Monday, 2 November 2015

Art Criticism of an Aftermath

From very early on in his career Sylvester believed that the art of his time was, to quote the title of a 1957 essay, 'the Art of an Aftermath'. The most incisive writing of his early years as a critic, on artists such as Klee, Bacon and Giacometti, was animated by a conviction that they were practicing art criticism within their art. To see Sylvester's criticism as 'existentialist' is probably at least as wrong as seeing the art of Bacon and Giacometti in those terms. If anything, Sylvester underplayed the post-war context which now seems inseparable from much of Bacon and Giacometti's best-known work. Herbert Read took issue with Sylvester's first radio broadcast on Bacon because 'the language is such as might be used by a lecturer in a physics laboratory'. Sylvester's 'analytical method', for Read, brings to mind Wordsworth's phrase 'we murder to dissect'.

It is revealing that near the start of Looking at Giacometti, Sylvester lists the similarities between Giacometti and another of his heroes, Wittgenstein:

There is a similar consuming dedication to an activity, and a similar refusal to take for granted accepted assumptions about the purpose and possibilities of that activity. There is a similar feeling that this activity is not a means of producing works of philosophy or works of art, but a search that can never lead to a final solution. There is a similar passion for economy [..] a similar reluctance to make their work public [...]

(it goes on)

Undoubtedly Sylvester is in one sense a man of feeling in the lineage of Pater and Berenson. He referred to 'the way I can't help writing about art, which is not unlike St Teresa of Avila's reports on her intercourse with the deity', and certainly, reading Sylvester is often like reading a review of a live event. Tom Lubbock astutely described this sort of criticism as one where 'the critic performs, not by talking to us about work to which we're both assumed to have access, but rather by experiencing the work on our behalf, for our benefit'.

An interesting thing about Sylvester's writing, however, is that this 'phenomenological' approach coexists with the side which saw the condition of modern art as a form of criticism. Sylvester found he couldn't write about the Minimalist works he loved, because the experience alone was insufficient. The quality shared by Sylvester's writing not just about Giacometti and Bacon but also Moore and Magritte, was that he was able to by turns convey a visceral experience of their work, and see it as the outcome of a comprehensible process. This says something about both the jaded post-war art world in which Sylvester developed as a critic, and his pragmatic sense of criticism as a vocation.   

No comments:

Post a Comment