What can one say about a book devoted to an artist whose work leaves on with some serious reservations, and who yet is a figure of considerable popularity and charm, even importance?
And what if that book is handsomely put together, includes numerous reproductions of the artist's work -- most of them in excellent color -- and has a text that is both knowledgeable and to the point?
In such a case, does one recommend the book to the artist's fans but warn those others who might be interested in knowing a bit more about him or his failings? Or does one vote thumbs down on the basis of the artist's shortcomings?
I, for one, opt to recommend the book in question, not only to the artist's numerous (and devoted) fans, but to the general public as well. The artist, Fernando Botero, is a true phenomenon, a Colombian born high in the Andes, who managed somehow to storm the worldhs art capitals with his paintings, sculptures , and drawings of grotesquely fat individuals, animals, vegetables, fruit -- and almost everything else under the sun. And who did it all without recourse to any of the formal devices, and without belonging to any of the various schools of post-World War II modernism.
Such a feat deserves recognition all by itself. But there's more. Botero has also given a new dimension to the term "representational art" by his somewhat strident, highly caustic, and yet also fun-filled works that are as much cartoons as they are traditional works of art.
It is here that my reservations about Botero's art come into play. Despite all their fun and games as well as their serious satiric intent, I can't help but feel that there is something seriously lacking in an ever-increasing number of his works -- most particularly those painted during the last decade or so. Unlike his best works, which, with some exceptions, were produced during the earlier years of his career (ca. 1955-68) and which always remained more painting than cartoon, most of his recent canvases reflect the unhappy fact that he is taking the easy way out: He is letting his cartoon side dominate, becoming cute, obvious, and gimmicky. And nowhere has this been more obvious than in his latest American show, which was pretty much of a disaster.
Be that as it may (and I fervently hope that his lapses are only temporary), this book does Botero full justice. It is extremely handsome, and fully documents his art from an early Orozco- inspired watercolor of 1949, through such remarkable works as "Homage to Mantegna" of 1958 and "Mona Lisa, Age Twelve" of 1959, to some of his most recent paintings and sculptures.
It presents Botero whole -- through its reproductions of his works and through Carter Ratcliff's text, which is informative and ver y readable, if perhaps a bit too laudatory at times.