#tobyreads: Art & Books & Art Books

Alberto Giacometti

I wanted to learn about art. I swear. So, during the first semester of my third year of college, I registered for an art history course. There had been no prerequisites listed in the catalog, and registering for it had gone smoothly. Needless to say, I was asked to leave five minutes into it.

This wasn’t due to some massive violation of the status quo on my part, mind you. As it turns out, the course had in fact had a prerequisite, and the professor teaching it somewhat snippily announced to all in attendance that those who had not had it would be “wasting his time” and directed them to leave. Cue about two-thirds of the room standing and walking out, and that’s the story of how I ended up minoring in politics.


I’ve been reading a lot about art in recent years. Some of that’s been a result of books that friends have recommended; it’s also been due to my impulse to self-educate. (Living in New York — hell, living in a city — probably doesn’t hurt.) These might be biographies of artists, collections of a particular writer’s criticism, or shorter pieces in a journal or magazine. (Three of the best books I read last year fall into the category of “arts writing,” albeit in very different ways.) The three books covered here cover, arguably, an even wider ground, from the fictional to the theoretical.

I’d meant to read more of Kate Christensen’s w0rk ever since I finished her terrific The Epicure’s Lament. (The fact that she’s written a novel set about a block and a half from where I live doesn’t help matters.) I finally delved into her novel The Great Man a week or so ago  and walked away very satisfied; in the broadest sense, it focuses on the interpretation of the life of a now-deceased painter named Oscar Feldman. Feldman’s wife, mistress, and sister (herself an artist of impressive talent) each have their own viewpoints on his legacy, and share them with a pair of affable biographers, just interesting enough to keep from being ciphers while not distracting from the intense chamber drama unfolding around them. For my part, I found the historical context Christensen created around Feldman very convincing: an artist of some repute, but perhaps not deserving of  international acclaim. It’s a drama that plays itself out on a modest scale, allowing grand themes to play out as debates rage and secrets are revealed.

While interviewing Paul Elie about his 2012 Reinventing Bach, he spoke highly of James Lord’s writing about the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti. One of the last books I read in 2012 was Lord’s Giacometti: A Biography, which thoroughly examines Giacometti’s life and aesthetics. It’s a very comprehensive work; at times, Lord’s prose is a bit on the dry side, but that’s an understandable decision, especially in light of the fact that the two men traveled in similar circles. Though the prose isn’t necessarily gripping, one does walk away from reading it with a complete sense of Giacometti as both masterful artist and thoroughly flawed human.

From two straightforward works — one fictional, one nonfictional — I proceeded into a more theoretical realm. Rosalind E. Krauss’s Under Blue Cup is a blend of history, theory, and personal narrative: its structure comes from the exercises its author conducted after an aneurysm, and its structure — a sort of recapturing of the basics — mirrors it. There are allusions to chess, discussions of the careers and work of numerous artists (particularly Ed Ruscha), and numerous self-reflexive moments wherein the nature of Under Blue Cup itself is discussed. There were bits that I felt unqualified to fully process, but they sat alongside numerous others that filled in gaps in my knowledge and propelled me towards whatever might come next.

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