Richard Shiff, Our Most Original Writer about Contemporary Art

Trained at Yale University as an art historian, Richard Shiff published his doctoral thesis as Cézanne and the End of Impressionism: A Study of the Theory, Technique, and Critical Evaluation of Modern Art (1986). I know Cézanne and the End of Impressionism very well, for when I started writing about art history, I studied it closely. Then I was a little disappointed to discover that in art history it was almost unique. Shiff traces the highly complex development of writing about Paul Cézanne, an especially challenging history because the artist’s apotheosis depended upon several generations of champions. Most art historians focus on a particular period. And so one might have expected Shiff to continue to write about European modernism. Which he did. But, also, he has turned to writing about contemporary art.

There are three rather diverse genres of art writing devoted to contemporary art. There are exhibition reviews, generally relatively short quickly written commentaries. Then, when an artist becomes more well known, they become a subject for academic treatises, book-length scholarly accounts. And, third, there are exhibition catalogues, writing commissioned by galleries or museums to support displays of well known figures. In some ways the diverse features of these forms of writing are influenced by its funding. Reviewing is poorly paid journalism, usually short, edited by a journal editor, and generally written by independent scholars. Academic writing is done for a publisher, sometimes subsidized by an artist or gallery. Such books have the traditional apparatus of notes and bibliography. And writing of exhibition catalogues, which is sometimes very well paid, is commissioned for an art gallery.

Right now when the major dealers are very prosperous and journalism is beleaguered, inevitably catalogue writing has become important. An editor expects a certain objectivity from his reviewers, while an art gallery wants that catalogue writing support its commercial work. For this reason, often people are suspicious about this genre of writing, which all too readily becomes a panegyric. Most of the most famous art writers were critics- Denis Diderot, Roger Fry, Clement Greenberg, just to name safely historically distant figures. But one English critic, David Sylvester (1924-2001), made a great success with catalogue writing. I myself have done all three kinds of art writing, though with uneven success. While catalogue writing does pay the bills and encourages the ready collaboration of the artist, there can be an uneasy match between a writer’s viewpoint and that of his subject. I have several times had commissioned writing rejected because it was inconsistent with the artist’s self-image, or that of his estate.

The publisher of Shiff’s Writing after Art. Essays on Modern and Contemporary Artists (David Zwirner Books, 2023) is a grand art dealer, with a large scale publishing program, not an academic press. Shiff’s book, which discusses 28 artists, offers no elaborated general theory of contemporary art. (He has dealt with that issue elsewhere.) In the introduction he speaks of his need to be “immersed in the materiality of the art and the mentality of the artist” (p. 9). Hence the importance of focusing on the diversity of individual artists. He argues that “speechlessness may have been a suitable reaction to (Georg) Baselitz’s art” from the start because it fell “outside the purview of the prevailing partisan perspectives” (p. 21) He explains that the work of Mark Bradford “is intensely hand oriented” (p. 39.) He says that for Georges Braque “the represented object , , , takes second place to ‘lyricism’, a subject more immediate and intimate yet indeterminate” (p. 59). He describes Chuck Close’s working “against nature, against its habitual inertia, which in human conduct becomes laziness” (p. 99).He tells how “Marlene Dumas’s moral dilemma is ours: try as we may, our choice of action is likely to fail us, if not now, then later” (p. 151). He indicates that when Suzan Frecon writes, her “statements are characteristically concise, her phrasing as direct as the forms she paints” (p 197). Shiff’s ability to master the presentation of so many diverse artists is amazing. I doubt that a commercial publisher could afford to produce such a book for the reasonable price of this volume. And it’s revealing, I think, given the focus on the activity of art-making to know that Shiff is himself a good painter.

Normally a reviewer summarizes an author’s argument, paraphrasing the claims and then maybe offering a critique. Because Shiff’s 692 pages of arguments are so tightly woven, so marvelously detailed, and so scrupulously edited, his positively spooky seamless book, is almost unreviewable. I say that because his arguments are so varied, highly condensed and well defended that they are hard to adequately summarize. And so artfully crafted that they are hard to critique. For anyone interested in late modernism and contemporary art, Writing after Art is an extraordinary resource. It really changes of the received ideas of what art writing makes possible, in a way that is sure to inspire commentary and, I hope, imitation. I know of no precedent for the kind and quantity of close looking that Shiff consistently inspires. Neither the American Abstract Expressionists nor, at that time, their successors in the 1960s attracted so much close discussion. The sheer quantity of material in this book, together with the quality of the observations, threatens I think to challenge the ways that contemporary art is understood.

Normally exhibition catalogues are fully illustrated. The one obvious limitation of this book, which derives from its source, exhibition catalogues, is that most of the artists get only one or two illustrations. And so the reader is to some extent following the discussion blind. To properly understand (and critique) the argument, you really need to find the fully illustrated catalogues which are the its source, or look on line for the artworks it discusses. To better understand that problem, let’s analyze briefly just a catalogue essay by Shiff, one which isn’t republished in Writing after Art. “Haunting,” David Reed (Gagosian 2022), is a book with 16 color figures, and additional color installation shots, of this 2020 show, and images of all the paintings together with some details. I choose this example, which is about 40 pages long, because I too have written about Reed’s paintings. And my summary will be brief, for David Reed is readily accessible.

Observing the link of these abstractions to film, Shiff discusses Reed’s interest in things undone, and the way that contemporary abstraction can allude to baroque art history. He discusses the ways ;that for Reed painting resists becoming photographic, links this claim to Reed’s observations of Nicolas Poussin’s history paintings, presents Reed’s sense of premonitions, and offers a plausible speculative account of the artist’s fantasy life. And he explains why Reed’s paintings are very interesting indeed. To follow all this analysis, I would add, you really need the extensive full illustrations provided by the dealer, Gagosian. Here, then, a contemporary artist is given the kind of close discussion that normally is provided to only the grandest old masters. And that is a stellar achievement.


My earlier writing about Shiff includes “The Art in Artwriting,” New Observations, 47 (l987), guest editor, with contributions by Arthur C. Danto, Mark Roskill, and Shiff. And “Introduction. Richard Shiff, Critical Reflections,” Artforum , October 1995: 82. My earlier accounts of Reed include “David Reed. An Abstract Painter in the Age of Postmodernism,” in S. Bann and W. Allen eds., Interpreting Contemporary Art (l991): 67-84 and (written with Reed) “Tradition, ‘Eclecticism’ and Community. Baroque Art and Abstract Painting,” Arts , (January l991), 44-9.

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.