Not Another Blog!

John Haber
in New York City

Introducing ArtBistro

Let me welcome a competitor—and thank them for welcoming me. ArtBistro, a new Web site, has launched, and I agreed for a time to be a regular contributor. We shall in effect be cross-posting something like what you see here, at least in part, but with luck some readers of each will discover new territory.

As you can see from van Gogh, I do not want it to grow too lonely. Here, I want to offer a mutual introduction.

Where I am

ArtBistro enters a newly crowded field. When I started my own site back in 1994, I had no trouble claiming it as the most thorough and extensive set of art reviews anywhere online. It was like calling Bush the best president since Al Gore. Today my search engine will take you to roughly 700 artists, critics, and art historians, from the early Renaissance to the twilight of Postmodernism, and the articles touch on many more. But even years ago it was getting hard to Google an artist without finding me. I was proud of that—and a bit embarrassed by it, too. Vincent van Gogh's The Night Cafe (Yale University Art Gallery, 1888)

No longer, and I count myself lucky you have found me. Now any respectable publication or school—along with plenty of artists—has a Web page, sites like Saatchi's let more artists stake out a virtual exhibition, Artforum blogs, and ArtNet has grown into an active source of reviews. (If you need help, my art's resource page will get you started.) What can ArtBistro possibly add? We shall see, but it hopes for an emerging artist's perspective, partnering with job sites and career publications, and it will have artists as contributors along with me.

What, then, can I add? You have every right to ask. Most artists probably alternate between annoyance at not getting coverage and annoyance at how little writers "get it."

First, I can help others keep up with exhibitions, now that this, too, is part of making a career. As the one here not trying to make it as an artist, I can hope to bring some detachment—and perhaps entertainment value. Can I admit that I am dreading the flood of Chelsea fall openings starting Thursday? I am also looking forward to it again, like last year, as much as a sociological study as for the art.

In fact, I can contribute by asking along with you, why critics? It has been a theme of this site from the first, along with text as art and why art takes words and not just looking. I can also contribute by another theme of mine—defending artists from laments that they no longer care for anything but careers, that modern art has to be saved from contemporary art, that everything is politics, and that anything goes. The critics, whether conservative or Marxist, have a point here, too, because art really does have a new relationship these days to mass culture and to money. Critical theory is still struggling with it, badly, and I can help explore the implications of that.

Perhaps I can contribute simply because of why I turned to the Web in the first place. Yes, I do publish and go to press openings when I can, honest. However, I originally wanted a space outside all that, and I still do today. A Friday paper or glossy magazine may not have time (or inclination) to do more than knock someone down or puff someone up. A scholarly title may not translate theory into practice—or into English. I did not want the spontaneity and brevity of a blog, but quite the opposite, the time and space to work things out.

Where I came from

Visitors to my own site know me all too well, but a little more about me will explain better what I mean. I majored in physics because I was good at math, because it was beautiful, and because I had a need for answers. I did not really care for experiments, and besides I was too clumsy to pull them off. I could memorize facts well enough, but I preferred connections, provocations, mysteries, and creative solutions.

It must already sound like art, but I took only one art-history course in college, and I understood even less. As a college DJ, I hung out with an abstract painter, and when I met his friends and mentor, my native shyness only grew. I could not explain what they were seeking in all that thick blankness. I did not know then that an entire generation of artists was wondering much the same thing, too.

They read Artforum. They took an intro to linguistics to learn about post-structuralism, only to find that the department was teaching Chomsky. One of the group claimed to have pulled the first copy of October from its first print run. Robert Smithson's appeals to entropy seemed to resemble my own vocabulary from science. It only made the gap between us appear that much more unbridgeable.

Still, I moved back home to New York, and art must have followed me there. My friend and I both needed a space, we converted an illegal loft over a topless bar in Chelsea, and I watched him paint.

At the same time, a high-school friend had fallen in love with Early Netherlandish Painting. In the two volumes by Erwin Panofsky, I learned that in art the quiet fall of light could coexist with complex narratives. Still unemployed, I could take MoMA one room at a time each week on the free day, often to myself. And once I had a job, I could show new friends around Soho galleries. Hey, you could count them on your fingers, even if you included the start of Dia's empire with a roomful of earth. Dia would have weeded out my display of newfound expertise in seconds.

Since then, I have seen East Village art come and go, Chelsea mushroom and leak downtown, and my confidence that I understood it rise and fall, too. I did not write a word until a Web forum had me sharing notes with friends, and I cannot tell you when (and whether) I started to consider myself a critic.

How I hope to contribute

True confessions aside, I am really describing what I hope to contribute. One thing, with luck, is a little humility. I think of myself as a rogue operation. I have also seen a lot of friends not make it but keep working and surviving anyhow, year after year, wondering how I could make a difference.

Even after I began writing, it took me another eight years to face the icons of that college crowd, like Jasper Johns and Brice Marden. When I finally convinced myself to try, it felt like a working through. Meanwhile, the people I knew then had largely moved on. Another college acquaintance actually became an editor of October, and I have no trouble looking to his writings for expertise and insight. In other words, I know what is like to feel an outsider to a crowded scene, and I want to offer support.

This little personal history will also explain some running themes of my articles. I am a New Yorker, so when I see something like The Gates, I feel a child again exploring Central Park. As a New Yorker, too, I tend to take seriously the place of art at Ground Zero. More generally, I take seriously art's relationship to loaded territory anywhere. That includes feminism and politics.

I naturally have a strong interest in science and art. Are they onto the same thing, or are they forever in separate worlds? As someone who started writing for the Web, I also took a quick interest in new media. Yet I have a scientist's disbelief when artists confuse metaphors or digital mappings drawn from science with truth in representation. And okay, I still do check in from time to time on abstract art.

Mostly, though, I have seen plenty of changes, and I, too, want to ask what they mean. I have a feeling we are not in Kansas any more, or the East Village, or Soho—not even with the New Museum moving to the Bowery. I have a feeling art still has something to do with tradition, Modernism, or Postmodernism. But what? I originally hoped most to be able to use the perspective of critical theory in accessible, journalistic prose. Yet all those terms already seem like history.

With that, I return to our regularly scheduled ArtBistro already in progress. And now that you know me, I promise not to litter reviews again with pretentious links to my past.

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I have a more personal biography, with all the juicy bits, as well.


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