Deadpan humor with a point of view: Why critic John Perreault will be missed

It was with a heavy heart that I learned of the passing of John Perreault, the respected New York art critic who died on Sunday at the age of 78. (The New York Times has a good obit, covering his varied life as writer, curator, teacher and artist.)

I had the good fortune to meet John a number of years back through his husband, Jeff Weinstein, a friend who is also a culture writer.

John had a low-key nature and deadpan humor. He could quiet a dinner table with a well-placed aside. He also did a great impression of Andy Warhol, perfectly channeling the artist’s nasal whine. (He knew the artist from his hangouts at Max’s Kansas City, the famously artsy Manhattan restaurant-club.)

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I have memories of John picking basil from his well-tended backyard garden on Long Island and gleefully gathering dirty clumps of beach sand for a series of experimental, expressionistic paintings he was working on. In addition to being a writer, John was also an artist, one with an appetite for playing with materials like sand, as well as toothpaste and coffee.


But it’s his writing that has always proved most inspirational to me: clear-eyed and accessible, yet also incisive. He wrote the sorts of pieces that make a statement without dipping into dreaded artspeak. In the wake of his death, friends and artists have been sharing his work on social media, and it’s been a joy to go down the rabbit hole of his words.

This morning, painter Joy Garnett linked to an essay Perreault wrote last year for his Arts Journal blog Artopia on abstract expressionist painter Joan Mitchell, a piece that perfectly encapsulates everything that made him an interesting writer — from the strong point of view to the casual way he approaches his subject, deftly weaving biography (his own and the painter’s) into a critical piece.

Titled “The Six Sins of Joan Mitchell,” it begins with this opening salvo: “Joan Mitchell (1925-92) committed her First Sin by being a woman artist with more talent than many of the men in her generation.”

The piece picks up speed from there, discussing the reasons why Mitchell, a supremely skilled painter, didn’t reach the heights that her male colleagues did, much of it based on the simple fact of her gender.

But it’s the deadpan nonchalance that gets me most.

“Her Fifth Sin,” he wrote of Mitchell, “was that she didn’t have a wife to promote her and steady the helm. Wild woman Alice Neel once told me, when I was posing naked for her, that she would have been famous much sooner if, like Jackson Pollock, she had had Lee Krasner for a wife, or like de Kooning she had had an Elaine.”

John Perreault, you and your words will be sorely missed.

Find more of the critic’s recent writings on his blog, Artopia. And if you’re wondering about that naked Alice Neel portrait — it’s in the collection of the Whitney Museum in New York.

And find me on Twitter @cmonstah.