Gary Indiana, “Janet Malcolm Gets It Wrong—Part I” (1986)

Kim Levin

November 2, 2018

For three years early in his career, Gary Indiana—“toxic downtown savant” and novelist—was an art critic for The Village Voice. Born in New Hampshire and schooled at UC Berkeley, Indiana has written, directed, and acted in off-off-Broadway plays produced in such places as the Mudd Club and in experimental films. The year after he left The Voice, he published the first of his novels, Horse Crazy (1989), based on those three critical years. William Borroughs compared him to Jean Genet and Tobi Haslett, who introduced the novel in its reissuing this year, called him “among the best living prose stylists in English.”1

Indiana’s weekly columns for The Village Voice have now been gathered by Bruce Hainley and will be published by Semiotext(e) this month. Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns 1985–1988 is a terrific read, especially if you happened to be there during that “stunningly deranged decade” (to quote Indiana quoting Carol Squiers) that saw the thrilling rise and tragic fall of the East Village art scene. During those years, I was also writing on art for The Village Voice but, intimidated by Gary’s unapproachable aura, I barely knew him. In those days, most of us wrote at home and came in once a week to file our columns. I remember thinking of him as a new Truman Capote. It seemed fitting that he later wrote a true crime trilogy.

The columns collected in Vile Days are cynical, sarcastic, funny, outrageous, and increasingly jaundiced as mass culture, hypocrisy, and money began to take over the scene, but Indiana could also be generous and even sentimental. “If you live long enough, you even get fond of people you thought you hated,” he wrote. His art columns were about art but also about sex and drugs and AIDS and hypocrisy and people whose names we had forgotten. Nicolas Moufarrege! Steven Sprouse! At the time, read one by one, the columns were eccentric and witty. All together they are brilliant and startling. He compared Eric Fischl to Norman Rockwell, paired Sherrie Levine with Bette Davis. He wrote about Gerhard Richter in terms of the notion of sincerity. In a piece called “Clownophobia,” he paired the AIDS crisis with Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture (1987). He dug into post-appropriation and kitsch, and “the mutation of aura into homily.” He wrote about a sumo-wrestling tournament (“Deep Fat”) and about a flower show, probing the limits of art, and he wrote about Julian Schnabel and the Shah of Iran.

Most impressive in those early days of the Guerrilla Girls, he focused largely on exhibitions by artists who happened to be women (Gretchen Bender, Levine, Barbara Kruger, Nancy Spero, Louise Bourgeois, Meg Webster, Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Annette Lemieux), dropping nuggets of wisdom and saving his scathing bits for white male artists. He sniffed out the pedantic and the bogus, referred derisively to “the impasto knife that comes with painting kits,” and scrutinized the increasingly slippery nature of reality.

As for theory, he deconstructed everything. My favorite piece in Vile Days is a two-part article, published, respectively, on November 11 and 18, 1986, called “Janet Malcolm Gets It Wrong,” in which Indiana deconstructs “Girl of the Zeitgeist,” Malcolm’s two-part New Yorker profile of Ingrid Sischy, then editor of Artforum (published October 20 and 27, 1986).2 He interviews Malcolm’s interviewees, including Rosalind Krauss and Barbara Rose, examining their accounts of having been interviewed for the profile as well as their own lifestyles. It’s a brilliant mash-up of Jacques Derrida and Martin Margiela—sleeves inside out and threads dangling. Indiana was also deconstructing Malcolm’s own eviscerating style by subtle parody. (He quotes interviewee Sherrie Levine, who told Indiana: “I knew nothing good was coming when the fact checker from the New Yorker called to ask me if it would be accurate to say that my bathtub is in the kitchen and I live alone with my cat.”) Yet he manages to be almost kind to nearly everyone but Malcolm.

At the time, Malcolm was involved in a literary scandal involving her book In the Freud Archives, published in 1984 and based on a pair of New Yorker articles she had written in 1983. The book was attacked by reviewers for crossing an ethical line between reportage and participant, and she was being sued for libel by its subject, psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, archivist of the Freud Museum in London. Craig Seligman, who in 2000 wrote an article about Malcolm and the scandal, described the book as “a masterwork of character assassination.” Malcolm’s next major piece, the profile of Ingrid Sischy, was, wrote Seligman, “a textbook demonstration of the way a malicious reporter can pulp her subjects simply by describing their apartments.” Looking back, Gary Indiana was brilliantly getting even.

—Kim Levin

Gary Indiana, “Janet Malcom Gets It Wrong—Part I”

When Janet Malcolm commenced research, two years ago, for a New Yorker profile of Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy, she let it be known that she knew nothing about the art world: it was, for Malcolm, exciting new territory. The profile has at last appeared, in two consecutive New Yorker issues, October 20 and 27, and perhaps its most impressive quality is how ingeniously Malcolm has protected her ignorance over such a long period of time.

Ostensibly, Malcolm’s intention in Part I is to show how Artforum has changed under Sischy’s direction. She calls on a number of the “old guard,” by whom she is frankly intimidated. Rosalind Krauss, for example, the Zhdanov of October magazine, is depicted in her home environment, which from Malcolm’s description sounds like a display window in Conran’s, yet “is one of the most beautiful living places in New York.” “No one,” according to Malcolm, “can leave this loft without feeling a little rebuked….” This may be perfectly true. One feels further prepared to believe that Krauss is “fearlessly uncharitable,” though whether her unpleasant characteristics make “one’s own ‘niceness’ seem somehow dreary and anachronistic” surely depends on the degree of submissiveness, or obsequious niceness, one brings to the encounter.

Grumpy Krauss has nothing but disdain for Artforum in its current incarnation. Even back in the glory days when she and Annette Michelson sat on the editorial board, they had to endure the importunate existence of other people and their bothersome opinions: “Lawrence Alloway was forever sneering at me and Annette,” “Max Kozloff…was always very busy being superior,” “Neither Annette nor I would buy into this simplistic opposition that they set up between formal invention and the social mission of art.” After the Lynda Benglis Scandal of 1974, when the magazine accepted a sensational ad distasteful to most of the editorial staff, it seemed clear to Krauss and Michelson that Artforum and its editor, John Coplans, were pandering to the art market, favoring commodity objects like painting and sculpture over the more ephemeral, “advanced” art enjoyed by Krauss and Michelson. “Yes. That’s how we felt.” Krauss and Michelson are full of unanimous sentiments and thoughts about the old Artforum: “one of the things Annette and I have done,” “our theory,” “which was certainly why Annette and I thought,” “various projects of ours.” But Krauss reserves her fiercest lack of charity for the new Artforum and its writers: it, and they, are stupid. This verdict is so unequivocal that it’s surprising Krauss could formulate it without assistance from Michelson, but perhaps in matters of stupidity we can assume they are as one.

For the Westchester County audience the thrillingly Minimal decor of Krauss’s loft is probably enough to establish her credentials as an important thinker and art swami; nothing she actually tells Malcolm rises above petty spite. (“On the one hand, you had Rubin and Varnedoe sounding like complete assholes…McEvilley doing his hideousness…never been able to finish a piece of McEvilley…seems to be another Donald Kuspit.…”) Actually, Malcolm’s technique ensures that anyone with sufficient floor space and a reliable cleaning service will sound more credible, or at least more “intellectual,” than those who live amid the squalid clutter of normal life. Malcolm’s gaze sweeps over the surfaces or people, places, and things, calmly categorizing them according to the inner logic of an intractable bourgeoise. Poor John Coplans—his home “has the look of a place inhabited by a man who no longer lives with a woman.” You know already that Coplans will be an affable old geezer who loves spinning tales about the past, that he will seem less decisive, more conciliatory in his opinions than Krauss, and therefore slightly…well, pathetic. Robert Pincus-Witten, former art buyer for collector Emily Spiegel and professor of art history at Queens College, is spared the trial-by-interior, having been encountered at a cocktail party. He provides pregnantly diplomatic hiatus between Coplans and Malcolm’s next imperious loft dweller, Barbara Rose.

Like Krauss, Rose senses Decline—not just in Artforum, but in the art world generally. Like Krauss, she seems to have made out quite handsomely for one so embattled. Her place “looks more like a Park Avenue co-op than a downtown living space.…” But she is forlorn, haunted by memories of bright laughter and happier times, when people like herself were taken seriously. She wistfully recalls those halcyon days in the ’60s when, with then spouse Frank Stella, she entertained “major intellectuals” like Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. “There’s nobody like them today,” Rose opines. Today’s art world, well, “it’s middle-class, it’s bourgeois.” Not like it was when it was all about “the agony and the ecstasy.” Which is to say, not like when it was like the title of an Irving Stone novel.

If truth be told, Rose’s rueful blather about the high standards of the past is something of a running joke in the art world. It has only become more vehement each time that Rose has failed to interest her vanishing constituency in “new art.” Here, she attributes the decline of cultural discrimination, and perhaps of Western civilization as a whole, to the influence of Harold Rosenberg and Susan Sontag, of all people—and, with an air of disinterested exasperation, feebly tries to settle scores with Rene Ricard over a few withering sentences about her he published years ago in Artforum. Malcolm doesn’t mention that that’s what Rose is doing. Perhaps Malcolm just didn’t know; if she didn’t, she should have.

More to the point, one of the two redeeming presences Rose spots in an otherwise hopeless Sischy-run Artforum, critic John Yau, happens to have lived with Rose’s daughter for years. Since Rose is quick to accuse other people of lowering standards, it might also have been useful for Malcolm’s readers to know that a few years ago, Rose was removed from her job as curator of exhibitions and collections under William Agee at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts after it was disclosed that the museum had recently purchased works from the collection of her then husband, lyricist Jerry Leiber. Malcolm also neglects to mention that Rose’s principal activity in the art world for 20 years has been that of a publicist, sporadic contributions to Partisan Review and her column in Vogue notwithstanding.

This kind of detail interests Janet Malcolm not at all when it pertains to “respectable” people, though she gives the financial murk of the art world a bit of play when describing people with whom she doesn’t identify. But of course, respectable people read the New Yorker. Like Malcolm, they tend to glaze over in the presence of opulent surfaces and pushy individuals, and become assertive only when they sense another person’s disadvantage. The ugliest moments in Malcolm’s article—and there are many—occur when Malcolm’s personal feelings creep into the page; these are inevitably activated by people she feels secure in sneering at. Interestingly, most of them are artists rather than administrators, critics, or editors.

Near the conclusion of Part I, Malcolm describes an unpleasant confrontation between Ingrid Sischy and the sculptor Richard Serra at an opening at the Marian Goodman Gallery. What happened was this: Serra made the assumption that Sischy supported his position in the controversy over his Tilted Arc sculpture. When Sischy felt it her duty to inform him otherwise, Serra became enraged. Before getting down to particulars, Malcolm sets the reader up so that opinion will fall on Sischy’s side—not with reasoned argument, but with a physical description of Serra, which she uses against him much the way she uses other people’s apartments against them.

This was the first time I had seen Richard Serra, and he didn’t fit the image I had formed. From his massive, thrusting sculpture…I had imagined a large, dark, saturnine man—a sort of intellectual conquistador type, emanating an air of vast, heroic indifference. The actual Serra looked like someone from a small American rural community: a short man with a craggy, surly face, receding gray hair, and pale eyes rimmed by light eyelashes.

In other words, Malcolm contrasts her personal fantasies about Serra and his “massive, thrusting” works with the actual person and finds the real thing…“rural” looking. How better to convince the “sophisticated,” cosmopolitan audience of the New Yorker that Serra is wrong-headed?

Malcolm’s reporting is studded with such novelistic details, which twinkle class assurance from reporter to reader: never mind what X thinks, he or she lives alone in an apartment so messy you and I would never dream of living there. So-and-so makes weird looking objects, so naturally I didn’t want to find myself alone with him in his flat. These people are Russian émigrés who serve refreshments in a slobby manner, so I guess you understand how exasperated I felt.

When an “eccentric” person gains Malcolm’s sympathy, she projects upon him every cliché of la vie bohème that springs to her impoverished imagination; thus, to the utter incredulity of anyone who knows him, Rene Ricard is likened to Prince Myshkin, the Christ figure in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Malcolm is so oblivious to the world she’s describing that the publicity value of her own activity eludes her: she can’t imagine why Ricard repeatedly prevents her from leaving his table at the Palladium, regaling her with one juicy story after another.

Were Malcolm’s investigations of the Freud Archive similarly tainted by her fascination with appearances? Is it possible that one of the New Yorker’s star reporters is so transfixed by surface impressions that she consistently mistakes them for reality? Does the vulgarity of Malcolm’s article reflect the New Yorker’s transition from the Age of Shawn to the Age of Si Newhouse? The maiden appearance of the word “asshole” is the least distressing infelicity in Malcolm’s article, but in the context of the New Yorker it seems portentous of the shape of things to come.

To read the second part of the essay, also with an introduction by Kim Levin, click here.

Gary Indiana’s “Janet Malcom Gets It Wrong” was originally published in two parts in The Village Voice (November 11 and 18, 1986) and is collected in Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns 1985–1988 published by Semiotext(e) this month. The text is reprinted with permission from Semiotext(e).

Janet Malcolm’s “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” is available via the New Yorker website.



Art Criticism

Kim Levin is a widely published art critic and curator of museum exhibitions in Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, and the US. She is compiling a book of her selected essays, originally published in translation in other countries.

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November 2, 2018

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