PRINT December 1979

Brain Food: Some Books of 1979

THE PAST YEAR MAY not have seen an abundant harvest of significant books on modern painting and sculpture, but certain other books do have modern interest. Of course, a book of more direct importance may already have been discussed in a review essay during the year, like Nancy Holt’s edition of The Writings of Robert Smithson, reviewed by Kate Linker in October, or it may require more time for a considered response, as with William A. Camfield’s Francis Picabia: his Art, Life and Times or Meyer Schapiro’s magisterial Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, the second volume of his Selected Papers.

We have seen how in the last decade art prices kept rising for a few stars of the 1960s at the expense of younger abstract artists. The publishing equivalents are rather inconsequential books written by underpaid young writers, soon remaindered thus avoiding royalties, and lavish, middlebrow productions (in an age of neo-pompier painting, and its support squad, the 19th-century pompier revivalists in art history, why not also the pompier book?). Typical late 1970s productions are drab little picture books with dim halftones interspersed with textual filler and hefty monographs attempting to confer blue-chip eminence upon some neo-Realist profiteer or conceptualistic vaudevillian. A little imagination and responsibility might have enabled the over-commercialized houses to protect or even encourage new art and criticism, or at least to extend the dignity of publishing as a trade by having something presentable to display in the front office.

Lest we sink into despair, it is worth remarking that the same situation has been countered in some measure, in the later 1970s, by new kind of smaller press. Especially because their books, while of interest to the art-world reader, do not necessitate full review essays in Artforum, it is fair to single out the handsomely produced and reasonably priced books published by David Godine in Boston. This press has brought us, in the last few years, William Gass’s fine On Being Blue: a Philosophical Inquiry, beloved of numerous artists, as well as a work that teaches us a lot about the anxious, helpless decadence of the closing years of the 1970s: the W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman translation of Brecht’s libretto for The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, whose purgative but also encouraging effects may be compared fairly with Nietzsche and St. Paul. Publishing of this order would be an honor as well as a gift to us all even if the Godine books, paperback versions included, were not as well done as they are. One can only hope that, at a time in the history of American publishing that begins to suggest Fahrenheit 451, such smaller presses—like Godine, mainly for modern literature, Out of London Press, for modern literature but also art criticism (Robert Pincus-Witten’s Postminimalism), and Addison House, for photography—can manage a distribution network that will enable them to reach starving readers.

Of several worthwhile books on art theory from 1979, two that ultimately emanate from the Warburg Institute of the University of London seem particularly important. Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz’s Legend, Myth and Magic in the Image of the Artist: an Historic Experiment (Yale) is a translation (by Alastair Laing) and revision (by Lotte M. Newman) of a classic work that appeared in German in 1934. I emphasize this because this is a fascinatingly learned, intellectually entertaining study of the artist as a figure written by a psychoanalyst who knew more about art than his colleague Freud, and an art historian who was one of the great lights of the Warburg Institute (and its director in between Aby Warburg himself and Ernst Gombrich). This fascinating study, which draws on oriental, as well as Western art history, will certainly appeal to all fans of that well-known more recent work by another great Warburg figure (and my teacher) and his wife, Rudolf and Margot Wittkower’s Born Under Saturn: the Character and Conduct of Artists: a Documented History from Antiquity to the French Revolution (1963). Legend, Myth and Magic is demystifying, for the way the light of history is used to free us from clichés that isolate the artist as a weirdo inhabiting a detached state of creative transport,while supposedly granting him privileged status. Thus it performs something of the liberating function of Aby Warburg’s own essay “The Revival of Late Antique Astrology” (1936), which shows that there is a demonic and fatalistic ancient tradition as well as the humanistic enlightenment tradition that eventually triumphed (astrology as a symptom of fear, and of the distrust of reason).

E. H. Gombrich’s The Sense of Order: a Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art (Cornell) is, from my point of view, too preoccupied with merely ambiguous configurations to be of much general use on behalf of abstraction. Besides, many of Gombrich’s thoughts are sharpened on bad art. Curiously, The Sense of Order does not encompass Pattern Painting, perhaps because, obliviously if not uncritically, it is part of the same syndrome. There is much erudition here, mostly in the form of tangents to the less interesting preoccupations: as with Edgar Wind’s stubbornly (and entertainingly) nasty, Art and Anarchy, it is often more fun to find things that the author has dug up for one’s own thinking than to follow obediently in his path. This is an important book, but it keeps trying to kill off its subject by making it as little a question of art as possible—schoolmasterishly too, as though we had to repeat certain dicta aloud and would not be allowed to go to the bathroom until we did. The Sense of Order, however, could have been written by hardly anyone else, and it amounts to a real tour-de-force, with loads of provocative thought and even some offbeat idiosyncrasies (Gombrich is crazy about kaleidoscopes).

If last December it was a pleasure to consider the fine books on manuscript painting put out by Braziller, this year Thames and Hudson deserves attention for a series of small books on primitive art combining good color as well as black-and-white photographs of important collected pieces with interesting visual evidence of various tribal cultures in the times of their first contacts with Europeans, some of this documentation having artistic significance in its own right. The texts tend toward the popularized-ethnographical, but all the facts are available for the works of art. Sometimes the approach is a little too British, in that literature gains admission for its documentary potential while the authors seem oblivious to general art history. You will not, for instance, run into anything having to do with Gauguin in Terence Barrow’s The Art of Tahiti, or about Barnett Newman in J.C. H. King’s Portrait Masks from the Northwest Coast of America, although in the King book there is a nice sense of the history of the study of Northwest Coast art. Similarly, Victoria Ebin’s The Body Decorated lacks any close, specifically artistic analysis of tattoos and related body modifications, whether in themselves or by comparison with other ornamental arts in the same cultures, not to mention anything on possible connections with tattooing practices of Europeans (where self-identification as an outsider inverts the totemic identification with one’s home culture in tribal circumstances). Yet all three books bring together stimulating evidence for anybody who wants to do his or her own contemporary artistic thinking on these matters.

African Art in Motion: Icon and Act, by Robert Farris Thompson (California) is a different story. This is an abundant assembly of works of art, not only sculpture but also dance, discussed in depth by a highly accomplished art historian for whom the works of art are, in a sense, super-ethnographically important. Thompson is looking for art, but he finds that music and dance attach to its plastic terms. For him the contextual meaning of the works in question is fundamental, but not in order to dissolve the plastic object into anthropology, leaving it with the status of a mere specimen. The book has extensive scholarly notes that even give the names of particular native informants, not just times and places of encounter with them (which would reduce them to specimens too). Whoever has had the pleasure of seeing Thompson himself in action lecturing, knows how capable he is of entering with sympathetic respect into the spirit of tribal art. Historiographically, it is probably no accident that Thompson’s approach developed during the heyday of happenings and then of other performance art, from the late 1960s on, and his stills from videotapes of African dancing, underscore this contemporaneity.

Anyone interested in primitivism as a whole modern attitude will surely want to read a new work of literature by Tobias Schneebaum, his novelistic memoir Wild Man (Viking). It deals with a lost modern man in his search for not only primitive passion—including something the anthropologists do not discuss, love in the jungle—but, even more urgently, for primitive integrity. For example, the Indian chapter about a selfish (and gay) Hindu priest who can take nothing, and nobody, as seriously as the taxi he wants to buy to get rich with, and who confuses honest shame and hypocritical embarrassment, is poised between empathy and distaste. One finds in this autobiographical “wild man” the almost Greek moral heroism of a man being himself fully, of stalking down his own destiny, and yet also a sense of the preciosity of kindness that is necessarily post-Romantic, modern and civilized.

One truly exceptional example of a book on older art with modern pertinence must be Alice Bank’s edition Byzantine Art in the Collections of Soviet Museums, with photographs by Lydia Tarasova (Abrams and Aurora). This splendid book of beautiful but not souped-up pictures of icon paintings, sculptures and works of the minor arts, many in color, including excellent details, must be one of the most beautiful art books that we could simply hope to have, even if we were not curious about what was available in Russia when her modern artists began to take a vital interest in the icon tradition. It amounts, in fact, to a rich and sweeping visual survey of Byzantine art from the 4th century to the time of the European so genannte Renaissance, including important Greek material in Russia since early times. When a different book, published as the catalogue for the exhibition of the same title, Treasures from the Kremlin (Metropolitan Museum and Abrams) takes it more or less from there, things go pretty much downhill: by comparison with the supreme achievements of the Byzantine tradition, the later Kremlin stuff is little more than a collection of chachkes, of which a Fabergé model of the Kremlin itself is only one of the more repulsive examples, absurdly designed and clumsily and heartlessly made.

The Byzantine tradition that we Suprematism lovers like to look at from an abstract angle petered out in Russia. It may in some sense be followed further in Alexandre Papadopoulo’s Islam and Muslim Art (Abrams) first published in France in 1976 (and now translated by Robert Erich Wolf) with over a thousand plates, many in color, devoted to architecture and all those minor arts that constitute the major art of the Islamic countries. In an interesting chapter on the abstract qualities of Islamic ornament, Papadopoulo explains that he sees Mohammedan forms as deriving from Byzantium, even if others disagree. He is obviously the master of a great deal of important information; besides, he has a sense of what is meaningfully at stake. One understands that there have been certain corrections and improvements in the English text; given the rigor of the whole production, this must be an improvement upon something already formidable.

A related book, of interest to the specialized connoisseur is Kilims: Flat-Woven Rugs, by Yanni Petsopoulos (Rizzoli). This will now be an essential source for illustrations of Kilim rugs from the most minute centers of local production. These rugs probably are to the New York art world what Navajo rugs and blankets are on the West Coast. Some of the very same issues obtaining in both cases, including the tendency to veer away from esthetic issues and toward the thriving commerce in everything that can substitute for abstract painting, including photographs and architectural drawings. Not that these beautiful rugs lack abstract appeal, but their abstract modernity is split into finer points of connoisseurship and not reconstituted. Practically no dates are mentioned (the dating of Navajo rugs is much more elaborated, providing it is all as accurate as it seems). Cross-references are tirelessly made between motifs and compositions in rugs from different locales, yet they are not elaborated; we cannot tell whether such connections add up to systematic relationships, or, if they do not, whether this might be a function of nomadism in space, apart from the issue of time. The bibliography (itself considered an “appendix”) has a section dealing with symbolism, but there we find only one part of an important series of articles by Schuyler Camman (I am grateful to Roger Lipsey for having introduced me to these), although it is padded out with several titles that would be no help to anyone interested in what the motifs appearing in these rugs might signify. Otherwise, this is a visually opulent book.

In the past year photomania has abated only a little. We have, after all, reached a plateau of sorts where many fine old master prints are now cheaper than many not very extraordinary 19th-century photographs, and prints by living photographers of note cost more than drawings by younger artists, if not paintings. The big-deal picture book of the year must be Ansel Adams: Yosemite and the Range of Light, with introduction by Paul Brooks (New York Graphic Society). Adams’ insights belong to the Abstract Expressionist generation, not only in the way they look dated now (although the photographs do retain their original bravura), but also in relation to the “big picture” in painting—to which they propose a literally pictorial landscape equivalent that depends, like its 19th-century photographic antecedents, on Hudson River sublimity in painting. Adams, however, has little of the humility before the sublime landscape that marks the best 19th-century photographers of the West with a forthright awe, his transport seeming more rehearsed. In the great photographs of O’Sullivan or Watkins the eye of Europe advances cautiously on a strange terrain for the first definitive time, and not without respect; in the landscapes of Adams we seem to retreat to the ski lodge or to the Land Rover and its guide (probably a literature student from Dartmouth, like the ones that work in the huts in the White Mountains). However, the book itself is well done.

Meanwhile, Schirmer-Mosel, in Munich, have put out a couple of photography books that are interesting in different ways. Emile Zola Photograph, edited by Francois Emile Zola and someone named just “Massin” is an autobiographical snapshot album of nearly 500 Zola pictures, nicely reproduced. Two issues haunt the project: the mere curiosity that we may have about the relation of specific photographs to Zola’s writing (like all those banal, mistaken photographs of Cézanne’s landscape motifs, any one of which will do), and the fact that Zola’s photographs are often so simply pleasant to look at that they remind us that all old photographs are at least cute.

Andreas Haus’ Raoul Hausmann: Kamerafotografien 1927–1957 is a solid monograph on the work of a notable modern photographer. At least Hausmann loved light, which is more than can be said for whole platoons of constructivistic photographers who made, and still do, similar pictures. And, more than most, he seems to have escaped the tiresome pseudo-abstract emphasis on rigidly relational composition. In his best works life illuminated by light is the main theme. (Seeing the recent survey exhibition of Polish photography, and being moved almost exclusively by the photographs of the Warsaw uprising of 1944, taken under the same pressures by photographers of presumably distinct propensities, I came to feel that in photography the human significance of the subject matters far more than anything else, and that most photographs are not by themselves capable of revealing exactly what that significance is: although the Warsaw photos are obviously taken by heroic underdogs, there is really no way of knowing, from them alone, that we are not viewing just an irrational melée.) A most informative feature of Haus’ book is his illustration of Hausmann’s cropping procedures, where we can see what is essentially a close-up esthetic (comparable with Léger’s fascination with the cinematographic close-up) in action.

Since many of the essays in Max Kozloff’s Photography and Fascination (Addison House) appeared first in Artforum, to review them extensively would be to have the magazine reviewing itself. Suffice it to say that Kozloff brings to photographic writing the literacy and articulateness of an accomplished art critic who has also long been aware of the human pictorial content in photographs, not just their look. The motivation is often antimodernist, in the sense of modernist painting, but this can produce insightful results when applied to photography, where anything like absolutely detached pure form is unusual, easier to achieve than in painting, and no doubt less important than content anyway.

One or two volumes on architecture are worth discussing. Heinz Geretsegger, Max Peintner and Walter Pichler’s Otto Wagner, 1841–1918: the Expanding City; the Beginnings of Modern Architecture (Rizzoli) is a translation (by Gerald Onn) of a German monograph published in 1964. I cannot understand how Richard Neutra’s admiring preface, dated 1969, fits into its publishing history, but the book is full of project drawings and photographs of the works of this great Viennese architect of the turn-of-the-century Secession. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we mean by architecture, and if it modulates critically, and dialectically, from academic massing and ornamental distribution into something quite the opposite, something with a wonderfully restrained plasticity and richly abstract, what refreshment that offers us all after all the pandering, artistically cowardly pseudo-post-modernist rhetoric of the past few years. Of course, it helps, if you are an architect with original ideas, to be born into a time and place where there are resources for, especially, public building projects. But Wagner did have a way of doing more than was necessary, more beautifully than was merely necessary, whenever he had a chance to build. Not everything by him is a work of genius: his Josefstädter Straße on the Vienna “el” is less modern, and surely no better, than the poured concrete viaduct over which the Flushing line of the I.R.T. runs in Corona, Queens. Moreover, some of Wagner’s ornament is close to being mere Déco chic before its time, which is easier to see now that even the revival of that style is over: that is not an accident, however, since the Vienna Secession was one of the primary sources for Art Déco (as I myself argued ten years ago in a little book that was bought but never published). Nevertheless, Wagner designed some absolute masterpieces, among them the Postal Savings Bank, one of the great monuments in all of modern art, plus dams, office buildings, hospitals, museums, schools and churches—proudly and confidently modern buildings for all the Viennese to use.

Nowadays, Aldo Rossi may have built some admirable buildings, but his and other recent architects’ “paper architecture” is currently more fashionable than it may deserve to be. Francesco Moschini’s Aldo Rossi: Projects and Drawings 1962–1979 (Rizzoli) gives plenty of visual evidence. Rossi’s style could be described as penal chic, something that has today a certain nasty prominence. Rossi’s approach to a project is so ostentatiously eclectic, even if the resultant forms have to submit to a paramilitary inhibition (comparable to the fashion of crewcuts and bomber jackets that one has seen already far too long), that Moschini doesn’t mind referring his protagonist’s work to de Chirico, Bocklin, Morandi, Nolli, Magritte, Man Ray, Palladio, Ensor, Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Duchamp—not to mention Trakl, Rikle, Hölderlin, Heidigger, Valéry, Nietzsche, Weininger, Kubin, plus an allusion to Richard Strauss—all in two and a half pages. Basically, Rossi comes out of de Chirico, to be sure, but all you really need to add is a stylistic sense of the Boullée-Ledoux-Lequeu generation of around 1800, which already had its principal revived impact on Minimal art in America in the mid-1960s. Otherwise, the blank, “stoned,” simplistic surfaces, volumes and massing of Rossi’s works evoke a withdrawal from sensuous luxury (hiding wealth in the age of Italian kidnapping?) that resembles the vacancy of certain architectural settings in Italian film of the 1960s (that, in turn, is but the alienated bourgeois version of scenes of monotonous workers’ housing under construction in the Italian “new realist” cinema of the immediate post-war period, which itself was anticipated in painting by Balla). Maybe it is time again to turn to Ruskin and William Morris, where, with intertwining problems of ornament and socialism, modernism in architecture and design began.

Joseph Masheck