The inverse of looking at Sylvester's writings is the shape of all the things he didn't write about. I started thinking about this when looking at the contents of his selected essays, About Modern Art and considering the decisions made to arrive at that selection. Very few writings about British artists, for example (as with the Tate Modern show he was working on at the end of his life, and which opened posthumously).
I started listing all the artists who were significant to Sylvester at one point or another in his career but were absent from the final selection- Freud, Nolan, Paolozzi, Laurens, Richier, etc. And of course the compilation of About Modern Art is significant as a combined verdict on the artists Sylvester wrote about, and his opinion of his own writing on them. I don't doubt, for instance, that he would have refuted any suggestion that the selection was purely based on either the quality of the artists, or the quality of his writing.
But at this moment, having stumbled upon an unpublished declaration from him that 'Velasquez is the greatest painter' (as Francis Bacon would surely have agreed), the more interesting question is: why did a critic of Sylvester's calibre write so little about Velasquez and the old masters he admired so much? In the preface to About Modern Art he expresses regret over this 'silence' on so many subjects- antiquities, pre-nineteenth century art, modern architecture.
Since critics make a living from giving their opinions, it's unsurprising that many are willing to hold forth on any given subject. Listening to the New York Times' Roberta Smith at Tate Britain recently, I was deeply impressed but her commitment and pragmatism to the metier of the critic. Among my list of quotes from the event is something about
'cyclical pain + enforced amnesia of criticism, always the next deadline > continual redemption'
although some of those words should perhaps be attributed to Adrian Searle of the Guardian, who was in the audience and spoke in relation to this.
Sylvester spent a decade or so writing regular criticism for weekly magazines and was no doubt familiar with the pain of quick and partial judgments. For one type of critic, this pain is alleviated by the continual cycle of constant redemption (the old canard about try-fail-try again-fail better might apply). And certainly the abiding impression left by Smith's talk recently was how inevitable she made her work sound. When the questions from the audience included a couple of familiar concerns about the method behind her work, she brushed them aside effortlessly. (The most memorable moment was when she answered a question about the criticism's relation to market forces with an eloquent pause which said all she needed to. What she subsequently said was merely a reiteration). But Sylvester wrote that working for the New Statesman 'was by its nature using me up'. Entropy set it. Over time the writing got harder, not easier, and while he continued to write regularly (particularly in the 1990s), it tended to focus in on a select group of artists whose work he knew well. He turned down invitations to write about artists whose work he knew inside out if he had nothing new to add, and wrote that it could take him twenty years to find something to say about an artist. In many cases that day never came.
Certainly, one way of considering the critic is someone who can turn their hand to anything, and Sylvester's radio broadcasts show that he could perform admirably in a Front Row/Culture Show setting for a time, although again over time his pauses became longer, and he became increasingly resistant to the quick-draw sport of TV and radio panels. I've been told that for Sylvester, taking everything equally seriously was a way of coping with the world, but if so that didn't cause him to think he could write about everything.
Some people would see that as a weakness, but I see it as Sylvester's recognition of his abilities and place in the world which is deeply serious and reasonable. I can't imagine the frustration it must have caused him not to have written a remarkable essay about Velasquez or Michelangelo, and to have reconciled all of those fragmentary affirmations found throughout his writings. But he seemingliy preferred to regret the things he hadn't written to those he had.