Mark Tambella, Maduros, 2008, oil on linen, 28" x 32", part of his exhibition at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York, November 6-30.
People often ask me if being a critic is socially difficult, if it leads to awkwardness with other artists, but it’s not nearly as complicated as they imagine. Most artists and dealers are normal and pleasant. It tends to be the unaccustomed gallery goers (such as the artist’s parents), who ask the dreaded question, “So what do you think?”—unaware of how complicated it would be for me—work, actually—to give a candid answer.
Only once has someone asked me outright to review a show, and especially because this is an experienced artist and someone I considered an old friend, I was astonished—not the least because I hadn’t even seen the work, nor any of his work for some time. Did he really believe that’s how review subjects are chosen, on the basis of friendship? (Or maybe they are, and I’m the one who’s naïve. Regardless, it’s not my m.o.) And what about that friendship? Was it really one after all? Further, even if it was something I was inclined to write about, by asking he created a conflict of interest that made it impossible.
Then there’s the oft-expressed belief that review choices are driven by advertising, yet this is something I’ve never observed in my years of working for Art in America, ARTnews, and Artforum. While editors will suggest specific shows they’d like to see covered—usually because they think they’re interesting, or provide a certain diversity—I’ve never felt any pressure to write, or write positively, about any artist or gallery. In fact the opposite—I’ve had ideas turned down because the gallery had recently gotten a string of reviews and the magazine didn’t want to be seen as favoring it. Once I was paid $25 (by a publication I no longer write for) to go to an advertiser’s gallery and sign my name in the book—an action I didn't feel at all compromised by—but that’s the extent of it. Sorry, I have no juicy tales to tell.
Writing about art is a labor of love—there’s no chance of buying a McMansion with the proceeds—I do it because it’s my way of expanding my understanding of art, a process that feeds my own work in the studio. Therefore, my only question when deciding what or what not to write about is: how much can I learn from analyzing this work?
So, then, how does an artist get the critic’s attention? —this is one of the inevitable questions graduate students ask when I lecture, whether or not my subject touches on the business of art. I tell them it’s no different from the way an actor becomes noted by a drama critic: by doing a great job. There's a lot of art out there, a lot of art. To get anyone's attention whatever it is has to be pretty special. In the end everything comes down to the work, which will speak for itself.