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New York Times Art Critic Roberta Smith Retiring After 32 Years

Roberta Smith, co-chief art critic at the New York Times, is retiring after 32 years at the paper, according to an announcement issued today, March 11.

Arguably best known for her perspectives on painting and an unfussy style that eschews the verbosity of much criticism, Smith has authored 4,500 reviews and essays since she first joined the Times staff in 1991. When Michael Kimmelman transitioned into a new role as architecture critic in 2011, Smith and current staffer Holland Cotter jointly assumed the position of chief art critic, making Smith the first woman in the paper’s history to hold the title.

Jillian Steinhauer, a New York Times contributing critic and former senior editor at Hyperallergic, said Smith’s departure marked “the end of an era.”

“I have always deeply admired Roberta [Smith]’s dedication not just to art itself but to the role and craft of being a critic,” Steinhauer said in an email. “She believed and believes in it so genuinely, and you can see and feel that on the page. I’ve learned so much from reading her.”

The path that led Smith to arts writing was not a linear one, or at least not by traditional standards, which often regard museum and gallery experience as antithetical to a journalism career. Born in New York City and raised in Kansas, Smith earned a BA from Grinnell College in Iowa and interned at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC as an undergraduate. After completing a semester in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program and working as a secretary at the Museum of Modern Art, she found work at Paula Cooper Gallery in the early ’70s. As Smith recalled in an interview with Irving Sandler, it was around this time that, “completely convulsed with envy for all the younger critics,” she penned a 10-page letter to the editor of Artforum to protest a recent article by Robert Pincus-Witten on Donald Judd — an artist she was intimately familiar with and for whom she worked as an assistant. The letter was cut down and published as an article, and the doors of the cliquey New York magazine universe began to open, making way for bylines in Art in America, the Village Voice, and others.

Smith started freelancing for the New York Times in 1986, authoring everything from analyses of Conceptualism to an improbable defense of Jeff Koons, though some of her most memorable contributions are in the realm of contemporary painting. In a piece titled “I Was Wrong About Cecily Brown” published last year, she revisits her own review of the artist’s work 23 years earlier, when she had brushed off Brown’s canvases as “uninteresting from any distance and ultimately vacuous.”

“Unexpectedly, my review nagged at me,” she wrote last April, after visiting the artist’s survey exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “In retrospect I realized I had not let my looking be slowed and had taken the unusual complexities of Brown’s art as simple busyness.”

In response to Hyperallergic’s inquiry about Smith’s successor, a spokesperson for the New York Times said there were no updates to share at this time.

“In my coals-to-Newcastle-life, I will have more time to pursue my number one interest, which is going to galleries and museums, looking at stuff,” Smith said in an Instagram post about her retirement, adding that she will continue to contribute short reviews and other pieces for the New York Times. “But this will be the first time since 1972 — with a few breaks — that I won’t have regular writing commitments, which I can barely comprehend.”

Editor’s note 3/11/24 11:30pm EDT: This article has been updated with a quote from Jillian Steinhauer.

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