John Russell: 1919-2008

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Well, there’s a good long life. Russell came to the New York Times as a critic in 1974, not long after I had started reading everything I could find about art. I was very soon aware of two things about him. One, he rarely had anything negative to say. The pejorative was a mood that didn’t appeal to him much. And two, he could write. He was one of the most lyrical writers I ever came across in a newspaper. And he wasn’t just a phrase maker. He was a genuine instructor. He elucidated — his work opened your eyes. For an excellent example, go find his book on Seurat.

There’s a passage in another of Russell’s books, The Meanings of Modern Art, in which he talks about a moment in the 19th century when “whole new departments of feeling came into view”. (Bear with me on that one, I’m quoting from memory.) That wouldn’t be a bad description of what he could do sometimes with just a sentence.