Is there anything accidental about masterpieces? Thinking so can lead to the old myth of natural genius–“Picasso couldn’t paint a bad picture”–as well as to the easiest condemnation of modern art–“my 4-year-old could paint that Pollock.” Certainly artists draw on native gifts, but what they really need is looking and thinking, training and working, and no doubt Michael Kimmelman would agree.
His elegant book of essays takes on a slightly different topic: the masterpiece that stems from the accident. For Kimmelman, chief art critic for the New York Times, these epiphanies come in a few kinds. Accidents can lead indirectly to masterpieces, as with the chance meeting of French Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard with Marthe de Méligny, the waifish girl who became his muse for some 400 paintings. Accidents also determine masterpieces directly, as when the unexpected trapping of the ship Endurance, during the Antarctic expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton, inspired photographer Frank Hurley’s best work. And accidents can be revalued as masterpieces over time, as with some amateur snapshots and strange collections discussed here. Kimmelman stresses not only how workaday events can “catalyze” great art but “how creating, collecting, and even just appreciating art can make living a daily masterpiece.” Hence his subtitle: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa.
The ten essays of the book fall into contrapuntal pairs. We visit two painters, Bonnard and the contemporary American realist Philip Pearlstein, in whose intimate scenes of domestic existence being and working are bound closely together. Kimmelman also considers two less fortunate figures for whom “life was an art”: Ray Johnson, the American collagist who, before his late suicide, turned everyday scraps into witty works, often in the form of postcards to well-known acquaintances, that both frustrate communication and seek it out; and Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish woman who, before her death in a Nazi camp, transformed her rather humdrum life into a diaristic drama of some 1,300 pages of images and texts titled Life? or Theater? A Play With Music. We hear, too, about two characters another age would call primitives: Hugh Francis Hicks, a Baltimore dentist who amassed 75,000 light bulbs and related objects in his Museum of Incandescent Lighting, which allows Kimmelman to reflect on the art of collecting; and Bob Ross, longtime host of the public TV series The Joy of Painting, who permits Kimmelman to consider the art of the amateur. Two texts on adventuring are also included, the first featuring Hurley on the Endurance expedition near the South Pole, the second starring the author as a reluctant hiker in the South of France. The book concludes with meditations on the ordinary and the extraordinary in art: one on various painters, from the French master Chardin to the American contemporary Wayne Thiebaud, who focus on “simple pleasures,” the other on the most grandiose of earthworks, the Roden Crater project of James Turrell in Arizona and the City project of Michael Heizer in Nevada.
This dialectic of the mundane and the exceptional is central to Kimmelman’s argument, and wonder is its key. “Just as art promises wonderment, an access to a realm beyond the everyday, through the experience of which we may understand the everyday better,” he writes in his essay on the light-happy Hicks, “a collection of things, even everyday things, promises wonderment, too, as these things become no longer everyday.” This interest leads Kimmelman to touch on the Wunderkammer, the cabinet of curiosities favored in European courts before the epoch of the national museum. Essentially this order of things precedes the modern idea of art as a separate, even transcendental category, and in part Kimmelman writes out of a moment that postdates this idea, when art is often folded back into a vast field of “visual culture,” a democratic cabinet of curiosities (light bulbs included). He styles his own book as a Wunderkammer too.