Ink Tank

For his final column for frieze, Robert Storr reflects on what it takes to be an art writer

steinberg90threshold_web.jpg

Saul Steinberg Untitled 1944 (Originally published in Steinberg, All in Line, 1949)

Saul Steinberg Untitled 1944 (Originally published in Steinberg, All in Line, 1949)

‘Seppie in nero’ – squid in its own ink – is my favourite Venetian delicacy. Although customarily served with polenta, I prefer it on thick spaghetti since pasta exponentially increases the naturally squirmy quality of the creatures’ tentacles, creating a Medusa-like mound of inchoate, salty matter. In need of an image to illustrate Georges Bataille’s concept of the ‘informe?’ Get thee to La Serenissima – which with all its intrigues is anything but serene – and order up a mess of ‘seppie in nero’, to be devoured with gusto until it covers your mouth and teeth like black Goth lipstick.  

During my stint as the Director of the Venice Biennale (2005–7) I adopted the pen name ‘seppie in nero’ in correspondence with friends, thinking it the perfect synonym for the ‘ink-stained wretch’ I became when I first published a review in the late 1970s. The aptness of the moniker is all the greater given what those of us who write regularly for the art press must sooner or later admit: in the hierarchies of power, critics – like squid – are agile bottom feeders. Predictably many of my academically accredited colleagues will recoil at that statement but it is the cruel, Darwinian truth and neither high-flown rhetoric nor exalted teaching posts can save us from it.

If we have any sense, like Dr. Johnson, we write for money; money up front from editors as distinct from money on the side from art buyers and sellers (‘squid pro quo?’) that only fools seek or accept as no one can hide such corruption indefinitely. And we write in order to exert that most elusive and ephemeral of things: influence. Being part of the dialogue is what drives us; figuring out how to give our ideas weight and our words bounce is the political, intellectual and literary challenge confronting us whenever we set to work.

Increasingly, participation means little more than getting a word in edgewise between the drone of scholastic ‘discoursers’ – trade magazines once open to freelancers are now almost exclusively the preserve of aspiring or anointed professors keen to impress each other while competing in their disdain for the general public – and the chatter of publicists cranking out copy for galleries and museums. Having penned such copy during my time at MoMA, New York, I know what I am talking about, just as I know about being a professor, which is why I try not to take that status too seriously even as in print and on the podium I strive hard to speak to what Virginia Woolf called ‘the common reader’.

Over the course of an accidental 30-year ‘career’ as an art writer during which I have gone from a ‘penny-a-liner’ (and less) to a ‘two-dollars-a-worder’ (and more) I have explored every critical genre except personality profile puffery, among them book reviews, brief coverage of monographic and survey shows, feature articles of the same scope, in-depth interviews, reports and spot commentary on issues and trends, and editorials. The most enjoyable by far has been turning out a regular column, which I’ve done for frieze since 2004.

The column is a strict but lively format. Marrying information to opinion, a sharply defined perspective to abbreviated reasoning, it promises both the reader and the writer the chance to share a complete but concise thought or two on matters they are likely to disagree about. In social terms it offers more to chew on than the conversation-stopping zingers of the art world gadfly and less to choke on than the long-windedness of the autocrat at the dinner table, to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes’s title for his own column in The Atlantic Monthly. In that spirit, a particular essay’s topic is at the discretion of the writer but readers must be entertained, engaged or implicated lest they turn the page much as guests turn away when a table-mate to one side annoys or harangues them.

And, like all alert party-goers, columnists must know when to politely suspend their remarks and take their leave. It is time for me to do that now, thanking my occasional companions and my host. And if, of an evening, you spy a man resembling a superannuated Heath Ledger with a greasy-black, Joker-like smile smeared across his face, feel free to hail him by his name, Seppie. You are already his familiar.  

Issue 138

First published in Issue 138

April 2011

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018