Classic review: The Accidental Masterpiece
An inspiring meditation on art by Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic of the New York Times.
(Page 2 of 2)
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.