Interview with Peter Frank
by Lorien Suárez-Kanerva
Writing about an Art is an art form in itself. Peter Frank spoke of “ekphrasis” in our interview. As the Greek roots of the term suggest, antiquity posits a rich legacy for the humanities. Likewise, art criticism’s basis within the framework of the social sciences links such writing to sister fields like art history, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and sociology, among others. In “The Historian’s Craft,” Marc Bloch, a historian in the French Resistance, writing through WWII until his capture and execution, wrote earnestly about History’s meaning. As he sought to address, “What is the use of History?”
In his book, Bloch’s dedication to Lucien Febvre spoke of a mutual aspiration: “Long have we worked together towards a wider and more human history.” In this light, Bloch’s analysis served as an inspirational catalyst. Art writing evolved into an extensive body of countless articles addressing art, artists and artworks. Each writing exercise, through time, links itself to an inquiry process into the meanings that visual expression and creation reveal about being human. Why write about Art? How is Art a form of knowledge? What is the future trajectory of art criticism? As an art writer, Peter Frank addressed such questions with a poignant and engaging series of responsive comments.
LSK: What motivated your desire to understand art?
Peter Frank: I did, and perhaps still do, not have a desire per se to “understand” art. At a moment of transition and growth in my youth I found myself enchanted and mystified by visual art and wanted (as I still want) to comprehend that experience while feeding it with ever more art – without losing that enchantment. Writing about art is only one of the ways I extend my exploration of art, but writing is my “native” skill and it provides me a means of dealing reasonably (if not quite rationally) with complex experiences.
LSK: How would you describe your study of art, as a human phenomenon, a form of knowledge, a discipline of study, or a distinct written craft?
Peter Frank: All of the above, normally interwoven – and unwound and rewoven. Art invites, nay demands, interrogation and elaboration, especially because it is an entirely human endeavor. It is a mode of communication driven by its very inexactitude. Writing in response to it is, among other things, a way of fitting into that inexactitude, so as to invite the
audience to venture its own interpretations. Artists offer their responses to the inner and outer world; I offer mine in response; the audience responds to all these. Some of these responses serve to build up a body of literature around art, which ideally maintains rather than suffocates the art’s enduring, and ever-changing, aura.
LSK: What would you venture to identify as the use of art criticism, in and of itself?
Peter Frank: Art criticism is the formalization of artistic discourse at the “event horizon” between artwork and reception. (There is no boundary.) Art history manifests the discourse at a greater remove, abetted no less than hindered by the passage of time. We can respond with equal fervor to artwork produced long long ago, far far away, and right here right now. We require different tools to investigate the contexts of then-and-there and now-and-here, but whatever we do with art, we critics and historians are responsible for bringing it as vitally as possible to those looking at it with us.
LSK: Do you have a preference in your approach toward writing about art? As a drive to understand art? As a form of inquiry to further knowledge in a field of study?
Peter Frank: Again, it’s almost impossible to determine where one approach ends and another begins. And, finally, unnecessary. Scholarship, connoisseurship, the poetics of commentary, the whole discursive process is profoundly human in that it compiles observation upon observation – sometimes observation about observation – into a body of response, “literature” and otherwise. And that response doesn’t have to be written; it can mirror the artwork in question with another form of expression entirely. Someone said (jokingly if not disapprovingly),“Writing about art is like dancing about architecture.” Well,
I’ve seen some terrific, very illuminating dances about architecture. I could get onto a tangent about ekphrasis, but that would be dilatory right now…
LSK: How would you foresee criticism’s context within the field? It’s a science and discipline that’s not static but as a process changes and is in movement.
Peter Frank: Donald Kuspit, among others, argued that the critic is an artist, employing discrete creative means and impulses in the generation of discourse. I’d modify that, distinguishing art criticism from art itself by identifying art as a creative endeavor and criticism as a re-creative endeavor. I don’t value one over the other, although I generally prefer to experience art to reading about it. Indeed, I’d rather experience art than write criticism about it myself, but since that is less a distinction than a segue, I can effectively do one by doing the other – out loud.
Peter Frank does not situate himself within any particular theoretical school or practice, although he relies on many for insights and positional analyses. Since an art historical context is evolving, no final statement exists on any subject. Frank sees the artwork and the artist operating within a historical continuum. There will always be something new to be understood and brought forward in the analysis of Art. Any new school of thought that leads to the articulation of a theory will be built upon in a continuous open-ended cycle.
The process of curating shows can draw together diverse sets of artists and artworks by its very nature. It brings together Art from creators of different backgrounds and vantage points that elicit social change and intellectual evolution. It can address significant issues of and in a particular time. Frank noted that the exhibition process through curation creates social connections that can bring about global change.
Frank’s curatorial work focuses on the artist’s role as a creative agent (within a specific cultural and socio-political context) alongside a show’s institutional setting. Similarly, Frank noted that critical inquiry into the degree of comprehension and commitment an artist brings to bear in creating artwork could lead to a better appreciation of the cultural context from which it arises. Artists can speak responsibly about the particular struggles and critical issues, social and aesthetic, of their time. Such efforts are essential as parts of a chronicle where Art as a discourse furnishes the definition of what makes something an artwork.
Peter Frank’s legacy as an art writer places him at a unique vantage point to the process of writing about Art. Our interview spoke as much about being human as it did about Art. The journey of exploration that humanity has traversed in creating Art has made our efforts to understand its meaning integral to its production and reception.
About Peter Frank
Peter Frank is an American art critic, curator, and poet who lives and works in Los Angeles. Frank is known for curating shows at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in the 1970s and 1980s. He has worked curatorially for Documenta, the Venice Biennale, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, and many other national and international venues. (Source: Wikipedia)
Cover Photo courtesy of Peter Frank.
Photograph by Eric Minh Swenson.