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

Kim Levin

Janet Malcolm, Untitled, 2016. Paper collage, 5 5/8 x 5 3/4 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Davis & Langdale Company, Inc., New York.
December 13, 2018

This is the second part of Gary Indiana’s “Janet Malcolm Gets It Wrong—Part II” (1986). See the first part here.

Between 1985 and 1988, early in his career as transgressive downtown playwright, director, and actor, and before he became known for his true-crime novels, Gary Indiana wrote art criticism for the Village Voice. For those three years his weekly columns caustically deconstructed exhibitions, critiqued the art world, and questioned the limits of art itself. Individually his highly personal and insidiously political columns always provided a terrific read. As a whole, the newly republished essays in Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns 1985–1988, edited by Bruce Hainley and published by Semiotext(e), add up to something much more. They are an essential account of the East Village art scene and its context. They are also institutional critique with an early focus on women artists. Their appearance in print is especially timely at this semi-nostalgic moment after the demise of what remained of the Village Voice, which in its heyday was an alternative paper known round the world.

This is the second half of Gary Indiana’s two-part article from 1986, in which he slyly deconstructed Janet Malcolm’s pair of 1986 New Yorker profiles of Ingrid Sischy. That interview was Malcolm’s first major piece following the literary scandal and libel suit that resulted from her 1984 book, In the Freud Archives, based on her 1983 double feature on Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, so it was ripe for attack. Deconstructing her Sischy piece, Gary Indiana offers a scathing comment on Malcolm’s techniques. At our own moment of ethical lapses, betrayals, and exploitations, it revives questions of fabricated quotes and competing narratives. The slippage between fact and fiction, the false and the real—in art, society, and politics—has become inextricably twisted since then.

Gary washed his hands of his art writing career and never looked back. I can’t blame him. I was there during those years and while the Voice was an exhilarating place that somehow granted unlimited freedom to its writers, it also fomented feuds between them. There was always someone trying to get someone else fired. Roberta Smith, who wrote for the Voice for four years in the early ’80s, commented in a lecture some years ago that she learned by chance in 1985 that she was fired and Gary Indiana had replaced her. It seems nobody bothered to tell her. I remained there until 2006, when a media conglomerate bought the paper and fired everyone methodically from the top down, starting with the editor-in-chief. I found out that I no longer worked there because my name suddenly went missing from the masthead. Hainley, in his afterword to Vile Days, quotes Indiana: “I like to think I brought a breath of scandal, suspense, and fresh air to a period and place, that I punctured a few follies… and I especially like to think I bailed out at exactly the right moment… in that leisurely half hour before the aircraft hit the ground.” He did. Hainley also adds, “this writing had been hiding like a sleeper cell, on silent red alert.”

—Kim Levin

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

“I knew nothing good was coming,” said artist Sherrie Levine, “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.” This is all the quote Levine would venture, since she was already feeling weird about her depiction by Janet Malcolm. “Maybe you could put, ‘Levine said drearily,’” she added. “Oh, he also asked me if I could define ‘a railroad apartment.’”

Susan Sontag, asked if she endorsed the idea, attributed to her by Barbara Rose in Malcolm’s article, that “you could just love everything that was going on, you could be positive and optimistic and just love it all,” fainted.

“She’s not very shy,” Alexander Melamid told me when I asked him to describe Janet Malcolm. “Very regular. Gray. Not very special. I was surprised to meet someone from this big intel­lectual magazine, having such a gray personality. And then, she made a mistake—there’s nothing in Chekhov like what I told her. Vitali and I even spoke to a great expert on Chekhov at Columbia University. I’m sure we’re idiots like she says, but she’s an idiot herself. Americans mix up everything Russian­­—Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky.” Vitali Komar piped up in the background: “In Star Trek there’s a driver of a spaceship, they gave him the name ‘Chekhov,’ so it’s clear he’s Russian…. Janet Malcolm got Chekhov from Star Trek.

Star Trek is only one of the sources for the composite picture of the art world that Janet Malcolm inserts in the yawning gaps of her profile of Ingrid Sischy—the first New Yorker profile in which the protagonist is almost entirely drowned out by the chorus. Or rather, choruses: in Part I, the banshee chorus of the pre-Sischy Artforum editorial staff; in Part II, the with-it-and-for-it chorus of current Artforum writers, augmented by occasional solo numbers that are not so much dissenting as distracting.

Malcolm’s piece is rich with implications, and she does strike little notes of skepticism here and there, usually after regurgitating enough bunkum to drive any other reporter to the telephone. She brings to the art scene a dogged determination to find “bohemianism” of one sort or another, and when it arrives in the person of Rene Ricard, Malcolm allows him to hijack the rest of her article. Not only does Ricard pirouette repeatedly before our eyes, he also does an offstage ventriloquist act with Malcolm as the dummy. So we get Sherrie Levine’s “bleak little conceits” and “reverent little thefts”—Malcolm sounding very like Ricard on a generous day—microscoped beside Julian Schnabel’s gigantic, heroic energy, his three stu­dios, and… his safe, where Ricard’s latest poems purportedly reside. We’re told by Malcolm that Bill Rice’s “chief subject is homosexual black men”—the same unhelpful, inaccurate characterization Ricard used in his Artforum article on Rice. Malcolm also treats us to a reprise of Ricard’s oeuvre, or much of it, anyway; we hear again the piercing whine that emits from the pages of Artforum on those rare occasions when some por­tion of the art world needs slapping down in the name of cosmic Art Love:

When I wrote about Julian Schnabel’s last show at the Mary Boone Gallery for Art in America, I became so embroiled in a distasteful episode with the gallery concerning my request for an exclusive on the picture I wanted to use as an illustration that I vowed never to cover any painter represented by that gallery.

Malcolm quotes this, and a few paragraphs later alludes to it without qualification; eventually, after quoting Ingrid Sischy (whose independence of mind is a continual theme) to the effect that “Whatever Rene says is true,” Malcolm does get around to mention that one of Ricard’s poems records “a litany of… acts of bad faith” and ends with the line, “I made a lot of this up, but a lot of it is true.” But by this time, Ricard has sounded off in several directions.

The opening lines of Ricard’s best-known piece of art criti­cism are not true. There was no “distasteful episode,” except in his mind, and furthermore, no “request for an exclusive.” One afternoon in 1979, Ricard asked me to accompany him to Soho to look at some paintings being stored in a third-floor viewing space on West Broadway. These were the first Schnabel plate paintings. (I remember Ricard asking me, as we stood in front of them, “Aren’t these the ugliest things you’ve ever seen?”) Another art critic was present. He mentioned that he was writing about the paintings and intended to reproduce one of them. “Oh, but I have an exclusive on that picture,” Ricard told him. The other critic looked puzzled. The idea of an “exclusive” on a work of art had clearly never crossed his mind—or anyone else’s mind, for that matter. When the critic failed to fall in with this ukase, Ricard threatened not to write about the art. Then we left the building and crossed the street, encountering Mary Boone in the vestibule of 420 West Broadway. Ricard told Boone that he would be writing about the Schnabel show, and that he “had an exclusive” on one of the paintings. Boone let the remarks go by and hurried off. Her recollection confirms my own: “Rene came in and announced that he was going to have an exclusive. I didn’t argue with him about it because he’s psychotic.”

Malcolm’s fascination with Ricard is understandable, since her real area of expertise is psychiatry rather than art. However, it leads her to credit Ricard with a much larger role in Artforum and the art world than he actually plays. But perhaps he saved her the trouble of thinking about a milieu that she found disorienting, acting as an all-purpose Downtown Person and automatic opinion dispenser. Malcolm’s interviews with other Artforum writers set them up as straight men to Ricard’s Monty Pythoness; they also offer hints of something Malcolm is either too dense, or too protective of her subject, to notice.

The customary New Yorker profile—not that it is so wonder­ful in its pure form—is a profile. The subject is on camera the whole time. In Malcolm’s piece, Ingrid Sischy tends to bland out when others are present, and often she’s not there at all. It’s as if Malcolm were torn between describing Sischy and describing Artforum, with Artforum usually winning out. One could argue, of course, that Sischy is Artforum, having taken responsibility for the magazine in an unprecedented way. As someone who likes and admires her, I find this overidentification a bit unfortunate. It makes it almost impossible to criticize Artforum without seeming to criticize Sischy personally.

However, it’s impossible to ignore a certain pattern of description woven through Malcolm’s article which, on one hand, laudably praises Sischy’s fierce integrity, her fervor, energy, and modesty, and on the other, trivializes or occludes some important issues about editing and writing raised by Artforum’s current approach to both.

From Malcolm’s accounts of Sischy’s all-night editing sessions, various writers’ description of their work with Artforum, and from Sischy’s own mouth, there emerges an appalling notion of art writing as something necessarily unreadable, barbaric, and worthless. The unremarked assumption is that what a writer turns in to Artforum is not writing in any literary sense, but an undifferentiated clot of words needing to be sliced up into colorful little slabs of editing, worried over by editor and writer in eerily protracted deadline frenzies, every sentence pulled apart and reassembled, its ultimate form a sort of collaborative artifact bearing no resemblance to the original. Artforum is not a daily newspaper but a monthly magazine whose writers, according to Sischy, sometimes work on a piece for a whole year. How peculiar, then, that they need such elaborate editorial first aid.

Critic Carter Ratcliff tells Malcolm that “from reading the magazine, one gets the sense that Ingrid is encouraging individual voices.” But do these voices belong to the people whose names they appear under? Ratcliff also says that “when I’m writing for Artforum I feel free to write in a way that is more direct and more responsible to what I feel and less responsible to some standard of rationality,” and that this sense of permission comes from Sischy’s encouragement of writers like Ricard to let it all hang out and “strike illuminating postures in the vicinity of things.” In effect, the Artforum writer is asked to leave his sense of responsi­bility, organization, style, rationality, and what have you at the door—and why should the writer feel responsible for what appears in the magazine, since he can hardly feel that he’s written it himself after it’s been put through the Artforum mangle, livened up with bold, thought-killing ellipses, made “a little choppier” (Ratcliff) to suit “art-world readers,” who are assumed be in some fundamental way different from “literary readers.” Ratcliff reports that Sischy “feels that it’s not a problem if some­thing sounds silly”—but then, it isn’t really her problem if something does. Ratcliff seems to believe it isn’t his problem, either, but that is a different can of worms.

One wonders about writers who require, every time, and often well into mid-career, line-by-line revision, particularly when the editor they work with admits, “I’ve never in my life been a reader.” One could either suppose that Sischy, who as a nonreader would have little feeling for written language, still has more than they do, or that language is not being used in Artforum as an instrument of thought, but as something akin to the garni asso­ciated with fashion magazines and promotional literature, striking “illuminating postures in the vicinity of things.” In either case, the idea of a written language as this alphabetic gunk used to slap together “texts,” which are then used to service art careers and egos, is rapidly becoming the art world’s only idea of language—which is why any dear, unequivocal, skeptical, or negative assessment of anything has come to be viewed as a gross violation of property. It’s widely supposed that artists should enjoy immunity from the kinds of harsh judgments routinely given authors, say, who’ve brought out a bad book, or performers who’ve launched a flop. The neutering of art-critical language has ensured the smooth functioning of the art world’s financial base; most critical nuances of recent years, linguistically speaking, have done the Orwellian job of removing the sting from words like “selling out,” “unoriginal,” “cynical,” “hype,” and so on.

This is not, by the way, the exclusive fault of Artforum, and the problem of dead “text writing,” as Sischy points out, was there before she was. In 1973, Artforum editor John Coplans rejected a submission from Les Levine with a memo (incorporated into an artwork by Levine) that read, in part:

Hey, Les, don’t you know we’re an art magazine. We publish lots of pictures of artist’s [sic] work with a lot of remarks written in bad English (somewhat Latinized to gain a pompous and serious effect). You’re not supposed to read the articles, not unless you’re a masochist or anal or desperate for something to read and don’t care.

Sischy brought to Artforum an infectious, workaholic enthusiasm, a winning personality, and an altogether admirable, highly developed political consciousness—as Malcolm’s recounting of the McEvilley-MoMA-Primitivism controversy demonstrates. Sischy opened the magazine’s pages to many young artists and writers, including myself, who would never have had a chance with the previous regime. But part of the excitement Sischy generated around the “new” Artforum was fatally linked to the notion of hitting the number every month, catching all the straws in every seasonal wind, being there when it happened—and finally, inevitably, making it happen. Art in America could never disappoint if it ran a Juan Gris or a Fairfield Porter on the cover: it would be a pretty cover, usually corresponding to an interesting article. Under Sischy, Artforum’s covers became Delphic pronouncements, or the art equivalent of Rolling Stone covers, events in themselves, often boosting a little-known artist into superstardom, or intimating some imminent shift in the zeitgeist. The problem is that the zeitgeist’s flutterings have become altogether too frequent for anyone to take them seriously anymore, and the only logical way of measuring them, in the absence of focused criticism, is by quanta. For quite a long time now, the editorial content of Artforum has been a slim wafer wedged between lardy hunks of advertising, and most people can’t read it even if they manage to find it.

Malcolm concludes her article by saying that Sischy’s “vision of contemporary art is shaped first by societal concerns and only secondarily by aesthetic concerns.” Fine, admirable, good. As refracted in Artforum, however, that vision often seems blurred by a certain dalliance with anti-intellectualism, philistinism, and the occult opacity of various familiars who have definitely stayed too long at the fair. It was a courageous and timely move to put “cheapness” into Artforum when Sischy did. It would have been a good idea to take it out a long time ago, and perhaps even now it isn’t too late.

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).

Language & Linguistics
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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