In Honor of Pete Wells, a Sampling Menu of the Art World’s Most Bitter Critical Beatdowns

It was the snark heard round the world. When New York Times food critic Pete Wells‘s ripped celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s new Times Square restaurant a proverbial new one, he sparked a full-scale Twitter war and prompted Fieri to go on the Today Show to defend his restaurant. Articulated entirely though rhetorical questions (“Is the entire restaurant a very expensive piece of conceptual art? Is the shapeless, structureless baked Alaska that droops and slumps and collapses while you eat it, or don’t eat it, supposed to be a representation in sugar and eggs of the experience of going insane?”), Wells’s venomous takedown is a magnum opus of the negative review.

Fieri’s many fanboys rallied in defense of the downhome epicurean, calling the review mean-spirited and snobbish. It’s a nasty piece of work, but, nevertheless, it’s incredible that a lowly newspaper review has garnered so much attention. Could Wells’s grand slam is a perverse beacon of hope at a time when everyone pronounces the delinquency and obsolescence of art criticism? While cruelty is never a good thing, a good bad review can stick a much-needed needle into ballooned reputations and egos, spark healthy debate, and, quiet simply, be a bloodthirsty pleasure to read. Read below for some of our favorite negative art reviews of recent memory.

Christian Viveros-Faune on Damien Hirst, The Village Voice, 2012

Damien Steven Hirst, the world’s richest artist ($332 million according to Britain’s Sunday Times), full-time businessman, part time art-collector, sometime restaurateur, P.T. Barnum imitator, and most famous member of the Young British Artists (or YBAs), a creative covey who came to prominence in the 1990s, died last Thursday, January 12, in New York following complications from acute diverticulitis brought on by a swinishly speculative, grossly cynical, intellectually constipated effort to pinch out 11 concurrent exhibitions of rehashed expensive crap. He was 46…

Roberta Smith on Adel Abdessemed, The New York Times, 2012

The ambitious array of politically impassioned yet inert, artistically confused, pandering objects in Adel Abdessemed’s second New York gallery show enumerate many of the clichés endemic in the Conceptually motivated realist sculpture that has lately become something of an international style. Its symptoms include extreme taxidermy (a relief made of snarling stuffed mammals the size of Picasso’s “Guernica” that does not achieve quality by association); the remaking of famous works of art in stunningly obvious materials (Grunewald’s crucified Jesus, life-size, in razor wire, as if the entire body were a crown of thorns); and the translation of famous photographs into sculpture (the soccer star Zinédine Zidane’s World Cup head butt, larger than life, in black resin)… In the end the unimaginative application of so many received ideas makes the show a kind of public service announcement concerning exhausted artistic tactics that should not be tried at home, in the studio or at the fabricator’s.

Peter Schjeldahl on Maurizio Cattelan, The New Yorker, 2011

Slaphappy humiliation, of the art world and of himself, is Cattelan’s brand. The Guggenheim’s show makes quite clear what Cattelan’s previous theatrical installations have obscured: he doesn’t make art. He makes tendentious tchotchkes. Some of them enchant. In every case, Cattelan’s success depends on the just-so pitch of his good-bad taste. He must simultaneously suggest offensiveness and disarm it, with an invitation to hip complicity. Lacking formal integrity, his works fall outside what a resilient dictionary definition of art calls “the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria.” It is no easy matter to achieve a high-flying art career with productions of non-art, but Cattelan has a laugh by proving that he has done precisely that. He reveals, or even fortifies, the fact that self-parody has become the life-support system of international art infrastructures. Make people feel smart, and they will put up with anything. The mindset cannot be outflanked or overturned, because it routinely performs those operations on itself.

Jonathan Jones on Anish Kapoor (and England), The Guardian, June 2010

The lesson of Anish Kapoor’s triumph is that we are still, at heart, a deeply uncool nation.

Christopher Knight on Christopher Wool, Los Angeles Times, 1998

The problem with Wool’s art is not that it’s aggressively bad. If it was, you might at least have something to sink your teeth into and chew over, even in a negative way. Instead, the paintings are just banal. Visually they’re impoverished. Each is a cultural insider’s inventory of standard effects, wearing a narrow, institutionally sanctioned pedigree on its sleeve. […] With each of these exhausted 1960s signals Wool does give you something to think about–but almost nothing to look at. That’s because these are not paintings; they’re ‘paintings.’ The anxiety over the obsolescent practice of applying paint to a flat surface, which supposedly is rampant in our digital age, is collapsed into the knowing irony implied by italics… Wool’s career (he was born in 1955) coincides almost exactly with the irrepressible proliferation of contemporary art museums and academies, a phenomenon that has utterly transformed America’s art life since the 1970s. His pedigreed painted panels contain within themselves an entire history of the academic, institutional ecology that made them possible. No wonder the show’s so dull.

Michael Kimmelman on Jeff Koons, New York Times, 1991

Just when it looked as if the 80’s were finally over, Jeff Koons has provided one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the decade. His most recent photo-based oil paintings go even further into the realm of pornography than the ones he exhibited at the last Venice Biennale…Mr. Koons delivers an unabashedly cynical message. His works continue to celebrate the emptiness, meaninglessness and Disneylike unreality of contemporary life, now extended to the arena of love. But the hollowness the artist reveals seems fundamentally his own … That one of the images is titled “Manet” suggests something not only about Mr. Koons’s ego, but also about his failure to grasp what made a work like Manet’s “Olympia” radical: more than the subject’s nakedness, it was her assertiveness, as well as the startling way she was painted. Mr. Koons’s boring, dully conceived images are closer in spirit to the dead academicism against which Manet reacted. The best comparison may be between Mr. Koons and Salvador Dali, increasingly an opportunistic publicity monger whose conflation of himself and his work precipitated the self-destruction that already seems Mr. Koons’s fate.

Robert Hughes on Julian Schnabel, Time Magazine, 1982

Schnabel’s work is tailor-made to look important. It is all about capital letters Life, Death, the Zeitgeist, and above all the tragic though profitable condition of being a Great Artist… Its imagery is callow and solemn, a Macy’s parade of expressionist bric-a-brac: skulls, bullfights, crucifixes, severed heads. It includes portraits of the likes of Baudelaire, Artaud, Burroughs and other connoisseurs of crisis. It serves up, by implication, the image of Schnabel himself as a young Prince of Aquitaine, albeit a Texan one, sleepless with memory and disillusion, contemplating the wrenched spare parts of history…His work is a kind of Pop art, based not on mass media but on coarse generalized fictions of intimacy and expressiveness. Some of its traits seemed, at first, rather daring in their perversity, notably his way of painting over the crust of plates, as though its cracked and riven surface were nothing more than grain. But this, too, exhausts itself. It might not do so if Schnabel were a real draftsman, but his line is maundering, weak and thick… It is pastiche mostly, but who minds that? What the art world wants is a good $30,000 pasticheur…

And finally, the granddaddy of art critic smack-downs: Benjamin Buchloch on Joseph Beuys, Artform, 1980

Nobody who understands any contemporary science, politics, or esthetics, for that matter, could want to see in Beuys’s proposal for an integration of art, science, and politics — as his program for the Free International University demands — anything more than simple-minded Utopian drivel lacking elementary political and educational practicality. Beuys’s existential and ideological followers and admiriers, as opposed to his bourgeois collectors and speculators, are blindfolded like cultists by their leaders charisma…In the work and public myth of Beuys the new German spirit of the postwar period finds its identity by pardoning and reconciling itself prematurely with its own reminisces of a responsibility for one of the most cruel and devastating forms of collective political madness that history has known…The abstract universality of Beuys’s vision has its equivalent in the privististic and deeply subjectivist nature of his actual work. Any attempt on his side to join the two aspects results in curious sectarianism. The roots of Beuys’s dilemma lie in the misconception that politics can become a matter of esthetics, as he repeats frequently, ‘the future political intentions must in artistic.’…or finally in, in explicit terms of crypto-fascist Futurism: “I would say that the concept of politics must be eliminated as quickly as possible and be replaced by the capability of form in human art.  I do not want to carry art into politics, but make politics into art.’…

— Chloe Wyma