In New York City, from roughly 1963 through 1972, art criticism became a site for the production of unlikely forms of art. For a few critics, art criticism offered improbable spaces to assemble queer ways of being and of writing that shatter things rather than shore them up, withhold comforts of certainty and political solidarity, allow for dithering and pleasure over resolute productivity, and let passions percolate to the surface. To describe this genre, I propose the term “criticism without authority.” I locate critics Gene Swenson, Jill Johnston, and Gregory Battcock at the center of this endeavor to create criticism without authority—an endeavor that happened very near to and within the margins of the art world as it was expanding and becoming institutionalized in New York City. There exists an enduring sense within art history that “art criticism became a ‘serious discipline’ in the US only at this time [the 1960s and 1970s], and primarily through the medium of Artforum,” as art historian Hal Foster characterizes it. This dissertation traces a history of what unfolded outside the pages of Artforum, where it also happened that American art criticism came together as a collective project—albeit a very different kind of collective project shared among a loose constellation of critics and premised on instances of improbable alliance. Across three chapters, I dwell on moments when Swenson, Johnston, and Battcock manage to create alternative, queer ways of working, being, and relating in the world—scenes that include, for example, Swenson's solitary protest outside MoMA wielding only a giant question mark as a sign, Johnston's appearance on a panel discussion she organized titled “The Disintegration of a Critic: An Analysis of Jill Johnston,” and Battcock's weekly column titled "The Last Estate" for the underground newspaper GAY. The methodology I assemble in this dissertation does not adhere to a theoretical framework or attempt to see things through a specific critical lens. Rather, I think of methodology in terms of practice—habits of wading through material, piecing together fragments, reading, and writing—guided by two primary commitments: close attentiveness to archival material and openness to being surprised. From a scattered network of archival remains, I reassemble the achievements of Swenson, Johnston, and Battcock’s practices: episodes in which perverse, non-normative ways of knowing, dithering, slouching, and wandering manage to pierce through the noise of the era.



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