Classic review: The Accidental Masterpiece

An inspiring meditation on art by Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic of the New York Times.

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[The Monitor occasionally republishes material from its archives. This review originally ran on Aug. 30, 2005.] The evening after I finished reading The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa I went to the grocery store, and - expecting only my usual Monday night shopping trip - had a transcendent experience instead.

Food had never before seemed so lovely. The gentle colors and curves of the apricots moved me profoundly and I bought eggplant we didn't really need just because I couldn't resist its dark-purple sheen and bulbous forms. Back out in the parking lot I almost gasped at the dusky tones of the sky and was stunned to note - for the first time ever - the remarkable shapes that cars have.

Be prepared. This is the kind of thing that will happen to you when you pick up this book by Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic of The New York Times. Your backyard will look like a museum and the subway platform will seem oddly inspirational. What you will find is that art is everywhere. And what could be bad about a discovery like that?

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Kimmelman has spent most of his life looking at art. As a result, he writes in the book's introduction, he has come to feel that "everything, even the most ordinary daily affair, is enriched by the lessons that can be gleaned from art...." His book is full of anecdotes that are alternately charming, fascinating, and awesome about the ways art is made, the purposes it serves, and, ultimately, the contribution it makes to society.

His stories are largely about artists - some of whom you may know, but many of whom you will not - although he himself is a character in several of his tales. The book begins with a moment from the life of French painter Pierre Bonnard, who, one day in 1893, happened to see a fragile young woman getting off a tram. Marthe - as he would call her - became his lifelong companion and the inspiration for some of his greatest work.

Marthe was a sickly, nervous, paranoid person - "a tormenting sprite" one acquaintance called her - and she forced Bonnard into a cramped and narrow existence. And yet, his vision transformed the ordinary objects of their domesticity into what Kimmelman calls "an art of irresistible passion."

Exactly where art like Bonnard's comes from Kimmelman doesn't try to tell us, but he does trace its appearing under what are often the least promising of circumstances, and he also takes measure of its power.

He tells of Charlotte Salomon, a shy, withdrawn Jewish girl who fled Germany for southern France during the Holocaust, only to be captured finally and sent to her death at Auschwitz. But during her exile in France - from 1940 to 1942 - she produced a 1,300-page diary of haunting text and pictures, which, as Kimmelman puts it, squeeze "a whole life into one tour de force." Becoming an artist didn't save her life, Kimmelman points out, but it brought her order and clarity - and gave her a voice and vision that would survive when she did not.

He devotes a chapter to Ray Johnson and Yoko Ono, both performance artists who made art out of every human action, with Johnson perhaps going so far as to plot his death as his final masterpiece. He also writes about Jay DeFeo, a painter who dedicated her life to an enormous canvas that she called "The Rose," coating it with so many layers of paint that it finally weighed more than a ton.

As a young woman, DeFeo - unconcerned with commercial success - turned down an offer to exhibit it in a prestigious show and only allowed it to leave her studio years later. But styles had changed and by the time the world saw it, no one cared. It was finally, literally, entombed in a wall at the San Francisco Art Institute. And yet, in a surprising twist, after DeFeo's death, the Whitney Museum in New York paid a quarter of a million dollars to excavate, restore, and exhibit the piece.

"Art, not unlike raising children," Kimmelman muses, "may entail much sacrifice and periods of despair, but, with luck, the effort will produce something that outlives you."

Along with the anecdotes, Kimmelman ponders some age-old questions connected with art: How can beauty be defined? Is art produced by amateurs still "art"? Why do collectors collect art - and is a collection a work of art in itself? He also considers topics like the tension between routine and novelty in the life of an artist, and the difficult - and sometimes even frightening situations - in which art often flourishes.

What Kimmelman has achieved is no small feat. He has somehow managed to write a book that is a meditation on art and yet is also a pageturner. His style is easy and accessible, and his colorful anecdotes guarantee a good read even to those doubtful about their taste for art criticism.

Kimmelman's own occasional appearances in the book - climbing mountains in France to see if he can experience the sublime, and almost drowning while visiting the "earth art" of Michael Heizer in Nevada - are amusing in the first case and sobering in the second. He makes a comfortable companion - something one might not expect in an art critic. But his enthusiasm and awe ring so true.

In a chapter on art collectors, Kimmelman describes his encounter with Hugh Francis Hicks, a dentist who collected light bulbs. Dr. Hicks amassed 75,000 of them and created the Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting in the basement of his office building in Baltimore. He was so excited about his collection that when a visitor turned up, he sometimes abandoned patients in the dental chair midway through an operation.

"The consolation of art comes in many forms," Kimmelman observes. "For some it is making, for others it is having." Thanks to books like this, it can also be found in reading.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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