NY Times Co-Chief Art Critic To Retire After 32 Years, 4,500 Reviews


Roberta Smith, our pioneering co-chief art critic, is retiring after more than 32 years and 4,500 reviews and essays that have helped reshape the canon for modern and contemporary art. Sia Michel and Barbara Graustark celebrate her contributions in this note.

“What does Roberta think?”

We are asked this question all the time — sometimes nervously — by artists, gallery owners, curators, museum directors and readers who trust Roberta’s opinions about new art and artists. Credit her luminescent eye and intimate observation, her deep knowledge and unstinting research, and her joyfully lucid and accessible writing.

“Over more than 50 years, Ro has anointed the new, celebrated the overlooked, and held institutions accountable on many fronts, including representation and acquisitions, while bringing fresh context to marginalized areas of art-making, especially outsider art and craft,” said Barbara, her longtime editor.

Roberta refuses to be impressed by names, preferring to look hard at the art, not the marketplace. And she has stayed true to her declaration at the start of her career that “if it seems unnecessarily difficult or obscure, I find it pretentious.” She has said she saves her praise for art that is “rich enough, human enough, accessible.”

As Sia said, “Roberta is a trailblazing critic whose brilliant reviews and recommendations have always guided my love of art. As soon as I get home from a show she’s written about, I immediately reread her review to see what ideas I missed.”

Roberta started freelancing for The New York Times in 1986, after writing for Art in America and The Village Voice, and after a semester at the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. Before writing full time, she also worked at MoMA; with Donald Judd, the celebrated Minimalist; and at the Paula Cooper Gallery.

She came on staff at The Times in 1991, and is the first woman to hold the title of co-chief art critic, which she shares with her esteemed colleague Holland Cotter. She has never strayed from what she humorously described as her mission: “to get people out of the house and in front of art.’’

In the process, she’s taught us how to see, and widened the audience for self-taught, textile, ceramic and video art. She’s also heralded the unsung and underappreciated, extolling the undeniable power of female painters including Alice Trumbull Mason, Alice Neel, Hilma af Klint, Agnes Pelton and Marguerite Zorach — who had taken a back seat to her more famous husband, the sculptor William Zorach. Their intriguing careers, she wrote, “often interrupted by children and other obligations, deserved to be better known.”

Writing in 2020 for Arts & Leisure about Rosie Lee Tompkins, a Black quilter and fiber artist (born Effie Mae Martin), Roberta extolled Tompkins as “one of the great American artists” and her work as “one of the century’s major artistic accomplishments.” Roberta is bracingly honest in her reviews but is open to reconsidering: After panning Cecily Brown 23 years ago, she saw the light after three visits to the artist’s show last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a review titled “I Was Wrong About Cecily Brown,” she wrote, “Artists change, but so do critics. Welcome to my turnaround.”

In 2019 Roberta was named the winner of the inaugural Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to art journalism.

Holland, her fellow art-world guide, tips his hat: “It’s been a real privilege to work with Roberta, one of the touchstone contemporary art critics of her generation, and always a stimulating colleague.”

Along with Cielo Buenaventura, one of her regular editors, we wish Roberta many happy and creative years of continuing to contribute to the world of contemporary art, passing along her opinions and her wisdom.



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