It is an odd fact of publishing life that perhaps the most notable collections of art criticism to have appeared in recent times have been written by artists. In 2016 the painter David Salle brought out his criticism in How to See, and now Carroll Dunham, who is also a painter, has assembled his art writing in Into Words. Like How to See, it is a solid achievement. It, too, presents a number of reviews and essays we feel we will be turning to again in years to come; yet the two books are subtly different in tone.
From its very title, How to See sought a broad audience and came with a clear cause. The title said that the author was going to show us how to get to the essence of art and implied that not all art writing did so. Dunham’s title, though, is a little mysterious. It first suggests something tentative: that the author, a visual artist, is trying to get his thoughts across in a medium that is somewhat foreign to him. But Into Words can also mean that Dunham is, well, into words—that he likes writing. This interpretation is not quite right, either, but it is partially right, and it is what gives the book much of its life.
Carroll Dunham has a particular and often commanding voice as a writer. He can be brainy and erudite in one instance, and colloquial, amused, and down to earth in the next. Perhaps befitting Artforum magazine, where many of these writings appeared, his sentences are spotted with “somatized,” “neoteric,” “ontologically,” and the like. We hear of “the helix of codes that allow things to feel true” and the “youthful pulchritude” of some of Renoir’s subjects. He gets recondite with “pictures can’t reproduce (re-present) qualia,” and he flunked this reader (and his Webster’s Collegiate) with “uroboric conundrum.”
At the same time Dunham can explain a point with a reference to Tony Soprano, or can informally and quite rightly say of art in the latter part of the 1970s that the “juggernaut of modernism had already broken down and was being stripped for parts.” Sounding like a practiced journalist who knows he has to hook his audience immediately, he writes in the first sentence of an article that “Kara Walker’s work seems to have always brought out the worst in her.” Learned or hip, Dunham rarely gives us boilerplate, and in its precision and balance, he has a Dr. Johnson–worthy moment when he writes, concerning a work by William Baziotes, that “everything about this painting is ambiguous without being tentative.”
Dunham’s collection, which includes a lively and valuable introduction by Scott Rothkopf, is composed mainly of short and essay-length reviews dating from 1994 to 2015. There are also…
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