Margit Rowell on Barbara Rose
I MET BARBARA ROSE in early 1969 in Minneapolis, where I was living for a year with my husband, the French painter Georges Noël. Barbara came out to give a lecture. She was already a well-known New York art critic with a definite aura, so expectations were high. She stepped up to the podium and, as a preface to her presentation, unfolded a chain of cutout paper dolls. She began: “Well, I’m going to have to ad-lib my talk this afternoon because when I got up this morning to take the plane, this is what my daughter Rachel had done to my lecture.” (Much later, Rachel told me that this was probably untrue.) This was Barbara through and through. When you reread her essays from the 1960s up to the present, you realize that she would often begin with a similar device. Look back, for example, at the opening sentence of “The Value of Didactic Art,” from Artforum’s April 1967 issue: “Andy Warhol is like Cézanne in only one way: he is the primitive of a new art.” After captivating her audience, she would then proceed to an extremely serious and in-depth discussion of her subject. Her content was intelligent and perceptive, her arguments precise and clear. At the same time, her style of writing (and speaking) was cordial and personalized. She would share her discoveries and, more than that, her immense excitement and pleasure in unraveling the complexities of the art at hand. Barbara loved art, she loved artists, and she knew they needed her voice. Her articles represent some of the most incisive writing about the art of that period, and many years thereafter.
Later that year, my husband and I moved to New York, which is where my friendship with Barbara developed. However, it should be said that I was on the fringe of her life in the art world, not at the very center. In New York, she was an art critic and writer, and I was a curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Everyone was busy—traveling, teaching, juggling the private and the professional—and overworked. We saw each other sporadically. Nonetheless, ours was an unconditional friendship from the start, based on deep affection and a mutual respect and support that became stronger and deeper in later years. Intensely committed to the art world, we shared a desire to make it a better place for artists, and to make art a richer experience for everyone, through understanding. It should be noted that I did historical, not contemporary, exhibitions at the Guggenheim. But I always did them with the same underlying question in mind: How could they relate to and inspire a contemporary artist? I was, and Barbara had been, married to an artist, and our husbands had taught us how to see and what to look for in the visual experience. Trained as academics from the start, she in New York and I in Paris, we nevertheless did not have an academic approach to art.
In the ’60s and ’70s, Barbara was writing criticism for Artforum, among other art journals. Not only was this the moment when contemporary art became a prominent feature of American society and culture, but with a new generation of critics in their thirties and forties, criticism in the art magazines was moving from a form of collegial commentary to a truly professional activity. If we look back at Artforum (with contributors such as Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Annette Michelson, and Robert Pincus-Witten, for starters), the quality of the writing during that period was exceptional. But Barbara’s writings had a quality unto themselves. Writing art criticism for Barbara was not a choice; it was a vocation. Art was her element, her passion, her life. And this passion filled her thinking and writing, so that it was like nobody else’s. I am thinking of her articles on Donald Judd (1965), Ellsworth Kelly (1967), Helen Frankenthaler (1969), and Jasper Johns (1970), for example, all of whom are art-world stars today but were young and just beginning to be known at the time. Importantly, her articles approached the art at the moment of its making and from behind the scenes. We know that she roamed the studios of the artists she wrote about, but we also know that conversations with artists do not always tell you what you need to know. It was she who took what she saw and heard and gave it meaning by processing it with her natural instincts and intuitions, her rare plastic intelligence, and her insistence on a critical distance.
Also an art historian (as were most critics at the time), Barbara called herself a contextual historian, like Meyer Schapiro, with whom she had studied for a doctorate at Columbia that she never finished. Her subject was Renaissance painting in Navarre, Spain. Before that, she had studied for a year at the Sorbonne and received her BA from Barnard and her MA from Columbia. Because of her strong background in the humanities, when she cited Marx or Hegel, Freud or Dante, it was never pretentious or forced. Her style of writing had an amazing narrative flow, unfolding as naturally as breathing. It was what I would call generous, a vehicle for effortlessly sharing complicated ideas with the reader, who effortlessly understood them.
Writing about artists who were well known, unknown or overlooked, young, or female, Barbara treated them all with the same infinite and intimate conviction, plugging them into the broader picture, whether it be the history of American art, general culture, experimental film, or something else. She believed in connoisseurship, a concept that critics would decry in later years. Her book American Art Since 1900: A Critical History (1967), the first on the subject, which was translated into fourteen languages and a college textbook for decades, exemplifies her approach. It includes early-twentieth-century American artists who had been totally forgotten. In reviving such figures as Patrick Henry Bruce, for example, based on her eye and her instincts, she gave their oeuvres a new life and a place in history.
With the professionalization of criticism, a new sense of career-building and power entered the field, which, among other things, contributed to the breakup of Artforum’s editorial staff in 1974. Yes, Barbara, too, was interested in power. It was once said that her voice had more authority than that of any other in art criticism in America (which may have been true until the mid-’70s and the launch of October). But from my perspective, her power struggles were confined to a narrow professional circle. Outside of it, Barbara was generous and loyal to a fault. She helped and encouraged younger artists and scholars and even her peers (including myself). In later years, she voiced frustration about not having received recognition for what she had done and about others who had more visibility than she did, but she did not waste her time doing anything about it. In fact, one might say that she sacrificed having a Career with a capital C in order to have a life—and she lived life to the hilt, with all its ups and downs, taking many risks and making legendary mistakes. But as the French say (and Barbara spoke French fluently), Qui ne risque rien, n’a rien. Who takes no risks, gets no returns.
Barbara’s style of writing had an amazing narrative flow, unfolding as naturally as breathing. It was what I would call generous.
Barbara was beautiful, charismatic, supremely intelligent, extravagantly funny, and famously disorganized, and she had trouble meeting deadlines. She could not say no to writing projects, which sometimes she could not honor. She spread herself thin, making documentary films (on Mark di Suvero, Lee Krasner, Tatyana Grosman); writing monographs (on Helen Frankenthaler, Claes Oldenburg, Kelly); and contributing regularly to Vogue, New York magazine, and Partisan Review, as well as to the specialized art publications Artnews, the Journal of Art, Art in America, Arts Magazine, Art International, and, more recently, the Brooklyn Rail.
I have read, in some of the articles on her passing, that Barbara’s approach to criticism is no longer mainstream. Criticism, like everything else, goes through phases, shaped by charismatic figures and schools of thought. Early on, during the late ’50s and early ’60s, Barbara was seduced by the clarity and concrete philosophical basis of the critic Clement Greenberg, a welcome contrast to the overblown rhetoric of the Harold Rosenberg school of criticism. However, unlike many of her peers, who became adepts, she quickly perceived that she could not agree with his formalist stance. Greenberg, as she put it, said that painting was only about what you see on the surface of the canvas, whereas for her, painting was about so many other things: among them, process, the haptic, context, and content, all of which nourished her critical vision and writing. Somewhat later, in the ’70s, when French theory and structuralism began to inform a new critical mainstream, she observed with chagrin that many of the finest critical minds preferred to theorize about art rather than look at it. And as the focus shifted toward Conceptual, video, and installation art, she continued to defend painting, insisting that it was much more difficult to excel and innovate in a classic medium. Her last exhibition, “Paint-ing After Postmodernism: Belgium–USA,” organized in Brussels (and then traveling to Malaga, Spain, and Reggia di Caserta, Italy) in 2016, was devoted to this very subject.
I would argue that Barbara did not need to be in the mainstream, either then or now. Her role as an outsider (relatively speaking) gave her a freedom that was absolutely necessary in order to speak with personal authority about all she believed in. And her defense of a traditional medium should in no way detract from her prescience about what art and which artists would be significant in future years. To reread “ABC Art” (1965), in which she defined the tendency that would become Minimalism without naming it as such and explained it in relation to both Malevich and Duchamp, is to read one of the pivotal texts of the twentieth century.
So, in my opinion, if someone wants to understand the essence of the American art experience and the art world in the historic decades of the ’60s and ’70s, they should read Barbara’s criticism. What she wrote, from the perspective of the very moment these things were happening, will never be better said. Her voice, a mixture of instinct and intelligence, intimacy and critical distance, was rare. Positioned between the earlier concept of criticism as friendly persuasion and a later, more theoretical stance, both of which she understood thoroughly but had no need for, Barbara’s voice was her very own.
Margit Rowell is a curator and writer based in Paris.