When Do Art Critics Peak?

Contributing editor Jonathan Griffin on ageing and fallibility

Last week, I was driving with my family through Malibu Canyon in southern California, on our way to the beach, when a grave motorcycle cop turned us back. An hour later, news broke that the basketball player Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash. The wreckage was apparently still smouldering on the hillside above the closed road.

I have no interest in basketball, but the news was hard to take. Bryant was 41, just a few months older than me. His 13-year-old daughter died with him. Why, when more than 100 people die every minute worldwide (according to the CIA World Factbook), do we care so much when a celebrity does? Maybe it’s because we knew they were living before we knew they were dead.

I did not know the artist Miyoshi Barosh when she was alive, even though she resided in the same city as me. This winter, exhibitions across three Los Angeles galleries – Luis De Jesus, Night Gallery and The Pit – paid tribute to her, a year after she died from cancer aged 59. Barosh had been ill for a while. Now her work – despite its candy colours, its optimistic reclamation of discarded bits of knitting and patchwork, its cartoony style – is laden with the inevitability of her death, and her bitter knowledge of it.

Last December, my stomach sank when I read the opening sentences of legendary art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s essay ‘The Art of Dying’ in The New Yorker. ‘Lung cancer, rampant. No surprise.’ At the age of 77, his career was drawing to a forced close. Schjeldahl was my Bryant, seemingly defying the normal and inevitable effects of ageing. I was devastated, and immediately resolved to write a letter to him, despite our never having met. But what to say? I never wrote it.

At what age do critics peak? Are we like sportspeople and musicians who do their best work before 30? Or are we more akin to novelists, poets and professors, with the potential to improve even as our bodies sink towards the grave? Gary Indiana wrote all of his art criticism, for The Village Voice, between the ages of 35 and 38. Then stopped, forever. (‘Take it or leave it,’ he wrote in his final column, published 28 June 1988, ‘I’ve had my fun and now it’s time to do something else.’) Schjeldahl also wrote for The Village Voice, both before and after Indiana; his first stint, in 1966 at the age of 24, lasted only a few weeks. In 1980, when he was 38, he stayed for two years. It was not until 1998, after a successful eight-year run, that he left for The New Yorker, aged 56. I look around at the major newspaper critics in the US and UK. Most are in their 50s or 60s and appear unlikely to retire. How do critics hold on to their conviction? It seems irrational. The tragedy of ageing, it strikes me, is that we become less inclined to accept our own fallibility at the point when we should grow more so.

‘Don’t trust anyone over 30,’ sang Rodney Graham at a Frieze Music event in 2003, marking the first Frieze Art Fair in London. ‘Because they’re fucking old, and they’re fucking me.’ It was funny because Graham was then in his 50s, but also heartening because he was still far from over the hill. (I myself was then in my mid-20s and could only chuckle at the imagined vertigo of ageing.)

Andrew Durbin, who took over as editor of this magazine in January, will write these editorials from now on. He will not thank me for telling you that he recently celebrated his 30th birthday. Frieze has always trusted in young talent, and the current youthful editorial team should give everyone great hope for the magazine.

When you’re my age, you have to take care of yourself, or it’s downhill fast. So, there I am, doing something I thought I’d never do: running on the treadmill at the gym. On the screen is David Bowie on stage in 2002 singing ‘Heroes’, which he first recorded in 1977. I haven’t thought about that song in years – maybe since around the time of that concert – and I start bouncing along as the verse crescendos into the chorus. Bowie died four years ago. I think of Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1980): ‘He is dead and he is going to die.’ Next up comes Talking Heads with ‘Heaven’ (1979), filmed by Jonathan Demme for Stop Making Sense (1984), still one of my favourite pieces of performance art ever. I’m sweating and, suddenly, crying – laugh-crying – not over Bryant or Barosh or Schjeldahl, nor even over a transfixingly young David Byrne, the Talking Heads frontman, who is now 67 and still kicking, but over this simple song about the deathliness of perfection, and the perfect permanence of death. Over an artwork from the past, looking to the future, endlessly alive in the now.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 210 with the headline ‘Still Kicking’.

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.

Issue 210

First published in Issue 210

April 2020