ART : The Varieties of Visual Experience

Knight is an art critic for The Times.

Holidays mean gift books, and gift books mean books with lots of pictures, and books with lots of pictures mean weighty and often oversize art books--so let's start instead with a slim paperback volume that has 200 pages of pure text and but one picture, in black and white, on the cover, depicting a blank wall and a gallery attendent seated behind a typically imposing gallery reception desk. (I'll never know why they call them "reception" desks, by the way, since most attendents seated behind them ignore, with studied and icy indifference, your very existence on the planet.)

The cover photo to The 7 Days Art Columns: 1988-1990 by critic Peter Schjeldahl (The Figures: $12.50; 208 pp.) says a lot about the book's contents, which consists of all 76 columns, short reviews and articles that appeared in the now defunct, much lamented New York weekly, "7 Days." Schjeldahl is the finest journalistic art critic at work today, and the assembly is late-1980s-Manhattan-intensive, specific to its time and place as all first-rate journalism is. Published by a small independent press, the book is a prelude to a full-dress anthology of the critic's writing since the 1960s, due out from the University of California Press in the spring.

"The 7-Days Art Columns" offers considered musings about the art that chugged into New York's museums and galleries during the last two years, as sorted and chewed over by an unabashed fan. Whether Rembrandt and Velazquez or Cindy Sherman and Mike Kelley, Schjeldahl writes from the bleachers, an eager observer who knows his stats and wants to share with you his best guess as to how the art-game is going. It's not always going well. "The 7-Days Art Columns" kick in at a moment of growing malaise in the market-capital of contemporary art. Still, the condition of culture being always worth an argument, this short collection has the vivid flavor of an eye-witness account. The perfect stocking-stuffer.

Only Gargantua's stocking could accomodate Art Across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting (Abbeville Press: $425; 1,376 pp.), William H. Gerdts' sweeping, three-volume survey of American art that is the first to travel roads leading far from Boston, Philadelphia and New York City, the traditional trinity of centers. With nearly 1,000 illustrations, more than half in (generally good) color, and carefully laid out for ease of use as both a reference book and a set of readable volumes, "Art Across America" is the glamour-production of the season.

Happily, it's also a monumental achievement. Prof. Gerdts, a distinguished scholar at the City University of New York, writes with clarity and precision, qualities that serve him in good stead if only for the sheer logistics of his enormous task. "Art Across America" encompasses paintings by more than 800 artists, who worked between 1710 and 1920 in burgs as far afield as Bucksport, Maine, and Hilo, Hawaii. (When Gerdts says "across America," he means it.) Most are likely to be complete strangers to you, as they were to me.

James Audubon, Gilbert Stuart, Winslow Homer and other household names do indeed show up, but only if they spent considerable time living and working beyond one of the three, magnetic art centers. Gerdts wants to show the degree to which painting flourished quite like the nation did in the decades of birth and expansion--and, conversely, he means to demonstrate just how narrow our established vision of American art has been. The three volumes are divided by region--New England, New York and the Mid-Atlantic (Vol. I); the South and Near Midwest (Vol. II); and the Far Midwest, Rocky Mountain West, Southwest and Pacific (Vol. III)--and each region is subdivided by state. Don't go looking for unknown geniuses (I didn't find any), but be prepared for a surprising number of notable second-stringers.

Traveling far from the beaten path has been a practice of increasing frequency for art historians in recent years. In part, it's a result of a larger philosophical revision in the way we look at art, as socially and culturally revealing rather than as the singular utterance of individual genius. It's also a feature of an expanded discipline, as young scholars search for untrammeled fields. And, yes, the art market plays its part, as tapped-out masters are successively replaced by new areas with lots of available product for sale.

That widened scope, mixed with a frankly market-driven motive, seems to have been behind World Impressionism: The International Movement, 1860--1920 (Norma Broude, ed.; Harry N. Abrams: $75; 424 pp.). What would the holidays be without another paen to Everybody's Favorite Art, yet who could really bear another compendium of Renoir?

"World Impressionism" plays a bit fast-and-loose with its ism , treating as an Impressionist any artist, anywhere, who used broken color as a means to convey atmosphere and light. Still, an impressive array of writers and historians has been gathered--including Brooks Adams, Alessandra Comini, Eleanor Tufts and (again) Prof. Gerdts--to scan the terrain from Australia and Japan to Russia and Poland. Whether you'll regard Italy's Giuseppe De Nittis a master or an adept imitator of Monet, or England's George Clausen an unsung hero or a sleek prettifier of Jean-Francois Millet is entirely up to you. But Norma Broude, professor at the American University in Washington, D.C., means to subsume French Impressionism into what she perceives to be a larger, global movement.

"We cannot fully understand the art of the late 19th Century until we stop privileging the French school," she writes, although it's hard to know how using a specifically French term to describe "World Impressionism" counts as a loss of rank. Nonetheless, this self-described "postmodern" point of view does yield a welcome expansion of our contextual understanding of individual achievement.

Widening vistas also characterize Marco Livingstone's Pop Art: A Continuing History (Abrams: $49.50; 272 pp.). Actually, it may be more accurate to say that Livingstone, author of an admirable monograph on David Hockney, here pulls together in one volume the assorted manifestations of Pop that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Great Britain, the United States, France, Germany and Italy, with a few forays into the "Post-Pop" legacy of more recent years. Not the least useful aspect of his labor is the chapter on a group of artists and students at London's Royal College of Art in 1959, who came the closest to forming a coherent movement by uniting to topple the staid realist aesthetic at the school. Definitely the least useful aspect, alas, is the frequently poor quality of the abundant color reproductions.

Shifting global priorities may also explain a trio of books from Rizzoli International. The emergence of post-Franco Spain into the cultural spotlight of recent years has been the source of much attention. Rizzoli has now issued the sumptuous second volume of a projected six-volume catalogue raisonne of the Barcelona abstract painter, Antoni Tapies (Tapies: The Complete Works, 1961--1968, Anna Agusti, 511 pp., 1027 illus., $250); a grand survey of Madrid realist painter and sculptor Antonio Lopez Garcia, with essays by Francisco Calvo Serraller and Edward J. Sullivan and an interview with the artist by New York Times critic Michael Brenson (350 pp., 200 illus., $150); and a lavish, in-depth study of Colombian artist Fernando Botero's artistic relationship to the Spanish tradition of la corrida (Botero: The Bullfight by Jose Manuel Caballero Bonald, $150; 214 pp.). Tapies is a "major minor artist" whose scarred and brutalized abstractions are highly romantic and paradoxically representational in feeling, while Lopez Garcia and Botero are decidedly acquired tastes (read: someone else's taste, not mine). If you've acquired the taste, these handsomely produced books will likely more than satisfy.

Among the monographs this season are four worth noting either for the scope of their achievement, the depth of their insight or even the simple choice of subject. Grappling with a single artist, each author illuminates more than a single life.

Claus Grimm's Frans Hals: The Complete Work (Abrams: $95; 296 pp.) is an exceptional study of the great portraitist of Holland's Golden Age, an artist whose high star fell and then rose again when his lush and lively painting style was championed some 200 years later by Impressionist painters (remember them?). Grimm knows more about Hals, his clients and the professional milieu within which 17th Century portraitists worked than just about anyone--except, maybe, Seymour Slive, whose own great monograph of the early 1970s this one means to supplant as definitive account. Grimm admirably lays out the artist's story, including voluminous technical analyses of the paintings, and the book is enhanced by excellent reproductions, many of them large-scale details--a shirt collar, a cupped hand, a face and such--which provide a good idea of Hals's juicy handling of paint.

Equally all-encompassing is the admirable Egon Schiele: The Complete Works (Abrams: $195; 687 pp.), by Jane Kallir of New York's Galerie St. Etienne, which has been responsible for keeping the artist's flame alive in this country since the 1940s. The volume includes a comprehensive biographical study, a catalogue raisonne of Schiele's work in all media, several useful appendices, excellent cross-referenced indexes and a fascinating account of the youthful artist's posthumous rise to fame, by Wolfgang C. Fischer. Schiele--the Robert Mapplethorpe of turn-of-the-century Vienna, whose haunted images of the darker side of human sexuality have frequently been suppressed--is an artist of extraordinary graphic power, especially in works on paper. Kallir occasionally succumbs to the overly protective demeanor of an enthusiastic supporter wary of dissenters--and given past censorship of Schiele, perhaps not without good reason--but the book is nonetheless an essential one for any devotee of modern Expressionism.

It's a long way from Schiele to Camille Pissarro, long regarded as the sweet-tempered guiding spirit of Impressionism. Richard Bretell's Pissarro and Pontoise: The Painter in a Landscape (Yale University Press: $45; 227 pp.) is a highly focused reinterpretation of more than 300 of the artist's landscape paintings, executed in the provincial town north of Paris between 1866 and 1883.

Bretell has been a leading light among second-generation revisionists of the history of 19th Century modern art, and his first-hand knowledge of Pissarro's paintings--he organized an important retrospective of the artist in 1984--results in a closely argued text. We tend to assume landscape painters paint whatever happens to be in front in them, but Bretell shows how--and speculates as to why--Pissarro selectively edited the scenes he chose to render. The artist would sketch from nature, then put together analytic pictures in the studio by reassembling the sketches in a variety of ways. The relationship between this practice and the subsequent work of Cezanne--and later, the Cubists--is interesting to ponder.

Relationships among artists and styles often are. Take Milton Avery, who has always been an odd case. Intimate of some of the most adventurous American painters of the 1940s and 1950s, including Mark Rothko, he was profoundly conservative in his own art, seeking to unite traditional School of Paris style with a fully American ambience. Age may have been a factor--born in 1885, Avery was considerably older than most of the Abstract Expressionists, who looked up to him as a kind of artistic father-figure--but, whatever the reason, he was a minor artist who played a major role in the cultural life of his time. There hasn't been a full and substantive monograph to date, which makes Robert Hobbs's Milton Avery (Hudson Hills Press: $75; 263 pp.) a welcome arrival.

Hobbs shows how Avery fused a faith in the power of color and the simplification of form, traits associated with the art of Matisse and Bonnard, toward an interest in similar qualities found in American folk art. Copiously illustrated, and with a complete bibliography, the book provides a fine summation of the artist's life and work. (A word of caution: Beware the wildly overheated introduction by critic Hilton Kramer, who insists with a straight face that not only did Avery paint some of the greatest paintings ever made, but that he stands as America's answer to Matisse. Anyone who could make such an outlandish allusion is not only blind to Avery, he's blind to the great Frenchman, too.)

Artists, if they're fortunate, have their collectors, and two new books neatly bracket the history of collecting in America. Mr. Luman Reed's Picture Gallery: A Pioneer Collector of American Art (Abrams and the New York Historical Society: $45; 228 pp.) starts at the very beginning, with a New York merchant who assembled, in the 1830s, one of the earliest American collections of significant art. Reed could succumb to the saccharine, as attested by his fondness for the paintings of George Whiting Flagg (the 19th Century's answer to today's schlocky "wide-eyed children" by Walter Keene); but, he will long be remembered for having commissioned the great, four-panel "The Course of Empire" from Thomas Cole. As cultural history, and with several contributors, the book goes a long way toward illuminating the early formation of American taste.

At the other end of the spectrum, Affinities and Intuitions: The Gerald S. Elliott Collection of Contemporary Art (Neal Benezra, ed., Thames and Hudson: $60; 312 pp.) turns to the present, with a Chicago lawyer who has assembled a vast holding of work by some of the most important American and European artists working today. Visitors to Elliott's art-stuffed apartment high in the John Hancock Tower know well the degree of his obsession: The blinds are typically drawn on the million-dollar view of the skyline and Lake Michigan, for you are there, after all, to look at the art. The book, published on the occassion of an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, is a thorough compendium of 170 objects from Elliott's often remarkable assembly of Minimal, Post-Minimal and Neo-Expressionist art, and features ten essays on assorted facets of the collection.

Finally, as long as we're considering art it might be useful to consider "not-really art," too. Fake? The Art of Deception (Mark Jones, ed., University of California Press: $49.95; 312 pp.) does just that, in a fascinating account of the ways in which phony Babylonian inscriptions in stone (an ancient forgery) and trumped-up Vermeers on canvas (a modern hoax) have fooled more than one knowledgeable expert. Indeed, part of the appeal of this wide-ranging companion volume to an exhibition recently at the British Museum is in accepting just how frail and fallible is the human condition--something the experts who have been fooled share with the forgers who do the fooling.

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