“What It Means to Write About Art” published by David Zwirner Books is a series of interviews with art critics by Jarrett Earnest. Read the interview with Darby English.
What would you point to as an early important aesthetic experience?
When I was a child, we went to The Cleveland Museum of Art. My favorite experiences were of strolling through those galleries with parents who enjoyed this very much. They weren’t necessarily always equipped to provide detailed information about the art we were looking at, but they were only too happy to indulge their only child in this way. At a certain point, it must have been clear that I was the person who needed this experience the most, but I was never made to feel as though my interest was a burden to them. I don’t recall having a lot to say about it—ever since I could talk I have had speech impediments, and this predisposed me to keep words to myself—but I loved looking, in a deep and abiding way. I guess I looked really hard; I certainly wanted to look often. My first real loves were Dutch landscape paintings by Ruisdael and Van Goyen, which I revisited almost on a pilgrimage basis. I was mainly looking at paintings; it took me the longest time to learn how to see sculpture of any kind. The Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman , by Frans Hals—I saw it again recently, and it’s still to me as completely fixating as ever. Looking back, I feel that a painting like that appeared to me as something like mitigated truth.
What do you mean by that?
The works that first taught me that art is a special and crucial part of the real world were realistic paintings—they promoted the realness of depicted figures and spaces while giving, and maybe even flaunting, evidence of an artist’s intervention, evidence of an individual personality’s interpretation of . . . whatever. That truth could be sensed and not merely stated or displayed was already a considerable development upon everyday understandings of truth, in my world. Now I could think about truth reconciled with felicity; reconciled with opinion; reconciled with differentness. That frees you up in your relationship to truth in the unreflective, common sense. That’s important when you’re different, when all the evidence you have suggests that one’s sense of things isn’t so common.
Looking back, I think that whatever that sense was—a confirmation of sensibility or something—it’s one of the most crucial insights I’ve ever received. That truth wasn’t one thing, there wasn’t a one truth, even about the way the land and the sky outside look, or the way that guy sitting over there looks. There’s something absolutely discrete about him, but you and I will find different things to be interested in when looking at him, when treating him as though he were merely a view. Something about the proliferation of mitigated truths in a museum, for me, confirms one’s right to take a different kind of interest in the things and beings of the world, as long as one sees what, in them, is singular and discrete and not subject to alteration under the pressure of a view. This is a right that needs to be protected fiercely. Art may protect that right more fiercely than any other institution in the culture. Anyway, for me, art has something to do with the individual’s right to differ. I feel very lucky to have lived a life that affirmed this early on.
It wasn’t just painting specific. Teachers affirmed this. At some point in high school, I turned in a paper on Joseph Conrad in which I des-cribed a scene that seemed to me green by calling it “verdant.” No big deal, just a word somewhere in something that I’d written. But the teacher called me aside to thank me for using such a beautiful word; probably part of the thanks related to the correctness of the usage, too. I didn’t then and don’t now know what to make of this. It wasn’t the “day I became a writer”—actually, it increased my anxiety about writing, because I then wanted to always produce papers that moved her in that way. But something happened.
Were you writing outside of assignments—poems or stories?
Yes. There was a literary magazine at my school. I contributed poems, which were terrible. I think I even knew then that they were terrible. I got one or two published. The faculty advisor took me to be responsible enough to be an editor. My best friend and I ended up coediting the literary magazine for a year or two. So now we were arbiters of literary taste in our little microculture. We’d have meetings to review submissions, and we took this very seriously. There was also a little popularity nonsense going on, like, There’s no way we’re going to print anything by that asshole. We were cultivating a sense—our own respective senses—of what “good taste” meant in English-langauge writing. But we were also perpetrating our taste. That became uncomfortable after a period of time, and I resigned before my senior year. I didn’t want to be outside other people’s use of language, judging it up or down. At that point, I started listening to a lot of music, mainly for lyrics at the time, because I had quit all my instruments except for one. And I read a lot of “real” writing, mostly nonfiction. From my time at the literary magazine, I learned something about myself that has remained true: I dislike deciding things for other people. On the one hand, to me that’s a scary kind of power, rarely used for good; on the other, it’s so completely enchanting to me to watch how people who are not me make choices in navigating the landscapes we share—landscapes such as a language, or a neighborhood, or a work of art. I love a minor difference.
What was particularly important to you at that time?
At that point, I was reading a lot of art criticism.
In high school?
Yes. I got a copy of Peter Schjeldahl’s The Hydrogen Jukebox — amazing to me because it was this sparsely illustrated thing full of freely felt, deliberate, and forcefully put words about art. It took me forever to reconcile the essays’ claims with the art they’re ostensibly about, because this writing was so autonomous. A very interesting encounter for a child to have with subject-driven language; something for me to think about, maybe, in relation to my present-day fear of
autonomous art writing. I also read George Kubler’s translation of Henri Focillon’s The Life of Forms in Art  at that time. I was totally mystified and in love, but probably had no idea what I was reading. I did understand the attempt, however, to describe the problem of verbalizing the ineffable in concrete things. It’s a perennial problem, too. Didn’t know that then, either.
The thing about Hydrogen Jukebox is that Peter is one of our greatest writers on painting. His Manet essay is a way of narrating the experience of painting as an intersubjective experience, through close attention to form—that seems close to what you’re doing in your newest book, To Describe a Life.
That essay was very important to me, along his essays on Chardin and Morandi, which do the same thing. Looking back—What was I getting from Peter Schjeldahl’s essays? The same thing I was getting from James Merrill and James Baldwin and Ellison’s nonfiction at the same time—the sense that it’s not about you. Some art is doing things—things unrelated to its depiction or the criticality of its sheer positioning vis-à-vis a charged site—things that it wants people to know about in detail. In trying to tell them, because the art can’t tell them itself, one cannot, I feel, limit the account to descriptions of the art’s own means, whatever the fuck those would be. Art exists for the people who will come along and try to come to terms with it, to describe its attempt, and to find a context for this attempt as part of an effort to ascertain its impact on something beyond itself, beyond art. That context in turn belongs to history, which is a complex of contexts, but in the end history is only a perspective. One person’s view of what it took to bring now about. I feel like Peter’s respect for the art’s core modesty about its situation amid all this, about its dependency on attempts made or not made, is exemplary. He’s going to tell you what he thinks, but he doesn’t start out with that. And he has no time for pathetic, academic hang-ups.
It’s never prescriptive.
At its best, it’s a deeply empathetic project, which has to do with producing a legible and durable record of something that’s been fully has to show me. It’s most often a thing with Schjeldahl, but of course sometimes one needs to make the same commitment to describe a situation adequately.
In a book like 1971, when I’m talking about color painting and color sculpture and trying to think about the historiography of color, a similar kind of commitment was required. The book looks closely at writing about color; of course; all that writing is happening in a social context that’s structured by “color” in a strong racial sense. I can’t imagine doing a kind of social history that doesn’t involve periodic moments of very intense looking—describing everything that can be seen and leaving nothing out, as far as your vision can tell. Otherwise, you haven’t dealt with the thing, you’ve only dealt with the parts that accord with the history you’ve come to affirm—you’ve come to the object for something, taken only what you needed, and left a great lot behind. My project forbids that kind of selectivity, at least up front. Obviously at other, early stages of research, one must make decisions, and that means making choices from among what’s available—not only to see and describe, but also to feel and think. If the work is any good, if it exists for some reason that makes a claim on history, then there’ll be a lot. When someone is faced with a lot of something, she has to make choices.
About Darby English
Darby English (b. 1974) is an art historian whose work unlocks new dimensions of American art through a rigorous attention to form. His books include How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (2007); 1971: A Year in the Life of Color (2016); and To Describe a Life: Notes from the Intersection of Art and Race Terror (2018). He also coedited the volumes Kara Walker: Narratives of a Negress (2002) and Art History and Emergency (2016). He is the Carl Darling Buck Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago. English also serves as adjunct curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Read other David Zwirner Books excerpts: