2.9 / No-see-ums

Critical Sources, Part II

By Art Practical Editors January 13, 2011

Image (left to right): Kevin Killian, Bill Berkson, Whitney Chadwick, Clark Buckner. Critical Sources workshop, Part II, October 16, 2010, The Lab, San Francisco.

A strong tenet of Art Practical’s mission is to enable emerging writers to refine their practice amidst those already renowned for their insight. In support of this objective, we have organized an annual workshop series in conjunction with The Lab in San Francisco. Critical Sources: Writing about Art in the Bay Area offers perspectives on the ways critical dialogue is essential to the health of the visual arts community, while providing strategies for writing constructively about art. Conversations and small-group discussions combine with writer workshops to examine the state of criticism in the Bay Area.

The second installment in the series included a panel discussion and critique session, which took place on October 16, 2010. The panelists and workshop leaders included Bill Berkson, Clark Buckner, Whitney Chadwick, and Kevin Killian.

In the section presented here, they respond to the question of how they begin to approach writing about a work of art.

Buckner notes that he takes a naive approach, meaning that the pleasure in writing about art arises from the concreteness of it. Art offers the opportunity to reflect on one’s experience and involvement, however that transpires. Berkson concurred, describing that naŃ—veté as “clearing the range,” as words are like “swarms of no-see-ums which stand between me and the work.” At the same time, he asserts that it is impossible to come completely fresh or uninformed to a work of art, echoing Chadwick’s observation that over the years she has adopted an approach that couples direct encounter with establishing context, which can be done in many ways, including through history, iconography, theory, and stylistic analysis. She described that it was important to feel that she could both engage the work and supply something to the analysis.

Killian said that context exists for him as well, but centers on his own subjectivity. He also points to the need to make that subjectivity legible to an audience and to consider the question of what, as writers, we hope to accomplish with it. In response to the question of how one envisions one’s audience when writing, Berkson recounts some early advice from Art News editor Thomas B. Hess that has persisted for him:

“Write it as if you are writing a letter to a sensitive and intelligent friend, but one who has no patience for your bullshit.”


About the Panelists: 


Bill Berkson is a poet, art critic, editor, and curator who has been active in the art and poetry worlds for five decades. He is the author of eighteen books and pamphlets of poetry, including most recently Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems, Gloria (with etchings by Alex Katz), Goods and Services, and Lady Air, as well as an epistolary collaboration by Bernadette Mayer entitled What's Your Idea of a Good Time? He is a corresponding editor for Art in America, and his criticism has appeared there and in Artforum and other journals. A collection of his essays, The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings, appeared in 2004, Sudden Address: Selected Lectures in 2007, and a new collection of art writings, For the Ordinary Artist, appeared in 2010, as did Not an Exit, a suite of poems with drawings by Léonie Guyer. He was Distinguished Paul Mellon Fellow at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture for 2006 and was awarded the 2008 Goldie for Literature from the Bay Guardian and the 2010 Balcones Prize for Poetry. Berkson taught literature and art history at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1984 to 2008.

Clark Buckner, PhD, works in San Francisco as a curator, critical theorist, and educator. He lectures in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute and previously taught in the Philosophy department at Mills College. He has published articles and reviews on philosophy, psychoanalysis, and contemporary art in both academic and popular journals, and coedited a volume of essays titled Styles of Piety: Practicing Philosophy After the Death of God (Fordham, U.P). Currently he is completing a book titled Apropos of Nothing: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis and the Coen Brothers (SUNY U.P.). For several years, he worked as director of the not-for-profit gallery MISSION 17, and he has organized exhibitions and screenings at numerous other venues. He received his PhD in Philosophy from Vanderbilt University.

Whitney Chadwick, PhD, is professor emerita of art history at San Francisco State University. She has lectured widely and taught courses on twentieth-century and contemporary American and European art, with a special focus on women and Surrealism. Chadwick is the author of Women, Art, and Society, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, and Mirror Mirror: Self Portraits by Women Artists, as well as numerous articles and other publications. Her writings also include an art-historical crime novel, entitled Framed, which earned mainstream critical acclaim. She received her PhD from Pennsylvania State University.

Kevin Killian is a poet, novelist, critic, and playwright. He has written for Framework, Artforum, and Artweek, and has published novels, poetry, chapbooks, and a memoir. With Dodie Bellamy, he edits the literary and art zine Mirage #4/Period[ical]. His work has been widely anthologized and has appeared in, among others, Best American Poetry 1988 (ed. John Ashbery), Men on Men (ed. Geo. Stambolian), Discontents (ed. Dennis Cooper) and Wrestling with the Angel (ed. Brian Bouldrey). His 1996 chapbook Little Men was the recipient of the 1996 PEN Oakland /Josephine Miles Award.

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