News from Nowhere

The Grand Eccentrics—Art News Annual XXXII

edited by Thomas B. Hess
Macmillan, 180 pp., $5.95

It is possible to sympathize with Mr. Hess’s complaint that journalists tend to impose a stifling categorization on the varied phenomena of modern art, while yet deploring the book (if that is the word: it is really a sort of bumper Sunday-paper color supplement) he has edited in an attempt to remedy this state of affairs. It is also possible to have the highest regard for some of the great authorities (such as Professors Chastel, Eitner, and others) whom he has been able to call upon, while yet feeling that their talents have hardly been put to the best possible use. The fault in any case is surely Mr. Hess’s. If this were intended to be merely a collection of strange illustrations accompanied by brief explanatory notes, it might serve some purpose—though admittedly it is not very easy to think what. But Mr. Hess’s Preface seems to demand that we treat it with some seriousness. “Labels,” he claims, “…seem to make easy perches upon which flocks of migratory artists can light. Nothing so necessary to a career as a label.” Over-simplified terminology, this presumably implies, encourages the promotion of indifferent art.

So the eccentric master becomes newly relevant and, perhaps for the first time, even exemplary [my italics], for he is, above all, the artist hostile to all categories, outside of the “historical necessities” of tradition. Self justified, he challenges all assumptions about what is possible, and exposes our timidities concerning the infinite capacities of man.

Perhaps—but this book will surely give active encouragement to the very tendencies he is trying to oppose. If this is eccentric art, we may well feel after browsing through its glossy pages, for God’s sake let us have some conformity. Or, even more likely, we will be tempted to try to establish a new category of eccentricity as rigid as any of the traditional concepts that Mr. Hess so rightly dislikes.

The infuriating thing is that Mr. Hess is obviously aware of both these dangers. He has many acute points to make; but he always seems to avoid following up their real implications. He admits that “each man’s oeuvre, indeed each single painting, lives primarily as it goes beyond the boundaries of a textbook tag,” but then decides to exclude “kinds of work which might ‘look’ eccentric, but which adhere to very different orientations,” for instance “the art of the supreme masters, such as Giotto, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya,” on the extraordinary grounds that “they produced deliriously eccentric works, but they produced every other kind of work too.” This reviewer is surely not alone in being interested to see a distinction drawn between Giotto’s “deliriously eccentric” and other kinds of work.

THE RESULT is a hotch-potch which includes artists of such infinitely varied quality and aims that it is doubtful whether anything useful can be said about them as a group. The pedantic historian is certainly wise to be cautious when faced with an anthology of …

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Letters

Who’s Eccentric? May 18, 1967