Criticism as a Life Practice: A Conversation with Yxta Maya Murray
Yxta Maya Murray’s Art Is Everything is a novel that tests the limits of its own declaration. Its narrator and protagonist, Amanda Ruiz, is a queer, working class Chicanx performance artist in Los Angeles. And while she possesses some of the chic mantles of marginalization that the art world has pounced upon in recent years like a child grabbing for diversity candies burst forth from the great piñata in the sky, Amanda is falling through the cracks between the various vectors of her identity.
We witness her unraveling in real time, as the novel is told through Amanda’s own unorthodox writings, beginning with a Wikipedia entry on the late artist Laura Aguilar that jerks forcefully between lucid commentary on Aguilar’s institutional erasure and unhinged streams of longing directed at Amanda’s recently ex-girlfriend, Xochitl—a financially stable actuary, a normie, we might say, who fled after Amanda’s repeated attempts to delay the question of starting a family for the one thing that has never been a question to her: art. Amidst career stalls, family death, sexual assault, and the indignities of privation, Amanda’s devotion to her practice toes the line between self-preservation and self-immolation.
Yxta Maya Murray is a writer and law professor living in Los Angeles. Her novels include The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Kidnapped, The King’s Gold: An Old World Novel of Adventure, and The Queen Jade: A Novel. She has won a Whiting Award and an Art Writers Grant, and she has been a finalist for the ASME Award in Fiction. Her art criticism can be found in Artforum, ARTnews, Artillery, and other periodicals.
Yxta and I were set up on a play date by our Artforum editor in early 2020, after which we were forced to discuss her novel via email, as sickness and political anxiety settled over LA like ash. We chatted about influences, origins, and what she’s learned from her own characters.
The Rumpus: Art Is Everything is unique in the tradition of the epistolary novel, but were there any works that served you as a guide, or inspiration, or even just permission?
Yxta Maya Murray: Art Is Everything is a novel about a performance artist named Amanda Ruiz, and I composed it while inspired by several poets and novelists, including John Yau, W. G. Sebald, and Thomas Bernhard. Amanda is beset by obstacles that force her to stop making art altogether until she finds new hope, and becomes an art writer. For this book, which weaves art criticism into fiction, Yau is a model: he has the audacity to write about art within poetry, but less in a classically ekphrastic way than in a manner that merges the critical eye with the rapture and rigor of the poet. I love his poem “Ventriloquist” in his book Further Adventures in Monochrome, which is about Jasper Johns (and so much more). For those who write poetry or fiction and also are interested in art criticism, I’d also look at Yau’s essay “The Poet as Art Critic.”
From Bernhard, whom I love as a curmudgeon, I learned the art and craft of the rant. Bernhard rants away in novels such as Concrete and Correction—and in so doing laid down a lineage that can be traced back and forth from Jose Cela’s San Camilo, 1936 to László Krasznahorkai’s entire oeuvre to Emil Cioran. Art Is Everything was written in the wake of a nine-year-long and very difficult silence. While working on my second act, as it were, I realized that the rant is a rich form for a woman of color who had experienced hardship and a long, long quiet; I felt I could perfect Bernhard’s already-perfect persiflage and transform it into the highest of all high arts.
Sebald gave me permission to wander. After reading his Vertigo and The Emigrants I was emboldened to mix musings on art history, biology, and philosophy into fiction. Sebald is a master at “taking the long way” toward a story’s conclusion. I’d also say that the project of mingling disciplines is resonant with my understanding of intersectionality—that critical race theory of how identity is not unitary but a crosshatched phenomenon composed of race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, color, and so much else. Finding the intersections or connections between, for example, the life and death cycles of spores and personal, human despair, or between Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion and sexual assault, made sense to me after a lifetime of discovering how I am connected to so many things and so many things are connected to me.
Rumpus: The novel tells the story of a queer Chicanx performance artist who stops making art on account of sexual assault and poverty, and then slowly transforms herself into an art writer. What inspired you to write this story?
Murray: The novel definitely came out of some autobiographical elements, though my life does not map exactly onto Amanda’s. As I noted above, the novel was written after a long and painful cessation of literary production; this pause came after I was sexually assaulted by someone in the publishing industry and also battled cancer. Suffice it to say that one of the strange seeds of this novel was planted in the aftermath of a hospital stay, during which I was not able to eat or drink for about five days, and I wound up hallucinating about, of all things, Slurpees. Once I got back home, I found myself sitting on my sofa and staring out the window, trying to figure out where I should go from here. I wouldn’t say that I felt like a failure, because surviving illness is a kind of success, but I was made to wonder about my earlier decision to leave the writing life. I was a physical wreck, with a lot of raw emotions, and as I sat there squinting at the trees, birds, and people who were all flourishing out in the world, I figured that I should just start writing fiction again, because writing is what I’m built to do.
I determined that maybe a good writing prompt would be if I called a Lyft and went to the 7-Eleven and got one of those Slurpees that I had been hallucinating about in the hospital. In my hallucinations, Slurpees were ambrosia—the food of the divine; frosty, full of water, sweet, miraculous things that people who were not me could drink. Now that I was out of there and essentially mobile, I thought that maybe I should go drink a Slurpee and write about it. So I put on a coat and called a Lyft and a guy took me to the nearest 7-Eleven. I got a Slurpee with the flavors black-cherry Coke, cotton candy, and Mountain Dew, and every single one of them was completely disgusting. I stood outside the 7-Eleven and sipped my Slurpee and thought about the mysteries of life and then another Lyft showed up and drove me home and I wrote all about my Slurpee journey in a little elegant bitter essay that wound up getting published in a web journal called Punchnels, which was my first literary publication in nearly a decade, and seeing it posted made me feel like I’d just won the Nobel Prize.
The whole thing came out so easily that I wondered why I hadn’t been writing all this time, which started me worrying about other women of color artists (WoCAs) who had stopped making their work. There’s a famous essay by the art historian Linda Nochlin, titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in which Nochlin writes, “The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists, as far as we know, although there have been many interesting and very good ones who remain insufficiently investigated or appreciated.” But based on my own experience I began to fret that Nochlin had asked the wrong question, because of course there have been many supremely great women artists—the better question may be whether there have been many WoCAs who have had to quit the struggle? I began to think about the obstacles that Zora Neale Hurston encountered in her career, and how white supremacy and sexism also conspired to tank the practice of nineteenth-century Black sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, who exhibited in Paris in 1900 but soon after found herself sinking under the creative quicksands of racism and unsupported childcare. And, I also began to brood about Rosa Rolanda, the Mexican American painter and photographer who unhappily married the polymath Miguel Covarrubias, took photographs under the tutelage of Edward Weston, and produced an astonishing series of self-portraits, the apex of which is probably “Autorretrato (Self-Portrait 1952),”i which depicts a beautiful, green-eyed Rolanda holding her head while skeletons and tiny stylized dancers swarm around her like wasps or nightmares.
Rolanda stopped making art in the 1960s, for undocumented reasons, and she evidently did not have the all-important Slurpee revelation that got her back on track. Her art is so awesome—why did she stop? We might never know, but this question inspired me to begin investigating the phenomenon of the disappearing WoCA. Because, without a police report or suicide note or Philip Roth-ish retirement announcement, or Celia Paul-like autobiography, there’s not going to be a body of evidence to prove the cause of WoCA washout one way or the other, unless we can look to other, systemic problems, such as neoliberalism or sexism or racism or other seemingly uncombatable social structures. These questions eventually led to my development of Amanda as a character, tracing her free-fall from her cherished status as a productive performance artist, and her slow rebuilding of her career as an art writer, that is, a writer of literature.
Rumpus: As art writers and critics, are we generally considered to be writing “literature”?
Murray: In my mind we are, absolutely. I’ve been lucky enough to write art criticism in the past few years for Artillery, Artforum, Aperture, Brooklyn Rail, and other snazzy publications, and editors like Tulsa Kinney and Mira Dayal and Brendan Embser and Sara Roffino push their writers to produce top-level literature. My attitude about arts writing being art is also related to the title of the novel, which is, of course, Art Is Everything—an idea whose mother I am right now going to claim as Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who was either the real or the co-inventor of Duchamp’s Fountain (the famous urinal), because (as art critics such as Irene Gammel have helped us understand) she liked to take found objects and stick them on plinths and call them art; one of the precursors of Fountain was a plumbing trap that she consecrated as art and titled God. If a plumbing trap or a toilet can be art and can be God, then art writing sure as hell is art.
Of course, critics such as Geoffrey Hartman, Kenneth Clark, Vasari, and Ruskin have merged criticism and literature. And poet-critic Fred Moten, like Yau, absolutely writes criticism as high literature. Beyond these examples, I am probably also drawn to dismantling the literature/criticism divide on account of my background as a Latinx English major who came of age at UCLA in the 1980s, most certainly as a beneficiary of affirmative action. This revolution in admission policy opened a door to the paradise of higher education, a nirvana that I have never left. At UCLA, I was lucky enough to be taught by Professor Michael North, a brilliant scholar of literary modernism, and under his tutelage I learned about the act and practice of criticism. There was a heady period where I thought that I might become an English professor (I wound up going to law school), and I began reading not only North but also Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler and I even gave Jacques Derrida a shot. And I didn’t just learn criticism as a literary method: it also inspired a practice of engaging criticism as a way of moving through the world—criticism as a life practice, a literary practice, an art practice, all those things at the same time. And I know that other artists of color, too, have been so influenced by their exposure to the critical arts or the critical mindset that they incorporate it into their own engagements. Beyond Moten and Yau, Teju Cole and Alicia Gaspar de Alba are other writers who come to mind, as are the visual artists Alma López Gaspar De Alba, Rafa Esparza, Julie Mehretu, and Carolina Caycedo, who do so much research and ask critical questions of our society through their paintings and performances.
It is also probably a queer intersectional feminist position to claim criticism as art, because the vantage from the subordinated position inclines one to a critical mindset, a point of view that can see that the high/low art/criticism binaries exist as yet more gatekeepers that need to be rethought or retired.
Rumpus: Many of the essays/chapters in the book were originally published elsewhere under your own byline. When did it occur to you that these might be touch points for a character? How did that come together?
Murray: Right. The above description just makes it sound like I drank a Slurpee and then started working on my big fat American art criticism novel. The truth is, it was a lot slower and piecemeal at first, and I didn’t know what I was doing. Many of the chapters in the novel started as essays. I had written about art as a law professor, and now that I had so much time to sit on the sofa, I thought that I would maybe try my hand at writing for art publications.
Frieze has an annual competition where they invite non-professionals to submit art reviews, and I’d just gone to a big retrospective on Agnes Martin, which was put on at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art in 2016. Martin was a minimalist painter who is famous for “the graph.” She made these really rigorous graphs in pencil and oils and titled a lot of them Untitled. They’re about God and the world and the spirit and humanity and all experience and everything. Also, Martin was a lesbian and had experienced schizophrenia and—to get back to my theme!—had stopped making art for about five years, from 1967-1972. Anyway, I absolutely loved the show and it made me mad, too, because the signs up on the walls (they’re known as didactics, as I’ve learned) told the viewers that Martin had run away from New York to New Mexico where she seems to have quietly looked up at the clouds for half a decade before restarting her work, embarking on a series of titanic masterpieces. I got grumpy because the didactics failed to relate that before Martin fled the city and her art practice, she’d had relationships with the female artists Lenore Tawney and Chryssa, and also that she’d been at Bellevue for a long stint where she received electroshock therapy.
I decided that I was going to write a big furious very slightly ranty piece of institutional critique and submit it to Frieze, except then I didn’t have the patience to wait out the competition and wound up sending it to Tulsa Kinney at Artillery, a wonderful Los Angeles arts publication, and she took it without knowing anything about me. It was from that experience, along with researching the abbreviated career arc of Rolanda, that the voice and the mission for Art Is Everything began to develop, and I commenced to write the novel alongside a bunch of arts writing, and everything fed into everything else.
Rumpus: Amanda writes a lot of these dispatches under extreme duress or loneliness—was there a process of altering or editing your own views on art in order to fit her flawed or contextual outlook?
Murray: Amanda is a difficult person whom I love not because she gets upset a lot or is hyper-verbal or has difficulty maintaining relationships, but because she is an artist who will not quit. Even when she is supposedly trashing her performance art career, she is constantly making art—out of bitten Styrofoam cups, dead leaves, her body, and also Reddit, Instagram, Facebook posts, and YouTube and Vimeo comments. I’ll have to say that, based on the experience out of which I was writing, the extreme duress and loneliness were not manufactures that I had to devise out of thin air for my character. Also, her flawed outlook is one that I can sometimes be half-heard muttering into my own pillow. Really, for all of her peccadillos, I find Amanda inspiring because art is everything to her, and she won’t stop making it despite the many violent impositions and failures of the world. I less altered or edited my own views on art in order to fit her flawed outlook than learned from her, and in many ways, strive to be an intensely committed and deeply alive person like her.
Photograph of Yxta Maya Murray by Andrew Brown.