Theater & art

An art critic, capturing — and catalyzing — his time

Richard Dorment
Alan Howard
Richard Dorment

Moving to London from Australia in the winter of 2000-01, it took me about three minutes to work out that the liveliest, most authoritative art critic working for British newspapers was an American. His name was Richard Dorment.

“Exhibitionist,” a collection of Dorment’s best reviews (with beautiful photographs of the works accompanying every review), is scheduled to be published in September by Wilmington Square Books. And for me — who reached out to Dorment for advice in those early days and two years later began reviewing as a freelancer for the same newspaper — reading an advance copy of the book is not just a trigger to personal nostalgia, it’s a vindication: Oh yes! it reminds me, I chose a great line of work.

London’s thriving newspaper culture meant that Dorment had plenty of competition. Each of the five daily broadsheets had multiple art critics. There was also the Evening Standard, with its pontificating, pugilistic, and at times hilariously self-parodying critic Brian Sewell.

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The other critics each had strengths and weaknesses. But Dorment was the only one whose prose went straight to the point, who never hedged, and who was not only useful but invigorating to read. He seemed to express, better than all his colleagues, the excitement of what was going on in London just then.

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Which was a lot. When Dorment began his almost 30-year stint as chief critic at The Daily Telegraph in 1986, London’s art world was insular and anemic. Already by the time I arrived 14 years later, the scene had changed dramatically.

Tate Modern had just been opened by the Queen; it received 5.25 million visitors in its first year. The Young British Artists phenomenon, promoted by the artists themselves and by the advertising guru Charles Saatchi, was in full swing. Tate’s visionary director, Nicholas Serota, did his utmost to place these British artists in a global context.

London, meanwhile, was awash in foreign money. The first major auction devoted exclusively to contemporary art was held in London (not New York) in 1998. Commercial galleries such as White Cube flourished, and Frieze Art Fair was launched in 2003.

Entrance fees were removed from major museums. A public that had barely existed for contemporary art crystallized and proceeded to expand exponentially according to some as yet unwritten mathematical equation whose terms included Britpop, Tony Blair, Tracey Emin, the Turner Prize, David Beckham, and Kate Moss.

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Public curiosity about art was stoked by ambitious curators and directors — people like Serota, Neil MacGregor, and Norman Rosenthal — but also by the newspapers and weekly magazines, and by such critics as Dorment.

The Telegraph was Britain’s biggest-selling broadsheet. In 1987, the first full year after Dorment joined, it sold 1,147,000 copies a day — almost three times as many as its nearest competitor, The Times. For an art critic, this was an incredible podium. But it came at a price, as Dorment explains in the book’s engrossing introduction.

The conservative press had little time for most of the new art featured in the Turner Prize, at Tate Modern, and in Saatchi’s various galleries. “Week after week,” writes Dorment, “the same bully-boys informed the public that good art was a matter of drawing correctly and getting the perspective right. They never considered that art might have something to do with ideas, imagination, originality, insight or universality.”

This put Dorment in an invidious position, because the Telegraph was the nation’s most conservative broadsheet. His own tastes, as he openly admits, were “fairly cautious.” He had worked as a curator in the department of European paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; he had written a biography of the British fin-de-siecle sculptor Alfred Gilbert, and later organized an exhibition of Gilbert’s work at the Royal Academy. He was hardly a frothing revolutionary.

But as a graduate student in New York, he had seen at first hand the work of such American artists as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Donald Judd. These artists — along with a generation of British sculptors that included Tony Cragg, Richard Long, and Anish Kapoor — were the gold standard in Dorment’s head when he came to judge new art.

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His international — and specifically American — perspective was precisely what made his voice so necessary in the conversation around British contemporary art. But many of his brilliant reviews infuriated his editors, who, as he explains, “began to publish articles and leaders attacking new art in general and my reviews of new art in particular. I’d write about Gilbert and George; the next day a leader would appear advising readers to pay no attention to what the paper’s art critic had just said.”

The same happened every year when the Turner Prize rolled around. Dorment would write a typically trenchant but discerning review, calling out the bad, championing the good. A senior editor would protest that the prize was badly named, because Turner himself was a conservative artist and the Turner Prize finalists were all mad radicals.

Codswallop, of course, as Dorment pointed out (Turner was one of the 19th century’s great radicals). But the situation “didn’t lead to a sense of job security.”

He almost jumped ship to the Telegraph’s left-leaning rival, the Guardian. But he was retained when hired consultants, charged with updating the Telegraph’s “geriatric image” and appealing to “a more curious, open-minded readership,” pointed to one of his articles, illustrated by an arresting Gerhard Richter painting, and enthused effusively.

“From then on, I was in theory free to write whatever I wished.”

Dorment’s prose is graceful, but always direct. His ledes are thrilling. And he is as engaging writing about 19th-century British art or Ife sculptures from West Africa as he is about Mark Wallinger or Matthew Barney. He could convincingly compare David Hockney’s arrival in Los Angeles to Van Gogh’s arrival at Arles. In another piece he will hilariously confess to being “stopped in my tracks by the thousands of naked children who tumble like so many gurgling sperm down a hideous but unforgettable masterpiece” by Leon Gerome.

When he says things you disagree with, he is more fun than ever: Louise Bourgeois, for instance, he describes as “vacuous, overblown, self-obsessed,” and “the most overrated artist of our time.” He describes Oscar Wilde, meanwhile, as “a lousy art critic” who didn’t know “the first thing about either art or design.”

The reviews in “Exhibitionist” are arranged chronologically from Ice Age art to the most recent, and it’s not until page 275 (out of 528) that we even arrive at the 20th century. The balance reflects exactly what made the scene in London during his tenure so stimulating. Its great, mid-size, and smaller museums were all operating at a high level of ambition. You could encounter shows of Egyptian tomb painting at the British Museum or William Hogarth at Tate Britain; you could see Bruce Nauman at the Hayward, Picasso and Matisse at Tate Modern, or Jeff Wall at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Or you could see all of it.

When I was coming into a love of art, the two most important collections of newspaper or magazine criticism in my life were Peter Schjeldahl’s “Hydrogen Jukebox” and Robert Hughes’s “Nothing If Not Critical.” Dorment’s voice and his tastes are as different from those critics as they are from one another. But “Exhibitionist” belongs in the same category: It is a book to learn from, to enjoy, to treasure.

Exhibitionist: Writing About Art in a Daily Newspaper

By Richard Dorment

Wilmington Square Books, 528 pp., $40

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.