Reading about Pictures: Michael Kimmelman’s Portraits

October 19, 2009 | 2 books mentioned 1 5 min read

Certain moments of writing duress don’t require the consultation of literary masters and heroes, they call for a different doctor altogether. Some days, after fussing with lamps, chairs and pens, the only activity that ends the wheel spinning and gains me safe passage to work is to look at paintings. As a graduate student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I visited paintings by Vija Celmins or Gerhard Richter on my way to class or the library. But I’m not a student anymore; I can’t go traipsing off to museums each time I feel stuck or uncertain. The next best thing, I’ve found, is to read about pictures.

The writer who consistently causes an idea to well up, an image to take form and become vivid, whose style and enthusiasm for visual art inspires me to leave my house and go see art as well as to stay home and make my own, is Michael Kimmelman. Kimmelman has been the chief art critic for The New York Times since 1990. For the last two years he’s been abroad writing culture pieces, “German Border Threat: Cheap Books” and “At Louvre Many Stop to Snap, but Few Stay to Focus” are just two standouts, and he has a pair of excellent books that promise to get the heart pumping and the brain cogitating on issues of form and content.

coverPainter Louise Belcourt introduced me to Kimmelman’s 1998, Portraits, Talking with Artists at the Met, The Modern, The Louvre and Elsewhere back when I was a casual fan of his Times columns, where these “idiosyncratic biographies” originally appeared in slightly different, more concise forms. The book is sixteen conversations Kimmelman held with artists – Balthus, Kiki Smith, Lucian Freud, and Cindy Sherman among them – as they led him through the museum of their choosing. Francis Bacon made a beeline for the Constables at the Victoria and Albert; Hans Haacke had as much to say about the way the Metropolitan functions socially as the art it houses; at the Pompidou, Henri Cartier-Bresson took out a sketchbook and drew Matisse’s 1917 portrait of the collector Auguste Pellerin.

When I read Portraits, I am simultaneously transported back to my earliest days of looking at art (the 1970’s, when my mother drove us from suburban New Jersey through the Holland Tunnel to Walter de Maria’sEarth Room,” followed by a weird sandwich at Gordon Matta-Clark’s FOOD and the payoff: Spring Street Books) and forward, as I take my two children to see art around L.A. and as I write about characters whose lives are dominated by odd and makeshift art practices.

Cézanne was the first painter I saw when I was a young art student: it was like knocking on a door and hearing an answer,” Elizabeth Murray tells Kimmelman. “You’re changing at that point in your life, there’s all that teenage angst, and I was looking for some reason to be an artist. And then I saw a little still life by Cézanne and it was like a voice saying hello to me. There was something incredibly sensual and human in Cézanne’s work.”

These essays are distinct from an interview or review; Kimmelman provides plenty of room for a wide range of artists to think and speak about art. Each essay locates the artist and his work historically in graceful, lucid prose. Kimmelman’s commentary is astute and he generously quotes the artists about the pieces they visit in an engaged and organized fashion. Only because the essays are so interesting does one mind that particular artists are not included.

Like Elizabeth Murray, I’ve had a transformative experience in front of a Cézanne (“Melting Snow, Fontainebleau” (1879-80), at The Modern in the late 1980s.) When I look at a favorite picture, I sense an assuring greeting akin to the one that Murray describes, the one that tells me that even though my own work can be hard and slow going, I will, by wit or by will, capture my own lyrical waves and exciting leaps. Kimmelman understands the push implicit in Murray’s words – the one that every artist makes in order to get right up close to her vision. He quotes Murray, “…he (Cézanne) hit on something that’s really essential for artists: allowing your unconscious to take you places that you may not even want to go.” These essays are invitations to the reader to do the same thing – allow your mind to rove unrestrained.

When I wrote my first novel, The American Painter Emma Dial, Matisse’s “Interior at Nice” and “Lorette with Cup of Coffee” were touchstones; they gave me energy and determination to forge a fresh path for my protagonist; they existed as proof that Emma Dial’s pursuits were meaningful and maybe thrilling. Mary Heilmann’sSurfing on Acid” was the cover of the November 2007, Artforum; I tore it off and kept it with my manuscript and later with the first pass proofs, pretending it was the cover of the book.

In the early aughts, I heard Kimmelman speak in Chicago. He held a large audience of over-prepared art lovers rapt. “What about all these terms: modernism, minimalism, expressionism, neo-expressionism, post-modernism…” a woman wondered before his talk began. Kimmelman waved the question away. “Don’t worry about what other people, historians, call things,” he told us. Many in the audience had blue hair and were closely associated with The Art Institute, The Renaissance Society and University of Chicago. Kimmelman, the trained art historian, encouraged us to value our own impressions and to enjoy them.

Kimmelman observes of Kiki Smith that “…she’s also the perfect illustration of how an artist, as opposed to an art historian, talks about art because she freely says what comes to her mind without worrying about whether it’s historically germane.”

Now I live in Los Angeles, where the eight-mile drive to the Norton Simon Museum risks jam ups at the Pasadena exits and 210 merges. But in a pinch there are great treasures inside – Bonnard, Cézanne, Matisse. The collection includes Rembrandt prints though I’ve never seen them on view. But even reading about Rembrandt, someone else being moved by Rembrandt, Lucian Freud for instance, can conjure the moody portraits, the rich color, the faces gazing out as though we weren’t separated by centuries.

As Freud tells Kimmelman in the National Gallery: “You feel you are being privileged because Rembrandt is giving you an ennobling insight into the nature of people. I don’t mean he has made the people seem virtuous, but I mean it is ennobling to be told something so truthful.”

I’m writing a novel about a woman who is struggling to build a home for herself under the radar; the story is set in Los Angeles and much of it takes place outdoors. I look at paintings of people and landscapes to find details that I can’t observe in California but that I want to create in fiction. Any detail one might seek – a name, a face, a room, a shadow, an era, a feeling or the mere hint of one – exists in paint and it’s all available, for pleasure and plunder.

Freud continues: “I remember Francis Bacon would say that he felt he was giving art what he thought it previously lacked. With me, it’s what Yeats called the fascination with what’s difficult. I’m only trying to do what I can’t do.”

A number of the artists Kimmelman speaks with have things to say about Rembrandt, and not just about the despair and solitude he conveyed. Susan Rothenberg sought out a late self-portrait, from 1660 at the Met. “The texture of the surface is incredible, the buildup of paint in the wrinkled skin around the chin, and I realize that I’ll never get to this point myself but I hope someday to get to the point that Philip Guston did, knowing just what he wanted to paint, how to paint it, how much paint to use, how big the painting should be. Everybody has an end point where, if they do something all their life, they achieve a knowledge of themselves, like Guston. I don’t respect natural talent as much as perseverance.”

Armed with a murky outline, Kimmelman’s “Portraits,” the volumes of a few masters and heroes, tea and buttered toast, I inch forward at the computer, with various Renaissance and modern painters in mind, their shades of umber, ochre, sienna; associations come, I work with them, persevering through self-doubt and technical difficulty. Slowly the form, tone and texture of a story evolves, and the writing takes me to where I might not want to go and even, at times, becomes the very thing which I thought I could not do.

is the author of the novel The American Painter Emma Dial. Her writing has recently appeared in Modern Painters, LA Weekly and The New York Times.

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