The universe of so-called “serious” modern American art has, since the early decades of the 20th century, been bifurcated between the east and west coasts, as represented mainly by New York in the northeast, and in the two major Californian cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco in the west. There are of course many other vibrant centers of art in our country — from New Orleans to St. Louis, up to Chicago, back down to Houston, across to Santa Fe and Taos, up to Denver and on out to the Pacific Northwest. All of these places, and many others, have produced some of the most iconic, momentous voices in American arts, letters and music. Nevertheless, the hierarchical position of importance that New York has habitually arrogated to itself, particularly in the visual arts, is analagous to that which Europe claimed before New York’s mid-century Modernist ascent. As is so often the case among the victims of snobbery, Europe’s formerly denigrated colonial cousin on the Hudson did not miss a beat in turning the tables to treat its own further-flung American relations with the same contempt so long visited upon itself.
In this collection of essays, the west coast critic, art educator (and erstwhile painter) John Seed gives us a semi-autobiographical travelogue of the contemporary art world through the decades spanning his early art education at Stanford University in the late 1970s to his retirement from college art instruction in Southern California last year. In between, he chronicles a colorful career of assistantships, curatorial jobs and projects, and a long, steady trajectory of thoughtful critical engagement with what the author describes in the title as “My Art World” . This portrait is certainly not limited to the art of the west, but Seed’s personal history and involvement with Californian art in particular is the locus of a penetrating appreciation for it that gives the lie to the east coast’s presumed superiority.
Much of Seed’s narrative is entertaining, especially in his descriptions of an early apprenticeship with a young and rising Larry Gagosian. The stories from that period are funny, frightening and prescient as a view from home plate when the first ball in the world series of our apallingly monitized and celebritized contemporary art market was just being thrown out. More poignant, and also illuminating, are Seed’s portraits of his early mentor and friend, the painter Nathan Oliveira, on David Park, and multiple pieces about Richard Diebenkorn which are judiciously spaced throughout the book as a contemplative counterpoint to the histrionics of the New York centric market and some of its more bombastic figures.
My only quibble with the collection is with Seed’s late enthusiasm for a reactionary, and now rising school of Neo-classical realism that waves the banner of “traditional skill” but smacks a bit too much of the mannered illustrative confections of the old French Academie for this dyed-in-the-wool modern realist to embrace. So many consummately skilled figurative and representational painters — from Schiele and Freud in the 20th century, to Rackstraw Downes and Vija Celmins more recently — did not shy away from assimilating and incorporating the lessons of Modernism into an exceptional level of craft. Try as I might, I cannot extend the same admiration to any artist who prefers to behave as if Modernism had never happened.
That said, Seed’s is overall an honest, thoughtful and profoundly open minded voice in the wilderness of alternately over theorized and buzz-besotted critical writing today. Perhaps the most crucial essay in the collection is titled When Art Likes You Back. This is one of the most insightful, clear-headed descriptions I have ever read about the reciprocal and irreducably subjective relationship between a viewer and a work of art. Its inclusion late in the book also speaks directly to the journey of discovery on which the author has been travelling throughout his career and which is so revealingly disclosed in the sequence of both his early and later writings. This piece especially offers proof of the merit of John Seed’s quest. As rich a collection as My Art World is, I would urge any lover of art, and especially of painting, to buy the book for this essay alone.