What It Means to Write About Art, Interviews with Art Critics
These past weeks, we’ve been trying to come up with thoughtful ways of staying in touch with everyone—our artists as well as art lovers all around the world. We’ve ramped up our podcast schedule, and now we’ll be sharing some of our favorite titles from David Zwirner Books with you in a new way. Every week our newsletter will introduce a book that we will excerpt—at great length, often in full—on our website. To be updated on upcoming book excerpts and other news, sign up to our newsletter here and follow us @davidzwirner.
We hope you enjoy. And, as Rainer Maria Rilke once said, "Live for a while in these books."
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Over the years, I’ve often thought about my friend Dana Schutz’s painting How We Would Talk (2007). For starters, the name is great—casually evocative, like the set up for a Nathalie Sarraute novel; the “would” promises a mode of communication close to our own, but nevertheless adjusted, for better or worse. The picture shows the back of a head and shoulders wedged into the rectangle of a cramped phone booth, an old-fashioned receiver seemingly glued to the right ear. One hand, pressed onto the dirty glass wall just inches away, slides downward, leaving clean finger-shaped streaks in the grime that offer glimpses of the sunny landscape on the other side. The curlicue phone cord snakes around the shoulder, out of the booth, stretching somewhere beyond the picture.
Of course this painting has come to mind again lately, while we’re all shut away in different places, fantasizing about how we might talk when we are together again, when the world will be different but in ways we don’t yet know. From this vantage point, rereading the thirty conversations that turned into What It Means to Write About Art, I’m more acutely aware than before of how the coffee shops, cafes, parks, and apartments in and around New York City, all now shuttered, set the scenes, as places for strangers to meet, talk, and become friends.
I’m remembering breakfast at La Grainne Cafe in Chelsea with Darby English, where he said, “Art sends word: We have a situation. Word has to reach someone. It must be received and translated up, or over, or out—transformed somehow. Some amount of telephone gaming will be necessary between the creation of a change-oriented work and some change.”
I’m recalling afternoon coffee at the Smile on Bond Street, where Holland Cotter described working in a hospital after college as “human contact work.” “I still think of it as the most satisfying job I’ve ever had,” he continued, “the one that felt the most worth doing, every day. And in a way that school wasn’t—it was a moral education, a lesson in first and last things.”
I’m imagining Siri Hustvedt’s sitting room in Park Slope, where she told me: “Art is a social form, a thing made by me that is meant for you. Artists sit or stand alone in a room for many hours a day and don’t see or talk to anyone. This is how most of my time is spent. But there are always others in the artist’s head, worlds of others. The need to make is not solitary: I’ve made something, and it’s for you, and it’s now a part of our world.”
Returning to these moments now, as texts in a book, I can still hear their voices and recollect a flood of extra-textual information: the way body language and facial expressions gave nuance to a phrase, the nature of the light as it changed over the course of our talk, the overall mood of the space we were in, and the feeling that opened between us, in person, in real time.
And I’m thinking again of the person in Schutz’s roadside phone booth, hand pressed against the window, looking into the obscured distance, listening to a voice from far away. There is a mysterious emotional precision in the painting, one that points toward the very heart of what art is—where a goofy longing for intimacy meets the promise of connection, across time and space, creating a shared world.
—Jarrett Earnest, April 2020
Image: Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace, 1664. Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin
I want to start by talking about your early life and your relationship with poetry. How did that connection with language begin?
It started at home. I grew up near Concord, Massachusetts, outside of Boston. My parents were a very young postwar couple. My dad had just started medical school when I was born, so there was no money to speak of, but they were resourceful. They were book readers, museum goers, and they loved music, especially jazz. While my dad was in school at night, my mother would read my younger sister and me poetry at the dinner table—just a routine thing that she did. Her taste in poetry included Emily Dickinson, which she thought would appeal to us because her poems were short and had references to nature, but also the language is so startling—it wakes you up and makes you listen. I got a lot of Dickinson early on.
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What would you point to as an early important aesthetic experience?
When I was a child, we went to The Cleveland Museum of Art. My favorite experiences were of strolling through those galleries with parents who enjoyed this very much. They weren’t necessarily always equipped to provide detailed information about the art we were looking at, but they were only too happy to indulge their only child in this way. At a certain point, it must have been clear that I was the person who needed this experience the most, but I was never made to feel as though my interest was a burden to them. I don’t recall having a lot to say about it—ever since I could talk I have had speech impediments, and this predisposed me to keep words to myself—but I loved looking, in a deep and abiding way. I guess I looked really hard; I certainly wanted to look often. My first real loves were Dutch landscape paintings by Ruisdael and Van Goyen, which I revisited almost on a pilgrimage basis. I was mainly looking at paintings; it took me the longest time to learn how to see sculpture of any kind. The Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman , by Frans Hals—I saw it again recently, and it’s still to me as completely fixating as ever. Looking back, I feel that a painting like that appeared to me as something like mitigated truth.
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There is an essay in A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women where you offhandedly say that your mother used to call you “too sensi-tive for this world”—I’m wondering about that and how it relates to your early aesthetic experiences.
That particular essay, “Becoming Others,” is about my mirror-touch synesthesia, a form of synesthesia that wasn’t named until 2005, although obviously people have been walking around with it forever. It’s a physiological phenomenon: if I see another person slapped on the cheek, I have a sensation in my own cheek. I also have strong physical responses to colors—once while looking at a shade of turquoise in Iceland, I had a revolting crawling sensation all over my body. Everyone responds to color, but my mirror-touch sensations probably exaggerate the response. At the same time, I can’t jump out of myself and check what it is like for you. When I was growing up, it never occurred to me that other people didn’t feel what they saw.