Lori Waxman was in the lobby of the Smart Museum, but she couldn’t talk about the painting right behind her, an 8-by-13-foot linen canvas painted with ash collected from temples in Shanghai. She couldn’t talk about the painting — “Seeds,” by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan — because she was probably going to write about The Allure of Matter, the new show the painting was a part of. And if she was going to write about a show, or a piece of art, she needed her thoughts about it to remain uncontaminated by anyone else’s.
“It messes up the clarity of my own thinking — I have to get there myself,” said Waxman, who was at the Smart Wednesday evening for a conversation with Rachel Cohen, a creative writing professor at the University of Chicago, about writing art criticism.
“I write, and I send it off to my editor. He says nothing and it goes in the paper,” she continued, to laughter from the audience, many of them students in Cohen’s class on art writing.
The paper Waxman mentioned is the Tribune, where she’s been the art critic since 2009. Waxman’s also written for publications like Artforum and BOMB Magazine, and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
She has a doctorate degree in art history from New York University, but said she is “not so good at it,” and prefers the work of criticism.
“I think I am good at being a critic, at just looking at things and taking them as if they were happening right now,” she said.
Much of the talk revolved around the two forms of criticism Waxman routinely writes. The first is in her role at the Tribune, where she publishes a review every month (recently down from two due to budget cuts).
That forces her, she says, to try to write about something important each time — “the one heavy hitter.” In February, that was the Block Museum’s new show about Iranian, Turkish and Indian modernist art in the '60s and '70s.
A few years ago, when the Tribune was, in Waxman’s words, “flush with money for a little while” she briefly found herself writing as many as four articles a month. That allowed her, on occasion, to pick more idiosyncratic topics.
“I like coincidence, so I saw all these blue things … and I wanted to think about them all together even though they’re in five different galleries,” she said. “It was the show in my head, and that was awesome.”
In her second life as a critic, however, Waxman is even more prolific. Then the writing is part of a performance art piece, “60 wrd/min,” in which she spends several days at a gallery or other art space, reviewing the work of anyone who walks in the door and asks (or at least lines up early enough outside).
Waxman honed her speed-writing abilities in the early 2000s, while working at an art publisher in New York City. Twice a year, she had to write promotional copy for 600 new art books on a tight turn-around. At the same time, she was trying to break into art criticism, writing short pieces for Artforum’s website that paid $35 for 200 words.
“I thought, if I can write more of these faster, it’s not so humiliating,” she said. “So I had this idea. What if I were to write reviews for anyone who asked for them? Will anybody want them, actually?”
People did, and Waxman has continued the performance in the 15 years since then, in part as a meditation on gate-keeping in the art world. “People seemed to want these reviews, because they weren’t necessarily getting them otherwise,” she said. (Others — a six-year-old, a former incarceree — wanted them for other reasons.)
In 2008, when she arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee, for a performance, the previous artist had left behind a flat-screen monitor after their show ended. Waxman decided to use it for 60 wds/min, hooking the monitor to her computer. Since then, bystanders have been able to see her write in real time, complete with deletions, rearrangement, and forgetful online searches. It’s a reversal of the isolation of her day job.
“It’s much messier, and really transparent,” she said. “How do you google John Cage’s name when you forget John Cage’s name?”
For the most recent iteration of “60 wrd/min,” Waxman spent the bulk of her Saturdays this February at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport, writing reviews for international artists in need of one. The criteria for an 0-1B visa, given out to “individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts,” allow an artist to submit press coverage as evidence for their application.
Waxman’s reviews — to be published in a forthcoming issue of Lumpen, the Co-Prosperity Sphere’s magazine — count toward that requirement.
“This is a whole other level of usefulness. These are extremely pragmatic concerns, getting (a review) to tick boxes on your visa application,” she said. “And that’s meant a lot in terms of cultural capital, and how I can be able to disperse it in ways that intervene in the system.”