Yishai Jusidman on FOBNYTR (Fear of a Bad New York Times Review)…from Roberta Smith
Published the 27 November 2021
Illustration by Pablo Helguera
A few days ago I received a new batch of Pablo Helguera’s bitingly funny Artoons. One of them fancies a handful of phobias shared by contemporary artists, among which is a threat so hard to grapple with that the cartoonist himself mishandled its acronym, spelling out FOBNTYR to stand for Fear Of a Bad New York Times Review. The cartoon’s character—goggle-eyed, mouth agape and hair standing on end as he opens the paper—took me back to the morning of February 28 2013, when Roberta Smith tanked my show at the Americas Society. A fuller account of her review’s direct effect on me would also include palpitations, dizziness and nausea, accompanied by the sense of the ground being cut out from under one’s feet, and one’s own butt being sucked down into the void along with everything and the ceiling.
Restrained only by the 366-word length of her write-up, the critic delivered herself of the fullest measure of contempt, dissing my Prussian Blue series of paintings for being “explicitly political… obvious, emotionally manipulative… generated by little in the way of personal necessity… borrow[ed] liberally from other artists… exploiting… [powered by] verbiage… derivative [yet again]… lack[ing] genuine artistic effort.” As paintings dealing with the Holocaust, she dismissed them on the evidence of a single aesthetic attribution: to her they were “painted in a relaxed, realist manner,” as though I’d been playing Bob Ross doing happy little Nazi gas chambers.
In the following months, night after night and unable to sleep, I plotted endless refinements to my ensuing replies to Roberta Smith.
My irritation might have been handled with stoic detachment if only artists weren’t as thin-skinned—probably a side-effect of our uncommon depth of feeling, or else of our peevish vanity mingled with esteem-craving insecurity. Either way, as soon as I pulled myself together somewhat I sent a hasty letter to the editor of the NYT protesting their critic’s arbitrariness. It took me another day to write to Roberta Smith herself spelling out everything she had gotten wrong. Still later that week I seriously considered paying for the publication of that letter in the paper’s pages, desisting only when it was revealed to require the disbursement of a small fortune. Suing for defamation might have been an option to weigh elsewhere, but not in the Land of the Free-to-Defame-with-Impunity. In the following months, night after night and unable to sleep, I plotted endless refinements to my ensuing replies to Roberta Smith.
As corroborated by my friends’ and colleagues’ condolences, a terrible fate akin to artworld-murder had befallen me, in all probability doing away with my rather unexceptional (but, to my mind, then still promising) career. The prominent and majestic influence of the NYT overshadowed a couple of positive reviews already published in other outlets. Thereafter, Roberta Smith’s filing of my work as damaged goods in the paper of record would be relayed at a keystroke to any collector, gallerist or curator that Googles my name. If such an outlook wasn’t grim enough, the brutality of this particular hatchet-job was downright memorable, even by the standards of a veteran writer whose widespread critical condescension was already renowned. A curious bit of evidence: Years later, when we were introduced to each other, Luc Tuymans pointed out with a nod and the faintest of smiles: “Oh, yes, I see… you’re the guy that review in the Times was about!”
It’s no secret that my Prussian Blue series was conceived partly in response to Tuymans’ own relaxed—albeit not quite realistic—Holocaust paintings. But I won’t entertain Roberta Smith’s indictment here by burdening readers with the minutiae of what might make an artwork genuine as opposed to derivative. On that account even the most sensible argument will be perceived as verbiage by some, just as one person’s visionary artist is another’s fraudster. Instead, allow me to turn to her allegation that Prussian Blue was “painted in a relaxed, realist manner.” The description is puzzling because, even on the face of it, there is nothing “relaxed” in the paintings’ “manner.” Viewers will readily notice the aggregate of time and labor involved in the production of these works, the meticulous regard for their formal and material resolution, the dozens of layers and hundreds of adjustments built up in each single picture.
Roberta Smith has given negative reviews a bad name.
Would Roberta Smith have been less dismissive if the paintings were rendered in the nervy or exaggerated brushwork of an artist laboring to look “angst-ridden”? Then again, it should have been obvious to an art critic that such worn-out quirks were avoided in the Prussian Blue paintings by design, not out of indolence. So why on earth did she pick the adjective “relaxed” to describe them? One could only guess: Maybe less-than-perfect eyesight precluded her from discerning what was squarely in front of her ; maybe she was numb to the paintings’ aesthetic traits; maybe “relaxed” was an inadvertent slip of the keyboard; or maybe she just woke up that morning feeling more callous and disingenuous than usual.
The scorn conveyed in her writing was also baffling. It seemed both futile and blown out of proportion inasmuch as there was nothing to gain for anyone by crushing a little-known artist’s show at a sparsely-visited gallery. Cuauhtémoc Medina may have figured out this riddle in a perceptive footnote to his essay for the subsequent catalog of the series: “Smith’s reaction to the execution of the works… displays a tone too virulent to leave any doubt regarding the intensely personal character of the New York critic’s reaction, which hardly corresponds to the aim of criticizing a work for being conventional and clichéd.”
Sure enough, from the very outset these paintings were meant to generate intense, even visceral, responses. But how could I envisage they’d cause the co-chief art critic of the NYT to undergo, as Medina has it, a breakdown of judgment? If all hell indeed broke loose inside her head and spilled onto her text, the paintings’ blue tonalities played a psycho-chromatic role in that debacle, potentially having channeled the adjective “relaxed” as a wishful projection or sublimation. This may sound a bit far-fetched, granted, but it’s an otherwise charitable reading of the erratic choice of words in Roberta Smith’s review. Alas, I’ll take the blame for overindulging what, after all, might be nothing but a callous and disingenuous piece of writing.
No doubt my J’accuse…! pays too much heed to an infinitesimal droplet in the cosmic bucket of universal injustice, so apologies for keeping readers from attending to more urgent matters (i.e., just about any other matter whatsoever.) That said, it’s a pity Roberta Smith has given negative reviews a bad name. There’s no lack of urgent tasks at hand in our present artworld for sober, intelligent negative art-criticism: to resist fads and puffery, to chip away at false idols and—yes—to expose artistic fraud. Of course, sardonic punch is integral to the genre. But articulate argument, pertinent and persuasive, must ultimately buttress any genuine effort to produce negative art-criticism of quality, which at its best can be wise and enlightening. We should welcome more of it.
For those concerned that I’m still a little pissed after eight years, I’ll be pleased to report that my sleep at night is sound again, especially since kicking the habit of reading contemporary-art journals and following art reviews. Moreover, the Prussian Blue series evolved and grew after its presentation at the Americas Society, and the complete set was hosted in due course by MUAC in Mexico City. To my delight, the show has travelled onward to a number of institutions. I count myself lucky that I somehow survived Roberta Smith’s abuse, yet one also wonders whether the paintings might have had further and wider reach absent her attentions.
Oh well—others must have sensed it by now—my recurrent FOHBFORS is playing tricks on me again.
(Note to self: Take a deep breath. Breathe out. Relax.)
 Should you fancy reading the review in full it may be found at https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/01/arts/design/yishai-jusidman-prussian-blue-memory-after-representation.html. It can also be located in my webpage (http://www.yishaijusidman.com) along with some images of the show.
 Due to, e.g., presbyopia, myopia, cataracts, macular degeneration, or just foggy or underprescribed glasses.
 Perhaps related to some Asperger’s-like syndrome marked by an incapacity to empathize with certain aesthetic manifestations?
 Cuauhtémoc Medina, Atrocity and Pigment, in Prussian Blue (Mexico City/Barcelona, Editorial RM, 2016) p. 101.
 For starters, such tasks include addressing the artworld’s ensnarement in the epochal overflow of surplus-capital, its relentless propelling of culture-wars hysteria, and its impudent indulging in both, simultaneously!
 Fear Of Having Been Fucked Over by Roberta Smith.