MICHAEL BRENSON AND SUZAAN BOETTGER: AN EXCHANGE
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The following exchange relates to Suzaan Boettger's remarks on a perceived conflict of interests in Michael Brenson writing about Rebecca Smith when he is working on a biography of the artist's father, David Smith [Rebecca Smith]
Thank you for offering space in which to respond to Suzaan Boettger’s remarks about me during the review panel you moderated last Friday at the National Academy Museum.
During the panel’s segment on Rebecca Smith’s exhibition at the Jeannie Freilich Gallery, Suzaan dismissed the work. She spent much of her time focusing not on Smith’s sculptures, or on my accompanying essay, but on what she sees as the reasons for and conditions of my writing it.
She stated that I am writing a “very substantial biography on this artist’s father David Smith” and that therefore I am “very much beholden to the artist since she has copyright permission for the photographs that [I] will need for [my] work. So we have absolutely no pretense of impartiality here.” For her, my writing the essay is a “conflict of interest” that raises the issue of “art world ethics.”
This is careless and disappointing stuff from a writer whose book, Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties, I admire.
First of all, if I would have decided not to write the essay, it would have had no effect on the biography. The Smith family has been impeccably respectful of me since the beginning of my research. They have been open about information. They have never put any pressure on me to do or say anything. They not only trust me to tell the truth as I see it about David Smith. They expect this of me. They would not do anything to inhibit the internal necessity of my critical perspective.
Second, I wrote about the “Blue Cage Sculptures” because I wanted to. I like them. I began looking at Becca’s work years before beginning the biography. I am intrigued by these sculptures sculpturally. I am intrigued by their content, by how and in what ways memories of modernism and place enter Becca’s sculptural architecture, by the ways in which she has developed as an artist with her background, which includes a great sculptor as a father. Writing about her work gives me additional insight into him.
The “Blue Cage Sculptures” are also challenging to write about because there is as yet no language for them. Part of what interests me as a writer is being part of the process of finding language for an artist’s work.
My first concern is always language. If I am not interested in what I am writing about, my language will be dead. If it is dead, it is useless to me and to the artist.
Third, Suzaan has been around long enough to know that a gallery catalogue, especially for an artist who is not well-known, is almost never “impartial.” Gallery catalogues function differently from critical analyses or critiques. I’m currently writing an essay on Giacometti’s reception in the United States. Among the most influential, and indeed to me timeless, writings on Giacometti are gallery catalogue essays by Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Leiris. Their perceptiveness and commitment to Giacometti depend on their closeness to him, their intimate familiarity with his studio and the rest of his world. Writing that is “partial” to a living artist’s work can certainly be bloated and trivial, but it can also provide insight into art and the creative process, which is one of the critic’s jobs.
My comments on the Review Panel were intended to convey to an audience most likely uninformed of the background situation of Michael Brenson’s writing on Rebecca Smith for her exhibition at the Jeannie Freilich Gallery: the potential conflicts of obligations between the necessity of obtaining copyright permission for the use of quotations and illustrations for the book he is writing on David Smith from his copyright holders -- his Estate and surviving family members – and his commission to write an essay on the art of his subject’s daughter.
Since Brenson’s double relationship to Rebecca – as solicitor of copyright permission and as laudatory (as exhibition catalogue essays are expected to be) essayist – is fraught with potential conflicts, his major engagement writing a book on her famous father should be been acknowledged, say, in a line following the essay, rather than not mentioning it, pretending that it did not exist or was irrelevant. Of course no one is naive enough to think that there is an absolute “objectivity” in art criticism. Baudelaire stated that the best criticism is “passionate, partisan, and political.” But readers expect a critic’s subjectivity to come from his taste, his ideas about art and its function, his experienced expertise – unencumbered by unstated economic or social forces or aside from acknowledged relationships.
Likewise, it’s doubtful that anyone believes that a dealer’s determination of who she exhibits is purely an aesthetic decision. The potential conflicts highlighted by the oral and written exchange David Cohen has provided are rather more common than exceptional. I am simply asking for more transparency, so that viewers and readers may more clearly evaluate sources of exhibitions and the writings about them. Thus, the audience member who objected so vigorously to my comments, the ensuing discomfort with controversy and protestations of integrity that they engendered, seem defensively inflammatory. I made no assertion of unethical behavior. Rather, I called attention to an aspect of the show that I as a scholar and professional observer of art and the art world found noteworthy, that of Brenson’s unacknowledged multiple roles vis-à-vis the Smith family, as relevant background to the presentation of Rebecca’s work.
Aside from what appears to be an artificially whipped up tempest in a teapot, Michael Brenson knows of my high regard for his writing and that I am looking forward to the insights and revelations he will bring to our understanding of David Smith.