March 28, 2007
Amei Wallach: The Critic Behind The Art
Amei Wallach has been an art critic for 33 years. She was the chief art critic for New York Newsday for 26 years and an on-air art essayist on the "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour." She's written for a slew of some of the most prestigious publications in the country, from The New York Times and The Nation to The Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair.
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As someone who's a journalist, author, filmmaker and television commentator, Wallach confessed, "I hate to write. Only seldom does it sing . . . I'm a ham – so I love doing television, panels and talks. And what is great about curating is that the art speaks
Wallach is married to Bill Edwards, a Southold Town Councilman. She graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Comparative Literature (19th century German and American).
"As a child I wanted to be an actress, but always wrote poetry and was the literary editor in high school. It wasn't until I was 13 that a teacher, Mrs. Blaschke, told me, 'You think you can't make acting and writing work together, but you can.' I then blended the two, but acting was short lived."
She was influenced by her parents' passions – Wallach's father, the late Dr. Gert Wallach, wrote poetry and novels but they were never published until after he died. His widow published a collection of his work in 1986, The Diary of a Doctor. Her mother, Gerda, had an art gallery in Connecticut.
"So we always knew artists. She had a great deal of awe and love for them. It was always in our lives," Wallach recalled. "Art was a big deal in our family. My great grandfather was a big art collector in Germany and my mother went to Perugia, Italy to study art. But the Nazis were heating up and she decided to return home to Hamberg and do something useful. So she began to apprentice nursing, and it was there that she met my father, an American doctor who was there interning. They ended up moving to America and he became a country doctor in Torrington, Connecticut."
By her mid twenties, Wallach's writing and art began to meld professionally. She was an art writer at Newsday before she possessed the confidence to become an art critic.
"When I started out writing for the public as a newspaper journalist, it was the 1960s, Pop Art and Andy Warhol. The formal ideas about art were what mattered most, and you had to leave out everything else: history-biography-gender-sex-religion and politics. And the dirtiest word you could use to describe a work of art was the word 'narrative'," she said.
"The artists were already changing that themselves with minimalism. Donald Judd was making multiple cubes. Carl Andrea was putting metal squares on the floor."
Wallach has experienced some of her own limitations in being a critic of art. "Telling the truth comes to mind. Knowing what you think and feel, and saying it no matter what the current fashions are are the difficult aspects of being an art critic," she admitted.
There have been many artists that Wallach has enjoyed critiquing, but two stand out, "Because they're the people I've done the most on, first being Soviet Union born Ilya Kabakov and his wife/art partner Emila, who live next door. The first time they came to the North Fork was when I was writing a book about him, Ilya Kabakov: The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away. The second, Louise Bourgeois, in 1982, at 70 years old, she was the first woman to ever have a retrospective at the MoMA. And she has done her best work since, and at 95, she's about to have a retrospective traveling show in March 2008 at the Guggenheim Museum. I think she's an amazing artist and profoundly important."
In 1993 Wallach joined forces with filmmaker Marion Cojori, whose previous films were about artists Chuck Close and Joan Mitchell, to co-direct a feature-length film about Louise Bourgeois (working title: Art Is Sanity). The film debut at the Guggenheim Museum/Bourgeois retrospective will be bittersweet for Wallach, as Cojori died in August 2006.
Wallach was awarded a prestigious Best Show curatorial award from the International Art Critics Association (AICA) for her 2006 exhibition, "Neo Sincerity: The Difference Between the Comic and the Cosmic Is a Single Letter." The exhibition featured art that faces catastrophe through humor, an unusual theme that always fascinated her. The exhibition featured works by three North Fork artists: Michael Combs, Hideaki Ariizumi and Ilya and Emila Kabakov.
The works she enjoys looking at the most are hanging on her own walls, from the paintings by the Kabakovs, Allan Wexler, Robert Dash and Gabrielle Evertz, to prints of Jasper Johns and Elizabeth Murray, sculptures by Michael Combs and Arden Scott, and works on paper by East Hampton artist Connie Fox. If she were able to invite artists past and present to a panel discussion she would choose Picasso, Goya, Jacques-Louis David and Nancy Spero – "I'd want to talk to them about art and war."
And if she were able to have one of the greats hanging on her wall, "I'd like the Goya, The 3rd of May, 1808, because in my lifetime war and injustice have been reoccurring themes and that painting totally gets it. It gets the humanity, the terror, the suffering . . . and it's beautiful."
On May 7 at the Cutchogue Library the North Fork Arts Project series by Joyce Beckenstein will host Amei Wallach with a talk on "When Art and Faith Meet." The art critic is also currently work-shopping with editor Karen Braziller a memoir – working title: How it Happened There.
Finally, Wallach is contributing an introductory essay to the Southold Historical Society's scholarly book about 19th and 20th century artists, The Peconic School: Painters of Long Island's North Fork, which will be out next spring.