A Gentle Times Critic Goes
On a Grand Tour
By Choire Sicha
The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and
Vice Versa, by Michael Kimmelman. Penguin
Press, 245 pages, $24.95.
are few things more humiliating than crying in Chicago. (One of them is crying in Detroit, which I
have also done.)
Not long ago, I spent the optimal amount of time in Chicago, which is
five hours. As a matter of habit, I spent those hours at the Art
Institute of Chicago.
In 1997, the museum received from the Lannan Foundation a passel of Gerhard Richter
paintings. The paintings, including Woman Descending the Staircase,
were temporarily installed in a very claustrophobic room.
For no known reason, alone and pressed upon by these
wild cold paintings, I had a … something. An ecstasy? A moment of
exhaustion? A revelation?
And then I returned, myself
and not myself, to the train station and continued out west.
That experience is, with fewer tears, the subject of
Michael Kimmelman’s wide-roaming, friendly and
erudite new book, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and
Vice Versa. His idea, expressed as a
non-chronological junket of artists far and near, is a simple one, and
populist at heart: He believes that there are more ways of making and
enjoying art than can be contained on canvas and in stuffy galleries.
Mr. Kimmelman, the
mild-natured chief art critic of The New York Times, has been for
a while now less a critic and more a hagiographer. He has seemed
unwilling to use his position as a pulpit.
His recent review of the Robert Smithson exhibition at
the Whitney ran as a long, long introductory profile. When he returned
from the Venice Biennale this June, he emphasized its “Rashomon-like” nature: Visitors there couldn’t, or
wouldn’t, decide what they liked, he reported, and only then, gently, did
he offer his own endorsements. In May, for the Times Magazine,
he profiled 97-year-old architect Oscar Niemeyer. Most memorably, early
this year he nailed a profile of the reclusive Nevadan land artist
It’s clear that Mr. Kimmelman
likes and respects artists. And he’s wise to have found himself this
niche. Daily arts criticism is grueling; it requires a constant, intense
clarity possessed by very few. And I presume that the best way to remain
unsullied by the resurgent importance of the marketplace in the art world
is to turn to the lives of our largely non-commercial saints.
But Mr. Kimmelman isn’t
merely steering clear; he’s also stepped up to confront the dark forces
at work. In May, he attacked the tacky ways of museum money-making,
calling MoMA “Modernism Inc.” and P.S.1’s Greater
New York exhibition “a shallow affair in thrall to the booming art
market.” Last month, he denounced the whorishness of today’s museums. For
the even-tempered Mr. Kimmelman, writing that
“museums, having devalued their principles for short-term gains, may earn
the public’s contempt in the long run” is akin to a less kindly—but still
accurate—critic declaring, “These fuckers are crooks!”
And The Accidental Masterpiece is Mr. Kimmelman’s quiet explication of the philosophy that
guides this daily work.
But … I once had a lover who believed that he was
different because he was an artist. He’s in prison now—not a
coincidence—and so he no longer has the opportunity to paint. And yet he
still carries this identity status with him. His relation to his
government, to his home, his clothing: Everything is predicated on (or,
more often, excused by) this sense of identity.
The idea that an artist is a different sort of person
is a lie. “To live intensely is one of the basic human desires and an
artistic necessity,” writes Mr. Kimmelman of Pierre
Bonnard and us all. These essentialist ideas
about artisthood scamper—discreetly, for the
most part—throughout the book. Mr. Kimmelman’s
thesis and, I think, his true belief is that the
joys of art may be found in pilgrimage, in obsession, in collecting, in
enjoying extremely private activities, even in just looking. Any of us,
artist or not, can experience this joy. But Mr. Kimmelman
cannot quite shake the mistaken idea that artists are a race apart.
“Most artists, like most people,” he writes, and
the emphasis is mine, “have one good idea or maybe two in life, and that
The book reaches a climax with one of his favorite
topics, the great outdoor artists, particularly Michael Heizer. These are difficult folk, rugged outsiders
with big personalities: Donald Judd, James Turrell,
Walter De Maria. Mr. Kimmelman
writes, “It occurred to me, talking with [Heizer],
why all these artists chose enormous western states … to work in: perhaps
they imagined no puny eastern state was big enough to hold two of them.”
Which is a funny line, and therefore totally worth it, but surely the
megalomania of the earth artist is not very different from that of the i-banker?
But Mr. Kimmelman wants
to believe, and that’s enough. His guided tour—of the Victorian
photographs of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson; of Antarctic photographer and Shackleton expedition member Frank Hurley; of Cézanne
and Bonnard; of the blessed television painter
Bob Ross; of Eva Hesse; of Nazi victim
Charlotte Salomon; of Dr. Hugh Hicks, the dentist who collected 75,000
light bulbs—trips intelligently and casually through time and space and
across all genres.
As a travelogue, The Accidental Masterpiece
rings absolutely true, and just lovely.
This is what Mr. Kimmelman
Two artists I know (and once represented, when I was
misguidedly an art dealer), a sculptor, Stefanie
Nagorka, and a painter, Joy Garnett, took a
trip together to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah’s Great
Salt Lake. Although seeing the Jetty—and, as Mr. Kimmelman points out, making a pilgrimage of the
flight and the difficult drive is an essential component in the pleasure
of that sort of artwork—was impressive and meaningful to them, they were
most taken with something else.
This something else was orange flags on sticks.
The flags are used in Salt Lake
City, apparently, by street-crossers. Little
baskets of them wait at the intersections. Although this civic program
had only begun there in 2000—it had spread from Washington
State and has since made it as
far as Washington, D.C.—the flags seemed like the amazing
remnant of some ancient and foreign ritual.
And it was the mystery of the orange
flags—site-specific, and magical, and alien—that transported them
artistically. And so, of course, they had to have them. They stole some,
and brought them home with them.
Choire Sicha is a senior editor at The Observer.
You may reach Choire
Sicha via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This column ran on page 18 in the 8/22/2005 edition
of The New York