote whatever, Barnett Newman, we really are making it out of ourselves, we’re putting ourselves, we’re experiencing art works and then we’re writing a kind of reaction that can be useful to other people in a very immediate sense, in a very short time circuit.
I think it’s the greatest thing, because I’m like this little kind of a Geiger counter on wheels, you know? I just go around and things register. And I take notes, and I do all this other… my other ritualistic things, and then I go home and write.
Charlotte Burns: Would you ever… You’ve always said you wouldn’t want this: have you changed your mind about wanting to have a compilation of your writings?
Roberta Smith: Well, of course, deep down inside, there’s a way that I do. I’m not without vanity and I don’t think what I’ve been doing is nothing. On the other hand, I know that I can’t do it, that it would be excruciating to do it. I don’t really like to… I mean, part of being a journalist is that you don’t look back, in a certain way, that you’re always on to the next.
Charlotte Burns: Going forward. The next deadline, of course.
Roberta Smith: Yeah. And what I want is somebody else who wants that to exist and come along and say: “Okay, I’m going to read everything and I’m going to…” and then we’ll talk about what would be good.
Charlotte Burns: Well, I think that should definitely happen. So, to anybody listening who would like to take up the challenge, I’m sure there are lots of people who would like that to be.
Roberta Smith: Okay, all right. Well, on that note.
Charlotte Burns: Well, on that note, Roberta thank you so much for having us in your home to talk about your work.
Roberta Smith: No, thank you.
Charlotte Burns: It’s been such a pleasure.
Roberta Smith: Likewise.
Charlotte Burns: Thank you very much.