A dance with words

The Disintegration of a Critic
CRITICISM BY THE CRITICIAN / In The Disintegration of a Critic, a selection of Jill Johnston's personal and special reviews are presented and criticized by other writers and artists.


In connection with the exhibition Jill Johnston. The Disintegration of a Critic i Bergen Art Gallery in the period May 23 to August 11, 2019, curated by Fiona McGovern, Megan Francis Sullivan and “Axel Wieder #, has Sternberg Press in collaboration with Bergen Kunsthall published this book as a tribute to the American author, cultural critic and feminist Jill Johnston (1929–2010).

Personal anecdotes

The first and longest section of the book contains several of the dance reviews Johnston wrote in the period 1960 to 1974. These were published in the New York-based weekly newspaper The Village Voice in the section "Dance", where she eventually got a permanent column under her own name. The reviews are characterized by a political-polemical tone and a stream of consciousness: long paragraphs without a period, often in letter form with personal anecdotes.

In 1969, she emerged as a lesbian and thus became one of the first American journalists to be open about her sexuality in print. Later she published the book Lesbian Nation (1973) on Political Lesbian Identity and the Autobiography Mother Bound (1983) on motherhood and growing up without a father.

Johnston had two children in marriage Richard John Lanham (marriage ended in divorce after six years). In 1993, she married Danish Ingrid Nyboe, and in 2009 the couple remarried – one year before Johnston died of stroke. She turned 81 years old.

Reminiscent of Johnston

In the second part of The Disintegration of a Critic Nyboe shares his personal memories of Johnston, author Bruce Hainley reflects on the vitality of Johnston's language, and finally presents the author Jennifer Krasinski a larger biographical framework, including texts from other magazines. It turns out early on that Johnston was not like most critics, and she was in many ways a superstar in New York's avant-garde environment.

In the Critics' Critics column (1965), Johnston wrote: "Criticism wears me out – it's like riding a bike up and down the country hills in a race against a phantom judge." Although she was not a dancer, she danced with words. Her reviews can be described as dance pieces, where she was not afraid to give up on herself – just like a dancer on stage. I can understand why she wrote that "criticism wiped her out". As a reader, I enjoy the dance.

Jill Johnston. Photo: Roby. Courtesy Of Lesbian History Artchive
Jill Johnston. Photo: Roby. Courtesy Of Lesbian History Artchive

Groundbreaking for its time

As a critic, Johnston was groundbreaking and unique. The third part of the book contains, among other things, the statements of Andy Warhol (1928–1987) from the panel debate The Disintegration of a Critic: An Analysis of Jill Johnston at the Loeb Center at New York City University in 1969. The debate was organized by Johnston himself, and here also featured art critic David Bourdon (1934–1998), philanthropist and art collector john demenil (1904–1973), the writer and avant-garde filmmaker Walter K. Gutman (1903–1986), the artist and author Ultra Violet (1935–2014), the artist Carloee Schneemann (1939–2019), the cabaret actress, artist and critic Lil Picard (1899–1994), dr. John Atchley (1854-1940) and the art critic and actor Gregory Battcock (1937–1980) We gain a deeper insight into her work seen with their eyes.

"I don't have an interesting life at all. I dictate everything. " Jill Johnston

Three hundred audience members attended the panel debate, where Johnston's work was criticized and analyzed by the aforementioned panelists. Johnston arrived forty minutes late for the event. When she was finally in the scene, she read a text she had written for the coming week's column The Village Voice. A journalist from the weekly newspaper Variety summarized the performance as "a confirmation that she is just as confusing in reality as in print".

Subjective and autobiographical

Warhol's statements about Johnston during the panel debate are taken on the grain: “Uh, her writing was always subjective, and in retrospect it was always autobiographical. She couldn't mention a concert without telling us how she got there, what happened on the road, her problems with the taxi driver, uh – she never took the subway, so she spared us for it – uh, she obviously saw the trips to and from the theaters as important as the choreographies she went to review. "

Johnston as a critic, writer and writer is a prime example of the fact that it is impossible to distinguish between work and private life. As she herself joked: “I don't have an interesting life at all. I dictate everything. "

After reading the book I think about how radical she must have been for the time she lived in, but also compared to the reviews I read nowadays, which are dry and superficial in conditions. Personal, essayistic journalism is a genre I would like to see more of in Norwegian and international newspapers and magazines, where the journalist is not afraid to offer himself and share his personal experiences. Fortunately, we have MODERN TIMES.

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