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Admit That You Were Wrong

The February issue of ARTnews has a thought-provoking article that was posted online earlier today: Split Decisions: When Critics Change Their Minds by Ann Landi. (Hat tip here to Ed Goldman, whose email about it I received last week. Yesterday, when I could not find the article, I asked Robin Cembalest, the magazine’s executive editor, about it, and she got it up online today.)

turrell-at-PomonaThe story’s deck: “What makes art critics revise their opinions? Some mind-changing critics explain”

As you will read in the article, it all started last year when Peter Schjeldahl recanted his earlier characterization of Klimt’s 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer as “transcendant” and instead deemed it “a largish, flattish bauble” and “a mess.”

Smartly, ARTnews reviews the long history of what it calls “flip-flops” (including Clement Greenberg’s) and then got a few contemporary critics to admit their “errors.” Among them, Peter Plagens was the most forthcoming, confessing “changes of heart” on “Helen Frankenthaler, Francis Bacon, James Turrell, and Robert Irwin, among others.” Christopher Knight is cited as reversing course on a piece by Nancy Rubins, and Kim Levin refined her view of John Currin.

There’s more in the article.

I’m not a full-time critic, but rather more a reporter.  Yet here’s one blooper I fully confess: my first view of James Turrell, based mainly on the large tunnel at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and a few other of his works, was not favorable — and also not fair, since I’d seen so little (I was living abroad when he had a big show in New York, at the Whitney, in 1980). Now, I think the opposite — I love much of his work, especially the skyspaces, like the one here at Pomona College — and I’m looking forward to the three-venue exhibition of his works this summer.

How about you?



  1. Since you asked. . . . I’m not especially looking forward to the Turrell exhibition this summer, but will try to go if it comes to New York. (Here are multiple views of the one at the Pomona College Museum of Art:

    I do understand your love of Turrell’s “skyspaces,” however, which I assume is related to the experience of being in a silent space illuminated by color while contemplating the sky above. Any chance, however, that you might change your mind—“recant,” have “a change of heart” or “reverse course”—regarding their status as “art”?

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

    • It’s true — the Skyspaces got me. I do think they are art. The way the experience of being in one changes over time is not happenstance; it’s planned. They are very contemplative; they alter one’s perception.

  2. If you stay alive and keep growing, presumably you’re bound to learn, develop, change some of your views, confirm others. Failing that, you’re not really fully alive. Have to think about my flip-flops, but right now, having just returned from many hours of the Taj Mahal, I’m overwhelmed at how some things one has longed a lifetime to see can actually not disappoint, Whew! Somehow I’m more aware of the issue in music — I’ve liked Brahms forever, but for some reason didn’t fully appreciate Schubert until I was in my 40’s.

  3. There are many instances of scientists changing their minds in face of new evidence. Judges do it as a matter of routine in a court of law. So why not art critics?

    Also, scientists disagree all the time, here’s a quote from the Nobel physicist Sam Ting of MIT:

    “…Physicists as you know – everybody has their own interpretations…”

    (He was talking about analyzing data from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) that was put on the International Space Station to look for cosmic rays. It has to do with dark matter and gravity – what holds our universe together.)

    How boring (and scary) the world would be if no one changes their minds!

  4. In Houston there is also his skyspace for the Quaker Meeting site that he more or less donated. Even without the LED displays of more recent vintage (the Nasher in Dallas, Crystal Bridges in Arkansas), this skyspace is nearly perfect as a contemplative experience, possibly because its direct religious context (Turrell was raised a Quaker) and setting in a lower income neighborhood where it is frequented by local residents of all faiths. It is well worth a visit at dawn.

  5. FYI – if you make it to Seattle, and you aren’t familiar, head to the Henry Art Gallery on the campus of the U. of Washington. When visiting each holiday season, I always make it a point to see what they have up, and to spend some time just sitting in the James Turrell Skyspace, Light Reign. The Henry always has great shows, and in a difficult building to mount shows, but they always seem to overcome limitations with inventive installations.

  6. One of the complexities about the apparent and eternal presentness of the Internet is that all ideas give the appearance that they have equal weight; those you hold now, and those you held once. But the concept of having fixed ideas, ideas that never iterate as new information comes to light, is unnerving. What is the point of learning, of research, of conversations with colleagues or reading new sources, if you never get to understand what you once were sure of in a new light. All knowledge is provisional, or should be. Reviews should always be considered as a single approach on a broader topic, surely.

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