Interview with Baltimore Art Critic Bret McCabe by Joan Cox

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Portrait of Bret McCabe by Erin Fitzpatrick

Bret McCabe was the art critic and general arts writer at the City Paper in Baltimore for quite a few years. He recently took a post as Senior Humanities Writer at the Johns Hopkins Magazine. Generally all the interesting reviews I’ve read in the Baltimore area since my college days have had the byline of Bret McCabe. He came to my studio to talk about art criticism and the Baltimore arts scene.

Joan Cox: How long have you been writing art criticism?

Bret McCabe: I’ve been writing visual arts criticism since about 1998. I’ve been writing as a journalist in my current capacity since 1995.

JC: You write about music, film and culture too, how does this inform your writing about the visual arts?

BM: I started off writing primarily music and film criticism. I was working at an alt(ernative) weekly in Dallas and very quickly—because I had an interest in doing it—I started writing about other things like theater and visual arts mostly. I think covering the arts in general informs my criticism a great deal. I’m not trained as a visual thinker. I’m not an artist, I’m not a musician, that’s not where my particular skill set lies. My degree is actually in Anthropology but in the process of being a student of the general humanities in undergrad, you read a good deal of criticism in a wide variety of situations.

What I like about coming to visual arts from another avenue is that I kind of had to learn a great deal of art criticism history in the process of doing it. But I feel that people our age and younger have a very sophisticated visual vocabulary in general. Being able to access that and trying to find ways to write what I’m thinking and then figuring out what that’s fitting into is all part of the critical thinking process. Yes, all interpretations are valid but some are a little more accurate than others (laughter)…for context and history. So writing about other fields has informed my thinking just because I think most contemporary art—be it music or visual arts or performance—is about the time period in which we are living anyway and so people can say similar types of things in different media. It’s just trying to figure out what you’re responding to and trying to think your way through it, out loud.

JC: What do you feel is the role of the art critic…to inform the public about the work before they go see it like a movie reviewer or to create a dialogue among artists, galleries and other art aficionados?

BM: For me — I’m 42 —I think I grew up in a time where criticism has changed a little bit. I think a great deal of criticism, not just in visual arts, but what we call criticism, has changed a little bit. It’s almost consumer reporting…it’s trying to tell people, “Should I go see this movie or not? Should I go buy this CD or not?” I just find that completely unhelpful, as a person who reads things. Umm, I think most people are very capable of deciding what they do and don’t want to spend money on. So for me, when I write, whether about art or whatever… it’s less about telling someone what to think as it is trying to describe my own response to that situation—which could be aesthetic, which could be emotional, or usually can be some combination.

A lot of writers first starting out want to write about something that they really, really love or something that they really, really hate and those are the easiest things sometimes to write about — especially when you’re young —because you have very strong feelings about things. But I find there are very few things I love or hate…most things are somewhere in between. So it’s often very difficult…how can you describe something that’s just nice? That’s not very helpful as anything you want to talk about, so I feel my role is to try to figure out what my response is to what I’m experiencing or digesting in some way. If I can figure out what my response is, how can I articulate that so that it makes sense to somebody? Hopefully what I’m trying to do is establish/create a dialogue of how we are looking at things, or experiencing things or thinking about things.

The writers that I respond to—I don’t always agree with them aesthetically or what their take on things are—but what I appreciate is that they have provided an opinion and they have provided a road map for how they got there and what that might mean for them. That, for me, leads to an interpretive process and that leads to a kind of thinking about something in a different way that I really appreciate. So, I go for trying to understand what my own response is and articulating that in a way that invites somebody into that discussion so they can either agree with me or not agree with me or they can think, “Oh, that’s something that I want to experience myself.” As a writer, my biggest job is to get somebody to read everything I write. A successful review is something that I have read the whole way through — not that I got like three paragraphs into and realized that he or she was out of ideas and there’s really no need for me to read the rest of it.

So I need to understand what my idea is, what my response to that idea is: Do I have enough information even in my brain to articulate that?…and then find a way to put that into some prose or narrative construct so that somebody reading along follows me to whatever opinion I’ve arrived at. Then they will either agree with me or disagree with me or think I’m insane. All of those responses are perfectly valid I just want to put forth what I feel like I’m experiencing in some way.

JC: Do you do much homework on an artist or body of work before going to see an exhibit that you are reviewing?

BM: It depends on what it is. For visual art, I think it’s important to look at things at least twice… primarily because every response, at first, is going to be emotional… even if it is something I’m coming to that I’ve seen before or an artist that I know very well. Still my first response is going to be emotional and then I try to take notes about what that emotional response is and then I come back to do the thinking part of the looking: What was that emotional response coming from? Sometimes you are responding to an artist’s color’s very, very strongly or there’s something about the subject matter that you’re responding to very strongly so then I try to go back and do the thinking process of why am I responding to these things in these ways. What sort of evidence can I draw from the canvas or the sculpture or whatever the piece is to present an argument of what I want to say about it? And then if I need to, I’ll come back again if I’m not sure of something.

The writing process is the thinking process of putting those two together. Sometimes I’ll do a great deal of research before-hand if it’s an artist that I’m very unfamiliar with, about whom there is going to be information to be had or if it’s a big museum show about an artist who is dead or who is coming from a small place like Bratislava, that I just don’t know about. I want to have some kind of cultural context so that when I’m looking, everything I’m responding to is not just because it is completely foreign to me. I’m not going to be able to form a very sophisticated vocabulary or understanding (without doing some research.)

For other artists, there might not be that much information out there and if it’s a contemporary artist, it’s not so much that I won’t do any research, but I’ll go look at the work once and then again and then I’ll do the writing. And just because it’s the way my brain works, I’ll look for other reviews and writings just to be sure I’m not repeating anything or writing anything that in any way seems derivative of other thinking. Sometimes I do decide to write against popular opinion because I want to see if my thinking can go somewhere else with it. A lot of responses to situations… a lot of reputations are built upon a certain time and place and we might not be in that same time and place anymore.

Sometimes an artist is very renowned and you don’t quite get it and you want to try to find your way through that… is there something you’re not getting? is there something that you’re just not responding to for these reasons? and what are those reasons? So I find research invaluable in general. It just helps to provide a foundation to thinking and therefore it gives you arrows in the quiver for whatever argument you want to put out there: these are the reasons why I’m saying these things, these are the reasons why I’m not responding to this in a certain way, instead of just, “I don’t like this.”

“I don’t like this” is a perfectly valid response but it’s a dead end. Where can you go from that? So I try not to do that because I find it just unconstructive, not just as a critic but as a thinker. I would like ideas to be able to have trajectories.

JC: Now that most writing is posted online and you can have blogging responses to your work immediately, have you ever had anyone reply with a comment that made you rethink your argument? Is that useful at all, that blogging back and forth, does it create a dialogue?

BM: I would like it if it did that very sort of thing. In the 90’s that instant feedback wasn’t quite there yet and people still wrote letters to the editor and I found a great deal of angry email response rather than debate, especially in movie criticism. People respond mostly to tell you negative things and not so much negative about the content of the work, but they go straight to the personal which is the sad thing about doing a lot of local journalism…a lot of what people want to read is nice things about their friends and writing that tells them that what they think right now is correct.

JC: I read your recent reply to Cara Ober’s question on the Bmoreart blog ( about whether or not art criticism in Baltimore always has to be nice. You mentioned that having a regular critic reviewing work on a regular basis would effectively yield a deeper review of the scene. Does DC have that? Do we have to look as far as NYC to find an arts community that has that?

BM: I think that the places where you have serious deep criticism on a consistent basis are New York, LA and Chicago — places where there are very hearty art-markets and very dominant daily newspaper coverage where it is someone’s job to go around and look at things all the time. That’s not to say that there aren’t good critics in….I’m originally from Dallas and I think Charles Dee Mitchell is a very good writer and I have friends down in Miami who are very good writers but it’s hard to do it in situations where there is not a media support system. Just because it becomes a situation where, even if you are a self-governing writer, you naturally end up writing about the things you really respond to, that’s just kind of the way things go. But if you have the Times where you have two people on staff and you rotate through in a consistent basis and it’s their job to go cover things—you’re going to find a more broad spectrum of writing because you have an assigning editor assigning to people to write things and you’re going to have a more wide-variety of responses.

The critic from The (Baltimore) Sun was somebody who I didn’t always agree with but it was his job to go out there and look at everything all the time and it was informative and helpful to everybody involved. I think a good critic is not someone who you agree with completely but is someone you develop a relationship with so that you find your own response to his or her response. There are critics I love only because I disagree with everything they say (laughter) and I love that I disagree and that they are able to articulate their idea in a very engaging or even combative way so that I want to respond to that and I can use that information. I think that works in a wide variety of ways.

In the visual arts I think it’s hard because it’s such a small slice of the arts community in general. If you think about New York, we think about it as having this huge, gigantic art market, but if you take all the people who care about the visual arts community in New York, they probably wouldn’t fill one game at Yankee stadium. Last I heard, the circulation for Art Forum is 45,000 — and maybe 10-15% of that are institutional subscriptions — for what’s considered one of the art’s bibles of America. Time Magazine is, what, 3 million people? It’s a concentrated situation. The numbers are smaller. And it’s harder to get attention for things.

JC: Do you read Art Forum regularly? Do you have favorite critics you read?

BM: I religiously read Frieze, out of the UK, because I find what they do very interesting, and they are always looking for a political angle with what they are writing about. I think a great deal of art that’s happening around the world has a political edge to it, even if it is not particularly specifically articulated in that way. It’s just that a lot of artists are responding to the world that is around them and that world is increasingly unstable in some ways. I love Adrian Searle at The Guardian—only because I find his take on things to be interesting. It’s not that I always agree with him but I can appreciate that he writes very intelligently in a newspaper format about Turner or about something that’s coming up in the Turner prize that’s very new and occasionally shocking and different. He’s got a very strong opinion and is not afraid to be cranky. There’s a guy by the name of Doug Harvey out in LA. He only has a blog now ( but he wrote for LA weekly. He was like one of those perfect marriages of a critical mind and the city in which he was writing about and he was just someone who was able to write about the past and showed you how it was important to the present.

I love Jerry Saltz in NY Magazine…even if I don’t agree with him. I appreciate the energy and passion he brings to everything he writes about. There are some younger critics out in Chicago, I can’t remember their names right now, that I find I really appreciate…another city where there is a good deal going on in a variety of ways. The trouble here in Baltimore is that NY is 3 hours away, Philly is an hour and half away and DC—although a very different market—is still a market that’s an hour away. NY is always going to be a hub because it is a destination.

From Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, the biggest [competing] markets are going to be LA, NY and Chicago… and they are all 1500 miles away. And there is money in Texas and there is still that prestige factor so when you have that situation of a captive, monied audience, you have people who understand how to cultivate that. Chicago is the same way, there is a lot of activity going on. It’s its own hub in the Midwest for things so people are going to pay attention—which makes it kind of nice. I think it is incumbent on media to pay attention better and if there is not somebody who wants to do that, it’s easy to not pay attention.

I think in a city like Baltimore, where it is proverbially on the tipping point since the late 80s, there has [always] been a caliber of talent and level of activity versus [its] visibility and media profile of what [the city] has always been. Part of that is media’s fault and part of that is the art community’s fault of not being as self-starting as it can be sometimes. A lot of activity that goes on in Baltimore is made by young artists, which is awesome, but having been a young person before, the last thing you think about doing is telling people to come look at what you’re doing, outside of the conventional media channels or sending out a FaceBook invite these days. Getting media’s attention is difficult but it’s their job so you kick them until they come, basically. You just have to do it.

JC: How do you feel about the renovated contemporary wing at the BMA that reopened last week?

BM: I was at the opening. I think openings are great because they are great parties but they are absolutely horrible for looking at artwork (laughter). I walked around but I plan on going back this week to really look. But one of the things I enjoy about living in a city where there are museums, especially free ones, is that you can treat them as extensions of your home. I think I heard somewhere that the average time people look at a painting is like 1-3 seconds or something…that’s probably true, but also, the way you get out of that is you keep going back to a museum and you spend time in a room and you get to know things.

I moved to Baltimore in 1988 to go to college and I’ve never been that fond of Impressionism but I’ve probably spent a good total of 5 years wandering the Cone Collection (at the BMA). I find there are things I respond to that I didn’t really like when I first saw them. Some of that comes with age, some of the things you like are now different, but some of that comes with the ability to appreciate things in a different way. But also it’s familiarity–kind of knowing what’s there and looking around and then being surprised at things. We’re lucky that every contemporary curator who has come to the BMA since 2001 has wanted to do something with that space in different ways and they rotate pieces through and it’s nice to see works like the David Hammons piece out in a different context. You have to use a museum to get your appreciation out of it. It’s like anything else. Jogging is great, but if you only do it once, it’s not really gonna do much for you (laughter). You kind of have to keep doing it to really appreciate what is and isn’t there.

JC: Are there particular trends in Contemporary Art that you gravitate towards: video, installation, etc? Is there anything that you find particularly compelling that’s going on?

BM: There are things in sculpture that I find very interesting going on. A lot of that is because there are a lot of young people at MICA who end up doing things, breaking out of sculpture and going towards installation. And I find that motion— treating spaces as a sculptural object—kind of fun. One of the reasons I enjoy reading Frieze so much is to learn about things I don’t know anything about. I think that’s nice. I see things coming out of Latin America that I don’t really know much about at all. And visually it’s very, very striking to me. Not knowing anything, I wonder: Did this come out of something? Is the artist male or female? What is going on here? – that I enjoy. That’s a very nebulous answer to your question. The ‘unfamiliar’, I always find attractive just because I think we live in a time where there is a lot that is unfamiliar but the way we interact with the world is so codified that we like to think its familiar. Everything is sublimated to this place where we can kind of understand it and digest it, you know. I have the world at my fingertips in my phone, but I really, really don’t. So being exposed to things that don’t kind of, quite make sense, helps remind me that I need to always pay attention because I don’t always know as much as I think I do.

JC: If you could write/review any exhibit, what would it be?

BM: I would love to be sent to Mexico City or somewhere in Central or South America to cover what’s coming out of the Contemporary Art community there. From living in Texas I would see things creep up…from Mexico City and Guadalajara…that I just didn’t know that much about and I’m curious about it. Miguel Calderon is an artist about my age and I find his work so striking. He’s done so many different types/variety of work: photographic and video installations. His work is extremely irreverent and extremely glib in its disrespect for authority and very whimsical at the same time.

There’s also an artist from Dallas named Erick Swenson. What I liked about him when I first started seeing him in north Texas was that —I was really aware of the audacity of artists to try to make something new and different but—he was just making really beautiful things. And I appreciate that he knows how to make really beautiful things: incredibly, painstakingly detailed works that reference the animal world.

If there is a Gerhard Richter show anywhere I will go see it because his work is very well thought-through…there is always something to respond to in a certain way.

I talked with Bret about going to Art Fairs and Biennials, about the hype around artists like Ai Weiwei and Banksy, and about the fact that he doesn’t get to artists studios as often as he wants to ala Greenberg. He feels that the Greenbergian days of having the ability to anoint an artist are gone. He says that last thing he would want to write about would be an Art Fair…they are just too crowded. He assured me that if the art was really good, it would come to a venue nearby that he could go see without the crowds. He gave me his tip about going to the Whitney Biennial towards the end of the exhibit on a Wednesday morning in order to get a good look. Mostly he left me with the knowledge that his visual art background is still being formed…just as my body of work is still being formed. Looking at art and writing about art, is a lifelong pursuit of one experience after another; of looking and relooking.

Below is a link to a review Bret McCabe wrote in 2009 on artist Jo Smail, who won a major local art prize just a few weeks ago: 2012 The Trawick “Best of the Best.” My mentor Rene Trevino was also in the running for this prize.

– Author Joan Cox is a Baltimore-based painter, currently enrolled in an MFA program at MassArts.

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