What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing About Art

Nathan Englander’s extraordinary short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” published in a collection of the same name (Alfred A Knopf, 2012), is a story like Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” in its being essential, shaping and sustained in memory, once read. The title, “What We Talk About…” and the story’s essence is that we speak, write and act often by indirection, coming at the subject obliquely in the only way we can when it has special meaning or resonance for us.

It’s the way Dave Hickey sometimes writes about art, when I like his writing best. He’s just published a book, 25 Women, Essays on Their Art (University of Chicago Press, 2016), a compilation of work he’d written over a period of time at the request of the women, he tells us, who are the subjects of the essays. In the introduction, titled “A Ladies’ Man,” provoking the kind of ambivalent response he always wants, he says about the book, “There is some interesting grammar and more digression than I usually tolerate because a lot of art is best talked about by talking about something else, lest writing shatter the art like a fragile leaf in clumsy hands.”

Viewing a recent film on John Berger, The Seasons in Quincy (2016), sent me back again to his book from 1984, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, where I recognized how I wanted to write about art. It was here too that my engagement with Caravaggio began, because I saw in Berger’s citing him as the artist he most admired, the guide or plan for how it is possible to see and write. Berger identified other excellent painters whose subjects were similar to Caravaggio’s but it wasn’t any of them who sprang first to his mind because, he said, theirs were genre paintings, instructive and therefore apart from their subjects, but Caravaggio was painting his own milieu. For Caravaggio, he wrote, “it was not a question of presenting scenes but of seeing itself. He does not depict the underworld for others: his vision is one he shares with it.”

What I responded to in Berger—because the manner of his writing and its meaning or subject were a coherent piece—was his disavowal, his disengagement with power, and here I include using language as an instrument of power. Answering a question posed by his wife “one night in bed,” asking who was his favourite painter, and finding himself surprised in this unguarded setting saying immediately Caravaggio, he went on to explain his response to her, and to himself. It was after the war in the late 1940s in Livorno, seeing around him on the street the poor and dispossessed and feeling a kinship, then, with the painter whose subjects and comrades these people would have been. He wrote, “It was there too that I discovered that I wanted as little as possible to do in this world with those who wield power,” and while this is a simple statement, for me, at that time, nothing could have been more profound or welcome and I recognized it as that.

Writing should be transparent, that is, not opaque, not inserting itself between the subject and the reader. It could be an analogue or addendum, opening out possibilities, and in admiring Berger and Hickey too (and speaking about Hickey here because of his recent book), it is their presence in the language I note. With Hickey there is sometimes too much presence, but he is there to be engaged and this takes some courage—the “I” does—and when he is good he is very, very good.

Look at Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew, with the figures at a gambling table, inside in scant light and Berger is there in the space, in the telling. “For Caravaggio…light and shade, as he imagined and saw them had a deeply personal meaning, inextricably entwined with his desires and his instinct for survival.…His chiaroscuro allowed him to banish daylight,” Berger wrote. “Shadows, he felt, offered shelter as can four walls and a roof.” And here, Berger is showing the life of the artist as part of the historical period in which he lived, placing him as a link, he said, between the high art of the Counter-Reformation and the domestic art of the Dutch bourgeoisie, in his developing the pictorial depth and light his paintings show us.

The distinguished art historian, Linda Nochlin, has recently published a book, Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader (Thames & Hudson, 2015), and at almost 500 pages it represents only some of her prodigious art writing. There are 30 essays beginning in 1971 and continuing to the present, including her now canonical essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” So, two recent books on women artists by two very different writers.

Interested in assessing gains made over time she wrote, “‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Thirty Years After” and it too is included in the volume. As she points out in the first essay, like other questions relating to the feminist topic the answer is implicit in the question itself. The unfortunate tautology brings us back again to the question suggesting, without room for refutation, that if women were capable of greatness there would be great women artists. In her wonderfully clear manner Nochlin points out that the problem doesn’t lie in the lesser “feminine” subject matter, nor the style of the work produced; it resides in a misunderstanding of what art is. Its production, she says, develops from a vocabulary of form which has to be free from the strictures of institutional and societal conventions, and which is learned through instruction and practice over a long period of time. In her essay, she enumerates the historical conditions and requirements necessary to produce a great artist, independent of gender. None of these was available historically to women who wanted to be artists, and while educational opportunities are more evenly available now and have been increasingly since the ’70s, the other essential components—all of which must be present—are not.

I read art writers and come to trust and admire their directions and observations. A certain lyricism interests me, and a sense that the writer, recognizing an obligation to the reader, develops a style to which you can respond. I look for capaciousness in their looking and understanding, I want generosity too, and all of it has to be supported by rigour. I’ve been reading Dave Hickey since Air Guitar: Essays on Beauty and loved him for it. I knew him, I got it. What I like less is his wayward bravado and while I look for an indication that the writer is present in the work, I’m less interested in his art writing when he is its subject. But expecting orderliness is to look for a different writer entirely.

I laboured along, reading his essay on Ann Hamilton, which is one of the longer pieces in his book, annoyed as I went, but came midway through, to have high regard for his professionalism, knowledge, stamina and just very fine writing. All this praise is doubly-earned because I sensed from the outset this was work he didn’t really like, and he was visiting in a place he didn’t want to be. He digressed, he was tangential, he hovered and wrote around the subject he was there to address, and buzzed off and away from it at an acute angle, a disgruntled bee with a bad taste in its mouth. But he stayed with it and Ann Hamilton’s work warrants the time and attention. “Criticism tends to work like this for me,” he wrote. “It arises, when it does, out of the cacophony of such tangential similitudes and differences—and the more I thought about Hamilton’s work, the more theatrical our differences seemed to be. The clearer it became that, while I might be far from the ideal beholder of Hamilton’s work, I was very nearly the ideal student for the visceral lessons it had to teach about the language and the blood….” So he looks closely and brings to his writing his own long knowledge of art. I can’t quote it all but I recommend it, as at the conclusion he recommends her to us: “Ann Hamilton’s bodily knowledge of the plunder and production [he’s referring to her placing herself in both the more urban setting of a town and the farm environment of agriculture and animals] might be taken as her gift to us; and her project as an artist, in its broadest terms, might be construed as an absorptive and nondiscursive effort at ‘thinking the culture through’….”

Linda Nochlin’s essay on Jenny Saville, from 2000, was evidence of the passionate interest and close scrutiny necessary to sustain a long career as an art historian, teacher and writer. She names the work post-“post-painterly,” acknowledging, and at the same time, leaving Clement Greenberg behind. She says it is a “painterliness pushed so far over the top that it signifies a kind of disease of the pictorial, a symptom of some deep disturbance in the relation of pigment to canvas. Although the surface and the grid both play an important role in Saville’s formal language, both are melted down and sharpened up by the virtuoso yet oddly repulsive brushwork that marks her style.” But watch for the seduction of painting to work its ways on the writer who is a consummate looker. It’s painting’s alchemy at work—the “why” that confounded art historian James Elkins all the way through his examination of the subject, in What Painting Is, and accomplished scholar though he is, still left him confounded at the end without a summation in sight. Linda Nochlin writes further about Saville: “Seeing Matrix in ‘Territories,’ I found it hard not to take the work as a painting about the very possibility of painting at the end of the century. The exaggerated foreshortening, the slablike rosy impasto on the thigh that almost seems to leap off the canvas, but above all, the securing of the surface by means of the gray horizontal plane beneath the body and the elegant tattoo on the vertical arm that intersects with it—these are the strategies to recall both the traditions of modernism and the anxieties of postmodern representation.” Whitmanesque in her willingness to contradict herself in the space of two pages, Nochlin has gone from describing Saville’s brushwork as almost repulsive to calling our attention to the rosy impastoed application of paint on the thigh.

Nochlin and Hickey (what would they think of this pairing?) each write about painter Joan Mitchell with unqualified admiration and here, speaking about Mitchell and the early criticism of her work as being “second-generation” Abstract Expressionist, is an example of a writer’s generous apprehension and response. Critics falling into the Modernist, male, heroic, make-it-new order suggested that Mitchell’s work lacked originality, which Nochlin counters with an interrogative suggestion: “Why should it not be possible to consider this belatedness as a culmination, the culmination of the project of painterly abstraction that had come before?”

Both speak of Mitchell’s ready anger, which must have had the fearsome force of a tropical storm. Nochlin argued that it was earned and in fact turned to good purpose, a goad to the intensity and passion evident in her work. But while many of the paintings are dark and glowering, just as many are incandescent, fresh-washed colour. The legendary anger that had people sidestep her company was never a blinding, unproductive rage. It couldn’t be, Nochlin pointed out, the paintings needing what she calls formal rectitude and discipline to be of real merit. The work was built on binaries, maybe Hans Hofmann’s push/pull: dense versus transparent, chaotic versus gridded structure, and so on, all of it perhaps fuelled by rage, evidencing through her intention the meaning and emotional intensity that makes the work so compelling. In Hickey’s opinion nothing had gotten better—in the decade preceding the writing of his essay—than mobile phones and Joan Mitchell’s painting. Not that the paintings were improving; they were done. They just hold, and we see them better. When you conjure Mitchell’s paintings you see that Hickey calls them up with perfect economy when he writes, “She could make any mark but she never fell in love with one, just with the speed of it.”

In her essay on Joan Mitchell Linda Nochlin asks a question whose cadence recalls the question with which I opened this essay, and which is the title of Nathan Englander’s short story. She asks, “Issues of intentionality aside, what do we mean when we say that violence, rage or anger—indeed, any human emotion—are inscribed in a work of art?” Here, Nochlin is referring to the role biography plays in making and reading a work. She recognizes that it is significant. How not?—everything we do comes from somewhere. But it’s not unmitigated and is, as she points out, always mediated. Hickey’s shorthand for seeing the being who is behind or inside the work—referring here to Joan Mitchell—says about her paintings, “Primarily they forsake expressionism for industrial strength anxiety.” Biography is there. What I want in the writing I read, and in what I attempt to do in mine is some kind of commensurability, some effort or chance to engage in a parallel event. I’m drawn to a work’s formal qualities, to structure and to its compositional order, but I’m also looking to see the maker behind the scrim—lucid or opaque. An invitation of some sort should be tendered. ❚

…to continue reading the issue, order a copy of Issue 139: Painting here, or SUBSCRIBE and receive a limited edition Border Crossings tote, screen-printed in the fall of 2016.