Claudia La Rocco: The Best Most Useless Dress

Printed Matters

Claudia La Rocco: The Best Most Useless Dress

By Bean Gilsdorf October 23, 2014

From artists' monographs to beach reads, "Printed Matters" offers a monthly take by a rotating group of contributors on visual art through the printed word.

Despite its slim size, Claudia La Rocco’s The Best Most Useless Dress gives the reader an abundance of issues with which to grapple, as it self-reflexively addresses the nature of art criticism. La Rocco’s hybrid, observational approach gives her writing an unusual fluidity. Each piece is less an autonomous structure; rather, the poems, essays, and illustrations collected here form a network of reverberations sounding out some fundamental questions about what it means to look at, and respond to, art.

Although La Rocco has worked as a critic for the New York Times and Artforum, her discourse in …Most Useless… is far from all-seeing, and she does not attempt to have the last word. Her assessments are charmingly fragmentary, blood-and-guts reactions that don’t just evaluate the work at hand—usually performances—but reckon with the fallibility of what she’s experiencing and her own response to it. La Rocco’s criticism has porous borders; she soaks in these performances and then performs her reaction-writing in return. She’s often blazingly honest about weakness—of a particular artwork, of the art world, and of her apprehension of both, itself a kind of retreat. But such frankness is never delivered in bad faith. Indeed, La Rocco understands that a commitment to honest criticism necessarily embraces an account of what isn’t working. This also extends to her own practice as a writer. As she points out toward the end of the book, “There is a way in which the translator must love failure.”

Claudia La Rocco. The Best Most Useless Dress (Badlands Unlimited, 2014).

The essays are interspersed with poems that explore the subjects of love, lust, need, art, work, self-consciousness, and everyday life. Here La Rocco’s insistent subjectivity comes into full flower. In choosing to experiment with the forms of her written reactions, La Rocco allows her hybrid writing style a full range of responses. Poems expand the boundaries of the “regular” reviews, allowing some ideas to eddy in small currents, and others to flow and unfurl across wider expanses. At the beginning of her review of Heather Kravas’ performance The Green Surround at Performance Space 122, La Rocco asks:

Why do we repeat?
To emphasize or distort, to drown out the world and makes strange the banal, to give a lie to the impossibility of perfection?
Why do we repeat? Why do we repeat?

Which is echoed in the poem that immediately follows, Good Fortune:

It was April and the rain was pouring down against the buds
Everything was new and wet
Spring: blossoms and all that jazz
I was trying to find a calm space in my head
Why do we repeat?
Why do we repeat?

Similarly, the words from the essay “On Taste” get cannibalized into the poem Taste twenty pages later, and by changing the structure and cadence of the original, La Rocco furnishes the reader with a concrete example of form influencing perception. Further, by interspersing observation-based criticism with more poetic forms that reference and evoke the inner and outer life of a critic, La Rocco models a critical practice that doesn’t separate the “I” that responds from an “I” that imagines—the receptive, reciprocal quality is suffused into everything here.

Claudia La Rocco. The Best Most Useless Dress (Badlands Unlimited, 2014). Courtesy the publisher.

But …Most Useless… is not only serious navel-gazing; the author’s agile mind finds the absurd in dry places. I’ve rarely laughed out loud when reading a book of poetry or art criticism, but La Rocco’s wry sense of humor lights up the text throughout. In the poem They Always Ask for Water:

Now the woman is dancing a dance she made 34 years ago.
The women watching from the friends with benefits
seats are not happy
The man is singing a song about boobies gone bad
It is mostly screaming. It is called "Booby Trap"

You're not supposed to drink before reviewing
That is to say, it's frowned upon, generally
(p. 31)

And then:

I have seen so many naked strangers now. If somebody
Asked me what it meant to do what I do, I would say
That it means being bored by naked strangers.
(p. 33)

Claudia La Rocco. The Best Most Useless Dress (Badlands Unlimited, 2014).

The essay–reviews roam along various progressions of thought that resist coming to tied-with-a-bow conclusions. “Everyday People” starts with an observation about an annoying fellow spectator, meanders across three different performances, and ends with a remark about knowing when to dissolve a dance company. “She Said, He Said” is a provocative amalgamation of quotes, conversations, and firsthand observations of Tino Sehgal’s 2010 This Progress at the Guggenheim. I found myself thinking ahead to writing this review—in what way should I attempt to evaluate a book about the inconstancies of critical assessment? Shall I try to bring my thoughts into a tidy circle? Or could I better indicate the style of these writings by manifesting their arrangement in my own response?

La Rocco’s philosophical stance allows for a multitude of appropriations, backtrackings, and peregrinations, but its commitment to a narrating “I” that eschews mastery and embraces eccentricity and idiosyncrasy never wavers. The vagaries of assessment are all here, not just present and accounted for, but celebrated. La Rocco provides a heterodox model for inquiry and reflection that doesn’t ask readers to choose between criticism and poetry, but which offers us a way to access the potentialities and vernaculars of both. This route acknowledges, and even underscores, the contingent and subjective imagination that animates both activities as means of perceiving the world.


  1. All quotations from Claudia La Rocco, The Best Most Useless Dress (Badlands Unlimited, 2014).

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