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'Amy Goldin: Art in a Hairshirt' offers insightful essays

The critic's writings on the power of decoration were revelatory, says an admirer who finds the Robert Kushner-edited collection long overdue.

October 09, 2012|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Cover of the book "Art In A Hairshirt, Art Criticism 1964-1978" by Amy Goldin.
Cover of the book "Art In A Hairshirt, Art Criticism 1964-1978"… (Hudson Hills )

I've been stealing from Amy Goldin for years. I don't think she'd mind. Critics tend to like it when their insights enter the larger consciousness, and Goldin's certainly entered mine. Her varied writings on the power of decoration, long an artistic taboo, were revelatory in the 1970s. "The Esthetic Ghetto: Some Thoughts About Public Art" was published in an art magazine 38 years ago, but it remains the single best consideration of its thorny subject that I have read.

Now those and more have been gathered in "Amy Goldin: Art in a Hairshirt," a long-overdue collection of 28 essays by the critic. The handsomely designed paperback also includes a full bibliography and observations on her work by nine other critics and historians, such as Irving Sandler, Michael Duncan and Joan Simon. (Former Art in America editor Elizabeth C. Baker aptly calls it "a retrospective.")

Goldin wrote for only 14 years — she was a painter before she took on art criticism in her late 30s, and she died from cancer at 52 — primarily working in New York but with an important stint teaching at UC San Diego. Artist Robert Kushner, one of her students there, ably edited the volume.

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What's with the title? "A hairshirt is a coarse garment worn next to the skin, which keeps the wearer in a state of discomfort," says the opening epigram. "Art is society's hairshirt — a reflection of all our doings, right or wrong."

Mortification and penance sound grim, but Goldin had the skill and insight to transform that pesky garment into a fashion statement more profound than what travels down any runway. She was happy to look at things too few others would, including rugs, 19th century Iranian portraits and film critic Manny Farber's tough abstract paintings. We are lucky she did.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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"Amy Goldin: Art in a Hairshirt, Art Criticism 1964-1978"

Robert Kushner, editor

Hard Press/Hudson Hills

220 pages, $19.95


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