PRINT March 1994


the Book Picture, Take Two

WHAT DOES THE ART WORLD READ? Once again we’ve asked artists, writers, curators, critics, and a few choice wits to answer the question: What book has most influenced your work or your life?

Contra Fran Lebowitz’s witty counsel in the last installment of this column (December 1993) and Quentin Crisp’s in this, a number of artists and art-worlders do pore over dense tomes in their spare moments. Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, reveals not only that he reads voraciously but that peeking at artists’ bookshelves over the years has given him telling insights into both their reading habits and the relationship between what they read and what they make.

Just what is that relationship? Minimal. Many artists read avidly, Varnedoe maintains, but “a full library doesn’t always get through the filter into the art.” Crisp—author (The Naked Civil Servant), artist’s model, Sting’s inspiration for “An Englishman in New York,” and actor (he was the luxuriantly bejeweled Elizabeth I in Sally Potter’s Orlando)—deals the Horatian maxim Ut pictura poesis another blow: in Crisp’s high-toned estimate, artists are every bit as illiterate as Americans generally. Citing television as the not entirely unexpected culprit, the 80-something free spirit renders our little exercise as good as irrelevant, unceremoniously ushering out the written word as we know it.

Author Douglas Coupland turns the tables. (After all, his status as the unquestionably TV-literate voice of an E-, M-, and QVC-TV generation hasn’t stopped him from writing three novels—Generation X, Shampoo Planet, and most recently Life after God.) This art student turned writer names the Xeroxed truisms that Jenny Holzer plastered on SoHo walls in the early ’80s as his enabling personal Ur-text.

Despite Varnedoe’s cautionary words, not to mention Crisp’s high-toned literary eschatology, the artists we polled emerged as a surprisingly bookish lot. Words and pictures may no longer be bound in the sisterly embrace of yore, but apparently the written word continue to play a part in formating their consciousness. As the following interviews show, their reading lists can even provide telltale vantages on their esthetic concerns and obsessions.

AVITAL RONELL (theorist): Initially, I think music held the greatest sway over me, particularly opera. As a child hysteric, I was convinced that I was Queen of the Night. But the books that truly got me going, in the mode of major ego-ideal prompters, were those of Susan Sontag and Walter Benjamin.

ROBERT ROSENBLUM (art historian): Picasso, Fifty Years of His Art, by Alfred H. Barr, Jr. I read it as a college student, soon after its publication in 1946, and had the “Eureka!” experience. For me, I now realize, it was the springboard for my later work in its perfect marriage of hard historical fact with concise but eye-opening descriptions of what was then the most difficult Modern art. I particularly remember two words Barr used, neither one of which I had seen before. One was “congeries,” an odd singular noun with which Barr characterized the labyrinthine clustering of planes in Analytic Cubism. The other, which seemed to leap off the page because it sounded so appropriately shrill, was “eldritch,” a rare adjective with which he conjured the grotesque progeny of Picasso’s Surrealist monster women. Modest in dimensions, empirical in approach, scrupulous in detail, and self-effacing in tone, Barr’s book miraculously distilled an unruly genius into shining, lapidary clarity, right down to the bibliography, chronology, and footnotes, which told the rock-bottom truth and opened onto even further vistas. This quiet masterpiece triggered a quantum leap in my awareness of how words might capture and fuse the look of art and the data of history.

KIRK VARNEDOE (chief curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, the Museum of Modern Art, New York): My list includes Isaiah Berlin’s Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, a collection of essays about the irresolvable contradictions of not only philosophy but political philosophy in particular. In a certain sense, it’s a plea for liberalism: it’s about understanding the tightly interwoven packaging of good and evil in the world, and the study of unpopular thinkers to see how extreme positions come from reasonable ones. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions made a big impression on me as a study of how creativity and invention actually change the way we think. Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies was also significant to me for its rigorous analysis of the treacheries lying within what often appears to be the seductive humanitarianism of Marxism.

More recently, I was impressed by Objectivity, Relativism and Truth and Essays on Heidegger and Others, two collections of Richard Rorty’s essays. Both books revive a strain of American pragmatism that comes out of John Dewey, and involve a vision of how we negotiate with pluralism and a plurality of viewpoints—how we maintain optimism and cultural cohesion while admitting that there is no such thing as final truth, only a plurality of different truths.

When it comes to the history of art, Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion was very important to me. It was one of the first books I read that tried to deal with art history as something other than a series of biographies. Gombrich dealt with interactions between art and cognition in the broadest sense.

I’m from the South, and All The King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren, powerfully expressed what I felt about the place. It was one of the first pieces of literature I discovered that captured the rhythms and feel of the South that I grew up in. To see that put down in the form of art, to see it encapsulated, was a way of getting some distance from or understanding of a world that for me was rather like the water that a fish swims in.

Finally, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory had a big effect on me as a study of how you devise a language to deal with an unprecedented experience—how, from the tropes and clichés that you inherit, you cobble together a language to deal with something no one’s ever experienced before, like the no-man’s-land between the trenches in World War I.

As far as what artists read, right now I’m doing a Cy Twombly exhibition, and his acquaintance with everything from ancient Greek lyric poetry through Marlowe, Keats, and Mallarmé to Modern poets I hadn’t read, like George Seferis and C. P. Cavafy, is incredibly important to his work. A lot of artists have books that mean something to them, and it’s interesting to see what they are. I always look at people’s libraries of paperbacks.

You begin to see books going in cycles. Certain books pass among artists by word of mouth at a given moment: George A. Kubler’s The Shape of Timewas such an important book to a lot of artists in the ’60s. Or Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, or Psychoanalysis of Fire. Obviously a lot of artists of Peter Halley’s generation were quite taken with Baudrillard, or with Barthes, or, in Halley’s case, with Foucault—nothing I connected with particularly.

It’s always interesting to talk to artists about what they are reading, but I’m not sure that being well read is really relevant. It’s not necessarily true that a full library gets through the filter into the art. Artists lead lives outside their work, like the rest of us. It may be that the artist’s work is in one domain and reading and verbal thinking in quite another. Sometimes artists have extremely peculiar political opinions that have absolutely nothing to do with the way their work comes out; they’ll be reading everything from Gurdjieff to Kahlil Gibran and making Pop art. Some of the guesses you would make about who is literarily inclined and who is not would be wrong, but then again, I think you’d have to assume that Joe Kosuth reads a fair amount, yes?

CADY NOLAND (artist): The first book is Two of a Kind, by Darcy O’Brien. It’s a nonfiction account of the exploits of the two California cousins known as the Hillside Stranglers. I couldn’t get the book out of my mind. There is a stream of bodies these guys do things to, and they get very, very bored murdering people and have to kind of restimulate themselves with new tricks, like reviving the person for a moment or shooting Windex into their veins.

The Shape of Time, by George Kubler, was also important to me. It describes patterns in the genesis and the dissemination of cultural objects over vast expanses of space and time. Another book I admire is a compilation of essays by Susan Sontag, Styles of Radical Will. I was especially impressed by the essay on pornography.

I just read Neurotic Styles, by David Shapiro, which I think is brilliant. Other books I really like are: I Can Get It for You Wholesale and 100 Ways to Disappear and Live Free.

RICHARD FLOOD (writer, chief curator of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis): She, by H. Rider Haggard. At least once every two years I need this book in my life. For a Catholic adolescent it was a great book—everything in it is forbidden. Everything is veiled, either literally or figuratively, whether it’s sex, knowledge, a fortune. Nothing is achieved until you have whipped away the veil, and behind the veil is another veil, another test, before you get what it is that you’re after. Nothing is achieved without great cost. I suppose I appreciate the endurance that it takes Leo, the protagonist, to get to really quite an unsatisfactory ending.

PETER HALLEY (artist): Early on, it would definitely be Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. It was such an important text for me because it was a dramatic rereading of the space of our society—of how that space is organized, socially, politically, and economically. It helped clarify for me my own effort to reinterpret the use of geometry in art as a reflection of social rather than formal space.

At the same time, I kept going back to The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. The central revelation of the book—that once Warhol acquired his tape recorder, whatever emotional life he may have had, disappeared—helped me recognize that the way we usually talk about emotions still conforms to an old 19th century popular vocabulary: joy, tragedy, etc. Warhol and Pat Hackett describe what emotional life is really like nowadays—a certain kind of blankness or affectlessness, lack of concentration, and so forth.

More recently I’ve been preoccupied with books dealing with how all this happened. The Fall of Public Man, by Richard Sennett, is basically about the privatization of social experience. He goes from what he sees as the essentially chaotic, vital social experience of the 18th century to the privatized, catatonic social experience of the late-20th-century suburb and television. He traces how, through the 19th century, people’s behavior in public became increasingly less expressive and more passive. In that sense it fits very nicely with Warhol.

There is also a great study of the social reality of a New Jersey suburb by a sociologist named M. P. Baumgartner. The Moral Order of a Suburb is written as if from the point of view of an anthropologist visiting some faraway tribe. It has great chapter headings, like “Weak Ties and Moral Minimalism.” It’s about the disconnectedness that people in the suburbs feel, and their lack of affect.

Another book that’s been important to me is Norbert Elias’ The History of Manners. Written in the ’30s, it’s a history of social practices and norms between the Middle Ages and the rise of the absolutist court society in the 1600s. It’s almost a history of inhibition. By digging up all these arcane medieval and Renaissance texts, Elias shows how people slowly but consistently auto-inhibited their behavior. He talks about the casual controls on eating, sexuality, and manners in general during the Middle Ages. But by the time you get to the court society, those everyday practices were formalized and regulated. Self-regulation became a necessary attribute of empowerment in society.

In trying to understand my own emotional condition—feeling detached or spaced out—it’s been helpful to see historically how one gets to this point. We live in a pop world, and what this world is like, both sociologically and emotionally, is important to my work.

DENNIS COOPER (author): If I had to pick one book it would be the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. I read it when I was 15, and it had a massive effect on me. My philosophy, esthetics, and the way I understand human interaction on a day-to-day level are all probably derivations from Sade’s thinking. The writing’s beauty bewildered me. It mined a bunch of really secret ideas about sex, politics, and violence that I had shared but that I had never seen reflected back at me in a legitimate form. Most importantly at that point in my life, it gave me every reason I needed to reject heterosexuality.

QUENTIN CRISP (actor): Certainly the most wonderful book I ever read was Mr. Proust’s book Remembrance of Things Past, which was, of course, seven books. It’s the only one I can think of in which every word is fascinating.

I don’t know how books influence anyone. Nowadays I try not to read, because I write. Painters are allowed to read, but they rarely do. Unconsciously, almost, there is a kind of hostility between one art and another. I met a lot of artists in England when I was an artist’s model, but they never discussed books. In New York, I don’t think I’ve ever even had any literary discussion, period. In England these conversations are slightly more common. The English read more. They are less interested in the movies. Less interested in actresses. Americans, in general, really are interested in personality. Here you can go into the fame business. Actresses are an absolute fascination to Americans. If you had a symposium and you invited all the great generals in the world, all the great educators, all the great bishops, all the great politicians, and Elizabeth Taylor, the newspapers would run a picture of Miss Taylor and a description of everything she said and more. It should be said that reading in general is on the way out. In the end, there will be no writing and no reading. Books will be said and books will be heard. They won’t be written and they won’t be read.

Douglas Coupland (novelist): I went to art school, not college, and so I missed the boat Academia—we never read books in art school (well, perhaps the occasional cram with a copy of Janson’s History of Art for slide-show exams, but that’s about it). So, I missed out on Melville, Proust, creative-writing programs, and that kind of thing. I began writing by accident in the late ’80s, mostly about fine art and pop culture, as a way to pay my studio bills.

So if you ask me what single book most influenced me, I would have to say there wasn’t a particular book. Rather, the big influence with me was a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a sheet of Jenny Holzer’s early-’80s truisms (ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE, etc.) that made the rounds of the painting and sculpture studios in Vancouver around 1982.

Now I have subsequently read reports of early-20th-century artists—of how they went to Paris and saw a Picasso painting for the first time—and of how they could never look at the world the same way ever again. I guess that’s what it was like with me after reading Jenny Holzer’s truisms (fourth-generation photocopies covered in studio guck). It was as if my brain had been a large, poorly formatted document in 11 different fonts, with italics and weirdly aligned paragraphs. In one grand swoop “Jenny” made my brain flush left, with one font, and suddenly everything became clear. The truisms also gave me some hope that there was still a future for the written word. So hey Jenny, if you’re out there, thanks.

Jeffrey Slonim is currently a contributing editor at Allure and Interview. His column “All-Around Esthetes” appears bimonthly in Artforum.

#image 4#