There are exhibitions whose titles are as ill-chosen as the works that comprise them are ill-conceived, and one such show of this kind is something called Critic as Grist , which Michael Portnoy has organized at the White Box gallery in Chelsea. Clearly, the title is a misnomer. According to my handy dictionary, the word “grist” has two current meanings. It refers either to “grain or a quantity of grain for grinding” or to “something that can be turned to one’s advantage.” Yet nothing as important to our survival as grain is on offer in this exhibition, which is mainly devoted to the dumbest varieties of Conceptual Art, and it is anyone’s guess as to whose advantage is being served in a show that is almost entirely devoid of artistic interest.
Mr. Portnoy had the idea-if I may be permitted to use the word “idea” as loosely as this curator uses the word “grist”-of inviting nearly 20 artists, or would-be artists, to create works of art, so to speak, that would “define and create the meaning of critics and criticism.” In principle, this is not an altogether uninteresting agenda for an exhibition. Artists as different as Daumier and Arthur Dove succeeded brilliantly in satirizing the critics of their time, and more recently Benny Andrews produced an entire exhibition devoted to the subject.
In practice, however, the gaggle of aspiring talents that Mr. Portnoy has assembled for this show isn’t-with a single exception-up to the challenge. And this single exception-a painting on canvas by Peter Saul called Art Critics’ Suicide (1996)-was well-known and talked-about in certain quarters of the art world several years before Mr. Portnoy undertook to organize the debacle currently on view at the White Box.
It may also convey something of the character of the Critic as Grist show to know that in addition to Mr. Portnoy’s services as curator, the exhibition lists Marianne Vitale as its “curatorial engineer.” This is a job description that is new to me. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to assess Ms. Vitale’s contribution to the show, for on the day that I saw the exhibition not all of its engineering feats were functioning. Some of the television monitors weren’t working, not all of the sound systems were audible, and some of the slide shows were not projected. Ah, the hazards of technology! It was owing to such technological failure that I did not get to see or hear Claude Wampler’s video, Interview with Peter Plagens at His House . I regret missing this, for Mr. Plagens can usually be counted upon for his intelligence and wit, and this is a show that desperately needs every scrap of intelligence and wit it can muster.
I did get to see and hear the work that Paul D. Miller devoted to the criticism of Lucy Lippard. This is something called Glitch Music , which consists of abstract computer images on a screen accompanied by a sound track that combines a Philip Glass–type endless hum and what may or may not be the noise of fingernails scratching on a blackboard. I’ve certainly had my differences with Ms. Lippard’s criticism over the years, but she has never been guilty of producing anything as mindless as Glitch Music.
Arthur Danto doesn’t fare much better in Xar Taplik’s mixed-media installation of a steel table, a water tank, a computer screen, and a variety of words and numbers; and Robert Hughes fares a good deal worse in Fairsbie Tabs’ installation of what looks like an overlighted corner of an abandoned cellar. What any of this has to do with the content of criticism is anyone’s guess.
By a process of elimination, then, Peter Saul’s painting Art Critics’ Suicide has become the show’s primary attraction. It could be that I am prejudiced, of course, because I am one of the picture’s two principal subjects. The other is Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic of The New Yorker . Exactly why we should be linked for the honor of serving as Mr. Saul’s principal villains is a matter I can only guess at. Mr. Schjeldahl’s critical views on most things are very different from my own. About the only thing we have in common as critics is that we both write moderately readable prose, which so many other critics on the current scene do not. And in my own case, to be sure, I have at times written very unfavorably about Mr. Saul’s work. I cannot recall whether Mr. Schjeldahl has also been disobliging about the artist’s accomplishments. Is it possible that Mr. Saul objects to readable prose?
According to the legend inserted into the upper left-hand corner of the painting, Mr. Saul seems to be under the impression that both Mr. Schjeldahl and I are “TOO STUPID TO LOOK AT PICTURES THEY THINK ABOUT ART.” I cannot speak for Mr. Schjeldahl, of course, but I will confess that I do not spend a great deal of my time thinking about art, especially when I am looking at specific examples of it. I can well understand why this annoys Mr. Saul, for his own pictures do not bear much thinking about. They always introduce an element of sordid violence that is far in excess of what is appropriate to his subject, and the same goes for all the gun play in Art Critics’ Suicide .
This penchant for sordid violence is something that Mr. Saul seized upon in the days of the Vietnam War, and in one way or another he has gone on re-fighting that war no matter what his current subject may be. For this artist, apparently, art criticism is war by other means. He doesn’t really have another subject, and that is something that is more to be pitied than objected to.
Still, compared to the claptrap in the rest of Critic as Grist , Mr. Saul’s picture at least gives us something to look at. But it is only in such dismal company that he can be mistaken for a serious artist.
Critic as Grist remains on view at the White Box, 525 West 26th Street, through Oct. 17.