A person with a light skin tone and brown curly hair, wearing glasses with translucent frames and a black button-down shirt with small white polka dots. She is smiling gently and has her sleeves rolled up to the elbow and arms crossed, with some tattoos visible on one arm.
Above: Jennifer Sichel 
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Jennifer Sichel

Kevin Warth

Jennifer Sichel is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art and Theory at the University of Louisville. Her research focuses on 20th-century art, criticism, and visual culture of the United States, with an emphasis on queer practices and critical theory. During the 2022-23 academic year, she will be a faculty fellow at The Commonwealth Center for the Humanities and Society at the University of Louisville. Kevin Warth spoke with Dr. Sichel over Zoom to discuss her forthcoming book, the importance of the archive, and queer theory in the classroom.

Kevin Warth: To start off, I'd love to learn more about you and your research interests.

Jennifer Sichel: Broadly speaking, I work on art of the postwar United States. I'm writing a book right now titled Criticism without Authority: Gene Swenson and Jill Johnston's Queer Practices, which delves into some queer critics who were really pushing the boundaries of criticism to encompass poetry, prose, protests, and performance. I’m looking at these practices and tracing their development through the scene in New York and their writing on these genre-bending works.

KW: Since you mentioned your upcoming book, I'd like to delve into a concept you introduced called criticism without authority.

JS: The book grows out of my dissertation, so I've been thinking about criticism without authority for a very long time. There's another critic who I wrote about in the dissertation named Gregory Battcock and he, in writing about Jill Johnston's criticism, called it criticism without apology. I thought that was really interesting, but also kind of confusing. By criticism without apology, he meant that it was criticism that's claiming its own identification in the world of artistic expression. What's interesting to me about the criticism that Jill Johnston and Gene Swenson were producing in New York in the 60s is the way in which it rejected the norms of mainstream and dominant modernist criticism. In this modernist tradition, a critic was supposed to objectify his intuitions and speak with authority. Criticism without authority really captured the essence of what these figures were doing.

As a background, Jill Johnston began writing criticism in the late 1950s, then in 1959 she started writing dance criticism for the Village Voice and very quickly expanded to cover Happenings and all sorts of performance. She wrote a weekly column and that slowly transformed from a pretty straightforward review of dance and performance to this experimental writing. At the same time, she was also coming out as a lesbian and figuring out what that meant before Stonewall, and what that meant after Stonewall. In 1973, she published what was her second anthology of criticism, Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution.

Gene Swenson started writing criticism in the early 60s and became well known for a series of interviews with Pop artists called “What is Pop Art? Answers from 8 Painters.” He also curated an exhibition in 1966 titled The Other Tradition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Swenson became known as a very early champion of Pop Art and was interested in an alternative Modernist genealogy from Dada and Surrealism through to Pop Art. His writings throughout the mid- and late-60s became increasingly polemical. He did all sorts of performances, including picketing alone outside the Museum of Modern Art, holding this giant blue plexiglass question mark as a sign.

Swenson and Johnston both write a lot about themselves and their own experiences; they're both very much characters in their criticism. It might seem like it's all about these two people asserting themselves and constantly writing about themselves and their experience, but what I'm interested in is the way in which this doesn't presume a stable person at the center of the criticism. Rather, it's this insistence on writing oneself into being. The self at the center of the criticism is fractured, unstable, and constantly being shored up in the act of writing.

KW: That sounds very exciting and I look forward to learning more about these two influential figures. You introduce criticism without authority to talk about Johnston and Swenson, but can it be expanded to think about criticism as a whole?

JS: Yeah, I hope so. On one hand, I'm very much invested in a methodology that's grounded in the particularities of the archive of these two particular critics. I'm not interested in theorizing this thing called criticism without authority from above, and then citing these two people as representative examples. At the same time, I'm also interested in what these practices and what these figures can tell us about the present, with what's now being called autotheory and autofictional writing, these new genres of art writing that developed in the decades after they practiced. But yeah, the hope is that it becomes a way of thinking about a whole lot of practices, especially criticism and genre-bending practices that don't quite follow the conventions of just being an expository account of art, but rather use criticism as a space for a creative practice that complicates or purposefully frustrates the expectations for what the genre of criticism should be.

KW: You spoke about going into the archive to learn more about these two figures. Thinking about the archive as a concept, how do you think it has shifted with the advent of the internet and new technologies? Has the work of the archivist become obsolete or do you think it's more important than ever?

JS: It is definitely not obsolete. I am deeply invested in the archive and I love the romance of digging through papers, but I also try not to fetishize that. I think digitizing archives is great. Since I began working on this project in 2015, it's amazing how much stuff has been digitized. JSTOR has this amazing archive of scanned, searchable underground and campus newspapers. That just didn't exist when I was first starting this project. There's some really amazing queer archives online like QZAP, which is an archive of queer zines. There are also a lot of AIDS-related archival projects. The internet has expanded possibilities for careful archival research and, in some cases, has made it a little faster. But no, it certainly doesn't take the place of physical archival work.

KW: I was very excited when I saw that you were hired to teach at the University of Louisville. Since Dr. Jongwoo Kim left in 2018, there had been no professor really intertwining art history and queer theory. As an educator, how do you see students benefiting from these disciplines coming together?

JS: First, it's been so gratifying to teach queer classes at the University of Louisville this year. I taught a course called Queer Theory and Queer Practice and, by not drawing a sharp distinction between theory and practice, it created a productive tension; I was interested in reading theory as a form of practice, and protest and art making as a form of theorizing. I had a remarkable group of students in that class who were really invested. It's important for students to see themselves, their interests, and their struggles represented in their courses. And also I think there's something gratifying, at least for me there was back when I first started reading queer theory, to like see like brilliant adults concerning themselves with questions of transness, embodiment, and sexuality. It becomes a space where students can feel validated, where they can engage in collaborative thinking around these questions.

KW: When I think back to reading queer theory for the first time in undergrad, it sort of unlocked a new way of thinking that shifted not only my approach to art making, but my approach to writing and thinking as a whole.

JS: For me too, it reflects my experience. It was in grad school that I first encountered queer theory, but it blew my mind that this was the stuff of scholarship. I hope that is what my classes can provide and I'm gratified to see the brilliant work that my students have been producing.

KW: While you grew up in Atlanta, most of your academic life has been spent in places like Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Has teaching in the South shifted your perspectives?

JS: Before I came to Louisville, I was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, so this is not my first foray in the South. It's funny, because Louisville is on the cusp between regions. It's shocking to me how close Louisville is to Chicago. The long and the short answer to your question is I don't yet know how being in the South has changed or will change my teaching. Having only been here for nine months at this point, most of which were pandemic months, I haven’t gotten the chance to experience the full spectrum of intellectual and cultural life in Louisville.

I didn't come with preconceptions that Louisville would be conservative or this or that; I know the South is an incredibly dynamic place. Teaching at an urban institution like the University of Louisville has proven that is certainly the case. In my limited experience so far, the students are a super diverse group with a lot of different backgrounds and life experiences. Some of them work full time, some of them are student athletes. They’re the opposite of monolithic and I think that that adds an incredible richness to the classroom.

KW: The Midwest and South tend to be overlooked in terms of art and culture. Most of the dominant narratives about visual art or queer culture are focused on the East Coast or the West Coast. Have you found that there are any unique artists or communities that have been erased because of this?

JS: I'm excited to be here and to learn from the people in Louisville who have been doing the work and devising creative and politically engaged, community based art practices. I'm excited to see what's happening here and learn about what's going on here. This is an interesting question for me because my research is very much focused on New York, it's very much a story of queers who come to New York to do their thing. But that doesn't mean that I am not invested; I'm deeply interested in learning from the people on the ground who are doing exciting work.

KW: It’s been rewarding to dig deeper and uncover artists who might go underrepresented for one reason or another. You know, there are these really cool artist-run spaces or pop up venues that come and go, and maybe there's some photos taken, but there's no real record or conversation about what was happening. We want to catalog these moments before they disappear.

JS: Right. Black artists are being overlooked, artists from Kentucky are being overlooked. These are entrenched, systemic problems. But what I think is really exciting about something like what Ruckus is doing is to say, “Yeah, these are entrenched systemic problems. And obviously we can't solve it all, but it doesn't mean we can't do anything. Well, what can we do? We can start a website. We can start a magazine. We're not seeing the sort of criticism that we want, so let's build a platform to write it.” To me, that seems like exactly the right thing to do and a really exciting thing to be doing.


Criticism without Authority: Gene Swenson and Jill Johnston's Queer Practices is under contract with University of Chicago Press.



Kevin Warth (he/him) is a Louisville-based artist and art historian whose research emphasizes queer identity, alternate temporalities, and hauntology.

RUCKUS, 2018-2023
Louisville, KY