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The Opening Blow: Bad Reviews: An Artists' Book by 150 Artists Reviewed by Nick Irvin

150 artists submitted their worst reviews for reprint, compiling a broad survey of severe art criticism—its shifting form, nature, and impact—by those directly subjected to it.

What happened to the hatchet job? While it’s evident that most art writing today leans more toward boosterism than critique, obliged to press releases and the publicity apparatuses that administer them, the critic nevertheless remains a figure of pretentious cruelty, a sometimes sadistic wielder of the pen as sword. This figure is kept alive, perhaps, by the occasional appearance of a prominent takedown when the tools of analysis are dusted off and an artist or show is ritually sacrificed to the old gods of Discourse to prove that we still believe. Writers tend to relish this occasion—artists tend to dread it—but collectors tend to not notice, and so the market sails on, towing the magazines behind it.

Whenever this “crisis of criticism” has been made the subject of a book, conference, or panel (and there have been many), its organizers have turned, naturally, to critics. Bad Reviews, a new book edited by artist Aleksandra Mir and former Artforum editor Tim Griffin, takes a different tack: the two invited artists within their networks to contribute the “worst review” they have ever received, however they might interpret that. The resulting book reproduces over 150 reviews spanning from 1963 to 2018, and includes translations from eleven languages. Their intention was to “honor the bad review as a genre,” which they see as endangered, while maintaining a “for artists, by artists” ethos. The cumulative effect is perverse and funny, somewhere between group therapy, humblebrag, exorcism, roast, and ode.

Bad Reviews is expressly an artists’ book, as opposed to a formal, critical anthology or reader. The distinction is not just one of attitude but of legal precaution: per the editors, “Since we’ve never had the (financial or emotional) resources to clear formal copyrights, we put it together as an artists’ scrapbook under the ‘fair use’ clause.” In keeping with this fugitive (read: artistic!) approach, the book, printed in a small edition by Mir’s imprint, Retrospective Press, is not for sale. Copies were distributed to the participating artists, and the rest are being gifted to universities and art libraries—or to publications covering it (like BOMB).

Given this extremely limited circulation, one good use of this review would be to describe the book itself. Bad Reviews’s dimensions are standard for a glossy magazine (12.5 × 9 inches), but its page count tips the association from magazine to monograph. Once you’re past its bold, hazard-yellow cover, the book’s interior is all grayscale and scrapbooky, with the layout transforming from page to page. Most reviews receive one page reproducing its original formatting, either a scanned clipping (if in print) or a screenshot (if online). Accompanying each text is a pull quote extracting a particularly barbed passage: Arthur Danto on David Salle for The Nation, 1987: “ANYONE THIS CONSISTENTLY AWFUL ACQUIRES A CERTAIN REVERSE GRANDEUR”; Claire Bishop on Candice Breitz for Artforum, 2009: “THE RESULT WAS AN ABORTION.” Entries are arranged chronologically, and the artists’ names and year of the text comprise the index and headers; proper citations with author, publication, and so on are relegated to smaller, footnoted print. Since Bad Reviews doesn’t reproduce any images of the works discussed (that would be another copyright nightmare), this artists’ book’s visual charm lies in its attention to the varying layout designs of publications over the years, fading from dense Xerox-grained blocks of serif type set alongside vintage ads to the tidy white space of the screen.

If you agree with the editors that criticism just isn’t what it used to be, it’s easy to correlate that fade to a decline in quality of content. The first contribution, from Carolee Schneemann, is a formidable 1963 piece by John Canaday for the New York Times titled “Good-By Forever: A Final Sad Farewell to Tenth Street.” More of a takedown of a gallery district than of Schneemann herself, who is barely mentioned in passing (all we learn is that her “assemblages were unforgivable”), the essay certainly feels of another era. Canaday’s acute dissection of this scene is expressed through buoyant, florid prose; amazingly, he isn’t afraid to talk prices, and takes as a given that they should correspond to quality. Seven spreads later, in 1979, Geoffrey Wolff subjects Aram Saroyan’s book on the Beat Generation, Genesis Angels, to a ruthless fact-check for Esquire: “For a writer enslaved to legend, Saroyan plays fast and loose with its icons. [...] Peekaboo, Saroyan: I see you, too. Catch his act, and when you weary of it, put it in the disposal or back into the food chain.” It’s hilarious to see that even outlets like Time, Time Out, and the Observer used to see merit in publishing harsh criticism, and that for a few years in the ’90s, Artforum’s year-end roundups weren’t “Best ofs” but “Best and Worsts.” Dishy schadenfreude abounds.

But then the book reminds you that the good old days sucked too—it’s hard to write a good bad review. When the Halifax Mail-Star tries to ridicule Lawrence Weiner at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1969, or the Irish Times dismisses Ulay & Marina Abromavić in 1980, their writers naïvely assume that merely describing a conceptualist gesture’s simplicity is enough to discredit it. More sophisticated critiques of these artists might be out there, but we get what we get: these are what the artists chose as “worst.”

Lower-middlebrow criticisms such as these are familiar in the internet era, and some younger contributors to the compilation predictably donate comment sections and trolling as their “bad reviews.” But a teenager on Twitter telling Alix Lambert to kill himself or a random Discogs reviewer giving Florian Hecker’s release one out of five stars seem like weak examples of today’s vernacular criticism; a more well-rounded collection might include Brian Droitcour’s Yelp reviews, Hennessy Youngman videos, or the blog Art Observations with Jerry Magoo. As for formal critics, Gary Indiana’s Village Voice column’s voice is conspicuously absent. Meanwhile, Roberta Smith appears ten times.

If I asked rigorous, quality editing of this book, though, I’d be committing one of the critic’s most egregious crimes: requesting an artwork be something it’s not trying to be. Bad Reviews’s scattershot, artist-driven style is its appeal but also its limit: the archive it presents is shaped more by artists’ hurt feelings than critical insight. It also undermines whatever agency criticism has in its necessarily parasitic exchange, beyond wounding pride. One of the most impactful inclusions is Arlene Croce’s 1994 attack on Bill T. Jones’s dance piece Still/Here for The New Yorker. Croce notoriously panned the piece as an example of “victimhood art” without ever seeing it. The fallout was immense, and the magazine ran a panoply of response letters from such figures as bell hooks, Hilton Kramer, Tony Kushner, and Camille Paglia—the last of which perhaps speaks most to this debate’s relevance today when anti-woke neo-Paglianism animates a segment of the Twitterati. But you wouldn’t glean any of this afterlife from Bad Reviews: it includes only the opening blow.