Who is Barry Schwabsky?


  • Schwabsky
To begin, he's the guy who will speak Oct. 8 at Mountain Fold Books and Oct. 9 at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (both are free).

He's also a poet, writer and art critic, contributing to Artforum and The Nation, with many books under his own name.

In looking at his art criticism, Schwabsky told ARTPULSE Magazine that he sees himself in no way as a "power broker" in the arts scene, but a facilitator of discussion. "[I]n the age of the blog, anyone who cares to can put their views out in public. To me that’s a healthy development. Critics are not power brokers any more in any case — the age of Clement Greenberg is long past. Our role is to develop and formalize the conversation around art — to circulate ideas and perceptions. We are not gatekeepers."

I did some reading into Schwabsky's art criticism for The Nation. Take this entry from late August comparing two exhibits from contemporary artists, one from Jeff Koons, the other from Kara Walker. The majority of the piece discussed Koons, an art giant who got star treatment at a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Koons' is the final show at the Whitney's longtime home; now it will relocated to a new, larger venue in downtown Manhattan.
Despite his powers as an artist, or rather as a sculptor (nothing Koons has produced in the guise of painting is of more than trifling interest), the work failed me. The survey of his message of hope left me feeling hopeless. I’m just not good enough at being the disinterested viewer to find myself cheered by a cheerleader for the neoliberal economy, no matter how brilliantly inventive.
Schwabsky does give credit where Koons is due, but it should also be noted that this is the same artist who collaborated with Lady Gaga, and even developed the cover art for her ARTPOP album. With all due respect to her Monstress and pop stars everywhere, once you've crossed over to the commercial side, it's a slippery slope.

And this is in contrast to Walker's exhibit, which is also quite striking, and impressive on a Koons-level scale, yet lacks all the baggage of strained authenticity that can trouble his work: 
... A Subtlety was made from an unusual material on a gargantuan scale to create a new kind of impermanent monument: a sphinx-like, blind-eyed “mammy” made of white sugar, thirty tons of it glazed over an armature of polystyrene foam. Surrounding it was a retinue of attendants made of candy and sugar.
Walker's work is aided by the Domino Sugar factory which housed it, and has that distinct capitalist tie, Schwabsky says. But instead of forcing a bright-side outlook (sugar-coating it, no pun intended), is frank about the complicit nature of the collaboration. 

It's with Koons, though, that you really get the feel of Schwabsky's persona. He's right there with you in those moments when you're scratching your head at a piece of art with grand associations, a time when you'd expect a critic to leave you in the cognitive dust: 
Consider his sculptures consisting of vacuum cleaners encased in acrylic boxes; a somewhat alien, theatrical light is cast on them by their being lit from below by fluorescent tubes. It’s a very subtle effect. I can’t take very seriously the pseudo-Freudian hooey with which the artist has encouraged his commentators to surround these works — supposedly they conjure “sexual associations” both male and female with their “pliant trunks, sucking orifices, and bags that inflate and deflate like lungs” (though we never see these in operation). I defend to the death the right of any person to find erotic significance in a vacuum cleaner, but my own inclinations go otherwise. For me, these works take something utilitarian and turn it into a collectible; the vacuums sit untouched in their cases like investment-grade Barbie dolls that will never be played with but simply preserved in perpetuity in cryogenic splendor.
In a previous essay critiquing a biography of Whistler, Schwabsky effortlessly covers his takes on the book, Whistler's work, the role of the biographer, and even the importance of keeping art out of the private market. It's worth the full read, here are some highlights:
Whistler's "Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl" - WIKIPEDIA
  • Wikipedia
  • Whistler's "Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl"
It was Anna Whistler, of course, whose portrait would eventually become one of the most renowned works of American art. Here, too, is something about which I wish Sutherland had been more curious — even, if necessary, speculative. Anna was a woman of deep and unshakable piety, exactly the kind of person you’d expect to exert a suffocating influence on a child with her son’s artistic and, eventually, bohemian inclinations and seeming immunity to religious feeling. ...

She did, soon enough, destroy some of her son’s drawings that she’d come across: “They may have been Artistic, but they disgusted me,” she said. Even after Anna followed her son to London, she remained stalwart, going so far as to press her religious tracts on Jimmy’s friend Algernon Charles Swinburne in the hope, Sutherland says, of saving that most decadent poet’s soul. Yet far from wanting to get out from under his mother’s thumb, Whistler remained devoted to her all her life and was devastated by her death as he would be, later, only by that of his beloved wife, Trixie.

Yet something of Anna’s austerity — embodied in the blunt geometrical structure of the portrait in which he immortalized her — remained an unshakeable essence of Whistler’s art. ...

A biographer is not a critic, but maybe the biographer of an artist should be one. The brilliance of some of Whistler’s work—perhaps even more in his prints than in his paintings—and the radicality of his ideas makes it inevitable to wonder why his accomplishment seems so much smaller than that of his great French contemporaries. Sutherland doesn’t speculate about the reasons for this. These days it’s hard to remember that Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl caused a bigger uproar at the Salon des Refusés of 1863 than Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, or that Monet was more influenced by Whistler than vice-versa.

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