How many great artists have there been that passed by totally unknown? It is a recurring idle pub question, but one which casually brings up some heavy stuff: of working processes, careers, visibility, networks and power. No matter what some like Dave Hickey might like to believe, I don’t think talent just rises to the top like some genius double cream; recognition is a collusion of luck and lust, of determination and dollar signs. Martin Herbert’s latest collection of essays, Tell Them I Said No, is premised on artists who had it, whatever it might be (talent, promise or a steady career), and turned their backs on it; artists who were known, seen, acknowledged, and then – for whatever reasons – disappeared.
This collection of ten short, eminently readable essays is a set of case studies for such a disappearing act, whether self-exile (like Agnes Martin’s hightailing it to New Mexico), a change of career (such as Charlotte Posenenske’s pointed shift to sociology), deliberate occlusion (like the ‘ghosting’, as we might say, of Trisha Donnelly and David Hammons) or even giving up the ghost entirely (in the case of Christopher D’Arcangelo’s suicide). Herbert’s choices of artists to focus on are interesting – he points out early on that good studies of well-known dropouts like Marcel Duchamp and Lee Lozano already exist; his choices are mainly American artists active in the late 20th century, though this isn’t an exhaustive list of refuseniks, but his own flavoured look at how and why some might choose to exit stage left. Herbert’s earlier collection of essays, The Uncertainty Principle from 2014, similarly had a theme to gather around and, despite featuring his usual joco-serio style, still felt like a fractured set of monographs huddled uncomfortably together. Tell Them I Said No is a more cohesive read; while two chapters began their lives as articles in Art Review, it feels well paced and personal. Herbert is an attentive critic, and here he lets loose with humming sensory descriptions of each artist’s work before delving into an attempt to figure out the motivations for why they left. In some cases (such as the recently deceased Surinamese-Dutch conceptual artist Stanley Brouwn, who had ordered every image that exists of him or his work to be destroyed), he knows as much because the artists have somehow made it public knowledge or the act of withdrawal is otherwise an extension of their practice. In other cases, the author makes do with educated guesses; in any case, Herbert was never given, despite some pointed attempts, direct contact with any of these artists. As such, much of the book reads like a 17th-century epistolary novel, the writer conjecturing and wondering out loud about a character who upped and left, tracing their silhouette, making up reasons and rationales in their absence.
It is the chapters dealing with painters – Agnes Martin and Albert York – where Herbert’s descriptive nous is on full view, ricocheting off York’s canvases with a ‘barn-heavy weight – in a heifer’s dark orbs, the air between two figures, what a dog senses and leans its body towards – but the viewer isn’t privy’. Privy enough, it seems, to get such a glance. The more conceptual figures such as D’Arcangelo, an underappreciated figure who needs more such writing, and Posenenske, a mis-appreciated figure who needs more of this kind of attention to her politicised, modular practice, feel like the ideological heart of the book – this is where Herbert’s gesticulating might breach a historical absence. Slightly more bothersome is the inclusion of artists like Hammons and Donnelly, who are talented and mercurial, yes, but also immensely successful artists with big galleries to back up their charade. This highlights the central paradox of the book: that of being known in the first place, in order to be known to then disappear. Herbert is well aware of the irony, choosing to embrace it, remarking on it throughout the book, and noting, as he does in the introduction, that ‘the more unassuming leavers’ names are lost to history’.
Held within all this back and forth about which artists are known or unknown is, of course, the role of the critic. There is always a distance between the maker and their artworks, and we choose the ways we mediate that distance: by looking to the artist’s intentions, looking to the thing in front of us and imposing our own wild interpretations, or any pit stops in between; the critic is a public ferryman of this river. What Herbert gathers in Tell Them I Said No is a set of examples where artists consciously divorced themselves from their work and put themselves in the position where we can know about it. In the vast majority of other cases, of course, the artists are simply forgotten.
Herbert, here, chooses to side with these makers, focusing on their perspectives, reading their works and quotes like tea leaves they left behind, at the expense of his own, and our, attempts to gloss something else from their work. He draws none of his own conclusions from these leavers, choosing instead to nonchalantly leave us to, as he tells us in one section of the Brouwn essay, ‘think what you like’; what remains is an image of the artist walking away, but coyly looking back over their shoulder.
Originally published in Art Monthly, No. 407, June 2017