I BECAME AWARE OF Bruce Hainley’s writing on art a little more than a decade ago, while I was in college. Amid the monotony of a magazine’s review section, coming across his description of an exhibition by Ingrid Calame at Karyn Lovegrove’s Los Angeles gallery was like encountering a snake in a field. The review’s venom was poisonous and worked quickly: “The gimmick behind the project … was flimsy enough to begin with, and by now it’s just fatuous.” On the explanation of her onomatopoeic titles: “Yeah, right.” I was in Boston, hundreds of miles from an art-world center and frustrated by persistent critical obfuscation. The clarity of Hainley’s indictment was thrilling.
Thereafter, on the lookout for this Los Angeles critic’s byline, I learned quickly that the takedown was not his principal trade. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that in ensuing years I got to know Hainley a little; but more on this later.) Hainley’s occasional lashings are needles meant to puncture consensus, to deflate an overinflated reputation, and their rarity adds to their power. The majority of his reviews and essays instead grapple with the work of complex and often misunderstood artists, whether young or established. In the tradition of the great poet-critics whose work he relishes, Hainley’s mind follows his eyes. As he noted a decade ago, “I am a promiscuous looker. I will look at anything.” And once he decides that he likes looking at something, he keeps looking: Many of the artists he wrote about in the late 1990s and early 2000s are the artists he is writing about, and talking with, today. This isn’t slavish devotion to a particular style. There is little, beside Hainley’s ardor, that unites pastoral painter Maureen Gallace, abstract sculptor Vincent Fecteau, conceptual provocateur Trisha Donnelly, and object philosopher Elaine Sturtevant. It’s not what they make that appeals to him, but how they see. “I don’t mean, Oh, every person sees the world in his or her own special way!” he states in an interview. “No. I mean that, for example, Vince is one of the most visually intelligent people I’ve ever been around: he notices forms that are almost always out of sync with what a dominant mode of seeing wishes to exist.”
Despite his more than decade-long prominence in the Los Angeles art scene, there has been little occasion to think synoptically about Hainley’s work. As an inveterate freelancer, his writing has been scattered across domestic and international art magazines, exhibition catalogues, and artist monographs. Thanks to writer Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, however, we now have a slim, engaging collection of Hainley’s prose — and four of his poems to boot. Bruce Hainley is the fifth in Lehrer-Graiwer’s occasional publication series, Pep Talk. Past editions have included anthologies devoted to the artists Dan Graham and Stephen Kaltenbach as well as a foldout poster featuring anaglyph images of Bruce Springsteen’s crotch. (Really. 3-D glasses included.) Lehrer-Graiwer was once a student of Hainley’s, and as a writer she shares several of his interests, among them a fascination with the tactile, anthropomorphic qualities of art objects and a frustration with the limitations of standard critical forms. Her editorial selections, which range from 1996 to 2010, emphasize these aspects of Hainley’s corpus.
A transcribed conversation between them appears in the book, and one can cobble together something akin to a Hainley manifesto from his responses to her questions. Aim for “the dazzling radioactivity of the New York School” poets, he says “[B]e there in the moment, alive to now’s pulse.” See “the textual space of the (art) catalogue essay as a free space.” Appear, “seemingly, to voice with no ‘me’ at all or to be very messily ‘me.'” Underpinning everything is a penetrating skepticism: “doubt and not-knowing structure anything that might be called thinking (for me).”
The book is arranged in reverse chronological order. Reading its contents from back to front, though, one witnesses Hainley’s doubting impulse rise to the surface. Earnest, transparently autobiographical early pieces give way to texts with seemingly “no ‘me’ at all,” or to those for which he shares responsibility. In 2002, Hainley responded to a piece by Keith Edmier by devising a funny pop quiz about it. In 2006, he attributed his essay on Anselm Reyle, which does not mention Reyle and in which 95 percent of the text has been struck through, to Kate Moss. In 2007, after missing his flight to Washington, DC, where he was to see a Jasper Johns survey at the National Gallery, Hainley wrote digressive “notes” inspired by the exhibition’s catalogue in place of his review. The most recent contributions included here are not texts at all, but transcribed conversations (including one with Fecteau). Each experiment is a confrontation with his inner critic. That each succeeds — even the Edmier pop quiz offers novel insight into the artist’s work — testifies to Hainley’s critical faculties.
For those less appreciative of his witty evasions and games, his talents are more straightforwardly on display in two incisively analytical appreciations of older figures: conceptual artist Lee Lozano and Sturtevant. In Hainley’s version of an introduction, he notes, “I can’t imagine life without women to talk to, about anything. […] I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with a straight man that overwhelmed (equaled, surely, but never surpassed) any conversation I’ve had with a woman.” The creative efforts of Lozano and Sturtevant, like those of Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, nourish him.
Hainley begins his essay on Lozano with what might seem like yet another sleight of hand, zooming in on a highly selective biography found in one of the artist’s notebooks. However, given that Lozano was at that time producing other text-based artworks, Hainley convincingly suggests, “it’s not clear that the CV is not a piece [of art] itself.” He emphasizes Lozano’s “desire to have an existence like art.” Slaloming elegantly between her life and her work, Hainley reads Lozano’s words carefully, wondering aloud of her notorious performance Boycott Women (1971) why “no one seems to have commented on her energizing the boy within boycott.” And he gets at something essential about the challenge presented by her choice to drop out of the art world altogether: “Many of Lozano’s contemporaries, most of them male, are celebrated for taking art into a romanticized sublime … [yet] when women pursue similar concerns, their work is often reduced to a toothless, Mother-Earth magick. Lozano reminded anyone who only wished to smile that the sublime annihilates.”
Hainley is similarly insightful about Sturtevant, whose copies of artworks and even entire exhibitions by other (often male) artists have confounded critics for decades and have only recently received the critical attention they deserve. “Her repetitions demonstrat[ed] how aesthetics has, all along, been structured and determined by whatever is understood to be the non-visual, the non-retinal — the unseen and thought. Through her exploration of the underpinnings of what the encounter and/or physics nominated as ‘art’ is, she dematerializes the primacy of the object and of the visual, but not by abandoning the object.”
These are important observations, and yet Hainley graciously acknowledges that he is not alone in thinking hard about these artists. He cites — and thanks — fellow scholars not only in the notes, but also in the text of his essays, an indication of the generosity that undergirds his other signal contribution to the Los Angeles art world. For several years, until 2007 when it was unceremoniously terminated, Hainley codirected Art Center College of Design’s program in criticism and theory, which during its brief lifespan produced a remarkable crop of young writers, Lehrer-Graiwer among them. (He still teaches at the school.) I should know, because while on the editorial staff of Artforum I hired a number of them, confident in Hainley’s belief in their talents. That they’ve subsequently become respected figures in their own right — as writers, teachers, curators, even art dealers — should redound to Hainley’s credit.
I retain a fond memory of the first of our few encounters. Seven or eight years ago, I was in Los Angeles without a rental car, thanks to a provincial New Yorker’s limited understanding of the city’s geography and transport infrastructure. (Never again will I make that mistake.) Based in part on our mutual admiration of the reclusive, prickly, and essential American artist Cady Noland, Hainley drove out of his way to pick me up at an artist’s studio and take me out to dinner, where he patiently and without condescension engaged with my opinions about Noland’s art (and much else besides).
Still, though we may read someone’s work because they have been kind to us, we write in large part because of what is laid down in print. As Lehrer-Graiwer describes it, “When I want to trick myself into writing better, unusually, and exuberantly, I read something — anything — by Bruce.” Though a very wide gap exists between my sensibilities and Hainley’s, I too have frequently been encouraged by his sentences and by the license he takes with the essay form. Having this welcome collection at hand makes such hits of inspiration easier to come by.