PRINT December 1993

All-Around Esthetes

the Book Picture

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but that doesn’t mean that artists take words lightly. What does the art world read? We phoned a number of artists, writers, filmmakers, and critics and asked: What has been the most influential book in your life?

Getting people to answer wasn’t always easy. Some scrupulously guarded their reading habits; others talked, but warily, fearing, no doubt, embarrassments of intellectual riches (or of poverty)—the PR impact of sounding too bookish (or not bookish enough). Still others had plenty to say: a few were ready with picks that crystallized deep-seated intellectual biases and esthetic affinities, others pontificated professorially, revealing refined literary sensibilities. After a slow week of shell-game-like phone tag, Fran Lebowitz, in an inspired mid-afternoon telephone monologue, managed not to mention a single book that had influenced her but had a good many pointed things to say about the art world and the reading habits of artists she has known.

If nothing else, we hope to have assembled an enjoyable reading list—an easy-to-use sampler of books that the following notables, brave enough to bare their bookshelves to public scrutiny, not only read but remembered.

Jeffrey Slonim

Peter Schjeldahl (poet, critic): The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, by W H. Auden, a great poet writing great criticism in a personal voice. I’ve read it off and on for 30-some years. It made me miserable for a long time because I envied it so much. It’s kind of a tuning fork for me. Amateur intelligence of the highest order—absolutely nonacademic but a fearless intelligence.

Nan Goldin (photographer): When I was a teenager: the anonymous Miss High-Heels, Acid Temple Ball by Mary Sativa, Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, Frank O’Hara’s poems, and SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas. As an adult: Rene Ricard’s Poems; Patricia Highsmith’s Edith’s Diary and This Sweet Sickness; Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth; Denis Johnson’s Angels; David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration and Memories That Smell like Gasoline; Paul Auster’s Moon Palace and Leviathan; Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover, The Way We Live Now, and her essay “Debriefing”; and Deborah Eisenberg’s Transactions in a Foreign Currency: Stories.

Chuck Close (artist): Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt. I had been collecting Reinhardt’s essays from various sources over the years before they were actually a book, and then suddenly they were all in one convenient package. What he said about limitations was always a real passion of mine. He made the choice not to do something into a positive one; it’s part of the whole process of self-imposed limitations opening things up. When you choose not to do one thing, it allows you to focus your attention and energy on something else.

Arthur C. Danto (philosopher and critic): Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. I read it when I was living in Italy in the late ’60s. It opened my eyes to things that are invisible. I suddenly realized that I didn’t know much about perception. I remember he talked about Alberti’s facade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, which is a church I walked past a lot. And I thought, For all the good it did me, I could have lived in Kalamazoo. He referred to the way Alberti composed the facade with respect to invisible corners and the fact that the volutes implied these corners, which were necessary for the composition. Up to that point, I was sort of romantic and thought, Well, you’re just supposed to get that tremendous surge of experience in front of great works and that’s that. With Rudy’s book I realized that those surges are OK, but they don’t tell you very much. You have to do a certain amount of digging and reading to find out what you’re looking at.

Ross Bleckner (artist): Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. The elliptical way that Barthes observes things has been very important for me. I just like the way he thought about himself, relationships, and work. He builds up impressions that never lead to conclusions. They let you come to your own ideas about things. This open-endedness has had a direct influence on my work.

Larry Clark (artist): Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, the autobiography of Louis Armstrong. It was all about growing up in the red-light district of New Orleans. It had all these incredible stories—there was stuff about the bitches chasing their men down the street, swinging a straight razor at their butts. It was a wonderful book. I was just 12 years old, and it really showed me there was big, exciting shit going on out there. I’ve read an awful lot of autobiographies since I was a kid, but that was a big book for me.

Roberta Smith (art critic, the New York Times): I read The Second Sex in the early ’70s, when I was first starting out as a writer, and I remember being completely struck—both appalled and weirdly liberated—by Simone de Beauvoir’s contention that women rarely achieved anything significant because they had difficulty forgetting about themselves. In other words, any number of conditions—narcissism, subordination to men, children, whatever—usually short-circuited the requisite concentration. This probably says as much about de Beauvoir as about women in general, but it really shocked me. I didn’t know if it was right, but I wanted to prove it wrong. At the same time I loved thinking about writing as a kind of forgetfulness, a free-fall through language and ideas. I was just out of school and it helped to be reminded that the working process wasn’t just work.

Richard Linklater (movie director: Slacker, Dazed and Confused): James Joyce’s Ulysses stayed with me. It helped me discover what literature was capable of; Joyce changed my ideas about art. Ulysses was rigorous reading but I had breakthroughs along the way. No one ever mentions this about Slacker, but on the bridge one of the characters reads Leopold’s wonderful soliloquy when he discovers Molly’s infidelity. A friend’s discovery that his girlfriend was cheating on him took me back to that passage. I imagined the whole scene around it.

Fran Lebowitz (author, wit, bon vivant): I’m thrilled that Artforum is even interested in books. The art world doesn’t read. The literary world may not even read. Come on—if they read, they wouldn’t like the junk they do. I would be shocked if you told me these people read a lot; really, I’d be flabbergasted. So much art today is vociferously anti-intellectual. After Abstract Expressionism, art in this country degenerated. For a long time, people who could buy paintings didn’t read. And now the people who make them don’t either; they’re a perfect match. (Luckily, I have no art to sell. No paintings to sell. No installations.) But if you don’t read, and I mean really read, you have no context to look at art, no context to look at anything.

Books have been my life. They gave me my view of the world. As a small child, it never occurred to me that people wrote books. I thought books were acts of God, like trees. I was about seven when I discovered people wrote books, and as soon as I found that out, I wanted to be that kind of person. That was just the usual ambition of an artist—to be a god. To this day I associate books with godlike acts.

But I can’t say that there was one book. There are writers that I favor; the list gets refined as I get older. People will tell you that when they were 10 or 13 they read Catcher in the Rye; to them it was totally revelatory. I still think it’s a wonderful book, but I’m 42; I’m not available to that type of intense emotional reaction. When you’re young you see what you read less as books than as opportunities. Books show you life outside the life you’re leading—it’s a first encounter. When you’re a kid, unless you happen to be the child of Picasso, you don’t have access to the world in that way.

No one book ever influenced me, by the way; that’s a much more likely thing to happen to someone who doesn’t read a lot. If you love something very much, or if it’s the main thing in your life, which it is in my life, then it’s hard to pick. It’s like calling Casanova and asking who’s the best lay.

Jeffrey Slonim is currently a contributing editor at Allure and Interview and is a frequent contributor to Italian Vogue.