Kay Larson is an acclaimed art critic, columnist, and editor. She began her career in journalism in Cambridge, Massachusetts at The Real Paper and continued as an associate editor at Artnews. She spent one year as an art critic for the Village Voice, then New YorkMagazine asked her to write a column of art criticism; she was art critic at New York for 14 years. Since then she has been a frequent contributor to The New York Times. Her writing has appeared in Vogue, Artnews, Artforum and numerous other sources including international newspapers, popular press, and museum exhibition catalogues.
In 1994, she entered Zen practice at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York. After ten years of intensive Zen, she now practices in the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
Last year her book on John Cage came out entitled Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists. In it she sets out to map Cage’s outer and inner life.
I met her in Stockholm before her talk on happiness at Bonniers Konsthall in connection to Jeppe Hein’s solo show A Smile for You.
Could we talk about your background a bit…
Where do I start?
From the beginning? (Laughs)
From the beginning!
Well, in the beginning I always drew. As a child I was always drawing constantly. I was, so to speak, an artist through high school and went to college as that. But, then I found philosophy and got very interested in a lot of other things as well. I graduated with a degree in philosophy and a minor in art. At that point I was wondering “what am I going to do next?”.
I was living in the East Coast, in Boston. A friend suggested that the local alternative newspaper was looking for an art critic. So, I wrote them a sample column and they printed it, and then I wrote them another one and they printed it, and people have been printing me ever since! (Laughs)
I kind of stumbled into something that I really think suits me. Because I always felt like I was looking into art and seeing the universe and then being able to write about that. Like transforming the art experience into a whole different language. So, that conversion from art language into language language is really interesting to me and continues to entertain me and it goes deeper and deeper as I grow older and older.
Oh, so you want the rest of it
So I wrote for alternative newspapers for most of the first decade, including the Village Voice in New York and then at the beginning of my second decade New York Magazine hired me as art critic and I spent 14 years there. That was my true training ground in a certain sense. I saw everything there, I went everywhere; all through New York City and outside New York as well. After I left there in 1994, I wrote for the New York Times for a while, not as a staff writer but as a contributor. By then I was also working on this book. So this book has been in development for 15 years (laughs).Biography takes a long time because absolutely everything you say you have to check three or four ways.
Because someone else will…
And also for this book I had to find out certain things. I had to find out things that nobody had ever asked about. Like: When did John Cage speak at the Club? How important was the Club? I felt I was justified in calling it the intellectual testing ground of the New York School. And if it was as important as I think it was, and John Cage spoke there, then what effect might his words have had?
I found out what no one else has known, because I located the Club records. Cage spoke at the Club the first time February 9th 1951. That was just at the point when he was about to meet Robert Rauschenberg, who was just a kid with almost no art experience.
So, Rauschenberg’s first show in New York was in May 1951 and I think he was listening to John Cage, probably at the Club. That May, Cage and Rauschenberg begin an intense interaction. Cage spoke again at the Club on March 14, 1952, and there were consequences of that event as well.
I love that you already answered my three first questions in one go, without me having to ask you. (Laughs)
So, lets go back to your writing. How do you make the switch between writing for an art paper and a paper that is for the general public?
There are two answers to that question. The first, the simplest one: I always aim to be read by everybody. That’s not always the case with art critics, as you know. Many art critics prefer to be featured in their own group, but I always wanted to speak to everybody.
Since leaving New York Magazine I have made a transition from writing from direct observation, which is what art criticismis: observation and talking to yourself about what you’re observing. Then bringing a lot of other experiences in and a lot of other references into what you’re observing. That’s art criticism.
The second answer is that other methods are needed in writing biography, which is... wait… I have to pause here for a moment, and say that the book I just published, while it is biography it is also something else.
It’s really trying to reach for the question of John Cage’s enlightenment experience and how his viewpoint was distributed in the visual art community. That’s something that nobody has ever talked about before.
So, to make that transition I had to learn a whole new way of writing. I had to get inside his head and see his thought processes and somehow convey them. Not in a reportorial way and not in an analytical way, but in a way that replicated the process of what he went through. In the book, as we are reading it, we know only what Cage knows. Except that every now and again I throw in a little fish: and the little fish says “yeah, but this is going to happen later and this is why it’s important”. It’s kind of a fore-shadowing.
So, I had to learn many new techniques.
Like looking into the future…
Yeah, it’s a way of playing it out for the reader; of giving us a sense of what is likely to be significant in the future.
There have been times in my life where every now and again, I feel like something like that flashback from the future has happened to me. I mean that’s how I felt when I met my husband…who is now my husband. (Laughs). At the time, I didn’t know him at all… (Laughs) Within minutes, I said “Oh he’s going to be my husband”.
There are times that we take intuitive leaps. I sympathize with John Cage because he took these great leaps too. And that was one of the most striking things about him. He saw way into the future long before anybody else did. Many people never saw as deep into it as he did, including Merce Cunningham, who was a beautiful man; a great choreographer and an extremely important figure in American culture. But, someone I don’t think had that capacity for great leaps of forward-looking intuition. Most people around Cage didn’t.
But that’s hard: to trust yourself. I would say that usually you’re right the first time around, right?
Yeah! You’re right the first time, and then you don’t know what to make of it.
Yeah exactly and then you just go with the flow I guess.
In a way that was what happened to me with this book. It happened because I was doing some research on art in the sixties and I kept finding that all these artists who originated the revolution of the sixties had been in contact with Cage in the fifties. So, I said: “this is not the art history that I learned, what’s going on here?”.
And at the same time I started practicing Zen Buddhism and my job at New York Magazine ended. My husband went into the local Zen Monastery and I thought, “if he can do it, so can I” and I went in after him. (Laughs)
I practiced there very intensely for ten years. I now practice with the Tibetans.
I had this moment where you know I recognized that these three realms had never been put together before and all of a sudden they just fused in my mind: John Cage, artists, and Zen Buddhism. And if I could’ve written the entire book at that point I could’ve sat down and three days later: a 500-page book. But, then you have to…
Go through the material?
Go through the process. And it was a real process. A process of me learning enough, so I could catch up with my intuition. And I think that was true for Cage, as well, and that was one reason why I really resonated well with him.
Book cover Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists
Last year Cage turned 100 years, and here in Stockholm we took part of several events in his honor and it felt like all of a sudden he was everywhere, and on everyone’s lips. Many of the art institutions here did something in his name. But, why is John Cage important for us today?
Aside from the fact that he influenced every artist that created the post-modern revolution, aside from that?
I think he offers a model that is extremely useful and interesting. It’s a model of how you live your life creatively and successfully, enabling good for others and not causing harm. The type of awareness practice that isimportant for artists and Cage can be found in a Buddhist way of life.It involves looking at everything that has derailed you; everything that has contributed to your and other people’s suffering and just getting rid of it, letting go of it. Transforming your life so that you are open to everyone and everything that happens to you. I think he showed artists how to live that way and how to walk into ordinary life and say that this is all art. Your life is a work of art.
But since I don’t know what Stockholm did to celebrate Cage’s birthday, or rather what the art community did with John Cage, I would say that his connection toartists is extremely significant but it will probably not be surprising; buthis deeply Buddhist viewpoint is not that familiar to anyone.
Yeah, it felt like that part got lost in all of the events. I didn’t know that at all, but I might have missed it.
No, nobody knows it. The music community didn’t know, the people who professionally write about Cage, in America at least, didn’t know this. Cage gave his two most important talks at the Club, yet nobody has asked the right questions about them. Both lectures were published in his 1961 book Silence and are giddy celebrations of his Zen enlightenment moment in 1951-1952. Nobody has talked about what his Buddhism really meant to him. Without that key component it’s pretty hard to understand why he influenced anyone. What was Cage saying to Rauschenberg in 1951 that was so different than what Rauschenberg had heard anywhere else?
Rauschenberg had been hanging around the clique of abstract expressionism in the Village, he had been hearing all kinds of things about art. Cage had talked to him in a totally different way, so what was it that Cage was saying to Rauschenberg and then to Jasper Johns in 1954; what was he saying to them that was so vastly different?
It’s my feeling that what Cage said to them all of a sudden gave them a new worldview, a new imagery, a new language of enlightenment and this brought them to make a great leap in their work. We have the evidence in their work. Would Rauschenberg ever have done his white paintings if he had not first met John Cage? I don’t think so.
What was is about the white paintings that was so important? It turns out that they were about silence, emptiness and the mind that is released from its own bondage.
I’ve always looked upon minimalist art, and constructivist art as very spiritual: that you strip off everything that is superfluous to in that way you get closer to god, or whatever you want to call it. Could that be applicable to John Cage’s music?
The difference is; it’s not so much that John Cage invented the idea that you strip everything away and you get to god. It’s that he had a different method of doing that.
The method is defined by how you unpack yourself from all your afflictions. Buddhism is exactly the opposite of Christianity in some ways; in some ways it’s very close and in other ways it’s the opposite because Buddhist meditation introduces you to your own experience. It’s not about faith. You test it out for yourself; does this make sense or doesn’t it? Can I see evidence of this in my own life, or not?
And the evidence that I found, this is really on a personal basis now: there really is a part of us that is perfect and complete; that is wise beyond anything that we know. Each one of us is that way, you know: wise beyond anything. But, on top of that we pile delusion after delusion; bad experience after bad experience; bad karma and more bad karma. We pile it all on top so we can’t find our own wisdom anymore. The process of cleaning that all out changes you; it changed Cage.
He transformed from this brilliant young composer, with a lot of new ideas and he was very poised, into someone whose smile was so broad and infectious that he made many thousands of friends all over the world, everywhere. Why would Stockholm bring forward art exhibitions and music events about John Cage, if he had not touched everyone?
How did the Buddhist way of thinking effect your writing and your career? That must have been pretty big, no?
It was huge. One thing that happened was that I couldn’t stand back anymore, like an art critic or any kind of critic usually does. I had to start watching myself as a critic holding certain experiences away from me, so that I could talk about them.
In writing the Cage book I had to enter in; I had to recognize my own experiences and answer some human questions for myself. I had to see everything that was keeping me away from re-experiencing another person’s life. Although I am grateful for my years in art criticism, doing more of it doesn’t interest me so much now.I find that this larger world that I’m in after this book, is so much bigger somehow, so much more resonant and fascinating. It’s got more people in it, does that make sense?
I think so…
I wrote on a weekly deadline for 20 years and that was incredible discipline. It was discipline as intense as Cage’s use of chance operations: no matter what you’re feeling, or what your mind is doing, you put yourself out there. And you do it again and again and again. And the process of putting yourself out there shows you so much about yourself.
I’m so grateful to Buddhism because it showed me the universe in a way that is totally convincing to me, personally. But in terms of more practical effect: I used to struggle so much with writing and now I just sit down and work.
You don’t have the…
I don’t have the ups and downs; I don’t have the battles, or the desire to walk around the block. I just sit down at my desk and work. And when I’m done working, or when I see that I have gone as far as I can go without pushing it too far, I get up and do something else.
Without the anxiety? (Laughs)
With no anxiety (Laughs).
It’s very interesting when talking to art critics and you bring forth the question of the existence of a crisis in art criticism. What is the future of art criticism?
Art critics are always talking about a crisis. I just went to a meeting for the International Association of Art Critics in New York a couple of months ago; they’re still talking about a crisis. And I thought “for 20 years I’ve been hearing this conversation”.
It’s like when people say that “painting is dead”.
Yeah, and everyone goes on painting. Art criticism is dead, yet everyone goes on doing art criticism.
I think that the crisis is possibly that… and I’m speaking for myself. For me, the crisis was that I wasn’t speaking in a broad enough arena. I was speaking without seeing the vast picture. I missed the lights flowing in and out of the art experience and now I want to step into that light rather than speak to a small community.
Art critics are still talking about Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, I swear.
This just happened a couple of months ago and that was what they were talking about, the war between Greenberg and Rosenberg. And I thought “oh my god, really?”.
Who do you read? Who are your favorite art critics today?
I think John Cage is my favorite art critic at the moment. (Laughs)
If you have read my book you know that Leo Castelli said that there were three major art critics in New York in the fifties: Greenberg, Rosenberg and John Cage.
I like Cage’s viewpoint too. The viewpoint that turns its back on masterpieces and psychological self-inflation and so on and doesn’t try to be great. Wants only to be present for all experiences; just be present, that’s enough. I think that’s very beautiful and true. And that’s where I’d like my life to go and where I think it has been going.
Have you seen any good shows lately?
I did like the Jeppe Hein show at Bonniers Konsthall. I liked his simplicity and peacefulness. I look at it so differently now also.
How do you look at it now?
Sometimes I go back to works that charmed me originally. I’m going to say something really heretical now: I go back to someone like Matisse or Picasso and their work, even though I know it’s historically essential, yet it can seem so dead to me now. Not that it would be dead to anyone else. It’s just… it doesn’t speak to me anymore because I’ve gotten so interested in this question of art that really is a piece of life.
So, what are your plans for the future?
Well, spiritual practice is vast and in my own life I’ve felt that Buddhism is extremely important to me and I’m emphasizing the practice part of it. One thing that Buddhism obliges you to do is that you actually have to practice it; you have to leap over that gulf between your ideas about what things are like, versus what the real experience is going to tell you. That kind of practice is a continual teaching about life…it’s just huge. It’s about not only the karma that we create in life and how it comes back to us, but also what follows through to the next life and the life after that and after that.
I don’t think I want to write anything anymore that is not informed by that point of view. Of course if I needed to, I could leave my theology aside. I wouldn’t try to lay my own views on an artist.
But, isn’t that the point of being a critic: having your own point of view and laying it on art, or an artist?
Sure, but you have to constantly negotiate between allowing your own life to inform what you are seeing versus allowing what you’re thinking to paste itself on top of what you are seeing. Do you see the difference?
There are many people, I think, who bring a heavy dose of ideology to everything that they are seeing, and I don’t want to do that.
The question is really interesting. What am I going to do next?
I’m going to wait and see what the questions are. Interestingly, I finished the Cage book and it hadn’t even come out in its final form: it hadn’t come out as a book yet, hadn’t come out in print. The New York Times asked me to write a piece on happiness. So, I wrote a piece on happiness and the Times didn’t like my answer. They wanted a little essay on how I woke up with a lovely bell, and that it was beautiful; the sky was bright and I sat quietly on my cushion and everything was blissfully peaceful and so on. That is not what spiritual practice is. Staring into life and death is scary and demanding. It demands every ounce of you, it tests your resources and your strengths and shows you who you really are. Sometimes that’s great to find out, sometimes that’s painful. So, the question of happiness is really the one that keeps arising for me now. Happy in what way?
When eating an ice cream cone you’re happy, but for me, I have an egg allergy, I just get a migraine. (Laughs)
Is the migraine making me happy? No!
Happiness is not joy. And in joy you can reach a state in spiritual practice where joy is present, even in the midst of unhappiness. That idea has been both shocking and interesting to me, so I think that’s where I’m headed now.