Dedicated to E. J. S. (R.I.P.)


By Sid Sachs

Portrait of Inquirer Art Critic Edward J. Sozanski during the filming of videos for the Barnes project in early 2012. (Video by Frank Wiese) Courtesy of The Philadelphia Inquirer
Portrait of Inquirer Art Critic Edward J. Sozanski during the filming of videos for the Barnes project in early 2012. (Video by Frank Wiese)
Courtesy of The Philadelphia Inquirer

Five years ago I was on a small panel on local criticism at P’unk Avenue which for the Xth time in as many decades I heard the same complaints from younger artists (once myself included) that there was a dearth of good criticism, the art scene in Philadelphia wasn’t supportive, et cetera. Being the aged blowhard that I am I just threw this back, implored and instructed the audience to create its own dialogues and critics and not wait for the mass media to do the same. What the Millennials don’t comprehend is that the situation in Philadelphia is better than it ever has been in all ways.


All art institutions have grown; the museums more open to local talent (though they still could improve); catalogs at the ICA have improved (though I am not sure that their impact has had as much effect as Gene Swenson’s The Other Tradition or the Agnes Martin retrospective that reinvigorated her career and reputation). This outcome may be a function of competitive national venues diffusing our unique and local clout. There are real art galleries that have persisted for decades. The art schools are larger (may not be a good thing) but they employ more artists and professional support structures, such as Atelier, employ other artists. The Crane Building, Slought (especially), and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center are to be commended. The Print Center no longer caters to the polite etching collectors (oh, how I Hayter them). Swarthmore and Haverford College have real galleries, Arcadia is an institution of note and Pew has helped us all. I try my part. The West Collection has funded and collected local artists to a degree not imaginable in the past.


In fact, Philadelphia seems right at the cusp of becoming a real and decent art scene suigeneris.


We still have these hurdles to jump:


The Arts Commission has no aesthetic teeth, no eyes and this has a negative influence on the metropolis. Every time I pass the Chestnut Street bus shelters I want to vomit. Architecture is commissioned, vetted, passed, and built for the most part without civic pride. Unique buildings like the Boyd Theater are not honored. There are apartment buildings on the “Avenue of the Arts” (and more planned) that I would love to implode. Mundane cast concrete styleless shells (oh for at least a Brutalist monument). A Michael Graves atop a parking garage, and theater spaces designed by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer and Kieran Timberlake buried inside concrete shells. Another architectural obscuration may continue when Gehry’s deconstruction of the PMA is finished. There should be a moratorium on building that doesn’t pass aesthetic standards especially since developers get tax breaks to build. Tax breaks for innovation, not mere commerce. More architects of note.


Too many mundane illustrative murals have been planted into our soil. I have said enough about this already.


There is too much self-congratulatory complacency and acceptance among young artists. There is a lot of energy here but also a safe homogeneity to much practice, and less of the crazed uniqueness of Virgil Marti, Joshua Mosely, Ken Lum, Tristan Lowe, Zoe Strauss, Bill Walton, Judith Schaechter, and Charles Burns. There is a kind of Tyler painting that is just too easy with its casual quirky nuances and a kind of PAFA painting that is of the last century.


There needs to be real criticality, a stance that supports hierarchies of quality. All artists are not created equal.