Searching for classics in a '15 minutes of fame' world

EYEWITNESS By Jed Perl Basic Books 349 pp., $25

At the beginning of this collection of reviews spanning the 1990s, art critic Jed Perl tells a wry story of his refusal to write about art star Cindy Sherman. He wants to emphasize a disturbing contrast in contemporary art: the bright light of "the freestanding value of a work of art" against the obscuring darkness of our celebrity culture.

Perl's devotion to the expressive integrity of an artwork isn't simply an old-fashioned interest in the success or failure of form. He's also interested in a complicated range of qualities, including the artist's experiences and the work's historical context. His writing's informed but matter-of-fact tone makes "Eyewitness" a considered companion for anyone interested in looking at art right now.

Looking, as a profound experience, is at the heart of Perl's approach, as is a genuine concern for the artist. What happens in the studio, what happens within the art world, and what happens for the audience seem to him to be disconnected in the current scene.

He worries about the serious, developing artist who cannot find a way to connect with an equally serious audience. Referring to such artists, he says, "The most important story in the art world remains to be told." "Eyewitness" is Perl's map of an increasingly invisible world unfolding within and beside a raucous public one.

He writes beautifully about the act of seeing and translates that act for the reader. When he describes Bill Jensen "literally watering the paper, so that it becomes the soil from which images emerge [as he] pushes into that dense, loamy surface ... over and over again," the reader receives an accurate critical transcription delivered as a visual image.

Perl brings to his observations a wide-ranging knowledge of art history, and he sustains difficult critical arguments without overwhelming novice readers with jargon. He has a kind of pluralistic curiosity that resolves itself as he stands in front of the specific artwork, where he makes inventive yet logical connections.

Perl knows as well as anyone that the contemporary art world is a weird mixture of desperation and resignation, hype and snipe, and it is not by accident that "Eyewitness" is subtitled "Reports From an Art World in Crisis."

Twenty-four reviews that appeared first in The New Republic magazine are divided into two chronological groups, reading like dispatches from the front - surprisingly lucid accounts of a melee. The structure reinforces Perl's feeling that "the strongest work being done today suggests no dominant style, but it all has something of the fierce clarity and complicated inwardness that one expects from private journal entries made in wartime."

His strategy has been to place examples of what he considers strong work side-by-side with attention-grabbing exhibitions and art stars.

The reader has a chance to follow Perl to see how he works things out in practice as he bird-dogs earnestly through the galleries, subjecting works of art to his seeing-as-thinking approach. Perl has the steady directness of someone who shoulders the responsibilities and soldiers on, but he can be cleverly and fearlessly pointed. Even if you disagree with him about conceptual multimedia artist Bruce Nauman, it's still funny when Perl calls him the "Now Man."

In his smoothest moments, Perl's is an adept, easygoing voice, but an undercurrent of peevishness in this collection also taints it, accentuating occasional contradictions. Under-appreciated artists, for example, occupy less space in these pages than the bigger names. Some of Perl's objections can be read as subjective responses when artists he likes aren't receiving attention.

It is sometimes hard to understand Perl's aggrieved tone. After all, he has the cachet of writing for a sophisticated art audience in the glossy pages of David Bowie's Modern Painters and for an informed general audience in The New Republic. In a free-for-all art scene in which the battle lines are perpetually redrawn, the most a hard-looking critic can hope for is a steady voice and someone to talk to.

* Dinah Jung Ryan is a contributing editor for Art Papers Magazine, and she teaches art history and English at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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