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Thursday
Jun142012

Faculty Focus

The Professor: Eva Díaz
The Course: The Current Season

How is The Current Season organized?

The class is essentially a workshop for graduate students to produce art criticism. We visit as many shows “in the field” as possible, so the students are able to respond to a range of artwork in their writing. Before each semester begins I develop a detailed itinerary of what the class will see together in New York City, creating a mix of exhibitions at major museums, non-profit alternative art spaces, and commercial galleries in Manhattan and throughout Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx (sorry Staten Island; we haven’t made it to you yet!). I frequently arrange for artists or curators to speak to the class at the sites we visit. When we visit micro art districts of the city—Bushwick, or the Lower East Side, for example—I ask the students to research exhibitions and contribute to the agenda so that we are seeing work that especially interests them. I also try to save a slot for the MFA students in the class to take us to their Pratt open studios at the end of the semester. This is a great opportunity to see work in that very interesting place that is the studio: the space between creation and display, between raw materiality and crafted, considered, “worked” form.

What skills do you think your students develop from taking The Current Season?

The class is structured as a laboratory for writing, with each student posting exhibition reviews of increasing length throughout the semester to the public blog at nyccurrentseason.blogspot.com. I provide detailed editorial feedback for each review, and each student is required to comment in detail on at least two other reviews in each writing cycle. The students then revise their writing. Because we’ve all seen the same exhibitions, the class is a great peer group in which to test the accuracy of one’s impressions against how the writing is actually communicating those impressions to others. Once a month we meet back at Pratt in a seminar situation to discuss what we've seen, and to troubleshoot challenges to the progress of the students' writing.

The format of the students’ reviews mirrors the word counts and standards of art criticism found in publications such as The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Village Voice, Artforum, Art in America, and Frieze, as well as major online publications. My hope for students, whether they are pursing M.F.A.s, M.A.s in Art History, M.S.’s in Library Science, or any other degree, is that they feel the class helps them develop a pleasure in writing in the very limber world of art criticism, where you can see a show and sometimes within days see your ideas about the stakes of that work published.

Art criticism, like all writing, is about choosing the right words, and putting them into the armature of a reasoned and well-organized argument that in the end must enliven and persuade the reader that all of this matters! There’s far too much dreary, merely descriptive, “too scared to take a stand” art criticism out there already. On the other hand, unfounded polemics and rants are also all too common. Good art criticism is tendentious and passionate, as well as historically grounded and clearly reasoned.  Also, as an art historian I push students to see that art criticism has a responsibility to contextualize why an art practice looks the way it does, as well as to explain how, and how well, it accomplishes what it sets out to do. After all, all form has meaning, and visual and written forms together are parallel practices to observing and creatively rearticulating the world.

Your book about Black Mountain College is coming out next year. How did you become interested in the topic of this experimental school?

In part, I became interested for the very reason you invoke—the way the rhetoric of “experiment” has become such a powerful part of post-war and contemporary art practices. The book, The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College, examines how the interdisciplinary group of artists at Black Mountain proposed new models of art practice around the concept of experimentation in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Experimenters focuses on three key Black Mountain figures—Josef Albers, John Cage, and R. Buckminster Fuller—and analyzes a crucial modernist idea that was explored to a nearly unparalleled degree at Black Mountain in these mid-century years. In its discussion of artists’ reformulations of avant-garde strategies (i.e., monochromes, geometric abstraction, serial and mass production, chance-based composition), the book rethinks the relationship between the historical and neo-avant-gardes by reassessing the language of experimental “testing” that was so important at the time. The Experimenters is scheduled to be out by fall 2013, coinciding with the  80th anniversary of the establishment of the College and the 60th anniversary of Merce Cunningham’s founding of the Cunningham Dance Company there.

What are some trends you're going to be looking for in exhibitions and gallery shows in the next "current season" this fall. 

It was a busy spring season for art critics in New York: the New Museum Triennial and the Whitney Biennial were concurrent for once, and the spring art fair blitz (The Armory Show, Pulse, Scope, Volta, etc.) as well as the new Frieze Art Fair made for a full slate for “The Current Season.” Art fair booths are never the best way to see art, however, and are generally quite deflating since the space between critical reception and consumption has been flattened almost entirely. But it’s still part of “the current season,” so you gotta hit that pavement. In the fall we get to see more artwork that isn’t “art fair art”: in which the stakes for art criticism to provide a rich, discursive field in understanding the production of visual form are high, and the need to do so is ever greater.

What are you working on this summer?

I’m out in the Rockaways for the summer, surfing as much as the often-fickle surf allows. I’m working on my next book, The Fuller Effect: Contemporary Art and the Legacy of Total Design, which examines the range of contemporary artists and collectives that are reassessing R. Buckminster Fuller’s work with mass shelter solutions, equitable resource management, and experimental forms. The book analyzes four main avenues by which artists today engage Fuller’s legacy: dome construction and shelter design; mapping and navigation projects; studies of food and energy consumption; and explorations of space and extraterrestrial life. I’m also completing edits on an article I have coming out in the fall issue of the MIT Press journal October; the article focuses on the work of two Pratt teachers and artists who collaborate together: Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry.

Interview: Abigail Beshkin
Photo: Jonathan Weitz