Admissible evidence?

Jonathan Griffin
Mar 22, 2013 7:44PM

Biography has a vexed status in contemporary art criticism. How much information is too much information? What is inadmissible evidence when one is attempting to make sense of an artist’s work? It’s especially tricky in the claustrophobic social milieu of the art world; it is rare that, as a writer, you don’t have at least a vague perception of the character that made whatever art it is that you’re writing about.

I’ve come up against this problem in quite a number of my recent articles. When I interviewed Carl Andre, for Apollo magazine, I was faced with the dilemma of whether to confront him about the tragic death of his former wife, Ana Mendieta, for which many people still hold him responsible. (He was famously acquitted.) Newspaper journalists who had interviewed Andre recently had been bold enough to bring it up, and had received appropriately measured responses. (“I was not guilty of this charge.”) I decided, instead, to play the role of the art critic rather than the journalist, and to take what I thought was the higher position by not addressing it. I still wonder if that was the right choice.

In a feature about the Los Angeles artist Anthony Pearson, for the March issue of Frieze, I decided to plunge headlong into biographical exposure – more, perhaps, than a critical publication would normally tolerate. But I felt that it was important to understand Pearson’s seemingly cool and detached work through the lens of his life and personality, which, to many who know him, seem at first to be contradictory to his art. I stopped short of admitting, in the piece, that Anthony is a friend of mine. But that’s what made me want to write the piece, and what gave me an insight into his unique relation with his work.

I don’t know Jordan Wolfson at all, but I know people who have worked with him. The accompanying text for his exhibition Raspberry Poser at REDCAT, Los Angeles, alludes to his ‘reckless persona’, whatever that means. It wouldn’t perhaps have mattered if he had not featured in the video himself, both in voiceover and dressed as a 1970s’ punk, slouching around Paris. Many viewers might not have recognised him, but once you did, it was impossible to ignore. In my review of the show, for Art Review, I say that ‘What we think of the artist is a pivotal question in Raspberry Poser.’ 

But really, what we think of the artist is a pivotal question in all art, isn't it?

Jonathan Griffin
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019