There’s a bitter old guy – an artist, apparently – who sells books on Prospect Park West, in my parents’ Brooklyn neighborhood. I bought four books for my wife for her birthday last year, and this guy – I don’t know his name – pressed this book on me (as a free bonus). “You have to read this!” he insisted. So I did, shortly afterwards.
“The Accidental Masterpiece” has a simple thesis: in the old days, before postimpressionism, art and life were separate. An artist did his work (or her work), then went home, had dinner and fell asleep. But starting around the time of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) art began to look like daily life, and daily life began to look like an “art practice.” In this book, Kimmelman wanders around the USA, meeting artists, noticing how they work and how they live. About a third of the way through the book, he forgets his thesis – because, to be honest, these are actually a bunch of essays he wrote separately for the New York Times – and maybe other periodicals. (I read a galley addition, so the acknowledgments are absent.) But I must say, “The Accidental Masterpiece” is adroit and necessary. (Even though art is widely popular now, very few people actually study contemporary artists. More is known about hedge fund managers than about Philip Pearlstein (to give one example).)
Though Bonnard constantly painted his unsettling but pretty wife – even after her death! – and seemed to be recording the quotidian details of their lives (especially their breakfasts), the rest of the artists just seem like a bunch of obsessed people. For example:
“Finally, in 1969, eleven years after she had begun working on it, ‘The Rose’ was exhibited, but by then the art world had changed. Conceived in the era of Jackson Pollock and the Beats, the painting, a massive grey monolith of strange delicacy and gloomy bohemianism, emerged in the age of Pop Art and psychedelia. A reviewer dubbed it ‘a glorious anachronism.’ It was falling apart. Slabs of paint were sliding off it like lava from a volcano. Museums didn’t want to buy it, fearing it would cost a fortune to restore, and DeFeo refused to give it away.”
(I opened the book at random, and found that passage.)
How does one define “art” and “life”? “The Rose” is a painting, an abstract painting. It doesn’t seem inextricable from the artist’s life, anymore than the Mona Lisa was inextricable from Leonardo’s. An artist is not a taxi driver. Her work is GENERATED by her life; it’s not just a occupation anyone can do. But perhaps Jay DeFeo made a clear delineation between her “working” hours and her “personal” hours, just as a taxi driver does. We can’t really know. And Kimmelman doesn’t seem terribly interested. He loves his thesis, more than he loves proving it.
Yesterday I was reading “The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell,” and found a great statement: “I would much rather trade my paintings than sell them, but very few people who have what I want are art collectors.” (Motherwell is a better writer than Kimmelman.)