NY Times art critic stays true to herself

Roberta Smith's Lawrence visit marks homecoming

Roberta Smith's critical impulse started in Lawrence.

Growing up here -- where her father, Thomas Smith, was a geography professor, and her mother, Eleanor Smith, was president of the Friends of the Art Museum at the Spencer -- her mother consulted her when making decisions about how to decorate the house.

"I think I grew up in a situation where one had opinions, and in particular where my opinions were solicited and listened to," Smith recalls.

These days, millions of people are exposed to her opinions on the pages of The New York Times. Smith, 56, is an art critic for the newspaper and covers gallery and museum shows in what is arguably the art capital of the world.

She's been on the Times staff since 1986. Before that, she wrote art criticism for the Village Voice, Artforum, Art in America and Arts Magazine. Last year, the College Art Assn. honored Smith with the Frank Jewett Mather Award for Art Criticism.

Although born in New York City, Smith spent her formative years in Lawrence. She attended Sunset Hill School and Central Junior High School, and graduated from Lawrence High School in 1965. She graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa, completed the Independent Study Program at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and was a studio assistant to minimalist sculptor Donald Judd.

As the 2004 Franklin D. Murphy Lecturer, Smith will give a talk today at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and Thursday at the Spencer Museum of Art.

Last week from her New York home, she discussed her life as a critic in the city that never sleeps.

Q: It seems like everyone wants to be a critic. How did you land a job at The New York Times?

A: When I came to the paper, I had been writing art criticism for 17 years. I worked my way up through different monthly art magazines. And then at a certain point I got kind of bored with that and tried out for the Village Voice and got a job there.

I left the Voice at a certain point -- really actually quite against my will. It always helps to get fired I think. Everybody should be fired at least once in their career.

I always feel like there was a period of decontamination, but after I had been out of the Voice for about 18 months and was perfectly miserable without the outlet of a weekly platform, the Times called me and I went and started writing there.

Q: Do you get the impression the Jayson Blair incident has affected your credibility in any way?

A: I think it really was hard for a lot of the reporters in the immediate aftermath, but it didn't really affect us (the critics).

Q: New York seems like possibly the best and the worst place to be an art critic. How do you manage the dizzying number of openings at galleries and museums?

A: You try to see as much as you can. I'm really lucky in that I do this full-time, so I just am always either writing or going out and looking at art, for the most part.

It's kind of overwhelming. I just go to galleries and I accept the fact that the paper can't possibly cover everything in galleries that deserves to be covered.

It's not necessarily the best or the worst place to be an art critic, but it's one of the few places where you can actually make your living as one.

Q: You spoke a few weeks ago on "The Risks, Pleasures, Responsibilities and Roles of Newspaper Criticism." Can you condense that talk and offer your views on your role and the repercussions of what you do?

A: I feel like as a critic your first responsibility is actually to yourself. You have to write something that reflects what you feel, and you have to be honest. I think your second responsibility is to art and your readership. I think artists are kind of further down on the ladder.

Q: Your restaurant critics often visit restaurants half a dozen times before they publish their assessment because a Times review can make or break a business. How careful do you have to be with your reviews in that regard?

A: Because most of my readers are not deciding how to spend their money -- just how to spend their Saturday afternoons, really -- it's a much, much different situation. The thing about a dealer is that they only have to convince one person at a time to buy one work of art, which is highly elitist in some ways but extremely liberating for them and liberating for me as well.

I DO feel a responsibility and I do, for the most part, visit shows more than once. I can't say that I go back SIX times.

Q: Do you hear from artists and curators after you write about them?

A: Yeah. I hear both positively and negatively from them. Sometimes they make interesting points, and sometimes they're just sort of venting.

Past Event

Roberta Smith Lecture: 'Content is a Glimpse: The Battle Over Meaning from DeKooning to Now'

  • Thursday, April 22, 2004, 5:30 p.m.
  • Spencer Museum of Art, 1301 Miss., KU campus, Lawrence
  • All ages


Q: What's the most animated response from recent history, or do people ever really get out of control?

A: People who work in museums tend not to get out of control. You WILL have people who are just attentive readers or collectors -- people like that can get pretty vehement sometimes. Those letters can be really painful, but if you're going to dish it out, you have to be able to take it.

Q: Is there a barometer for artistic success. When has an artist made it, so to speak?

A: That has to do with market and reputation. The thing about the art world that infuriates a lot of people who aren't comfortable in it or observe it from the outside is that nothing is fixed. It's all in flux. It's all constantly being argued about, and different people are adjusting their opinions about different artists in ways that have effects and don't have effects.

I think if an artist can live comfortably off of his or her work, that's a pretty amazing achievement.

Q: How do you critique what might be considered more groundbreaking work when there's so little context for it?

A: I'm just looking for a certain richness of experience and certain kind of complexity that holds my attention. There are lots of thinks that are interesting because they're gimmicky -- either because they're a new technological thing or because the artist has some weird way of painting or some kind of strategy. You just have to keep thinking about and looking at works of art and constantly measure how they're holding up.

And in some ways it's very intuitive. If something isn't holding my attention, if my mind doesn't stay on it, then I will think about it but think about why that's not happening.

I think critics are highly individual. We're just making arguments out there the same way artists are, and we're not art historians. We're doing something very much in the present.

Q: Do you have a favorite artist?

A: No. There's apples and oranges and plums and grapefruits. There are just so many different kinds of artists, and I think what you -- at least what I have found -- is that human taste is extremely capacious. You have many more sides to your taste than you think you do. I'm in a position where it's my job to sort of explore that.

You have to be willing to let your tastes betray you. If I thought what I expect to think about every work of art I go and see, that would be pretty boring for me and for my readers.


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