Portrait of a provocateur

PORTFOLIO

The man the art world loves to hate is back with 'Art for Dummies.'

October 24, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

Quick. Who in the art world would be audacious enough to summarize 2,000 years of art history in 164 pages? Who could actually pull it off -- and write it in such a way as to be accessible to, well, a bunch of dummies?

Thomas Hoving, of course.

Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, author of 12 books and former editor of Connoisseur magazine, has written "Art for Dummies," the latest in the series of bright-yellow how-to books for the intellectually intimidated.

In the book, published this month by IDG Books Worldwide, Hoving begins by defining art as that which occurs whenever "anyone takes any sort of material and fashions a deliberate statement with it." He then reassures skittish, wannabe art lovers that "you can become an art expert."

How so? By saturating yourself. "Almost anyone can become an expert with the right amount of saturation," he writes. "And only by saturation of the original art itself, not through books, or gazing at photographs, or attending slide lectures or taking copious notes at seminars. You will gain expertise and authority (and confidence) simply by soaking up physically all the art your eyes can digest."

"It's not dumbing down!" Hoving says in a telephone interview from Kansas City, Mo., one of the stops in his book-signing tour.

"You've got to bring something to the table when you read this book. If you're trying to learn to be a gourmet, you don't sit down at the table and say, 'Pass the ketchup.' This book is for people who have education, who have some interest, but are intimidated. Maybe they didn't take Art History 101; they took some other elective."

Hoving's newest venture may have some art professionals raising their eyebrows. After all, learning to appreciate art somehow seems different from learning the intricacies of a DOS computer program. But causing a little debate, a little controversy, has never before fazed Hoving.

Pioneering populism

As a museum director from 1967 to 1977, he invented the concept of large art exhibitions with broad public appeal that have come to be known as blockbusters. In doing so, he transformed the Metropolitan from a shrine to artistic contemplation into a tourist hot spot that beats out the Statue of Liberty as New York's No. 1 attraction. Hundreds of museums throughout the country have emulated his model -- and some art professionals have never forgiven him for his populist approach.

As author, Hoving published an account of his years at the Metropolitan titled "Making the Mummies Dance," in which he admitted having affairs with high-priced hookers on art-buying trips and sneaking past guards to touch masterpieces in other directors' museums. You can guess what a tizzy that caused.

Now Hoving brings to "Art for Dummies" his trademark blend of nearly unparalleled experience in the world of art, joie de vivre and chutzpah.

He takes pot shots at the art establishment (to which he belongs), pooh-poohs art historical writing ("This book was extremely hard to write: I had to write in English, and I haven't written it in years. I had to get the Ph.D. gobbledlygook out of my system.").

"This book is different from an art history book, it is all object- driven. It is written from the museum person's point of view," he says. "They told me they wanted definitions of stuff like 'lintel.' Now, 'frieze' I know -- but who the hell knows what a 'lintel' is?"

He explains concepts like minimalism, impressionism and abstract expressionism in a few paragraphs each: Minimalism includes "works that give up all claims to either illusion or raw expression in favor of an impersonal timelessness. The attitude is, 'I have nothing to say, and I am saying it,' " he writes.

And he gives his picks of 10 artists worth watching today, including sculptor Mark di Suvero and painters Helen Frankenthaler and Frank Stella.

There's also a state-by-state directory of museums worth visiting in which he names Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery "piece-for-piece, the best art museum in the entire United States." A few of his favorites? A dancing faun made of bronze by 16th-century Flemish artist Adrian de Vries; landscapes by 18th-century French artist Francois Boucher, and the Treasury Room, which is filled with Faberge eggs, Lalique jewelry and Tiffany jewelry and decorative objects.

Perhaps for people who really don't want to wade through a whole book, Hoving offers a pull-out "cheat sheet" that newcomers to museums may carry to boost their confidence.

For those willing to "cheat" a little, he suggests:

* Upon arriving at an unfamiliar museum, buy postcards. Whatever is pictured will represent the collection's highlights.

* Carry with you the author's list of the greatest works of Western civilization, which includes Giotto's Arena Chapel, Leonardo's "Mona Lisa," and Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," presumably so that you can spot 'em when you see 'em.

* Flex your critical muscles by making a wish list of the three pieces you'd "like to steal."

An audacious trend

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