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What Art Does

Strolling down a street in Paris one day in 1893, Pierre Bonnard spotted a pretty girl as she was stepping off a tram, followed her to her place of work, and introduced himself. Tiny, slim, and as nervous as a sparrow, she told him that her name was Marthe de Méligny and she was sixteen years old. Neither statement was true. Only many years later did he learn that her real name was Maria Boursin, and that she had then been twenty-four.

By then she had changed the course of Bonnard’s life and had become inseparable from his art. Initially, their affair stimulated some of the most flagrantly erotic pictures of the late nineteenth century. In Indolence of 1899, the young Bonnard shows his mistress splayed out nude on an unmade bed, with the imprint of his body in the sheets beside her. Ten years later in The Bathroom the still voluptuous Marthe, wearing only a pair of sapphire-blue slippers, applies scent to her breasts while sunlight falls through patterned curtains, enveloping and caressing her body.

Marthe and Pierre lived en concubinage, marrying only in 1925. Because Marthe’s health was delicate (she suffered from agoraphobia and became increasingly paranoid) she rarely left Le Bosquet, the villa above Cannes they bought in 1928. Bonnard became Marthe’s carer, she his muse and model. Over the course of the fifty years they spent together he would paint her nearly four hundred times. You don’t love Bonnard for his pictorial innovation. You love him for his pictures of his little dachshund Poucette, the palm tree in his extravagantly untidy garden, and for his many paintings of the enigmatic Marthe lying in the oversized tub of her luxuriously tiled bathroom. When you see a large number of these works together, you come to know the rhythms of the household at Le Bosquet, from Bonnard’s early-morning walks to the ritual of laying the table for lunch, Marthe’s bath, and, in the evening, her reading and sewing by lamplight. Even after Marthe’s death, Pierre continued to paint images of her in her bath looking like Danae, with showers of golden light cascading down on her remembered body.

Marthe is so inextricably a part of Bonnard’s art that it is impossible to imagine it without her. But in the very first pages of his new book Michael Kimmelman asks an extraordinary question: What would have happened if, on that day in 1893, Bonnard had walked down another street, looked the other way, or headed off for a café instead of following her? What if he had just stopped to tie his shoelaces, and so missed the fateful encounter that was to change his life?

That Bonnard didn’t do any of these things is the theme of Kimmelman’s rich, allusive meditations on the relationship between art and life. At some level Marthe’s neurosis provided something Bonnard needed for his work, compelling him to live closed off from the world, and giving him the subject of virtually all his later pictures. For Bonnard, art was a whole way of living, not an activity he pursued only in his studio. “What attracted me was less art itself than the artist’s life and all that it meant for me,” he admitted. “I had been attracted to painting and drawing for a long time, but it was not an irresistible passion; what I wanted, at all costs, was to escape the monotony of life.”

Kimmelman is interested in the many ways in which making, looking at, and collecting art immeasurably enriches our lives. Artists, of course, have always known this. For Henry James, a life lived consciously through art was the only one worth living: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance…and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”* And as if to demonstrate the truth of James’s famous words, Kimmelman’s book introduces us to figures whose lives have been touched or changed or even destroyed by their immersion in art.

There is the Baltimore dentist named Hugh Francis Hicks who kept his collection of 75,000 light bulbs in his basement, which he called the “Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting.” In his account of a visit to Dr. Hicks, Kimmelman gently reveals how compulsive collecting can transform what might have been a humdrum life into one with a higher purpose—just as Bonnard’s obsession with Marthe gave him the subject of his art and meaning to his life. At first it seems odd that Kimmelman should use the example of a collector of light bulbs almost interchangeably with that of a great artist. But that is why his book is so original. What Kimmelman is describing here is not so very different from the process whereby Marcel Duchamp transformed a snow shovel into a work of art by placing it in an art gallery and so changing the questions we ask about it and therefore the way we look at it.

Surely Dr. Hicks’s obsession with light bulbs transformed things that in any other place or situation we would find utterly banal into objects of aesthetic and intellectual interest. By recognizing the beauty of artificial light, and by being so fascinated by the science that makes it possible, Dr. Hicks created the conditions that are necessary for something to become art. About six thousand people a year come to Dr. Hicks’s museum to gaze at the bulbs displayed in old wooden cases with handwritten labels. “They all come here to gasp in wonderment,” he said—and we believe him. As I was reading about the rarities in the Hicks collection—a lamp from the Enola Gay, the smallest light bulb in the world—I began to picture what that basement room must have looked like when all the lights were on—and as soon as I did I saw in my mind’s eye a work of art that is currently on view at Tate Modern’s retrospective of the work of the Canadian artist Jeff Wall—a large-scale color transparency mounted in a wall-hung light box. It shows a man sitting in a basement flat ablaze with hundreds of light bulbs, scores of them switched on at the same time, and it is so beautiful it’s hard to stop looking at it.

Art, Kimmelman believes, has the potential to saturate our lives—if only we rouse ourselves to see it: “Art is out there waiting to be captured, the only question being whether we are prepared to recognize it.” As art critic for The New York Times Kimmelman knows what he is talking about:

Having spent much of my own life looking at [art], I have come to feel that everything, even the most ordinary daily affair, is enriched by the lessons that can be gleaned from art: that beauty is often where you don’t expect to find it; that it is something we may discover and also invent, then reinvent, for ourselves; that the most important things in the world are never as simple as they seem but that the world is also richer when it declines to abide by comforting formulas.

As this passage suggests, he is touched by art made by people who may not regard themselves as artists. Thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—of people have learned to paint as a hobby using the techniques of an American television personality named Bob Ross, the host of The Joy of Painting. Churchill wrote about his own painting as a perfect distraction in 1925 and Eisenhower painted copies of greeting cards twice a week in the White House. When Andy Warhol exhibited a paint-by-numbers landscape, he made us aware that such pictures were much more popular with ordinary Americans in the 1960s than the landscapes of Monet and Renoir, let alone of Poussin and Claude. Some of Kimmelman’s most perceptive pages are devoted to the amateur photographers whose efforts ended up on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum when Thomas Walther’s collection of anonymous snapshots revealed a rich seam of art made by double exposures or lucky accidents. Who knows whether the person who took the double-exposed photo of a bedroom superimposed on a busy street scene was aware of the art of the Surrealists? Probably not, but Dalí himself could not have found a more dreamlike image. “Memory and hope, past and future: snapping a picture with a Kodak, like painting a picture with a brush and canvas, is a way to leave a mark for posterity, a trace of oneself. It is a bottle tossed in the ocean of time.” Observations like these make Kimmelman’s book a joy to read.

But you don’t have to be an artist—even an inadvertent one—for art to enlarge your horizons. What you do have to be is willing to expose yourself to new experiences. Kimmelman tells a charming story of how, a few years back, he decided to climb Mount Sainte-Victoire. He flew across the Atlantic and drove to the South of France not to participate in the sport of mountain climbing but to tread on ground made holy by Cézanne’s obsession with the mountain, and to see if he could experience a frisson of the sublime, as depicted in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or his modern-day heirs Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth. His comical trudge to the summit leads to his honest admission that once at the top he thought the view was nice—no more, and no less. It was, he writes, “the disappointment that many tourists experience when they go to see the Mona Lisa, a sublime painting, encased behind protective glass.” The sublime, he discovers, is not something that happens while-u-wait. Beauty is not “static and predictable and always there at the top of a mountain, but an organic, shifting, elusive, and therefore more desirable goal of our devotion, which we must make an effort to grasp.”

Later in the book, in ironic counterpoint to his own relatively timid adventures as a mountaineer, he tells the thrilling story of the photographer Frank Hurley, an Edwardian explorer who endured unbelievable hardship to bring back supremely beautiful images from Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole. After (barely) surviving, and then exhibiting his photos of the expedition to enormous acclaim, Hurley went on to a long career as a war photographer and as a photojournalist in the Middle East and South Pacific, but never again recovered the magnificence of work done under the atrocious conditions and at the risk of his life in the stormy wastes of the Antarctic.

Kimmelman approves of art that is difficult to find, that makes you travel to see it, and so sharpens your appreciation by stimulating your senses. Though not to the South Pole, Kimmelman has pursued art to some of the most desolate parts of the United States. He describes his visits to Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field in the scrubby wastelands of New Mexico, a visit to James Turrell’s visionary light project at Roden Crater in Arizona, the beauties of Donald Judd’s megalomaniacal sculptural installations at Marfa in Texas, and an alarming pilgrimage to meet “the Howard Hughes of American art,” the reclusive and cantankerous Michael Heizer, a sculptor who may well turn out to be the most significant American artist of our time, who is creating a complex of monumental sculptures on the scale of Chichén Itzá in the Nevada desert.

Best of all, in an episode you read with mounting alarm, Kimmelman tells the story of his near-death experience on the site of Matthew Barney’s deliriously incomprehensible film Cremaster 2, which was shot in Wendover, Utah, at a time when the treacherous salt flats had flooded with icy mountain meltwater. One winter evening, traveling in a jeep with a photographer and an assistant, they lost their way and became stuck in the wet salt, far from Barney and his crew. Kimmelman decided to get out of the car and walk for help, but instantly found himself in icy water:

Within minutes I was in water that had risen from my shins to my chest, darkness having quickly fallen, the paved road previously in front of me and the jeep behind me now both vanished from view…. I had no bearings. My cell phone was dead. I was in the middle of a freezing ocean in total blackness, alone.

Of course he reached the road, and safety, but this is the kind of experience that, even if art enriches, some of us can do without. He concludes, “Not all art comes to you, or even should come to you, easily. Sometimes you have to go to some length to meet it.” Well, yes and no.

Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Gilbert and George: all these artists have turned their lives into works of art. But no story I have ever read is stranger than Kimmelman’s account of an American artist named Ray Johnson, whose carefully staged suicide could, at a stretch, be called a work of art. Johnson was a failed conceptual artist obsessed with numerology and particularly with the number 13. On January 13, 1995, at the age of sixty-seven, at 3:55 in the afternoon, he made a last telephone call to his friend William Wilson. He then checked into room 247 of the Baron’s Cove Inn in Sag Harbor. At 7:15, he jumped off a bridge into the icy water, where he died. Add up every number in those last three sentences, and also the number of letters in each place name and proper name, and you come up with the number 13.

I suppose you’d call Johnson’s death by drowning a performance, or, better, an “action.” Had he somehow survived (which would have invalidated the work anyway) I can perfectly imagine the “installation” documenting its execution—hotel bills, photographs, telephone records—he’d have shown at the Whitney Biennial. Kimmelman is too good an art critic to make any particular claims for the act of a man who must surely have been mad, but he can’t help but admire his style: “…We may learn from these artists something about how to conceive of our own ordinary existence—about how to live, and die, more constructively or at least alertly.”

For critics less generous than Kimmelman, such stunts belong to the pages of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, not in the realms of art. But when it comes to art, Kimmelman is nothing if not eclectic. He can bring a fresh eye to the work of old masters, as in the following passage on Chardin, whose figures, he writes,

are made to look arrested in motion, suspended, like the people in Jan Vermeer’s paintings, only more solid and real. Vermeer’s people are more otherworldly, almost divine—objects of light, there in the pictures for the sake of miraculous atmospherics. Chardin’s people are maids and schoolteachers and wives, absorbed and inward turning, oblivious of us. Their absorption becomes the emotional essence of the work. When a little girl glances in a mirror while her mother adjusts her bonnet, or when a nurse, balancing a long-handled saucepan against her arm, peels a hard-boiled egg, Chardin somehow makes these brief instants seem to stretch toward infinity.

In the process, he conveys both the sensation of glimpsing something unremarkable and the effect of having that glimpse impressed on the mind as a memory.

This passage connects with his belief that what is done in the spirit of art has the potential to be considered art, however ephemeral:

After we have seen a work, what do we take away except a memory of it? And memory is thought, a mental seed planted by the artist, which is reproduced in as many different variations as the number of people in whom the memory exists. What makes art good is partly its power to proliferate as a variable memory, an intangible concept, filtered through individual consciousness.

Kimmelman is an enchanting writer and endlessly curious critic. He brings fresh perceptions to every work of art he discusses in this book. Each time he looks, it is as though he’s never looked at a work of art before.











  1. *

    Letter to H.G. Wells, July 10, 1915.

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