‘The Rhonda Lieberman Reader’ Is The Answer To Our Prayers

Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever

‘Rhonda Lieberman! You’re a legend!’ gushes an art-world insider upon spotting the divine Ms L. at a crowded Armory Show brunch in 2005. ‘I can’t hear you’, Lieberman demurely replies, ‘Would you mind repeating that?’ For those readers either too young or too un-Manhattan to know her, Rhonda Lieberman has been (for this reviewer) the most enjoyable writer in the entire art cosmos for decades, bar none. An Artforum regular and popular columnist (‘Glamour Wounds’, 1992–95; ‘Diaries’, 2005–2016), she stood out by a mile for her devastating humour, impeccable sentence structures and dizzying, out-of-the-blue references. This long-awaited 538-page binge-read includes essays, reviews, talks, interviews, and columns, 1991–2016, covering her pet topics: Jean Baudrillard, Roseanne Barr, Chanel couture, Jacques Derrida, Todd Solondz, Revlon nail polish, and more. Back in the early 1990s, when I was a junior copy editor and art wannabe, all art criticism was reliably dull – even when covering the sexiest new art. Why Lord, why?, I pleaded, struggling through the latest edition of October. Why must art writing be such relentless torture? Rhonda Lieberman answered my prayers. And now, a new collected book of her writing Pep Talk #7: The Rhonda Lieberman Reader (Pep Talk, 2018) – featuring more than 82 essays, reviews, columns and talks published or delivered between 1988 and 2016 – reminds us why.

In a prescient 1992 essay on Jeff Koons, she imagines the artist coming from ‘the same petri dish as those helmet-haired guys on late-night infomercials’. Her analogies are uniformly brilliant. Her 1980s art-school education so ill-prepared students for the real world, graduates emerged with ‘the survival chops of a deaf and blind kitten’, she reflects in 2012. At art fairs, moneyed collectors bask in red-carpet treatment while ‘artists are accorded the welcome that, say, truffle pigs would get in a four-star restaurant.’ (2014). A perfect analogy! Both truffles and artworks are pricey, rare, and greedily devoured by HNWI – but their sources, alas, look a little gross and unwashed.


Rhonda Lieberman, Shalom (Barbra),  From the series “Purse Pictures,” 1992, glitter, mixed media, 9 × 11". Courtesy: Rhonda Lieberman

Rhonda Lieberman, Shalom (Barbra),  From the series “Purse Pictures,” 1992, glitter, mixed media, 9 × 11". Courtesy: Rhonda Lieberman

But she’s more than just the art world’s Joan Rivers – another declared Jewish diva comedian, whom the critic counts among her influences. With Lieberman you come for the wisecracks but stay for the content, especially her well-worded projectiles aimed at institutionalized hypocrisy. In ‘Hoard d’Oeuvres: Art of the 1 Percent’ (2014) she demolishes a sycophantic New Yorker piece about Alice Walton, the robber-baroness behind the evil Walmart empire. Lieberman, ever the virtuoso wordsmith, summarizes in a single sentence everything that’s wrong with Walton’s big-box vanity museum Crystal Bridges, the Arkansas home of her all-American art collection:

‘Spanning the colonial era to the present, the exhibition space’s fulsome celebration of the American spirit eulogizes the nation of shared confidence and abundance, sustainable mortgages, and worker dignity that Walmart has brutally demolished.’

Exactly! And Lieberman follows by noting how Walton’s hagiographer glosses over the nasty truth behind her subject’s vast wealth, ‘a bit like writing about the history of the Pyramids without ever mentioning the slaves’. A couple of years later, in 2016, she’s furious about the ‘new corporatized university’, dominated by cost-cutting administrators who exploit adjunct teachers as cheap labour, forced to compete in academia’s ‘weenie version of The Hunger Games’.

Resilient and hard-working, Lieberman is the perennial art trouper, game for whatever MFA teaching gig, feminist panel or travel junket is on offer – including an exhilarating trip to Stockholm where she gets swept into 12-hour studio visits ‘before you can say “reindeer burger”.’ She proves loyally devoted to select artists (Cary Leibowitz, Kay Rosen), but her straight art-critical texts, honestly, are the collection’s weakest. Lieberman’s still astute and funny (‘It’s as if Jim Isermann asked, “How faggy could I make the Minimalist object?”’), but she’s best when dishing the dirt, crossing the mischievousness of a gossip magazine with the vocabulary of a Brandeis/Yale-educated Proust scholar (which she is). She holds no sacred cows, not even Hannah ‘I can’t believe she dated Heidegger!’ Arendt, or boyfriend Martin, dubbed ‘the adulterous pedagogue’. 


Rhonda Lieberman, Fontainebleau Hotel, Miami, 1992. Courtesy: Rhonda Lieberman; Photograph: Dana Byerly

Rhonda Lieberman, Fontainebleau Hotel, Miami, 1992. Courtesy: Rhonda Lieberman; Photograph: Dana Byerly

Famous women are her go-to subject, whether she’s lavishing admiration (Barbra Streisand, with or without ‘Egyptoid make-up’) or roasting them alive (‘Marina Abramović is where irony goes to die’ she writes in her ‘Diaries’ column covering The Artist is Present, MoMA, 2012). Often, she’s self-deprecating, playing frumpy Velma to the many statuesque Daphnes who populate the glittering society Lieberman adores. Forced to walk shoeless into a glamorous crowd while visiting a billionaire’s art collection, she enters ‘with all the swagger of a garden gnome’. Supermodels (‘prime evidence of a pitiless, silent God’) provide special hate/love targets, triumphant in the genetic lottery and – worse still – potentially nice people, too.‘ I don’t want to meet them’, she despairs; I picture a designer-dressed gnome, waving a little white flag in defeat. 

Lieberman’s in top form when tackling borderline figures like Sandra Bernhard or Liza Minnelli (both in 1993): bona fide celebrities yet plagued with crippling insecurities and the stigma of on-again-off-again careers. Lieberman’s gallery of grandes dames includes the low-born, vindictive Coco Chanel (1992); Elizabeth Nietzsche, Friedrich’s terrifying sister blessed with ‘epistolary shit-stirring skills’ (2003); and the legendary, short-legged movie star Elizabeth ‘she-really-should-have-skipped-the-hotpants’ Taylor (2011). Lieberman roams the earth on permanent wardrobe patrol, whether scrutinizing an enviable auction-night ensemble (‘high strappy lizard sandals and lavender duster coat’)or admiring a heavyweight Yale professor able to intimidate the ‘scariest, most cooler-than-thou Literature students … even the day she sported a bedazzled tiger sweatshirt.’ No one is spared, not even Slavoj Žižek, ‘everybody’s favourite Slovenian Hegelian reader of Jacques Lacan’. With his ‘medieval-looking hairdo (bangs and a bob), he’s the Lacanian one most easily imagines in a fairy tale, residing under a bridge.’

‘Whenever I see a Rothko I think of [Bernie] Madoff’, declares Lieberman, in reference to the USD$310 million worth of blurry Ab Ex paintings flogged by a close Madoff associate when the notorious Ponzi scheme went bust. Art historians may claim that a Rothko triggers the emotions of sublime transcendence – but who are they kidding? Lieberman’s smart enough to know that art doesn’t magically cleanse the spectator’s mind of clutter: career anxieties; financial melt-downs; celebrity crushes; sartorial dos and don’ts; snatches of post-structuralist theory; last night’s CNN. Lieberman embraces all the concomitant mental noise accompanying the art experience, then expertly extracts all the literary and comedic potential from the art/life contamination. 


Rhonda Lieberman with Yingy, 2003, New York. Courtesy: Rhonda Lieberman

Rhonda Lieberman with Yingy, 2003, New York. Courtesy: Rhonda Lieberman

When Lieberman explains that Derrida and Deleuze are ‘status brands in the art world, as respectable as Prada’, we know just the equivalence she’s making. All are heavy-hitting button-pushing names, dripping with class and clout. Rhonda Lieberman shows us that the spheres of art, academia, fashion and finance are not so different, each regulated by a fierce pecking order whether measured by auction price, intellect, beauty, education, wealth, square footage, Instagram followers or Ivy League invitations. The art scene is where all those social ladders balance and intersect, often at weird angles. That’s good news for everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, literary maven, sometimes artist, and recovering Jewish suburban ‘ghetto’ survivor. The art circuit – ‘buoyed by the random camaraderie of mutual vulnerability and the subterranean buzz of ambition’– generously provides her with a steady stream of good material. 

Sadly, The Rhonda Lieberman Reader suffers multiple editorial shortcomings. No index, for this name-dropping extravaganza? No book blurb, no biographies? A detailed contents list would help, complete with subtitle and publication date for easy reference (her 2012 book review of Barbara Kruger’s Remote Control, for example, is wholly concealed under the title ‘Broadcast Muse’). The sporadic lavender-type-on-black-background is a headache for this old-school book-underliner, though the Kindle generation couldn't care less.

If you’re worried this review’s burned through Lieberman’s best lines – no way! There are plenty more gems, plus quiet asides of wisdom. ‘What is glamour without her handmaiden, humiliation?’, she ponders in a pensive moment. Lieberman’s not just a limitless fount of exquisite prose, killer metaphors, and razor-sharp observations. She displays real sensitivity, even bemused kindness, towards a tainted art world she ultimately forgives. I don’t want to meet her.

Main image: Cover of Pep Talk #7: The Rhonda Lieberman Reader, 2018, Pep Talk, Los Angeles. 

Gilda Williams is an art critic and lecturer at Goldsmiths College, London. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, The Guardian, Tate etc., and more. Williams's most recent publications are the bestselling art book How to Write about Contemporary Art (Thames & Hudson, 2014) and On & By Andy Warhol (MIT/Whitechapel, 2016).

Most Read

If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018