Contemporary art sometimes pretends to have made a clean break with history. In The Perpetual Guest, poet and critic Barry Schwabsky demonstrates that any robust understanding of art’s present must also account for the ongoing life and changing fortunes of its past.
Surveying the art world of recent decades, Schwabsky attends not only to its most significant newer faces—among them, Kara Walker, Thomas Hirschhorn, Ai Weiwei, Chris Ofili, and Lorna Simpson—but their forebears as well, both near (Jeff Wall, Nancy Spero, Dan Graham, Cindy Sherman) and more distant (Velázquez, Manet, Matisse, and the portraitists of the Renaissance).
Schwabsky’s rich and subtle contributions illuminate art’s present moment in all its complexity: shot through with determinations produced by centuries of interwoven traditions, but no less open-ended for it.
“With great skill and generosity, Barry Schwabsky threads a fine needle in writing accessible art criticism for a general audience about a wide range of artists and histories, from Velázquez to Nancy Spero, from Manet to the Pictures Generation, from Gauguin to Jimmie Durham and Kara Walker, without making any concessions to his passions. In the collected essays in The Perpetual Guest, Schwabsky writes from within a cultural field he loves, whose complexities he embraces, offering his readers an erudite and independent voice as a guide and a resource.”
“Anyone preoccupied by art criticism having lost its soul amidst unabashadely promotional or abstrusely theoretical forms of what David Carrier called “artwriting” will find in Barry Schwabsky’s The Perpetual Guest reasons for renewed confidence in the genre. His prose is elegant, erudite, and to-the-point, fueled by unprejudiced judgment and a great sense of observation. What he wrote of Degas applies eminently to him, too: “He saw things that had never been noticed before, little gestures that are insignificant but that are touching in a strangely anonymous way because they are simply human.”
“Like many of the best critics, Schwabsky has the ability to describe things so precisely that no explicit evaluation is necessary. Every time an idea is introduced, it is allowed to hold the reader's attention for the time it takes to ground a judgement, and no longer. This gentle rhythm gives the essays an unillusioned clarity and undogmatic authority rarely found in writing about art.”