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John Russell

John Russell Chart

Synopsis

John Russell was an art historian and critic who wrote for the London Sunday Times from 1950-1974, then for the New York Times from 1974-1990, coming on board immediately after the departure of John Canaday. Although seldom cited in the annals of Abstract Expressionist history, Russell's work as a critic was crucial to the continued enthusiasm for modern art well into the 1970s and 80s. Known paradoxically as a tough-minded critic who was nevertheless, perhaps a little too lenient when it came to newer movements in art, Russell wore two masks as an art critic: He was a champion of newer, younger artists like David Hockney and Howard Hodgkin, and was also an accomplished scholar of the Impressionists and subsequent modern movements.

Key Ideas

Russell did not believe that genius was an innate quality; rather it was a quality that was nurtured and educated. All great works of art may only come about once the artist has studied and evolved over time.
When new art forms arrive, many consider them replacements for the old, but for Russell, this simply was not the case. Any new worthwhile artwork is directly influenced by its predecessors, and it was new art, more than anything else, that kept the Old Masters alive and relevant.
When it came to art criticism, Russell believed that every artist, no matter what their medium or technique, is worthy of receiving the same degree of attention and diligence in a review. While some work is naturally better than others, Russell was never mean-spirited in any of his writings, even if a work of art wasn't in his favor.

Description

Childhood

Raised by his grandparents in London, Russell attended St. Paul's School and then moved on to study philosophy and economics at Magdalen College at Oxford, where he earned his B.A. in 1940.

Early years

Russell was interning at the Tate Gallery when the Germans bombed London during the Blitzkrieg of 1940. He was then evacuated to the country town of Worcestershire.

Between 1942 and 1945, Russell served in the British Admiralty for the Naval Division. While serving, Russell met the author and journalist Ian Fleming (famous for creating the James Bond novels), who recommended Russell to the London Sunday Times as a book reviewer. Now with the Sunday Times, Russell began his career as a professional critic, covering not only books but also art, theater and music.

Mature Period

In 1950, the art critic for the London Times was fired for writing a negative review of an exhibition at the British Royal Academy, and Russell was subsequently promoted to chief art critic. That same year, he also became a corresponding art critic for the New York Times.

During the 1950s, Russell took on a diverse and vast amount of writing assignments, and published several books, including a travel book on Switzerland in '50, a biography of the classical Austrian conductor Erich Kleiber in '56, and a history of the city of Paris in 1960.

Between 1958 and 1968, Russell sat on the art panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain. During this time, the critic played an integral role in curating several exhibitions, including three at the Tate in London (Modigliani, Rouault, and Balthus), and one at the Hayward Gallery in London (Pop Art Redefined).

In 1965, Russell wrote a book on Seurat, which many consider to be his best work. A few years later, in 1971, Russell oversaw a traveling exhibition devoted to Vuillard that went from Toronto to Chicago and ended in San Francisco.

In 1974, Russell was recruited by the New York Times chief art critic Hilton Kramer (who had replaced John Canaday) to move to the U.S. and become a resident art critic. Russell would later become the chief art critic in 1982, a position he held until 1990.

In 1975, Russell got married (for a third time) to Rosamond Bernier, an art critic and editor for the Paris magazine L'Oeil, who had recruited Russell to write for the magazine back in the mid-50s. They were married in Philip Johnson's famous Glass House in New Canaan, CT. Pierre Matisse (Henri's son) was the best man, and Leonard Bernstein wrote the wedding march.

Late Period

Russell may have left his chief critic post at the New York Times in 1990, but this was no retirement. He continued writing for the New York Review of Books, as well as several guest reviews for the Times.

Between 1981 and 2006 Russell edited the Century Bulletin on behalf of The Century Association, a New York organization of some two-thousand authors and artists.

He died in a Bronx nursing home in 2008 at the age of 89.

Legacy

Russell was not well-known for his prowess as an art historian or scholar, but his work as a critic and author suggest a vast catalogue of knowledge, not to mention an undying appreciation for art in all its forms. He had the unique ability to look at something and instantly know who and what inspired the artist. As a writer, he was quick-witted, elegant and extremely learned, and above all, he communicated the message that all great art is connected by its ability to give generation after generation a sense of who they are.

Russell was remembered by artists and other art writers as someone who paid very close attention to the smallest of details and the grandest of visions and, according to the artist Howard Hodgkin, he "was very determined to make his own criticism as valuable as possible, which meant never selling an artist short by conferring easy or less than deserved praise on his work."

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