A Philly Art Critic Remembers Edward J. Sozanski

Edward J. Sozanski, since 1982 chief art critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, died on Monday April 14. He was 77. For over three decades Sozanski was the most powerful voice evaluating and commenting on visual art in Philadelphia. In spite of complaints from those whose egos he wounded, the lasting evaluation of his work will be one of appreciation for his clarity and insight and respect for his integrity. Sozanski’s real world influence, like that of most critics, was probably considerably less than his readers imagined. His vocal and strongly reasoned opposition to the move of the Barnes Foundation from the original location in Merion, Pa. stipulated by founder Albert Barnes, to Center City had no effect on the machinations that brought about the current incarnation of the Foundation. Following the move with characteristic frankness his comments about the new installation were largely approving.

Art people sometimes referred to him among themselves as “Big Ed,” in part a reference to his height. His emphatic, straightforward writing was never hyperbolic but it could be intimidating. One Philadelphia painter who received a negative review from Sozanski made a painting of him as “The Art Critic.” Wearing a suit, as he always did when visiting art galleries, he stands tall and straight, looking sternly at paintings in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. A card inscribed with art clichés sticks out of his jacket pocket. The caricature did not keep Sozanski from giving its creator’s subsequent work positive reviews.

Of the many critics and art writers I have known Ed Sozanski made the most consistent and determined effort to remain apart from personal bias. He avoided friendships that might taint his neutrality. He studied the background or history associated with work he covered. In over 3,000 art reviews, he tried to be fair about his responses to work. Most unusual for a consequential person in the art world, he was unpretentious.

Sozanski never went to openings. As an art critic, neither do I. Once when I stopped in to the Print Club to see a show of etchings by a famously eccentric local artist, the two young women who were staffing the gallery recognized me. They hurried to the door, whispering, “Thank God you’re here. [The artist] has Ed Sozanski cornered in the upstairs gallery and won’t leave. He’s been there forever. We don’t know what to do. Listen!” Sure enough, we all heard a loud, forceful voice rapping on in a lecturing cadence occasionally punctuated with another person’s coughs.

Dismayed, I waited as long as I could before creeping up the stairs. The angry-sounding lecture did not stop. When I entered the galleries the printmaker was reading to Ed who was clearly miserable with a bad cold. The numerous etchings on walls and in glass cases were each cluttered with tiny, hand-lettered autobiographical text. The maker was reading each one aloud word for word in ringing tones. Occasionally, Ed weakly interjected, “I’d really like to look at the work — ” before the artist resumed his harangue without acknowledging that anyone had spoken. When I entered the room, Ed nodded, but the artist did not acknowledge me. He focused his attention entirely on Ed, pausing only when Ed was overcome with spasms of coughing. Finally, the artist had read every word. When he left, expressing aloud his satisfaction that he had been able to clarify any deviant thoughts Sozanski might have had about his work, Ed, polite to a fault, actually thanked him.

Sozanski’s subsequent review betrayed nothing of these events. He made only insightful, appropriate and, as it happened, approving comments without a hint of retaliation against the madman’s abuse.

Art criticism is a messy business. It’s not possible to objectively evaluate art works as good or bad. Acknowledged or not, the writer’s personal predilections, vision, and ability to understand are in the mix. Some critics enjoy using clever words to make the failures of others amusing and memorable. Sozanski was not one of those. He never pretended that his ideas were right in some larger, absolute arena. He placed his responses and perceptions in an appropriate, knowledgeable context, arriving inevitably at opinions. Some years ago we were both on a panel together at the Institute of Contemporary Art discussing art criticism. I said that I thought the primary job of the critic was to build bridges between viewers and the art. He did not agree. He said that the critic must make judgements. Later in a piece he wrote about the panel he acknowledged my thought, but he again took the harder road, the one of judging and taking responsibility.