Stripped, or Fully Loaded

Artist Tim Rice in his North Berkeley studio

In Christopher Bollen‘s recent joint interview with Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith—the leading power couple in the world of art critics—the topic of studio visits came up.

Neither Smith nor Saltz do them, and they listed a number of reasons why. Here is Saltz’s response:

I think both of us want to see the show the way a viewer would see a show—with no inside information. I might ask, “What’s the material?” or “Which one came first?” Something simple, but I don’t want to hear at all what the artist thinks. And I’m not writing for the artist. I’m writing for the reader, and I want to tell the reader what I think.

Smith seems to agree and additionally points to the fairness factor: There is no way she can do everyone, so best to just avoid that practice altogether. She values the distance that an art critic needs to maintain:

An important thing for a critic is a kind of disinterest…I think the work of art, whatever form it takes, is the artist’s statement. And I don’t want secondary statement—unless I have real questions—from the artist or from the dealer or from anybody.

Studios are their own domain, and seeing a body of work in that context can significantly shift the experience. But it can cut both ways.

For those of us who are art lovers and not art critics, taking that deeper dive into the intimacy of an artist’s workplace can be very valuable. The “rag and bone shop” construction site offers up so many other clues, and the context can be an important part of coming into an understanding of an artist’s intention and primary themes. I have had several curators tell me my studio space is its own statement and that the relationship to my work was revelatory. I have felt that seeing my work in the studio setting usually helps people see the work more fully, in a more informed way.

We live during a time when the carefully vetted and “airbrushed” presentation of one’s self and one’s life is the norm on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. It has made me even more intrigued by being exposed to what really exists beneath a carefully edited and often deceptive facade. While art is not equatable to the rampant proliferation of manufactured “selfie” versions being offered to the online world, I am more aware of the value of the unchoreographed, the raw footage.

I do like Saltz’s response to the question of how to handle dealers:”What I’ve started saying to them is, ‘Don’t talk. I can’t hear myself see.'” While studio visits have their place, I am with him all the way that no matter where I am viewing work, I want to see without language obstructing my view.

8 Replies to “Stripped, or Fully Loaded”

  1. How wonderfully “Don’t talk. I can’t hear myself see.” speaks to the experience of accepting a work on its own terms. I think this is why I so rarely use the audio that accompanies some museum exhibitions and will pass up wall text on an initial go-round. Even a title can sometimes get in the way of perspective.

    I’m always delighted to have an opportunity to visit an artist’s studio, where evidence of mark-making may be seen at many different points in the creation of a work or works and talk inevitably turns to bringing out work not otherwise seen. One of the most interesting studios I’ve ever visited was in a ceramist’s home in Charleston (I spent an entire afternoon there).

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I have such a hatred of those recorded guides and want to advise all those people with them attached to their ears to just look and quit processing. But for some that is the only way in. Visual intelligence is learned and requires some confidence. Thanks for your ongoing thoughtful commentary, I so appreciate your ongoing commitment to being aware, alive and engaged.

  2. So true, Deborah. Seeing an artist’s work in the studio setting as well as the studio itself reveals the soul of the artist and at least some of the underpinnings for the finished works. Of course, artists think that they have to clean up their studios if they have visitors because we want people to think that we work in pristine circumstances. I think that often visitors would probably prefer to catch us unprepared. But it’s like catching someone in the middle of getting dressed – usually too intimate a glimpse.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I think you are right–seeing a work space as a work space is usually a richer experience.

  3. I love the chance to visit an artist’s studio space, but I recognize that there may be a sense in which I am transgressing a line of intimacy–the studio is where the artist has an intimate relationship with his or her work.

    I’m not sure everyone thinks about that intimacy. It’s just a room or space, after all, to most viewers, that’s full of cool stuff.

    It must be ‘revelatory’ indeed for an artist to visit another artist’s studio!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Ann, I do enjoy visiting other artists’ spaces but mostly because I am not there to critique or evaluate, just to understand with more depth. And that extra window to view can be significant. Thanks for your comment.

  4. As a writer I love to see how writers work, as a critic I need the distance. I totally agree with Saltz’s response ”‘Don’t talk. I can’t hear myself see.’”
    Thank you for sharing!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Well put Sigrun. Thank you for your comment. That is a great line, one that I will use again!

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