The second in a new interview series by Wes Del Val. Here Wes talks to contemporary art-world interviewer, Jarrett Earnest about books, art critics, and interviewing itself.
One Great Reader #2: A conversation about books between Wes Del Val and Jarrett Earnest
I first came to know Jarrett Earnest’s name from reading his rich conversations with art critics in the Brooklyn Rail. Often critics aren’t heard from outside of their own writing, so not only was I pleased when I started seeing names of my favorites regularly appear in the paper, but in late 2018 David Zwirner Books collected 30 of Jarrett’s interviews into a beautiful book called What it Means to Write About Art: Interviews with art critics. It’s going to be a long time before another comprehensive volume like this (it’s 560 pages) comes along so it’s an invaluable resource if you’re interested in smart writers discussing their craft and their takes on the last several decades of the art world. Appropriately enough since he’s included in Jarrett’s book, the introduction to the erudite New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s acclaimed 2019 book, Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018, was also written by Jarrett. I feel he’s staked out a unique niche for himself and I hope he keeps the conversations with critics continuing for years to come. I was eager to put him on the other side of the questions. -Wes Del Val
WDV: Who are your heroes of the written interview form?
JE: The performance artist Linda Montano interviewed a ton of her peers about their lives and work which became the book Performance Artists Talking in the Eighties. When I found that in art school, before I started writing, it showed me how talking could be a form of making. Around the same time I read Lawrence Weschler’s book of conversations with Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the name of the thing one sees, which offers another way of approaching interviews as a philosophical and conceptual project, one that allows ideas to emerge in real time with subtlety, as the subject and context shifts over the course of years. Later I was blown away by Jonathan Cott’s Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer. Taken together they constitute my personal gold standard for the “artist interview" as a form.
Which living art critic are you most disappointed you didn’t get to include in your book? Which deceased?
Too many, and I’ll get in trouble for even listing them here, because of who I’d leave out this time too… I had to create all these rules to winnow down such a large possible pool of important writers, which ended up excluding anyone outside the US as well as those primarily identified as either artists or curators or writing criticism in other fields, which cuts out a lot of who I want to talk to! There are people I was trying to interview but who unfortunately died in the process—Linda Nochlin, Robert Pincus-Witten, Irving Sandler… I consistently regret not including Brian O’Doherty because he’s so unique and stunningly smart, and wish I had talked with both David Driskell and Maurice Berger before their recent passing related to the pandemic. As for the dead—my personal favorites: Susan Sontag, Jill Johnston, Cookie Mueller.
What’s your favorite part of the reading research you do before meeting one of your subjects to interview?
When my friend Sky Gooden interviewed me for her Momus podcast last year, she pointed out that reading is part of my work— that she sees me as a “reader” as much as anything else. Because I studied conceptual art and not writing or literature, I gained a sense of permission to claim anything as my “work” as long as I could devise a framework for making it operative. So claiming “reading” as integral to what I do, as opposed to it being a form of entertainment or diversion or additional enrichment, helps give it the space it deserves in daily life. Like a true autodidact, I’ve always read a lot and all over the place. In high school I started reading the complete works of writers I admired, in chronological order, starting with their first novel and ending with their last. When I loved something, like William Faulker or Thomas Mann, I wanted not only to read everything, but on some level I was also trying to figure out the mechanics, trying to understand what they did as artists and human beings. In many ways that is still my process when preparing for an interview. I like to read everything and try and find oblique resonances or recurring preoccupations that could be interesting or revealing. It is essential to bring something new to the table, otherwise you get people repeating their same schtick, which is why most interviews are boring. In the case of the art critics, for the most part they never imagined that the writing they’ve done over the past forty or fifty years would be read together all at once, and in some cases it was extremely repetitive. I felt like that project hijacked my reading for about a year.
You want to give as a gift the same book of interviews to five diverse friends of yours, which one is it?
I was close friends with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, who died on March 14th. A new book of interviews with he/r was published in February, in time for he/r 70th birthday. I was reading it just before and then right after s/he died and it’s been such a gift. Genesis’s work and ideas are so radical and increasingly essential for the future of art. So, I’d give them all copies of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: Sacred Intent: Interviews with Carl Abrahamsson 1986-2019 (TRAPart, 2020).
Which publication (print or online) is consistently delivering the finest interviews today?
In general, magazines don’t give enough space to interviews to get to someplace interesting. The beauty of a good interview is the process of unfolding rather than the soundbite. I like the sprawling conversation in the funkier art publications Bomb and the Brooklyn Rail. I’m also especially interested in Terremoto! and Texte zur Kunst because they have such strong points of view outside of New York City, where I live.
What was the first interview you read that had the most meaningful impact upon you?
The poet and critic Bill Berkson was my teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute and first encouraged me to start writing. As a student I got his book What’s Your Idea of a Good Time: Interviews and Letters 1977-1985 which he did with the great poet Bernadette Mayer. It embodies how an interview could be the vehicle for friends to have fun, get to know each other, stay in touch, and work out ideas, especially when they are very different from each other.
Who are non art-world writers you’d most like to interview and if you could only talk with each about one book or individual piece of theirs what would it be?
I’ve always wanted to talk with William T. Vollmann—I actually reached out to him for my art critic’s book but it didn’t work out for logistic reasons. I love his book Kissing The Mask which is about Japanese Noh theatre, and one of the best books written on aesthetics. I also have a long standing fascination with his seven volume book on the philosophy of violence called Rising Up, Rising Down, which I only read in its entirety at the end of last year.
Lately I’ve been thinking about pioneering Mayanist Dennis Tedlock’s magisterial 2000 Years of Mayan Literature—as an anthropologist his method is “dialogical,” and I’d love to have some serious conversations with him about that, and all its implications. Also, as art history is being rightfully deconstructed, the perspective he’s cultivated over his long career feels increasingly essential for the robust and multivalent accounting of the history of “American” art we so desperately need.
What are five titles you’d guess at least half of the critics in your book would agree are essential to understanding modern art?
I was surprised how often and consistently Clement Greenberg still came up across the interviews, and I think reading the multi-volume Collected Essays and Criticism edited by John O’Brian is essential because it gives such a more complicated sense of Greenberg’s perspective than either his well known anthology Art and Culture, or the contemporary pastiches of his views. He was a terrific writer who happened to be wrong about almost everything, which means he’s an ideal critic.
Beyond that, it is a hard question because we’re living in a moment where that kind of old-school foundational canon represented by most of the people I included is being rightfully broken down. My favorite books on contemporary art, which have been the most useful to me, include: Paul Chaat Smith’s Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong; Chris Kraus’s Social Practices; Darby English’s To Describe a Life; Nancy Princenthal’s Unspeakable Acts.
Think back to all of 2019 and the art scene social events in which you found yourself, which would you say were three contemporary novels most brought up into conversation?
“Contemporary fiction” is the last on my list. Maybe I need more friends in that world. The books I’ve read this year include everything from a group of Kobo Abe novels to feminist film theory to medieval mysticism. The last book I finished was re-reading Maya Deren’s Divine Horseman on Haitian Vodoun—which is probably the best book ever written by an artist. The next time I teach I plan on using it as a textbook for “form.” Right now I’m in the middle of The Tale of Genji which is everything I’ve ever wanted from a book. I’ve decided it’s my favorite. So subtle and beautiful, and written a thousand years ago. All of these are essential to the thinking and writing that I do. I guess what I’m trying to say is that my perspective is 180 degrees from your question—I think everyone in the art world should be reading more idiosyncratically, far beyond the few heavily hyped titles…Otherwise why talk to each other?
Completely agree about reading more idiosyncratically, which goes for so many people, art world or not. I guess what I was seeking is if there were any titles which you noticed were coming up again and again during dinners or parties, but based on “far beyond the few heavily hyped titles,” which I’m sure is indeed true, I’d likely just have my fantasy chic-sophisticated-art-world bubble popped and would be disappointed, so we can skip it.
Well, the truth is most people in the art world do not read in general, and when they do, it’s rarely fiction. That is just a fact, and you can see the effects in the state of art writing. The books I remember hearing referenced were mostly whatever was a hot topic within the general culture, which is why my initial response has the energy of an intervention or crusade...
Which non-art, non-contemporary fiction books on your shelves do you find yourself reaching for the most?
Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, which I’ve read over and over since I found it around the age of nineteen or twenty. It’s so searingly profound, pushing thinking beyond the limits of thought, of perception beyond feeling, never satisfied.
You have to pick a book that is currently in your house to give to someone who is a reader but “hates” art, but it’s so engaging that you would bet $500 that they will finish and honestly enjoy it. Which do you choose?
Air Guitar by Dave Hickey. To everyone’s chagrin, he’s still the best. There are essays and stories in there that will break your heart, make you laugh, and effortlessly demonstrate how art becomes meaningful in our lives. It’s fun and brilliant—what more could you want. Most who “hate” him have never actually read him. When you do, you cannot deny the intelligence or beauty of his work, and even if you disagree, then you’re already deeply engaged in a conversation, which is the whole point of criticism.
What compendium of interviews was never collected, but would find a large audience if published today?
I’m kind of against “large audiences” as a metric for quantifying art or culture. What I can tell you is a book I wish I could read right now that to my knowledge does not exist. Lately I’ve been obsessing over the music Alice Coltrane made with her ashram as Swami Turiyasangitananda. Just listening to it, it’s so obvious that she is a major American artist, and I’d love to read a collection of her interviews and statements from the ’60s to her death in 2007.
Yes, big hole there and I actually think that would find diverse readers today adding up to a sizable audience, even if likely only a university press would do it. Thank you Jarrett!