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September 5, 2006

The Queer Eye of that Slate Guy: Deep Cuts

As the world bids good riddance to bad blog, a chance to look back at Lee Siegel's art critical legacy.

As JL notes (and as I mentioned back here), it was the artblogosphere that had first dibs on this particular pound of flesh. JL also writes:

On a less general level, the episode confirms what a nasty piece of work Siegel is, and how that fact connects his substantive (for lack of a better word) criticism and his online escapades. If specious simplifications marked the typical Siegel review, the same impulse towards reductive caricature shows up in his vicious remarks toward others, whether in the "blogofascism" comedy or his misadventures as "spezzatura." In a comment to this post way back, Kriston put it best:

The problem with Siegel's criticism is that he always goes for the gimmick . . . [I]t's hard for me to trust his instincts because I know he always reaches low.

How low, we were then still only learning.

And so, although Siegel's greatest artblogosphere hit is by now fairly well known, this post is all about diving into his Slate archive for all of those unsung moments of specious simplification, vulgar gimmickry and high fallutin' incoherence.

You know, the things that made us love Lee in the first place...

Nothing if not critical

For starters, timely as it is, consider this slideshow in which he paints a portrait of Edvard Munch the Realist—Edvard Munch the "sketch artist," even:

Munch, though celebrated as an expressionist—or symbolist—never lost his commitment to recognizable images and transparent emotion. Like Ibsen, Munch infused the realistic content of his art with symbolic meaning, and he embedded his symbols in recognizable subjects. You cannot tell, from looking at a van Gogh, or an Ensor, what emotion the painter is trying to express, if any.

... he did not want to submerge the outer world in a welter of subjective colors, as in the work of later expressionists like Georges Rouault and Emil Nolde; or to dissolve it (nearly) in a swirling, intensely private vision, like van Gogh's late paintings; or to obscure external reality amid secret allusions, in the manner of Ensor. Nor did he want to ring variations on realism in which the inner world is merely hinted at, as Manet did.


At times, Munch seems more like a newspaper sketch-artist than anything else. He neither uses color to excite emotional states in the viewer, which was the aim of the German expressionists Munch influenced, nor employs color to provoke the eye, which was the goal of the French fauves who cleared the path for the German expressionists. For all their symbolic resonances and personal inflections, Munch's colors describe his subjects... The Sick Child projects the artist's emotions onto the colors he sees in order to capture an actual event existing outside the artist's own state of mind.


Yet there is something all-consuming, mutually devouring about their kiss. Munch may have advocated a free sensual life; he may have thrown himself into the free-love movement in Kristiana when he was younger. But until his crepuscular work, he portrayed sexual passion as an emotionally fatal event, as menacing as he believed social convention was stultifying

... Only a sensualist in a guilt-ridden society could punish himself with such a vision [The Scream] of ultra-receptive senses become monstrous.

This is by far one of my favorites. The way he interweaves his incoherent drivel with his penchant for false dilemmas, sexualized reductionism and easy mystifications is almost virtuosic.

Then there's his hilariously-titled look at Elizabeth Murray, "How to look at an experimental painter":

Yet the tension in Murray's work between stasis and movement really symbolizes a more essential conflict, which is the one between tradition and originality. Three-dimensionality connotes objects existing in real space, which means that they exist in real time. Tradition, or history, is objects existing in real space, in real time. Historical time, however, is past, dead, static. Originality in the moment of its operation presents, on the other hand, a living, subjective energy.


Out of the top of Painter's Progress sprout three paintbrushes. Traditionally, from Picasso and Braque to Pollock to Jasper Johns, the paintbrush has been used by male painters to symbolize a phallic force. In Painter's Progress, the brushes look like flowers.


When we say so-and-so is "off the wall," we mean he or she is crazy. And by "crazy," we mean deviating from the norm. Murray's literally off-the-wall three-dimensional paintings are deviations from the norms of tradition that she has so skillfully cited. Her colorful reliefs are, in some sense, metaphors for the way we live: stuck to the past, yet obtruding out of the past into the present; stuck in our lives, yet through our work extending ourselves into other people's lives. By alluding to art history and then drawing her own original creations from it, Murray wins her freedom in two fundamental dimensions. She can then proceed uninhibited and unconstrained. We call that being "unbuttoned," which is something like being off the wall, but not quite.

I really don't know how to elaborate on this.

Siegel makes the transition from cocktail party criticism to cocktail party Theory so very seamlessly (and so awfully hilariously), its comic brilliance stands on its own.

Next up, Lee takes up the cause of Isamu Noguchi thusly:

What was the wellspring of Noguchi's blurring of nature and artifice? Was it an admiration of hybridity in general—of the purity of mixed things—derived from being half-American, half-Japanese? Most modernists would have scoffed: Malevich and Kandinsky with their loathing of recognizable forms, the Italian futurists' gleeful calls for the destruction of museums—all these artists believed that civilization was a stifling veneer that must be shattered to release the natural energies civilization repressed. They would have regarded the celebration of the artificial inherent in the natural as a kind of selling-out—a prelude to Noguchi's later decision to make lamps. A good many modernists, however, were also in thrall to unsettling ideas about social and racial purity. There is something humanly decent about Noguchi's exquisite aesthetic refinements. They are more like Leopold Bloom than Stephen Daedalus. Remembrance, shown here, might have been influenced by the biomorphic shapes of modernists like Jean Arp and Yves Tanguy and Dalí, but it is also a memorial to harmony between instinct and reason, the very definition of peace.


Noguchi identifies human suffering with the destruction of civilized values... And such a respect for civilized values amounts to an inversion of the modernists' habitual association of civilization with life-denying forces.

It's not too tough to see what game Siegel's playing here, posing Noguchi as the hero against an oddly convoluted strawman Modernism—one that universally despised artifice and civilization and was in thrall to the Aryan ideal.

You know, unrepentant antisocial primitivists like those awful Bauhaus fellows.

Or Henry Moore.

Or Jean Arp (who claimed to seek "a balance between heaven and hell").

Butchering the context

Sometimes the gaffes are a bit more oblique.

Always in search of for new ways to call Hollywood and America "shallow," Lee latches onto David Hockney. En route, though, he tries to make a point about Hockney's Britishness:

If his landscapes' immediate appeal to the eye is a kind of eagerness to introduce themselves, Hockney's portraits lay the artist's hyper-sociability bare; in this way, he is truly a British painter. The one quality that characterizes modern British painting, even when it was in the throes of high Modernism, is a social awareness, a self-consciousness about being looked at by other people. Even Vorticism, an early 20th-century movement dedicated to pure abstraction, produced works that looked more like architectural drawings (implying a shared external reality) than like private abstractions. As time wore on, the great, raw, astringent British painters—Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Lucian Freud—still used figuration to imply a psychic life as fragmented as a Cubist painting.

Now, I don't necessarily have a huge argument with this characterization of Hockney himself, but to apply this notion of a typically British "sociability" to the artists named (Bacon?!) is to generalize it into meaninglessness. And in what way does it even remotely track with the idea of "a psychic life as fragmented as a Cubist painting"?

Seriously... Francis Bacon?!

In striving to explain why "Max Ernst wasn't like the other surrealists" (though ultimately doing nothing of the sort), Lee offers the following:

There are artists—such as Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, and John Cage—who are seminal figures, but whose work holds little intrinsic interest beyond its breathtaking formal innovation.


Surrealist exhibitions have been proliferating in recent years... There is one simple reason why surrealism is getting so much curatorial attention at the present moment: the movies.

With their rapidly moving images, dialogue, music, boundless camera angles, and time-frames ceaselessly collapsing into the present tense, movies have raised the stakes for holding the attention. Surrealism's busy, simultaneous appeals to the conscious and unconscious echo film's multilevel allure. Of all the surrealist work, Ernst's dynamic mysteries are closest to film's hectic visual pace. His techniques of frottage and grattage make you grasp tactility through your eyes, in the same disorienting way that a film's musical score sneaks an idea into your mind through your senses... Perhaps the increasing ascendance of film over the other arts is the story that has been hidden in Ernst's work all along.

Now, the collage and assemblage techniques developed through Cubism, Dada and forward into Surrealism (and, in this, hardly unique to Ernst) share an obvious affinity, formally and often ideological, with the contemporary development of montage in film. But this connection does remarkably little to explain Surrealism's draw "at the present moment."

That odd logic (and the gratuitous digs at Duchamp, Stein and Cage) aside, I'm not so sure that, all potential candidates considered, I even find Ernst's art the most apt fit to "film's hectic visual pace" anyways.

And the less said of Siegel's mindless analogy (frottage : touch :: music : ideas) the better.

It's not just Ernst or Noguchi or Munch that Siegel sees as exceptional when held against strawmen and false dichotomies.

Take Lee Friedlander:

Friedlander is doing a tightrope walk between portentous aesthetizicing and shallow commentary, while knowingly invoking each pitfall. At this point, such playful, powerful acknowledgment of photography's nemeses might well be the only way to overcome them.

And what of that latter nemesis?

Broadly speaking, art photography in the 20th century consists of two trends. One finds poetic or social meaning in things as they are—Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment," and the other imposes such meanings on an otherwise neutral occasion, an imposition that the photographer accomplishes through a careful choreography of perspectives... Too much contemporary photography reduces the visible world to a slick bundle of superficial concepts.


In photographs like Father Duffy, Friedlander foreshadowed a kind of ironizing photography that has become increasingly popular, usually done in Cibachrome and printed in giant dimensions, epitomized by the work of Jeff Wall.

Jeff Wall as the epitome of ironic photography? Seriously, Lee?

I can only think of one Wall photo that might be described as flatly ironic—his donkey as a riposte to Stubbs' Whistlejacket—and that was done at the behest of the National Gallery (and offered a some rather wry social commentary to boot).

On Thomas Struth:

Though this seems never to have occurred to Struth's admirers, he, too, is deconstructing photography even as he is displaying, with love, his mastery of the medium.

All of these unspecified admirers who fail to recognize the complexity of the artist's engagement with his medium are huge fools. They're certainly not as sharp as Lee Siegel.

Minor point of fact, too, regarding this:

In a photograph of people standing before a Seurat painting, the painting itself possesses all the briskness of being, not the people staring at it, and you recall that Seurat based his paintings on photographic principles.

Of course he really means Gustave Caillebotte's Paris Street; Rainy Day (easily mistaken for a Seurat, I suppose, if you've never seen it in person). There's really very little in Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte that I'd call "brisk." (And, from what I understand, Seurat based his divisionism on color principles that would have little or nothing to do with practical photography until decades after his death anyways.)

In a response to MoMA's Without Boundary, Lee Siegel submits, in all modesty, that everyone is a hypocrite but him:

An unwittingly patronizing air hangs about this show. The wall texts sound defensive, protective, like a teacher who introduces a new student from a strange land by lauding his virtues and implicitly issuing a warning against mistreating him. Money and celebrity have made the art world resemble Hollywood in many ways; more and more, a lot of art people—like many movie people—seem to be animated by a bad conscience, which makes them inflate their moral mission and project their guilt all over the place.

Especially those assholes in Hollywood.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

(In which Siegel all but admits that he doesn't quite get it.)

Lee tells us that Robert Mapplethorpe "is not an artist who can easily be placed in any aesthetic context" and that his photos "are impossible to assimilate."

'Unassimilable,' eh? An interesting take.

What, pray tell, does he think of Mona Hatoum (in MoMA's Without Boundary)?

But there is nothing reassuring about Hatoum. On the contrary, she is disconcerting and unassimilable on some level.

Yes, and Shahzia Sikander's work in the same show "creates and inhabits its own ineffable category."

Anyone else?

I can't think of an artist more difficult to judge than Jean-Michel Basquiat.

But perhaps all this confusion is just for lack of an adequate literary key.

After all, Cy Twombly is best read against Cervantes, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery and Walter Pater. Max Ernst is nothing unless one has recourse to Thomas Mann, Kafka and Proust.

And "in the case of Munch... the really formative encounter was most likely with a playwright [Ibsen], not another painter." (Which is not to mention Hamsun, Kierkegaard and Strindberg.)

Isamu Noguchi is Leopold Bloom and David Smith is An American Rilke.

Because behind every artist lurks a great writer.

The audio tour museums won't let you hear (and thank heavens for that)

Lee really hits his fatuous stride, though, in his self-consciously provocative, and much derided, Slate Audio Tour of the Met's Modern Art Gallery.

I've lovingly transcribed some of the audio below...

Part 3, regarding Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein, is justifiably notorious:

The story around the composition of this painting is legendary. Picasso painted his dear friend Gertrude Stein, the famous American expatriate, novelist and impresario, 90 times. He kept going back and back. He couldn't get it right. Until he finally took a vacation, and in Spain saw an Iberian mask and rushed back to his studio, painted Stein's face as an Iberian mask and, eureka, had a portrait.

I don't buy this at all.

I think that Picasso, who was screwing everything that moved in Paris—slept with all his models, was approached one day by Gertrude Stein, who swept up to him at a party or something and said, "Pablo, paint me!" He could hardly have said no; she was a figura in Paris at the time, so he invited her to his studio, thought that he could do it—after all, he'd painted women in fragmented shapes, he could paint Gertrude Stein. She comes to his studio, he sits down and, lo and behold: he's just not aroused. I don't think Picasso ever painted anything that didn't arouse him, including goats and cats.

He tries to paint her—it's almost like a Jewish joke... He tries to paint her one day, he can't do it. He says, "let's break for the evening." He tries to paint her again—"let's get a sandwich." He tries to paint her again—"pardon me, but I have to go for a walk." He just can't do it. Picasso can't relate. He takes off, goes to Spain, finds an Iberian mask at a flea market or something, comes back, paints the mask—"the hell with it"—says, "I'm finished."

To me, that's the story of this painting, which, needless to say, I think is one of the most overrated paintings of the last century.

Lee Siegel, needless to say, is a petulant gasbag (aroused by goats).

Part 5, on a de Chirico, begins with this admonition:

Before we get to the de Chirico, if you'll turn around and take a look at the room's backside, as it were, you'll see a wall covered with three paintings by Balthus, one of which is a very large painting, a mountain scene. Look away. These paintings shouldn't even belong here. I'll get to another painting by Balthus later. But first let's talk about this underrated gem by Giorgio de Chirico...

Which serves as an early introduction to Part 7, on Balthus' Thérèse Dreaming. Siegel no likey:

[whisper] I have to speak very softly about Balthus. I just have to wait for this elderly couple to walk into the next gallery. [/whisper]

OK. Now I can speak about Balthus.

I don't like Balthus. I have to say that. I think Balthus is one of the most overrated painters in this museum. I think the only reason Balthus appears in museums is because he went around calling himself Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rrrrola, and this has a special, magical effect on American dealers, collectors and museum curators. I think Balthus was an empty, pornographically-inclined opportunist.

Now, don't get me wrong: you might think that I'm against erotic imagery in art. Au contraire. I'm not at all against sex in art or in life. But there is something so vulgar and crass about Balthus that I can't abide his work. Take a look at this painting. Don't be afraid: you can get as close as you want.

The erotic imagery is so explicit as to be vulgar. The girl's bare leg is up, her skirt is down, revealing her underpants. She's obviously too young to be legitimately desired, but young enough to be illicitly lusted after. The cat, licking the milk in the bowl... I mean, come on—can you get any more graphic? Balthus can't even paint a convincing rumpled tablecloth in the painting's background. And, if you'll look closely at the girl's nose and the upper part of her mouth, it's as if Balthus trained all his attention on her underpants and couldn't even paint a convincing representation of her face. In fact, Balthus' mother was sleeping with the great German poet Rilke. Balthus was friends with figures like André Gide from the time he was younger. He had about as much trouble getting into the elite art galleries of his day as a Baldwin brother has getting into a Hollywood film. If it weren't for his connections, he wouldn't even be on anyone's radar screen. Please pass into the next room...

Hey Balthazar... your father was a Pollack and your mother slept with Rilke!

(Also: Lee Siegel is apparently aroused by cats, not to mention young girls.)

Finally, there's the coup de grâce that is his meditation on Edward Hopper's Table for Ladies and Guy Pène du Bois' Mr. and Mrs. Chester Dale Dine Out in Part 10. This one has it all: it's vulgar, it's gimmicky, it's ludicrously sexualized—and he can't help but take an anxious sideways dig at our substandard contemporary scene.

The fatuousness is so vertiginous, in fact, it's virtually a Lee Siegel singularity. I'm not really sure you're prepared to cross his event horizon, but read on if you dare:

We're standing in front of a Hopper and a Guy Pène du Bois. These are two literary paintings that need to be read as much as looked at. They're like little movie stills and that's one of the reasons why I cherish Hopper—he's maybe my favorite American painter.

This Hopper's called Table for Ladies and, if you look closely at the painting, it is not at all what it appears to be. On the surface it's some sort of restaurant, but immediately you begin to ask yourself, 'what is a table for ladies?' There's a man sitting here, so obviously it's not just for ladies. Suddenly there's an air of erotic, comic menace in this painting. You cannot see the eyes of the man sitting with the woman in the background—he might be looking at the rear end of the waitress who's preparing the food on the display table. Echoing his stare is the plant, which seems to be reaching over the menu as if to grab it. In front of the woman leaning over the table are melons—certainly voluptuous and sexual. Two pieces of meat emphasize the sexual theme. Is Hopper perhaps saying that the women in this painting are objects, similar to the objects inside the glass display case up by the cash register?

Voluptuous melons? I mean, come on, Hopper... can you get any more graphic?

While you're thinking about that, let's look at the painting on the right. The painting's called Mr. and Mrs. Chester Dale Dine Out, but are they dining out? For one thing, there's no food at the table. Are they ordering? Well the waiter's certainly not holding a pad and pencil in his hand. Mr. Chester Dale is not looking at Mrs. Chester Dale, and vice versa. The only one looking at anyone in this painting is the waiter, looking at the wife. And why do the two men have reflections in the mirror, while the woman does not? If this is what dining out is like for Mr. and Mrs. Chester Dale, then one would not want to join them for dinner. In fact, Pène du Bois is making a biting satirical comment on the upper classes, a satirical perspective that you will almost never see in contemporary art today, where social satire is absent, except in the most flagrant, obvious forms.

Yes, yes. So true. Social satire is absent from contemporary art today. Except when it isn't. (Cf. Jeff Wall above.)

Like all the underrated paintings in these galleries, these works by Hopper and Pène du Bois hold their secrets close to their heart. They offer meaning, they invite you to interpret them, but in the end they yield no meaning—they yield nothing definite except a feeling.

And what a feeling they yield, eh?

But really, art is like gossamer. And one doesn't dissect gossamer.

"The Queer Eye of that Slate Guy: Deep Cuts"
Posted by Dan at 03:01 AM


Gah. Gibber gibber. My brain, it hurts.

Posted by: JL on September 6, 2006 at 11:08 AM

i think i've made a mistake by not reading Siegel since the gay Twombly thing.

If only there was a book or something...

Posted by: greg.org on September 6, 2006 at 01:09 PM

> If only there was a book or something...

Funny, Greg...

"Be the first person to review this item."

The back cover blurb was already clearly penned by a Sprezzatura: "Siegel possesses an intellectual range and independent perspective unmatched by his peers"... Perhaps one of these fellows would care to weigh in.

Posted by: Dan on September 6, 2006 at 07:38 PM

Referenced in this post:

Artcyclopedia: Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte
Ezra Klein: Projection?
Grammar.police: Turn on, Tune in, Turn Back Off Again
Iconoduel: 'Damage was much less than feared'
Iconoduel: Lee Siegel Feels the Wrath
Iconoduel: The Queer Eye of that Slate Guy Revisited
Modern Kicks: but white guys drive like this
Modern Kicks: richly deserved
Seinfeld Scripts: The Cartoon
Slate: An American Rilke: A closer look at sculptor David Smith—Lee Siegel
Slate: Build a Fort, Set That on Fire: The trouble with Jean-Michel Basquiat—Lee Siegel
Slate: Cy Twombly: The man who made an art out of doodles—Lee Siegel
Slate: David Hockney Is Afraid To Be Alone: The shallow lyricism of one of America's favorite painters—Lee Siegel
Slate: East Meets West: Why MoMA's new show doesn't help us understand Islam—Lee Siegel
Slate: Elizabeth Murray: A guide to understanding her paintings—Lee Siegel
Slate: Hybrid Model: Isamu Noguchi went beyond modernism—Lee Siegel
Slate: Introducing Slate Audio Tours: The commentary museums don't want you to hear—Andy Bowers
Slate: Odd Man Out: Max Ernst wasn't like the other surrealists—Lee Siegel
Slate: Robert Mapplethorpe: The latest attempt to domesticate the controversial photographer—Lee Siegel
Slate: The Artful Snapshot: What makes Lee Friedlander's pictures good?—Lee Siegel
Slate: Truth or Dare: Taking a closer look at Thomas Struth's objectivity—Lee Siegel
Slate: What a Scream: Edvard Munch's Scandinavian morbidity—Lee Siegel
Viewing Viewing
Wikipedia: Intellectual montage