Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal in Art Publishing: Conversations with Dushko Petrovich

On June 4, 2018, Hyperallergic published “Issues of Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal in Writing About Deana Lawson’s Work,” a two-part essay by the art historian and critic Steven Nelson. As Hyperallergic explained in the essay’s subheading, “The story of this essay, its rejection by the artist and her gallery, and by Aperture and Frieze raise critical questions about the relationship between living artists and critical mechanisms for evaluating their work.” In fact, so many sticky and intriguing procedural questions come up in the piece, explicitly and implicitly, that I think “Issues of Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal in Publishing About Deana Lawson’s Work” might have been a more accurate title. Who actually has control over what gets printed? What are the best processes to decide this? What should one say when those processes don’t go as planned? Who should tell this story?

As is the case with so many contentious art conversations these days, my awareness of the situation began on Facebook, where I encountered and enthusiastically reposted Nelson’s double-essay, but I’m glad my involvement didn’t end there. Reading the Hyperallergic piece—which you should take a moment to do if you haven’t yet—I was struck by how many important questions about art publishing it raises. The problems that Nelson names explicitly—image rights acquisition, gallery or estate interference, editors withdrawing at the last minute—are common, and the impact of these factors on art history and criticism is at once significant and difficult to measure or reproduce because it consists of things that don’t get published. I also felt there were a few unaddressed questions that lingered beneath the surface of the piece. Because conversations about these issues usually occur in the semiprivate spaces of a bar or coffee shop, or, increasingly, our DMs, I didn’t think the public conversation should end with Nelson’s essay, or in Facebook comments.

Taken individually, each party involved—the artist, the critic, the editors, and the gallery director—has an undeniable prominence in the field. In Aperture Monographs, frieze, and Hyperallergic, we see a respected book series, magazine, and online publication, respectively. Taken together, these players represent the various components of the contemporary critical enterprise as it occurs at the highest level. This confluence was what made me think “the situation,” as I called it above, deserved to be something more like a case study. So when Rebecca Uchill had a similar thought and invited me to conduct a series of interviews related to these texts for Art Journal Open, I was happy to work toward that outcome.

From the creative image-rights workarounds that Hyperallergic found for “Issues of Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal” to the curious way that image rights variously were and weren’t involved in the two rejections of Nelson’s original essay, the discussions that followed further revealed the various tensions and conflicts among participants in what Rhona Hoffman Gallery director Anastasia Karpova Tinari calls an art-world “ecosystem.” The dynamics of this ecosystem are, of course, significant to art history because contemporary art writing later becomes the “contemporaneous reception,” which in turn founds the historical record.  My goal in these interviews was to provide a more complete document of how this set of texts was conceived and considered for publication by everyone involved, for the eventual benefit of that historical record.

I was approached initially about talking to Steven Nelson/Hyperallergic and Deana Lawson/Rhona Hoffman Gallery, but as I learned more about what had transpired, I lined up a number of additional interviews. I first spoke to Hrag Vartanian, editor in chief of Hyperallergic; then to Steven Nelson himself, followed by Anastasia Karpova Tinari of Rhona Hoffman gallery; then to Seph Rodney, the editor at Hyperallergic who worked directly on Nelson’s piece; and finally to Jennifer Higgie, editorial director of frieze magazine and Frieze Masters, and Nick Chapin, Frieze’s director of publishing. Deana Lawson did not respond to my emailed requests for interview, and a representative from Aperture Foundation declined to comment, so there is a gap there, but I did attempt to complete the circle. I made clear to the participants that this would be published as a series of interviews rather than as an essay. Edits are minimal and serve to clarify language, better order an idea, or eliminate redundancies.

The interviews are listed here in the order in which they were conducted; to read them sequentially means you have the same knowledge that I did at any given point in the conversations and—most importantly—allows you to draw your own conclusions. I emphasize the plural here: the conversations bring up multiple questions and perspectives for everyone involved, especially for you, the reader, the protagonist in contemporary reception, from whom these deliberations and activities are usually hidden. I’d therefore like to thank everyone who spoke with me for their candor, transparency, and thoughtfulness in contributing to this document.

—Dushko Petrovich

Editor’s note: In a previous version of this article, several speakers referred to Professor Nelson as “Steve.” For the sake of accuracy and consistency, we have updated all references to “Steven.”

A founding editor of Paper Monument, Dushko Petrovich is Chair of the New Arts Journalism Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.