This 2002 painting by artist Maggie Michael, Clone No. 17 (Bunny Grey), does not look like anything by Donald Sultan. (Courtesy of G Fine Art)

There’s no upside for an artist to be friends with an art critic. The personal connection means the critic must pass on reviewing the artist’s work, and while the loss of critical wisdom may be negligible, the loss of exposure is a nuisance for the artist. I have wanted to write about Maggie Michael’s work for years now, but I can’t without first offering the reader a huge caveat: Anything I say must be reasonably assumed to be compromised by the fact that I know her, like her and socialize with her.

So this isn’t a review of Michael’s first solo show in a museum, “A Phrase Hung in Midair as If Frozen,” which closed Sunday at the American University Museum. And I won’t claim, as Washington City Paper critic Kriston Capps did, that this show “makes the case for her as the strongest painter to emerge from D.C. in a generation,” even though I might agree with that. Rather, I’m interested in how friendship changes the way we see art, how it both sharpens the eye and expands the meaning of the work. I’m interested in a fundamental question that is at the heart of so much criticism: Does affection improve our judgment by making us receptive to ever finer nuances, or does it weaken our critical faculties and cloud our objectivity?

Critics were not always so worried about the conflict of interest that friendship creates between the reviewer and the artist. The music critic and composer Virgil Thomson maintained social relations with the flower of New York’s musical aristocracy for years, and reviewed their work regularly. The art critic Clement Greenberg absorbed artists into his egomaniacal orbit, maintaining complicated and deeply compromised personal and financial relationships with many of them, including an affair with Helen Frankenthaler. Both critics are still read with passionate interest today, even if their ethics wouldn’t pass muster at a provincial daily newspaper. In fact, their continuing influence has as much to do with their social and artistic alliances, and the power over and insight into artists that gave them, as it does with their writing.

Respectable critics live by different standards today, though social relations still complicate the best of intentions. It’s easy to see why personal connections would compromise disinterested discernment. But critics who entirely isolate themselves from artistic circles sacrifice a great deal, too. One loss is sympathy, not just for a particular artist, but for the whole artistic profession, which is often lived precariously on the edge of poverty. Another loss is insight into how art happens, how creative people fill the blank void of the world with something new, what sparks their ideas and how are they processed.

You can, of course, ask artists exactly those questions, and will inevitably get a useless answer. Only by long and careful observation, an osmosis of decades, can a critic begin to understand the creative act, and that is unlikely to happen if he has lived entirely in the glorious and sterile seclusion of pure independence and objectivity.

Friendship also creates a dialogue between the artist and critic, which can be invaluable for the latter. Most critics simply look, think and write, and if they get feedback from the artist, it usually comes as an email with some variation of “what kind of idiot are you?” in the reference line. A few weeks after Michael’s show opened in February, I went to see it, with the artist in tow. Although I’ve followed her work for years, I realized I was familiar with only a fraction of the ideas she has pursued. Michael is an abstract artist, and I had long responded to a kind of geometrical vein in her work that reminded me a bit of early Russian abstract artists, such as Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky. But that is only one current that flows through her work.

As we stood in front of paintings, I babbled about the things I was seeing. I was particularly struck by several early works from more than a decade ago, the “Clone Series,” in which two pools of paint are thickly poured onto an acrylic sheet, creating “clone” forms with rounded edges. I hadn’t seen these before, and they are a world apart from the works that seem Russian to me. “They remind me of Donald Sultan,” I said. Maggie looked stricken. “Noooooo!” she said. I tried to explain myself, that they reminded me a bit, really just a little bit, of Sultan’s black-on-white paintings of lemons. That did nothing to assuage her.

 

The artist and the critic at the Katzen Center. The artist and the critic at the Katzen Center. (Marius Linguraru)

Later, standing near a larger and later work, full of pink and cream tones, I floated the name Wayne Thiebaud, whose Pop-inflected paintings often gravitated to similar hues. Again, Maggie looked sad. “Because of the colors, I guess?” she said. Only when we were standing in front of a canvas that inspired thoughts of Robert Rauschenberg did she sound enthusiastic. “I love Rauschenberg.”

There are lessons in this. First, and painfully learned, is that artists rarely enjoy being anatomized as a collection of influences and famous antecedents. Critics make these connections because it helps situate the artist, and forge a memory of the work. It fits the art into the mental apparatus. Abstract artists are particularly susceptible to the critic’s mental shorthand of references. Without this catalogue of “looks like” or “reminds me of” somebody else, the work exists beyond verbal articulation. In a sense, to exist as an idea, it must be dragged from the realm of pure experience into the realm of history, connection and influence.

But it’s very easy to get that wrong, and given the one-way-street nature of most criticism, the critic is never corrected. So it’s possible for critics to be very stupid about art, for years and decades, without ever confronting the solipsism of their ideas and judgments. The chastening blessings of friendship are the best corrective to that, but are available only to critics who occasionally cross the church-state line that divides criticism from creativity.

You can learn a lot from an artist when the conversation is casual, conversational and flowing outside the careful channels of professional communication. The problem with mixing friendship with criticism isn’t that it clouds judgment but that it increases it immeasurably, which is unfair to all of the other artists. Indeed, one might say that the ideal state of affairs would be for critics to befriend every artist, to better see their work in all its intimate detail. But that is impractical, and honestly, how many artists would want to put up with us?