The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

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FEB 2011 Issue
Art In Conversation

CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT with Patricia Milder

Portrait of Christopher Knight. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Christopher Knight. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, Rail Managing Art Editor Patricia Milder met longtime Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight for a late-November outdoor lunch on Ventura Boulevard, over which they discussed his life and work.

Patricia Milder (Rail): In Dave Hickey’s introduction to your book of collected criticism, he brushes over what happens in your life on the East Coast and starts with L.A.

Christopher Knight: That’s because I’ve been trying to forget. [Laughs.]

Rail: Well, he does mention that you went to school in New York state. Where was that?

Knight: State University at Binghamton. I did my masters and doctorate coursework there. I did everything but my dissertation and then I fled.

Rail: You didn’t want to be an art historian?

Knight: Well, I was planning on it. I had lined up a Guggenheim research grant and I was writing my dissertation on Robert Smithson. I thought I knew what I was going to be doing for the next year or so, but in March I got a phone call from a friend in L.A. at the County Museum, who said there was a curatorial job open in La Jolla and that I should apply for it. She said, “You’ve never been to California and never been to L.A. At least if you apply for the job they will probably bring you out for an interview.” And I thought, “There’s a good idea,” since there was, you know, 30 feet of snow in upstate New York at the time. So sure enough I applied, they brought me out for an interview, I got off the plane at LAX and thought, “Wow. I’m home.”

Rail: Where did you actually grow up? And did you have an interest in art as a child?

Knight: No, that happened during my senior year in high school. I grew up in a very small town in the Berkshires.

Rail: Must have been beautiful there.

Knight: It’s a great place to be from, near Great Barrington. There was just no reason to know about art there. But I had a really great French teacher in high school, and she organized an outing to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. We went to look at French painting and then have lunch at a French restaurant, and the whole day was to be spoken in French. That didn’t happen. But Friday was always French culture day. She had these big reproductions of French paintings that she would use like flashcards that she would hold up and we had to memorize artist, title, date, and style. Everyone in class hated it but me. I thought this was, like, totally cool. So when I went to the Clark I was like, “Well, look at that, there are the actual paintings, not reproductions.” And that was what got me interested.

Rail: So when you eventually arrived in Los Angeles, you took the job, but you didn’t stay at the La Jolla museum for very long.

Knight: Three years. I got out of the museum business when the director asked me to participate in a kickback scheme from a commercial gallery. Not for personal gain, but he was going to buy this very expensive and completely inappropriate work for the museum because the dealer was going to give him a kickback from the commission, which he was going to use to fund the curatorial travel budget. “No,” I thought, “you’re not doing that”—so I went to the president of the board and she thought it was the funniest thing she had ever heard. So I quit.

Rail: And then you got the job at the Herald Examiner?

Knight: As we call it, the late, lamented Herald Examiner, which was a totally great place for about 10 years. After I had left La Jolla and had come up to L.A., I wrote a couple of gallery reviews for Artforum and stuff like that, but I had no thought of being a critic and I knew nothing about journalism, that’s for sure. Literally, I got a phone call one day from an editor at the Herald saying he was looking for freelancers, that someone had given them my name, and would I be interested in trying out some things. I said sure, and then he said, “Can you send me clips of stuff you’ve done in newspapers?” I said, “No. I can send you clip.” I’d written one piece for the San Diego Reader, which was the weekly alternative paper. It’s the first essay in the book, “Miss Piggy and the ‘Pieta.’” Later, he told me that when they read that, they knew they were going to hire me.

Rail: That essay is surprisingly mature and developed for a first piece.

Knight: Thanks, and it still seems weirdly relevant, much to my horror.

Rail: Yes, and threads that you continue throughout your career are already visible in it, as if you already knew what was important to you or what needed to be said.

Knight: Well, I’ve always been interested in pop culture. Also, I subscribe to the Baby Duck Theory, which is that the moment that you come into art and become conscious of it, you get imprinted with whatever is happening at that time. So for me that was around 1968: it’s Pop, Minimal, conceptual, early video. That’s where I got imprinted.

Rail: So were you writing weekly for the Examiner?

Knight: More like twice a week, which was a great way to get into it. When people ask me, “How do you learn to write about art?” I always say that the only way to learn is by doing it a lot, over and over and over. You either learn it, or you don’t. It’s also a great way to make a fool of yourself in public, which is very, very useful and important. So I do that a lot. It breeds humility. Those mornings when you wake up and think, “Well, if I got in my car right now, how many houses could I get to and get the paper off the front stoop?”

Rail: You don’t still have those mornings, do you?

Knight: Oh, sure. Although the Internet has interfered.

Rail: Can we talk about L.A. for a little bit? I’m from L.A. and I still love it, but since I’ve lived in New York and become accustomed to this lifestyle where you can do 10 things in one day and see a ton of galleries all at once if you want to, it’s always a challenge, when I’m here in town, to figure out how to see the art. I mean, my parents live in Culver City, which is where so many of the galleries on the Westside are, and I can’t even quite figure out how to get around to all of them in a reasonable way. It’s this completely different style of doing things.

Knight: Well, speaking of Dave Hickey, he once said something about going to L.A. galleries, which is true. He said, “If you spend as much time looking at the show as it took you to drive to the gallery, it’s probably a good show.” On Fridays we do this rotating gallery column, and a couple of years ago I had done the column and I was looking at it in the paper and I thought, “There’s a show in Santa Monica, a show in Culver City, a show in Chinatown, and a show in Pomona. The distance between the gallery in Santa Monica and the gallery in Pomona is 45 miles. If I had started in Chelsea, I would be in Morristown, New Jersey.”

Rail: Well, with Brooklyn galleries I think you run into some of the same problems as in L.A., since they are more spread out. You have destination galleries and you have to know where you’re going.

Knight: The worst for me is going to a destination gallery, which is usually a small place, and you get there, and it’s closed. And there is a sign on the door, you know, “Back at 1:30.” That’s almost the only time I use my business cards from the Times. I slip one under the door, and wait for them to freak out.

Rail: That’s funny. What do you think about Bergamot Station? I just saw the Alberto Burri show there, which was great. I’d never been before to the little museum they have there.

Knight: They do some interesting stuff. I mean, I think the interesting thing about Burri was that even though he was in L.A. a lot of the early years that I lived here, he didn’t exist. He was a complete hermit, he was not part of anything, and he stayed by himself. Actually, he lived up here just off of Mulholland, right in back of David Hockney’s house.

Rail: Hmm, wow.

Knight: Yeah, just a little enclave of foreign painters. Which is weird, that he’s living up here doing these things that no one knows about.

Rail: Except, I’ve heard it said that Robert Rauschenberg was influenced by him, which makes sense. Gagosian has that huge Rauschenberg show up right now, so he’s on my mind.

Knight: Well, speaking of art and popular culture, Rauschenberg is a great example. He decided to become an artist when he went to the Huntington in San Marino and saw Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy.” He was working in a psych hospital in San Diego because he was a conscientious objector, and he took the day off and came up to the Huntington and walked into the English portraiture gallery and there was this painting that he had seen on a tea towel, and he thought, “Oh my God, people make these things,” and that was when he decided to become an artist.

Rail: That’s a good story. I just went to a talk about Rauschenberg by an artist named Gary Nichols, who was an assistant of Rauschenberg’s. It was really interesting because he talked about the art and its creation from the artist’s perspective. It was a great talk, but it made me think about how different the critic’s job and the artist’s job can be. Do you think it’s important to have ideas about what things mean and what things are beyond even the artist’s ideas?

Knight: I think for a critic, the artist’s intent doesn’t really matter. Artist’s intent is important for art historians, but not for critics. I write about art in order to find out what I think.

Rail: About art and also about the context and the culture.

Knight: I’m a big John Dewey-ite. I think pragmatist philosophy is the most coherent approach to art that I’m aware of. The art is the experience, not the object. So that’s what I’m interested in trying to articulate. It’s an imperfect analogy, but I sometimes try to explain it with pottery—ceramics—since that is one of the oldest continuous art forms there is. A pot has a certain kind of a shape, and you can put all kinds of things into it, but you can’t put everything into it because not everything fits. So the shape of the thing, the form that it takes, has a general contour, but what you can put into it is as varied as the people who experience it.

Rail: Ceramics itself is interesting, too, in the context of Southern California.

Knight: Yeah, and not just the Kenny Prices and Peter Voulkoses of the world. But, like Frank Gehry—that’s how he started.

Rail: I heard Jackson Pollock, too.

Knight: Wouldn’t surprise me.

Rail: Not sure if this is true, but I read somewhere that he got the drip ideas from certain types of glazing techniques.

Knight: And Robert Irwin figured out a lot of what he was doing by looking at Japanese Raku, and from making it.

Rail: That’s another thing that was no secret in L.A., and then became popular more recently in New York. There were all those Ken Price shows last year and it seems that more and more young artists are working in the form.

Knight: Some of that comes from reaction to the digital ether. You want a pile of mud that you can stick your hands into.

Rail: Sure, it’s the antidote to video and Internet art for sure. I mean, I try to figure out this West Coast aesthetic, and whether or not that has any meaning anymore, now that everyone is influenced by everyone all over the world. But still, there are things that sometimes people have trouble understanding in New York because the context is so different. For example, you have this old piece about Chris Burden that I love, because it explains how critics in New York weren’t really able to see his work.

Knight: “The Other Vietnam Memorial”? Yeah, they had no idea.

Rail: Chris Burden might be, like, the next Baldessari. He’s such a huge figure in L.A. but there hasn’t been a major retrospective in New York yet.

Knight: Well, speaking of Baldessari, I was really interested in reading the reviews of the Baldessari retrospective at the Met. The consensus seems to be that early Baldessari is great, but after 1980 not so much, which I think is horse pucky. I found it really interesting because in the ’60s and the ’70s John couldn’t get arrested in New York. He mostly didn’t show in New York. He showed a little bit in L.A. and he showed in Europe. New York was fly-over country for him. The New Museum did a survey in 1981 because, back then, the New Museum focused on artists who were thought to have been overlooked. And he developed his reputation in Europe during that period.

It was in the ’80s, with the market boom and the emergence of a bunch of artists—David Salle, Matt Mullican et al., who had been John’s students at Cal Arts and who were in New York—that the market in New York began to look at John and began to show his work. In these Met reviews, I was interested in whether John became identified with this market phenomenon of the ’80s, so what happened before that time is sort of a surprise to people, whereas the ’80s stuff they know and they’ve seen. They see it as part of this whole market thing, so they don’t pay attention to that, as in, “We all hate David Salle and blah blah,” it’s not quite as good. It’s just such a provincial point of view. I think John was phenomenal in the ’60s and in the ’80s, and he’s phenomenal right now. I just think he’s a phenomenal artist.

Rail: Did you get a chance to see the show at the Met?

Knight: Yes, and it looked like hell. You know, the work is good, but those galleries are dirty and crowded and everything is jammed up against itself. It was hard to see things. It was trimmed substantially from what it was here at LACMA, where it looked really beautiful. And I think that part of the reason late Baldessari didn’t look as good to people writing in New York is partially that. Whereas the conceptual stuff, the early work, is less about this kind of isolated object on a wall, so it’s easier to deal with.

Rail: Other than your collected criticism, you have written another book, correct?

Knight: The other book I have is an oral history with Panza, Art of the ’60s and ’70s. And that’s something that I had never done before—that was for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian. I haven’t written a long-form book, but I’ve started working on one.

Rail: On what?

Knight: It’s on Pop. Warhol. Ruscha. Lichtenstein. Because I think they’re horribly misunderstood.

Rail: Yeah, all the way to the bank. Did you see that Forbes magazine article about the art advisors who know “next to nothing” and advise billionaires to buy Pop? There were those crazy high record numbers at auction this month for Warhols and Lichtensteins. In fact, I think I read that article because of your Twitter link.

Knight: Yeah, it sounds familiar. The whole thing I like Twitter for is to link to interesting things I’ve read. That’s mostly what I use it for. But what scares me about Twitter is that it’s so quick and I could get into real trouble.

Rail: Are you really afraid of getting in trouble? You think you might say the wrong thing?

Knight: Yeah.

Rail: Well, isn’t that your job, to say the wrong thing?

Knight: No. My job is to find out what I think and say that.

Rail: You don’t want to be reactionary.

Knight: Exactly. I mean I do have, for good or for ill, a reputation for speaking my mind.

Rail: I think that makes your articles worth reading. I feel like it’s useful to have a voice that points out inconsistencies in museum culture and the conflicts of interest that occur. And who wants to read press release copy?

Knight: I actually thought I was going to be a museum person, which is why I worked as a curator and I spent a year as an intern at the Toledo Museum in Ohio. Peter Schjeldahl once said something about museums, which I thought was very perceptive. He hates museums. He said the only reason he goes to museums is because that’s where they keep the art. Like Willy Sutton saying the reason he robbed banks was because that’s where they kept the money. And Peter said he feels about museums the way the press corps feels about the White House. You rely on it, you depend on it, and it’s the source of your bread and butter. But if they make one misstep—you’re gonna kill them.

Rail: You’re just waiting.

Knight: Yeah, and it’s true: They’re these ridiculous places, but they’ve got the stuff.

Rail: Ridiculous because they are so entrenched in the commercial gallery world? You don’t think there’s a difference?

Knight: I think they’re not different enough, and they should be more different. The United States is unique in the world in having this nonprofit sector. Europe, Asia, Latin America—they don’t really have a big nonprofit sector. The nonprofit sector was created here specifically as a mechanism to diversify opinion and diversify ideas, so that knowledge and understanding was not beholden only to government or only to rich people. The nonprofit sector said that if a bunch of people with an unpopular idea wanted to get together and pool their resources, like maybe starting a contemporary art museum, the government would help out by not charging tax, and that way these unpopular ideas could get out there. The idea that museums are supposed to be popular and draw in as many people as possible: No. They are supposed to be places that might piss you off. Artists do all kinds of unpopular things, so museums should be supporting them in doing these unpopular things but they don’t. I’m enough of an idealist to know that it is absurd to expect that, but it does make me crazy the way museums behave.

Rail: I feel like there is something about L.A. and the art world that I’d like you to talk about before we end. Can you expand upon what we were discussing earlier about space?

Knight: A lot of L.A.’s efflorescence as a cultural center can be summed up in one word that for decades was a slur: “sprawl.” You know, sprawl was supposedly this hideous, horrible, negative thing; that you’ll never become a real city, quote unquote, which basically meant a European city or a city on a little island. And sprawl has turned out to be absolutely critical to the cultural success of L.A., because it is too big to gentrify.

Kids can still come here and get space in Pacoima and San Pedro and East L.A. and wherever, and make art. Whereas, since I’m speaking to the Brooklyn Rail, if you’re going to go to New York, you’re going to Brooklyn. Used to be able to go to Manhattan but you can’t anymore. And I think a lot of people figured out that if you’re going to be outside of the city proper in New York, you might as well go all the way to L.A. Why not?

So the sprawl has been really healthy for the city, and all of the art schools have been pumping out these kids who can stay. They used to have to leave. So there is layer upon layer upon layer now. And that model of a decentralized art scene also describes the global art world now.

Rail: What do you think the relationship is between Hollywood and the L.A. art world? Does it seep in? For example, the Doug Aitken designed “happening” MoCA gala.

Knight: Yeah, that’s what they called it. Anyway, we all live in Hollywood. It doesn’t matter if you physically live in Omaha, Nebraska, we all live in Hollywood. It’s a little different to be here because people take it a bit more for granted.

 As far as the industry goes here, and its relationship to the art world, there are some people who are serious and involved. But a lot of the wealth in Hollywood is instantaneous, and when you’re broke one day and hugely rich the next day, I think there is a psychology that says, “I’m going to be broke again tomorrow, I better hang on to every penny I’ve got. And if I’m going to give money to anything, I’m going to give it to a medical center because I might get sick. They’ll take care of me and keep me alive forever.” So there hasn’t been a lot of philanthropy from Hollywood in terms of culture. There’s also the difficulty that if you’re working in the industry you think you’re an artist. “Why should I give money to art? I make art. I produced Die Hard.” And it’s like, “What?”

Rail: And are there many collectors out here?

Knight: There’re some big ones; there’s a variety. When I first came to California 30 years ago, there were maybe six or seven galleries that I would go to in L.A., and now there are 125 that I pay attention to on some level. There’s no other city except New York that you can say that about—Chicago’s not that way, Miami’s not that way, Houston is not that way. Nobody. So there is a very big art gallery scene here. But New York is still where the market is. Also, if you spend $100,000 at a gallery in L.A. you get one thing, and if you spend $100,000 at a gallery in New York, you can buy the exact same object, but other doors will open that might not open in L.A. You can buy access. Collectors here, historically, have even bought L.A. art in New York, and it’s a problem. But I do understand that, for logical reasons, they want to buy access, so God bless ’em. Makes sense.

Rail: Do you have a personal collection?

Knight: No, no, no. Can’t do that. I used to buy art, but once I went to work for the Times, no.

Rail: When did you start to work for the Times?

Knight: What’s today?

Rail: November 28.

Knight: Yesterday, November 27, was my anniversary at the Times, 21 years ago. Yeah, 1989.

Rail: And it’s still here.

Knight: Yeah, thank God the Times is still here. I’m incredibly fortunate to have one of the few jobs there is in journalism, and believe me, I know there are few.

Rail: You represent an entire city.

Knight: [Laughs] No, I don’t represent an entire city. I can’t.

Rail: What other art critics in L.A. are there that are read nationally?

Knight: Well, they’re not on staff, but we have regular freelancers.

Rail: San Francisco has a full time critic, too, right?

Knight: Until this summer, California was really interesting; the San Francisco paper had a full-time critic, Ken Baker, San Diego had Bob Pincus, and L.A. had me. It was sort of amazing that that was still the case for daily papers. Bob Pincus is no longer at the San Diego Union because the Union went down. At the Chicago Tribune, Alan Artner retired and they didn’t replace him. There’s still Sebastian Smee at the Boston Globe. I like him.

Rail: Yeah, I know who you’re talking about. I read his review of the Whitney Biennial. He puts forward some unpopular opinions.

Knight: Yeah, I’m all in favor of that. Who do you read? Who do you like?

Rail: Art criticism?

Knight: Yeah.

Rail: Regularly, the journalistic criticism. The New York Times and the whole art and dance sections of the Rail every month. Artforum, Art in America, and Artcritical online, and then I’ll read more academic stuff based on what I’m looking at or researching at the moment. I don’t read—

Knight: October? Does anyone? Except the other people who write for it?

Rail: I don’t know. I also used to read the blogs and then I got really sick of it. I’m also interested in dance writing.

Knight: But isn’t ballet over? Just about over.

Rail: [Laughs] Yeah, I read every review of Apollo’s AngelsNew York Review of Books, New York Times Magazine, Slate Magazine. Didn’t read the book, though. I guess if you read enough reviews you don’t have to ever go see anything or read anything ever again.

Knight: Yeah, you can just stay home, which is really the best thing to do. [Laughs]

Rail: Well, what does keep you inspired and wanting to do this?

Knight: Art. I get grumpy and get down on stuff and I do want to stay home and just watch Real Housewives or something, and then I get up and go out and go to a gallery and it’s like, “Whoa look at that!” That gets me going. And my writing on new art has changed over the years. I’m now much more willing to give something a shot than I used to be. I used to be like, “This is crap.” But now I’m like, “Well, God bless ’em. Let’s put this out there and see what happens.”


Patricia Milder

PATRICIA MILDER is an art and performance writer based in Brooklyn. She was a former Managing Art Editor at the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

All Issues