Book reviews

Paul Taylor, After Andy: Soho in the eighties, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Edward Colless, The error of my ways, Schwartz City, Melbourne

In his brief introductory remarks to The Error Of My Ways, Edward Colless worries momentarily over his writing – where does it fit? To what genre does it belong? "I cannot imagine where it belongs", he says, and "that means I probably don't have a clear idea of either my subject or my audience". While Colless does not write without purpose – these are not idle jottings, but pieces written for publication in response to a request to write, an exhibition or some other event – his own perception of his writing seems to see it as a vague pursuit of a lost trail, a slow walk up an uncertain path. In a way, this book provides a record of Colless's meanderings – but perhaps it is the journey that is important here, rather than arrival at any particular destination.

Paul Taylor's After Andy: SoHo in the Eighties is quite a contrast. Not only is its material firmly focussed on a particular place and time, but it presents Taylor as a writer who always knew where he was going. In the introduction Allan Schwartzman remarks: "He was drawn straight to power, plunking himself down at the most powerful and glamorous tables. I can think of no other art writer who better understood the period, how it ticked, and how to make himself a part of it". Various obituaries, published in the months after Taylor's death at just 35 in September 1992, also remarked positively on the pace and care with which he developed his career although in earlier moments, his ambition was often construed quite differently.

Taylor's selection draws exclusively on his writings from the New York phase (late1984-1992) of his all-to-short, but certainly brilliant, writing and publishing career-material, if you like, from his "destination" at the "centre" – pieces on Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jeff Koons, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, the East Village scene, ACT UP, and the business end of eighties art in America. Colless's book, on the other hand, presents a very broad range, from extended musings on "art theory", textuality, the landscape (inner & outer), to brief catalogue essays on individual artists – Pat Brassington, Hany Armanious, Bronwyn Oliver, Lindy Lee and Adam Cullen, to name just a few.

But what exactly is the point of comparing these two quite different collections? To contrast Colless's local focus with Taylor's New York orientation? Is it to eventually decide that one is somehow "better" than the other? Does it reveal a loss of nerve to say that this is not the issue? Despite the occasional moment of intersection, these books are simply not doing the same thing – in a way they belong to different worlds. By this I do not mean that their subject matter or audience are at odds, but that they represent quite different types of writing practice; Taylor the direct and up-front style of "higher journalism", and Colless the introspective and poetic essay that doesn't quite fit the mould of either journalism or the academic article.

Perhaps it is Colless's position as a lecturer in art theory that makes it possible to sustain a continuing practice in the odd sort of space for writing that the artworld seems to have developed since the beginning of the eighties – a space populated mostly by art college lecturers and contemporary art curators. About half of the Colless collection is made up of examples of that potentially most open of forms, the catalogue essay, while the bulk of the rest first appeared in those "art magazines" that were more tolerant of the idiosyncratic – Art & Text, On The Beach. On a back cover note, Sydney academic Don Anderson, describes Colless's writing as "fearless", but we might also say that it is luxurious; perhaps a luxury writing which manages to survive between the limits of other genres, and without the particularities of a single readership.

It was in such contexts that Taylor found his feet as a writer in the early eighties, particularly in his role as editor of Art & Text, a key journal in the process of forging just the sort of space that Colless's writing occupies. Interestingly, before starting Art & Text, Taylor taught briefly at the School of Art in Hobart, where Colless now works, but even then he seemed to be looking further afield, and establishing the parameters of his practice. For example, amongst the first few articles listed in his bibliography- the fifth is his editorial "On Criticism" from the first issue of Art & Text – we find an interview with Clement Greenberg in Art and Australia, and a profile on Jenny Watson in Art International (my guess is that there is plenty of room for a further collection of Taylor's writing, perhaps mixing Australian and US material).

Of the two writers, Taylor has always been the more high-profile, and despite the fact that the early Art & Text was often characterised as impossibly esoteric and "theoretical", he also seemed to be more than willing to engage with a broader readership. This certainly comes through in After Andy, which, because of its subject matter, will no doubt find a reasonably sized international audience – although, obviously a smaller one than the mass readership of some of the publications that first ran many of these pieces. Colless's book, on the other hand, will unfortunately probably remain trapped by the limits of an edition of 500, and despite the interesting work he has produced, continue to circulate within the same limited, if worthy, space that spawned these meditations. Thus, when Adrian Martin calls Colless "a bordercrossing poet", he's probably right in more ways than one – I mean, who reads poetry these days?