There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Artist Ian Jehle has had enough of Tyler Green. “He’s a loudmouth lightweight,” says Jehle. “I’ve heard that at a million parties.”
“I think Tyler’s wonderful,” counters Annie Gawlak, owner of local gallery G Fine Art. “He’s writing for the true arts enthusiast. He cares how many paintings are hung in a museum room.”
Who is this Tyler Green, that he prompts such passion among local art types? A new critic for the Washington Post, perhaps, or the Washingtonian? Hardly. Instead, Green’s forum is a no-frills Web log called Modern Art Notes (MAN), where he holds court with a swagger and a ruthless set of standards.
In person, Green’s a pussycat: lanky, good-looking, with soft grey eyes and a habit of saying “darn” between bouts of self-deprecation. But on MAN, the 29-year-old Tenleytown resident displays the appetiteand the biteof a crocodile. “Is the Washington Post content being a paper that is most interested in its most simplistic readers?” opens one MAN entry, slamming a recent Post story on New York’s Museum Mile.
D.C. artits artists, its galleries, its icons, and the way it’s covered in the local mediaoften finds itself on the wrong end of a Tyler Green chomp. Green, who embraces the term “elitist,” has called the District-funded (and nonjuried) Art-O-Matic arts show “an exhausting abomination,” “a Festival of the Forgettable.” He’s ripped D.C.’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities as “usually ridiculous,” named an award for “Idiocy in Curating/Museum Administration” after Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small, and called out Artnet magazine’s Jeffrey Binstock for reviewing a Corcoran Gallery of Art show curated by his brother Jonathan Binstock.
And about Jessica Dawson, the Post’s “Galleries” columnist, Green offered this November lament: “Dawson’s writing is rarely critical. It often reads like a gallery press release….She spends way too much time on piss-ant suburban galleries that crank out shlock. Who cares?” Such provocations, combined with MAN’s fresh-daily links to art sites and stories worldwide, garner the site an average of 300 hits a day. “I’m an evangelist for art conversation,” Green says.
And boy, are they conversing locallyat least about Green. Some gallery directors and artists here think he’s ignorant, self-promoting, and, now that he’s writing a column on Washington galleries for Artnet, perhaps even harmful.
Others laud him for keeping D.C. art on its toes and providing critical attention to shows and trends that the Post and others (including the Washington City Paper, which Green says “usually runs eight bad movie reviews for each visual arts story”) tend to miss.
“What Tyler’s doing is something no one else in the city is doing,” says Paul Roth, associate curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran. “A typical conversation will start with: ‘Did you read this thing that Tyler was talking about?’”
The D.C. visual-art scene, though it has matured over the past decade, still regards itself as small, beleaguered, and starved for local media attention. Into this milieu has jumped Green, a swashbuckler with an electronic soapbox and a parchment-thin art résumé, a champion of elevated standards who doesn’t always see shows before he dismisses them. There’s enough arrogance, perceived neglect, and insecurity in the mix to keep Dr. Melfi busy for a month.
“People feel roughed up by [Green’s] criticism,” says artist Colby Caldwell. “The question I hear from other gallery owners and other artists is ‘What kind of qualifications does he have for this?’”
No one can dispute Green’s passion for modern art. By day, he works for Robinson & Foster, a D.C. research, lobbying, and consulting firm where he has worked on projects for the NAACP National Voter Fund and a coalition to reform mandatory-minimum-sentencing laws. But in his spare time, Green is all about art: jousting about it with friends, wolfing down catalogs and books, arranging vacations and weekends so he can travel to exhibitions from Buffalo to Venice.
“I’d guess I spend a couple of hours a day on art stuff,” says Green. “There are at least 15 to 20 art Web sites I look at every day. I usually have some kind of art book in my briefcase or bag that I’m reading. I read an astonishing number of bad art-magazine articles.”
A former sportswriter who covered the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Maryland in the ’90s, Green had never written publicly about art before he started MAN in September 2001. From the blog’s inception, though, he has cast his net widely, taking aim at national figures such as Small, rating the latest big-house auctions, and generally styling the site as an information clearinghouse and arbiter for contemporary art. One of Green’s specialties is policing what he considers woolly or inane art writing, especially by renowned critics. “Gopnik goes simplistic about art cliché#s,” reads one entry about Post critic Blake Gopnik.
MAN certainly has its fans in D.C., from artists to curators to owners of galleries Green has written about favorably. “Why wouldn’t anybody in their right mind enjoy that he’s participating in the way he is?” thunders George Hemphill, owner of Hemphill Fine Arts. “Tyler’s been forceful, and God bless him for it. I wish there were 10 others like him.” Cheryl Numark, owner of Numark Gallery, adds that she likes the way Green “seamlessly integrates what’s happening in D.C. with what’s happening in the contemporary world.”
Green didn’t start posting about the local scene until last September, when he wrote admiringly of Fusebox, a hip contemporary gallery on 14th Street NW that shows a mix of D.C. and international artists. A couple of months later, MAN was featuring regular entries about Fusebox, including a diary of Green’s trip to the Art Basel Miami Beach show with the gallery’s personnel and artists.
Green also began bemoaning the attention D.C. gives “pedestrian art” at the expense of the city’s Big Five contemporary commercial galleriesFusebox, Numark, G, Hemphill, and Conner Contemporary Art. His broadside against the biannual art-and-performance catch-all Art-O-Matic exemplified his approach and made his name hot-button. Not only did Green argue that Art-O-Matic “celebrates mediocrity at the expense of quality,” he implied that public money should instead go to a “curated event that regularly spotlights up-and-coming local arts stars” such as Fusebox-represented painter Jason Gubbiotti.
The attack, which appeared both on MAN and in a letter to the Post, stirred up a swarm of controversy.
One problem: Green hadn’t even seen this year’s Art-O-Matic before he sent off the critique. “My letter was not about the specifics of the showit was about the concept of the show,” he now says. But his argument seems Jesuitical at best. Art-O-Matic is open to all, but that doesn’t ensure its uniform mediocrity. (Gubbiotti has shown in it, for example.) Besides, the counterexample Green proposes for D.C.San Francisco’s “Bay Area Now” show at the Yerba Buena Center for the Artsdoesn’t draw on municipal funds. A January MAN attack on Flashpoint, a D.C.-funded arts incubator, further clarifies Green’s position: Public subsidies should go to established commercial artists at the expense of activities that may have other civic virtues.
“Jason Gubbiotti is doing fine. D.C. does not need to pay taxpayer money to promote Jason Gubbiotti,” responds Jehle, who exhibited in Art-O-Matic and once had MAN set as his home page. (He hasn’t been back in months.) The Corcoran’s Roth agrees: “It’s self-evident why things like [Art-O-Matic] are funded. Governments are going to be inclusive.”
The Art-O-Matic debate also highlights two common criticisms of Green’s work: (1) He favors his friends and covers only the Big Five, and (2) he’s got a lot to learn. “He doesn’t have a very strong knowledge of local art history and the artists here, beyond the people he seems to prefer and places he likes to go,” says Philip Barlow, a local collector. “I think the artwork shown in the commercial galleries is good, but I’m not confident it’s the best art being produced locally.”
Others argue that Green’s apparent myopia might just reflect the provincialism of the D.C. scene generally. “He always talks about coalitions and is so self-conscious about ‘the D.C. Art Scene,’ capital letters,” says Greg Allen, a fellow blogger and collector, who splits time between New York and Washington. “And it seems a little artificial. I don’t think any real vibrant arts scene develops where they all have membership cards.”
Green disputes these critiques. “It’s absurd to equate second-tier and third-tier galleries to the galleries that are involved in contemporary art dialogues beyond Washington,” he says in an e-mail. “I see shows at a ton of other places, too, but they’re usually not worth mentioning on the site.” About suburban galleries, he says: “Does Roberta Smith [a New York Times critic] go to hobbyist galleries in Jersey City? No. Does Michael Kimmelman [another Times critic] make it out to see floral still-lifes in Manhasset? No.”
Green’s attacks on the Post’s Dawson have given voice to an oft-whispered sentiment in the local arts scene. Part of the problem is institutional: Everybody reads the Post, so its writers become punching bags. Observers such as Gubbiotti dwell on every omission in Dawson’s coverage. “Jessica doesn’t write about Fusebox, because she’s friends with some of the artists and the gallery dealers,” says the frustrated artist. “Fusebox has some of the most interesting programs in Washington, and the ‘Galleries’ columnist won’t write about it.”
“I do not review a show if I cannot be 100 percent objective,” Dawson says. “There have been only a handful of people I chose not to write about for this reason. Every single one was covered by other critics or feature writers at the Post.”
“Most galleries here are unhappy [about media coverage],” says John Pancake, arts editor for the Post. “We write about 50 or 100 of them a year. We can’t do them all.”
Green has repeatedly slammed the way Dawson and the Post coveror do not coverthe Big Five, while also showering his attention on them. But when asked if he intends to fill Dawson’s role, Green dismisses the thought with a wave. “It’s not like the Washington art scene or any other arts scene needs a yahoo from the back row screaming things out,” he says. Green also points out that he’s posted several approving comments about Dawson’s reviews. “I don’t write to get hit pops,” he says. “If I did, I’d write about the Post every day.”
Yet Green appears to be venturing into this perceived void, through his Artnet column as well as provocative proposals on MAN (such as for a D.C. institute of contemporary art and a visual-arts version of theater’s Helen Hayes Awards). “I think Tyler senses [the gap] and capitalizes on that greatly,” says Caldwell, who exhibited in a recent show for which Green wrote a catalog essay. “He doesn’t feel he’s not being professional by writing about his friends’ shows.”
Even most of Green’s detractors think MAN is a great addition to the local dialogue. But the Artnet column might be another matter. “When those who lack experience and training in the discipline are allowed to assume positions of apparent critical authority, years of diligent work by qualified professionals are undermined and the international impact of our efforts is diminished,” e-mails Leigh Conner, owner of Conner Contemporary Art. “How can we expect anyone outside of D.C. to take what we do here seriously if we can’t maintain standards necessary to distinguish amateur topical commentary from sustained critical analysis?”
“I try to convince Tyler to take it easy on some of these younger artists that he wrote about,” says Walter Robinson, editor in chief of Artnet. “But readers love to read people they hate.” Roth concurs. “I almost like him better when I disagree with him,” he says. “What does it mean that he’s not qualified? You don’t have to look at [MAN]it’s not a paper of record. A blog occasions a different response.”
By all accounts, however, Green already has received a response he relishes. Says Gubbiotti: “He loves the controversy.” CP