Jim Lewis

  • William H. Gass’ Finding a Form

    Finding a Form: Essays, by William H. Gass. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. 368 pp. $26.

    I HAPPENED TO BE passing through St. Louis one summer weekend in 1989, and, having a day to kill, I took a chance and telephoned William Gass in his offices at the philosophy department at Washington University. Ordinarily I would have hesitated before trying to contact a writer whom I admired; but Gass, as a philosopher, essayist, and novelist, was more important to me than most, and as luck would have it, he was in and invited me over. I remember that the campus was lovely; I remember that Gass was


    ONCE EVERY YEAR OR TWO—and lately less frequently than that—I receive a sort of visitation of art, a visual experience altogether unlike any other. It is, quite literally, what I live my critical life for: an object or an image never before seen, at once entirely strange and perfectly familiar and right. So it was that during a trip to Los Angeles a few months ago someone happened to show me some photographs by a man named Richard Billingham, and I felt the aesthetic equivalent of love at first sight.

    The artist is twenty-five or so—just a kid with a camera, and that’s pretty much all I know

  • Jim Lewis


    It was a year so devoid of real aesthetic pleasure that I thought about withdrawing from the art world, once and for all. Instead I found that for sheer endorphin inspiration, history meant more to me than anything “current,” hence museums (Cézanne in Paris, Mondrian at MoMA, the always redemptive Frick Collection) meant more than galleries. And then, on the border of past and present, there were ANDY WARHOL’s Rorschach paintings at Gagosian Gallery, which I hereby nominate as the best show of a bad year. Of course, the series was, in Warhol’s perfect-pitch way, a joke of sorts,

  • Gerhard Richter’s Betty

    I TAKE IT that my task here is to select a single work that has provided me particularly deep pleasure in recent years, and propose it as an emblem of contemporary art. It’s an assignment at which anyone with the usual broad range of enthusiasms would balk, as one might balk at a similar exercise with regard to, say, cities, or close friends. But beyond simple indecisiveness, I find it inherently paradoxical.

    The difficulty begins with this: that the very idea of a definitive gesture, or even a typical one, is contrary to the ambitions of the art of our time. The best we have is made with a kind


    The first thing you should understand about Lubbock is that there isn’t much there; it’s in the middle of the Texas Panhandle, the flatlands, the dust bowl. So nothing becomes the town so much as leaving it, though if the truth be told, there isn’t much anywhere near Lubbock, either. By necessity, then, its native sons and daughters develop a sort of ethic of driving, of lighting out, north on 27 to Amarillo, or east to Dallas. When there’s not much else to do, when you’re bored, or lonely, or stuck, or being chased, you go.

    It helps, again, to have heard the accent of the people who grow up


    THEY ARE, IN A WAY, fetishes; anyway they have the magic presence of fetishes, these burly turkeys tricked out in skins from other animals and then dressed in native costumes of one sort or another. Like voodoo dolls or icons they are formidable as objects. In short, despite—or perhaps because of—their obvious ludicrousness, they have a strange, even impressive beauty.

    But the beauty is borrowed, and bent against itself. If an antipainting is a painting that tries to call into question the very possibility of paintings, these are antitotems. They’re there to deny precisely what totems are supposed