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by Thomas Hoving
|I've been away.
Or rather I've been nowhere.
That's where you go when you're in the finishing crunch of writing a book. I've been buried deep down, burrowed into rewriting eight or nine hours a day, collapsing into bed at nine, sleeping fitfully, awakening at 6:30 a.m. to pick up the next e-mailed grim news from both editor and the "technical advisor." Then rewriting the whole day. That was my "nowhere" for the entire month of June.
My 12th book is the hardest, I guess, yet probably the most fun -- Art for Dummies.
You got it! It's one of those yellow-jacketed paperbacks with a fright-wigged cartoon guy on the cover from the Dummies series by IDG books, which offers how-tos on everything from DOS to Windows98 to weddings, negotiations and, of course, sex via the indomitable Ruth Westheimer.
When Art for Dummies comes out this October, you'll have everything you've wanted to know about art in one handy volume. (Is this a plug? Of course!) Everything -- from a history of almost every style of art from the West, East, North and South, from Paleolithic times to today (with a bunch of contemporary "isms" defined); to how to collect and what to collect (and what never to collect) and how not to get stung and how to approach an art dealer or an auction house and what to expect from either and what questions to ask and what to demand (including guarantees of authenticity and how to get your money back); and how to avoid fakes or tarted-up works; and how to tell if your child has that art "thing," or who are the most interesting artists of history; and who are the living ones most likely to be the Old Masters of Y3K; and the 12 or so finest works of art to have survived time; and something I know to be unique -- a 100-page illustrated guide to all the most compelling museums in the world and what you simply cannot miss in each one.
It wasn't so easy to concoct this 384-odd-page, copiously illustrated compendium. I had to get out of the ArtSpeak mode (examples of ArtSpeak are included so you can avoid them, by the way) and clear my brain of Ph.D.isms and years of museum jargon and my highfalutin collecting theories and practices and just communicate directly to intelligent, educated folks who want to know something about all of fine art but who never got around to studying it -- and are also perhaps a bit too scared to ask.
At times it was maddeningly difficult. Dummies has a formula -- not a rigid one -- but I had to respect it. Hey, it's worked for millions of books. I had to walk nimbly on the edge of dumbing down -- I had to define "lintel," "frieze," "terra-cotta," "chiaroscuro," "Terribilta" and the like.
Plus I had to deal with the oppressive issue of political correctness. For example, I was told briskly that "fat" couldn't be used. And that "portly" was a word never associated with females. (I had described some polo-playing court ladies in a set of terra-cotta Chinese Tang Dynasty figures in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City as "portly." Fabulous pieces!)
When I described the Salon des Refuses as the Boston Tea Party of the Impressionist movement, I was told that no "history-deprived American" would know what the Boston Tea Party was and couldn't I say "a revolutionary art event"?
Well, I used "fat" several times, particularly with the relief of Hapshepsut's time portraying the elephantiosised Queen of Punt on her way to see the Pharaoh. (I take you to the exact gallery in the Cairo Museum where the fascinating relief is.)
And I left "portly" for those truly portly and very beautiful Tang Chinese ladies in Kansas City, commenting that over the past year there had been a few (maybe a million) references to one "portly Pepperpot."
And I stuck with Boston Tea Party. (Let the stupid "history-deprived Americans" read American History for Dummies, which doesn't exist, but you never know what's next with the Dummies guys.)
But I humbly corrected my numerous egregious errors the "technical advisor" had -- thank God! -- discovered. I cringed at my stupid blunders! How could I have kept saying that Hans Holbein worked for Queen Elizabeth? Can you believe that I actually named Agnolo Bronzino as the creator of the divine, harrowingly bizarre, esthetically and religiously messy yet incandescently pastelly, profoundly moving Mannerist altarpiece of the Deposition in Florence's Santa Felicita, pegging it as the master's best work?
When I corrected the latter I started thinking that when you get to the essence of art and the artistic experience, it really isn't life or death if you know Holbein worked for Henry the VIII and not Elizabeth and that the Deposition in Santa Felicita is by Pontormo and not Bronzino. Or what Mannerism is (hell, it may not even have existed until the 20th century). Or dates. At least until later on.
The only thing that matters straight away is: does the work of art hit you, make your gut wrench, seize your eye, make the blood rush faster through your veins, keep you awake at night just recalling, say, the tinges of effervescent ultramarines on the lower left of some religious painting whose meaning is unclear, or does it change your life for the better, does it haunt you, move you, infuriate you, confuse you, or make your brain crackle with understanding, or shiver your eyeballs in a devastating way?
Writing Art for Dummies taught me -- again, since I'd kind of forgotten -- that specific works (and only those in great condition) are the only things that count. Art history is nice and all. Esthetic theory is okay. (Well, face it, it's mostly crap.) Today's trends and tendencies are pretty much blather. Who's hot probably will be, soon, s'not. Prices and values, they go up and down and in and around and are mostly a bit fraudulent and who cares? And art critics are mostly out to all meals.
Because of the Dummies crunch, I only saw one show this whole spring and summer (at least so far) and it knocked me out because of the divine nature of specific works.
It wasn't North Adams. Nor the Venice Biennale. Nor Boston's thousand-and-one John Singer Sargents. Nor Monet's late Lilies at the Orangerie.
The show I did pop in to see was perhaps one of the top three I've ever seen (and I started hitting art exhibitions seriously in 1951 and making them in 1967). At first, I didn't want to see it, since most of the critics had trashed or lukewarmed it.
As you may have guessed from the illustrations, it's the Whitney's "The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-1950," curated by Barbara Haskell. Usually a curator hopes to get five super-hits on loan to make an exhibition, but after the first five galleries I stopped counting the simply crackerjack examples in every medium -- photos, paintings, furniture, decorative arts, sculpture, posters and film clips. Virtually everything in this mammoth presentation is about as perfect a choice as you can imagine.
I have a few cavils -- gotta have them when you praise a show fulsomely. The New York World's Fair of 1939 was given short shrift in both show and catalogue. Too bad, for it was probably the greatest single artistic influence on the majority of Americans along with Norman Rockwell. And too much space was taken up by two tepid semi-Cubist pictures by dilettante Gerald Murphy (Mark Cross scion and "Living-Well-Is-the-Best-Revenge-Murphy.") And the Intel Web site is childish, showing no sensitivity to art and failing to have scanned dozens of works that didn't make it into the show. And Haskell's catalogue is pretty dense at times.
I was knocked out by the concept, the clarity of the texts, the smooth pacing of the show, it's love for art, the luminosity of the lighting and those killer-diller pieces. Don't miss the following:
Thomas Anshutz, A Rose (1907), from the Met. This is a superb portrait of a delightfully piquant, alert, searching, skeptical, arrogant, compliant young lady that goes way beyond portraiture. The harmonies of roses appear throughout strongly and subtly -- from the carpet and the mahogany chair to the red objects on the table beyond and the signature in the upper left.
George Bellows, Men of the Docks (1912), on loan from the Maier Museum of Art, Randolph-Macon Woman's College, Lynchburg, Va. This is a raw, cold, bitter, tell-it-like-it-is image of brutal mankind. Ice has never been painted with greater skill.
George Luks, The Wrestlers (1905), from the MFA in Boston. A twisted, struggling and sweating duo brought to life with a modern splash of color. The picture looks like some gem from the Italian High Renaissance.
Joseph Stella, The Brooklyn Bridge, Variation on an Old Theme (1939), from the Whitney's permanent collection. The tangled skeins of cable and structure makes this a startling prefiguration to Abstract Expressionism.
Man Ray, New York (1917), from the Whitney's permanent collection. The bronze, chromed strips locked together by a C-clamp set briskly on a circular pedestal looking like a silvery, tensile Leaning Tower of Pisa is a splendid symbol of roaring New York, made of harsh metal and held together by a makeshift hunk of guesswork. The true emblem of the Big Apple, romantic, yet faithful to the facts.
Guy Pčne du Bois, Opera Box (1926), from the Whitney. I confess I've always been a professional hater of du Bois until I spotted this ghostly, thoughtful image of ancient Mycenae.
Grant Wood, Fall Plowing (1931), from the Deere and Company Art Collection, Moline, Ill. There are a passel of splendid works by this vitally important American who has never received the proper recognition (even by the Whitney, which has never had the guts to grant him a full treatment.) The most lyrical is this lush landscape with its emerald verdure, sparkling beige and off-white fields after harvest. Few have captured the plains so successfully, or the spirit of America, for that matter, as well as Wood.
Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning (1930), from the Whitney's collection. The show presents Hopper in full range and this image of humanity (despite the utter lack of people anywhere) is, to me, his finest. It isn't lonely, but it's about loneliness done in a matchlessly poetic manner.
Theodore Roszak, Bi-Polar in Red (1940), the Whitney. This piping hot red double cone topped by the whitest of white balls is as dignified as a philosopher and one of the most sensual sculptures of the 20th century. Yummy!
Jackson Pollock, Number 27, 1950, the Whitney. This is the pink, black and silver one which has always struck me as the perfect illustration to Homer's Odyssey.
Get to the first half of "The American Century." Sure, it's going to be there until Aug. 22, but it's worth at least three devoted visits.
"The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000, Part I" is on view Apr. 23-Aug. 22, 1999, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.
THOMAS HOVING is the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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