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To the Editor:

For Barry Schwabsky, card-carrying member of the New York art world, to swallow the let's-trash Hillary line cooked up by the Huns of Arkansas is a surprise [Reviews, Cindy Sherman, January]. What's more surprising is that the pretext is not a photograph of Hillary, or a photograph intended to be Hillary, or a photograph meant to have any thing to do with Hillary, but a bizarre free association concerning an imaginary Sherman character: "Doesn't the one in the slightly flouncy blue dress clutching a teddy bear resemble the newly elected senator from New York, that mistress and slave of her own image?" The next line apparently applies to Hillary, too (or why bother?): "Like the rest of Sherman's new tragicomic grotesques, she evokes Velazquez's wizened Pope Innocent engulfed in the regalia of his office, a human being imprisoned in her own idea of herself."

Of course, we allow a certain license to art writers, so who knows, maybe bringing in Velazquez and the Pope and the teddy bear isn't as strained, pretentious, and inane as it seems. But the photo in question is not shown; the reader has no clue whether the "likeness" is pure invention or somehow discoverable. Even without the Pope, however, the image of Hillary with teddy bear fails to project. What does project is Schwabsky taking a cheap shot.

Of course, Hillary is in good company. Sherman's West Coast women are, Schwabsky says, "pretty much the same kind of people who might have come see to them--privileged but pathetic, inadequate actresses of their own poorly chosen roles." Sherman's Metro Pictures show, he tells us, added eleven "East Coast types": soccer moms, business women, would-be earth mothers, et al. I myself experienced these characters in less savage, even affectionate terms, but either way, we must wonder what roles remain for women, other than doctor and lawyer, that Schwabsky would not find "pathetic" or "poorly chosen."

Judy Seigel

New York

Barry Schwabsky responds:

OK, so maybe Hillary can't be that inadequate an actress--she did win the election, after all. She even got my vote. Whether Sherman had her explicitly in mind is not known to me, nor did I ever claim otherwise. What I do know is that Sherman is a brilliant and omnivorous observer, and that an artist need hardly docket her observations in order to process them for use in her work--so that even if Sherman were to deny having had Clinton in mind, it would not be a knockout argument against my interpretation; it might simply suggest that she works as much through intuition as through calculation. On the other hand, by quietly (dishonestly, I'd say) dropping the words "meant to be" from her quotation of the passage in my review that says the portraits "were meant to be pretty much the same kind of people who might have come to see them," Seigel makes it sound as if I am also responsible for the idea that the images Sherman made were "meant to" represent "West Coast types" and "East Coast types." But that's what Sherman told Wayne Koestenbaum [Artforum, September 2000], who, like me, saw them as mirroring their potential audience: "Might we not mistake these women for collectors of Cindy Sherman photographs?" What's important is that, even at their most extreme, Sherman's photographic impersonations can evoke a feeling that their subjects are people with whom we are familiar, and that even when they seem to employ simple stereotypes, the stereotypes are ones that people actively assume in their lives but can never really embody. And then--here's the rough part--Sherman tells her viewers that they're no different. Seigel can't seem to decide whom to target her anger at for that--Sherman for having made the work or me for having talked about it.


To the Editor:

In the course of deploring the Anglocentricity of The Grove Book of Art Writing and the absence from the selection of so many leading American art writers, my friend Robert Storr ["British Evasion," January] sees me in a role that doesn't altogether correspond with the facts: "David Sylvester, the grand old man of English criticism and the authority figure around whom pivots this strange dance of old-school studio artists and new-media practitioners, weighs in with nine entries." Yes, I am an old man, and there are nine entries, but in what sense am I a pivot or an authority figure for the "strange dance"? I'm one of thirty or so people named in the preface as having commended authors or books to the editors, but the majority of my suggestions were not accepted, including Schapiro, Hess, Rosenblum, Kozloff, Varnedoe, and Shiff, among others. Storr wouldn't have known that. But he could have checked on how much the pieces of mine that were chosen for the book had to do with "old-school studio artists" or "new-media practitioners." Of the 103 column inches my entries occupy, 18 are taken from interviews with Francis Bacon, leaving 85 that are my own contributions--10 column inches concerning Constable, 23 on Giacometti, 36 on Barnett Newman, and 16 on Richard Serra.

--David Sylvester


Robert Storr responds:

I owe David Sylvester an apology. When I described him as "the grand old man of English criticism and the authority figure around whom pivots this strange dance of old-school studio artists and new-media practioners," I meant that as recognition of his current importance to a scene over which he has presided for some fifty years. The catholicity of Sylvester's taste Giacometti to Koons--perfectly fits Oscar Wilde's description of criticism as being "in its highest development, simply a mood, and we are never more true to ourselves than when we are inconsistent." As a moody writer who also likes Giacometti and Koons, I am delighted by Sylvester's self-contradictory avidity and regard him as a long-distance ally in the struggle against art orthodoxy of all tendencies.

The editorial policy behind the book under review is another matter entirely. Rather than express polarized enthusiasms that were deeply rooted in a complex sensibility, the editors' selections seemed a purely strategic exercise in running with the go-go hares and hunting with the dutiful hounds. Had the editors taken Sylvester's advice on absent writers they would have been much better off; had they soaked up some of his heterodox aestheticism in the process they would have rethought the whole enterprise from scratch. In any case, I am sorry to have left the door open to a possible misreading of my mention of Sylvester in this context. Otherwise the principal error to which I admit was in ignoring W.H. Auden's rule of thumb that one should never review a bad book but merely let its ink into obscurity.
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Publication:Artforum International
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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