In Praise of Joseph Masheck, Art Critic

Joseph Masheck on Charlie Rose, 1996.

Now and again, but this is rare, a single person can have a decisive effect on your life. And so when it happens, that story is worth telling. This happened to me when in the late 1970s, I was an untenured philosopher, teaching aesthetics in Pittsburgh. Sublimely naive, I decided to learn about art criticism by reading in the library the back issues of the then most important journal, Artforum. I didn’t know any artists or art critics. In graduate school, I had studied aesthetics, an experience which did not prepare me in the slightest for this experience. Although I spent 4 years as a graduate student at Columbia University, apart from attending some of the famous lectures by Meyer Schapiro, I knew nothing about art history. And I hadn’t spend time in the museums or galleries, which were right at hand.

For an academic philosopher, this experience of Artforum was deeply puzzling. The debates to which I was starting to contribute within academic aesthetics had nothing to do with the concerns of the art world. The leading philosophy journal was (and is) called The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. But, notwithstanding its title, it took (and takes) no real interest in either the practice or theory of art criticism. The renowned philosopher Arthur Danto, who had been my thesis advisor at Columbia, was not yet involved in criticism. That only happened in the early 1980s, when he published his famous treatise on aesthetics The Transfiguration of the Commonplace and become, thanks to the success of that book, art critic of The Nation. And so I was initially very much on my own. From my reading of Artforum I got some sense of what arguments concerned art critics. And I soon learned, also, that writing art criticism was a commercial activity, which made it challenging for an unworldly philosophers.

At this period, so I gradually came to understand, the art world was involved in a highly contentious moment of transition. Clement Greenberg, the most important American critic, was still alive. But his moment had passed; and so it was natural to ask what theorizing would come next. Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss, two critics who had worked with Greenberg, and then rebelled, were influential. But there were also some other writers who seemed of potential importance. The critic who attracted my most serious attention was Joseph Masheck, who had published a series of elaborately illustrated essays presenting a highly original theory of contemporary art and early modernist abstraction. With reference to Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian he offered a radically revisionist way of understanding the development of non-figurative art.

Trained at Columbia as an art historian, Masheck also was doing criticism. Indeed, he was editor at Artforum. And so I wrote to him, proposing to write about his ‘methodology’. (I was, after all, a philosopher. And that’s what philosophers often study.) In response, he did something that was surprising (at least to me) and highly imaginative. And so changed my life. What you should do, he rather proposed, is write criticism yourself. And so, lending action to his words, he put me in contact with a young artist friend, Sharon Gold. Soon enough then, I was sitting in her studio, asking her questions about her paintings. At that time, she was a friend of the famous American abstract painter, Robert Ryman. She was admirably patient, which was necessary because as a critic I was a comically ignorant beginner. I didn’t know anything about contemporary art. But I managed to put together a commentary on Gold, which was published in a English journal, Artscribe. I remember still, the editor communicated with me by writing notes on the shrink-wrap of my subscription copy. When I say that the art world was commercial, I don’t mean that lots of money was usually involved.

This modest personal story reveals something about art criticism. I had an academic post teaching philosophy because I had a Columbia PhD. That is, I had successfully participated in seminars, taken the qualifying exams and the language exams, and written a book-length thesis. It would be extremely difficult to get an academic appointment without those professional qualifications. But there was no similar academic training for critics. I never formally studied criticism; I published art criticism because a number of editors, Masheck included, were willing to support my writing. Critics generally are self-taught, trained on the job; degrees really don’t play an important role in our activity. Many critics are poets, some are art historians (like Masheck), and some (like me and Danto) are even philosophers. But when you submit art criticism, the editor doesn’t care about your academic degree. I learned about the importance of this difference early on when, thanks to Masheck, I published in Artforum an extended essay on then leading American philosopher of art, the Harvard professor Nelson Goodman, whose book Languages of Art (1968) was a seminal treatise. For better or worse, no one in the contemporary art world was remotely interested in his philosophy, which was much discussed by philosophers of art.

Academic aesthetics and art criticism are, and mostly have remained, very different activities, with only occasional cross-over. What has, however, happened is that often young critics have become art historians. Academics can have stable careers, which generally critics do not; in America today, it’s extremely difficult to support yourself as an independent intellectual. But in offering this sketch of my autobiography, I won’t mean to suggest that my career was in any way unique or special. To name three important critics who continue to interest me, Thomas McEveilley was a classicist, Barry Schwabsky is a poet, and Rosalind Krauss, became an art historian. And Danto, who became a famous critic, was also a very well known philosopher. But Danto the philosopher and Danto the art critic had different identities, and largely different audiences. His fellow philosophers admired his criticism, but in general they really were outsiders in the art world. Art critics write differently and in general have different skills from academic art historians. And so it can be surprisingly difficult, such in my experience, to make that transition.


And after leaving his post as editor of Artforum, Masheck turned to focus on an academic career, as an art historian. For a long time, art criticism had been a mostly secular enterprise. Masheck always resisted that way of thinking, arguing as a practicing Catholic for the grounding of modern art in religious life. His early writings presented a stunningly original view of the nature of painting, an account relevant both to historians of early abstraction and to art critics. I won’t here summarize his claims, writing of lasting interest and importance which I have discussed at length in several publications. I have been thinking about Masheck right now because his book Faith in Art. Religion, Aesthetics, and Early Abstraction (2023) has just appeared. Now he fills out the background to his early theorizing in a fascinating account of the sacred concerns of the pioneering abstract artists. As a co-editor of a series of academic books, I played a modest role in its production. Long ago, Masheck changed my life entirely. I like to hope that now, in this small return for his essential generosity that I have contributed to his intellectual life and, even, to the world of my fellow art critics.

Note: See my “Sharon Gold,” Artscribe, 30 (l98l):35-7;”Recent Esthetics and the Criticism of Art,” Artforum, XVIII,2 (l979):41-7; and the discussions of Masheck in my Writing about Visual Art (2003) and Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art, and Lawrence Carroll (2020). For Masheck’s early writings see . His new book is published by Bloomsbury.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.