What makes art artistic? Some artists actually know

September 06, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Michael Kimmelman has been chief art critic of the New York Times since 1990, developing one of the most accessible and uncompromisingly straightforward critical voices now being published in English. He accepts no clubhouse conspiracies. When jargon enters his work it's only to be attacked or simply explained. He does not wink or prod with elbows - famous critics' insider devices. He writes as he thinks - clearly and sharply.

Now comes his first book: "Portraits: Talking With Artists in the Met, the Modern, the Louvre and Other Museums" (Random House, 265 pages, $25.95). There are 16 chapters on 18 artists, all based on interviews, or long chats, with those artists as they and Kimmelman examined and expanded upon art in various museums.

The artists include Balthus, Elizabeth Murray, Francis Bacon, Roy Lichtenstein, Lucian Freud, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brice Marden, Hans Haacke, Cindy Sherman, Susan Rothenberg and Bruce Nauman (together) and others.

Originally, Kimmelman did the interviews for the Times, which published shorter, quite different forms of the results. For this book, he returned to the original tape recordings and added extensive new information on the artists and the works discussed.

Kimmelman's descriptive material is deftly visual. Instructed by a life of looking at art, he brings appearances artfully, swiftly to the written page. This gives the reader a remarkable sense of being there. There are 135 black-and-white illustrations, reproductions of paintings and other objects that greatly enhance the narratives.

The artists are all significant. Kimmelman knows their work well. He also knows a lot about them, as people and in some cases as advocates. All have been written about extensively. Many have had biographies done. Some have written extensively themselves.

So what does Kimmelman's enterprise have to add? Something that is both dynamic and in some cases almost electric. The awareness Kimmelman brought to these conversations is deliciously catalytic. He leaves himself in the background of the text, but his gentle but surgical provocation is always present, in the form of an informed irony.

The result often is both very instructive and very entertaining: Balthus, who has been clucked over for his sensual paintings of young adolescent girls, curtly dismisses Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," with "the subject doesn't interest me." But his comment about Nabokov's novel came only after Balthus himself introduced the Lolita theme as a metaphor for the criticism he has endured.

There is nothing preachy about these pieces. There's no sense of an imposed regimen, of clipboard quizzing. But there are, inevitably, themes that recur in many of the conversations.

And though Kimmelman is respectful of eccentricity (he does like art and artists, after all), he is not forgiving of guile. Writing of the bad-boy British painter Francis Bacon, he flips on his reporter's polygraph: "Subtly, Bacon manipulates a conversation so that it never strays from topics he wants to discuss, making it nearly impossible to get him to talk about anything else. By now he's got his patter down. Pressed about his own work, he says, 'If you can talk about it, why paint it?' - an old riposte. Canned remarks let him sidestep unwanted queries."

What is art? Why is it made? What are its values? Impossible questions - and good ones. Here is Richard Serra - who I would argue is both the most important and the most articulate sculptor working today - speaking to Kimmelman in front of one of Jackson Pollock's most notable drip-paintings at the Met: "We evaluate artists by how much they are able to rid themselves of convention, to change history. Well, I don't know of anyone since Pollock who has altered the form or the language of painting as much as he did."

And then, a couple of paragraphs later, comes the coherent precision of Kimmelman's explicative narrative: "With the Torqued Ellipses [Serra's 1997 huge enveloping steel walls shaped into twisted ovals], like Pollock, who was testing new procedures to make new forms: the dripping line was the new form in Pollock's case, the twisting, enclosed steel volume in Serra's."

And then, 125 pages later, Chuck Close, the now quadriplegic painter of monumental portraits made of tiny cells, looks up from his wheelchair at African fetish figures, also in the Met, and says to Kimmelman: "Why make art? Because I think there's a child's voice in every artist saying 'I am here. I am somebody. I made this. Won't you look?'"

Bounce that off Serra's remark. Close - make no mistake about it - is somebody. So is Serra.

Close later on offers one of the more delicious of dozens of observations that if they came from scholars or critics would be dismissed as facile, but which from indisputably powerful artists take on a sort of revelatory magic:

"One of the interesting things about the difference between abstraction and representation is that a really bad abstract painting will easily become meaningless background for cocktail chitchat; it just becomes wallpaper. But you can't stop looking at a bad figurative painting. It's like a sore thumb. ... Bad abstraction fails because it's meaningless decoration, but it's never as grating as bad figurative drawing."

There are lots of other clashes of vision and values. They are, together and alone, delightful.

Read it. It will not give you a broad education in contemporary art. But it will give you a short course - better than any other book I know - in who an important squadron of important artists are and how they work, as people and as artists.

Most importantly, it may give you fresh thoughts on that eternally galling, delighting question: What's art all about, anyway?

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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