PRINT June 1962


Fred W. McDarrah's “The Artist’s World in Pictures”

Fred W. McDarrah, The Artist’s World in Pictures (New York: Dutton), 1961, 192 pp.

SO MUCH HAS THE MILIEU in which contemporary art is created become a part of our understanding of that art, that it is no surprise at all to discover that in a book comprising over three hundred photographs whose exclusive subject matter is “The Artist’s World,” less than a dozen of these photographs actually reproduce works of art. The rest of the book is given over entirely to an attempt to convey something of the mood and flavor of the hectic, feverish world of cold-water lofts, gallery openings, critics, tastemakers and artistic personalities which make up the “scene” of the New York art world.

More and more, it seems, the end result, the work of art, demands that the viewer bring to its contemplation some feeling for the milieu out of which it arose, and more and more the art world seems driven by the compulsion to feed bits of this milieu to the public whenever it can. Of a dozen exhibition announcements one might receive in a day, for example, ten will feature a photograph of the artist, usually in his “painting suit,” or of a corner of his studio, or of one of his old, battered brushes. In the galleries, paintings are sold by anecdote, and in the studios, milieu-worship adds infinite mystery to a random collection of old coffee-cans and jam-jars. At its worst, McDarrah’s book carries this tendency toward making relics of the trivia of the art business to its absurd extreme; at its best it sometimes provides lucid insights into a world which, compromised as it may be, remains the keeper and caretaker of some of the most important values human beings have thus far evolved. When all the nonsense of photographing Norman Bluhm falling off his ladder, or the racks in which Philip Pearlstein keeps his unfinished paintings, or Robert Rauschenberg’s hot plate is over, there will remain in the reader’s eye that incredible photograph of Mark di Suvero at the opening of his exhibition, crippled in his wheelchair, radiating a strange and wild intensity that is simply not generated in any other of the American “worlds.”

But between its worst and its best, what we really have in this book is a movie magazine for intellectuals, complete with big stars and little stars, money-minded producers, flood-light previews and candid shots of the stars at work and at play. (What a mistake to have Thomas B. Hess write the introduction, rather than Louella Parsons! “Hello, hello, hello, this is Louella Parsons, talking to you from 57th Street! What famous dealer whose initials are SJ is secretly trying to lure a top star whose initials are WB from a famous dealer whose initials are SK?”) And it is for this reason, the obliteration of a certain line of privacy, the blurring of an essential distinction between the meaning of the world of art and the world of entertainment, that the reader cannot help but sense a certain degradation of the fundamental seriousness of the milieu which McDarran’s book tries to capture. Going to the movies to see Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra is no more or no less absurd than reading an article on “Liz and Eddie at Home” in some movie magazine. But after one has stood before a painting by Franz Kline in a museum or a gallery, if a photograph of Kline himself is relevant at all, it should be somewhat more relevant than one showing him swinging a baseball bat and captioned “Home-run champ Franz Kline belts one.”

Philip Leider