EVER SINCE I READ an interview with Stephen Sondheim where he claimed that The Wiz was his favorite musical (really?!), I’ve been skeptical when artists talk about other people’s work. I also take what an artist writes about his or her own work with a grain of salt. The creators of The Death of Klinghoffer claimed over and over (to assuage cries of anti-Semitism) that both the terrorists and terrorized in their opera were portrayed sympathetically. Rubbish! All you had to do was listen to the score to know whose side the creative team was on: the Palestinians had the most beautiful, soaring music, while the music for the Israelis was dull, dark, and frankly boring. I never listen to what artists write or say about themselves. I listen (and look) at the work.
There have been a few exceptions. Philip Glass’s monumental autobiography, Words Without Music, was riveting; rather than tell the audience about his work, he wrote about the times that influenced his music and the teachers that guided him through his musical career and life. I’ve never much cared for Glass, but every time he mentioned a particular piece of music, I ran to my Spotify to listen. His book made me completely change my mind about him, and I had to admit that sometimes an artist can write effectively about his colleagues.
David Salle’s new book, How to See, is also one of those exceptions. He writes about art that he admires with passion and a discerning eye, and he offers wonderful insights into what he as an artist admires in another person’s art. After all, musicians hear music differently from the public; novelists read novels differently from the typical reader; and of course, artists see art differently from their audience — they understand not only what goes into a painting emotionally, but also the technical aspects of making art, not to mention the perils of selling it. All this is described in Salle’s illuminating series of essays.
Perhaps my favorite thing about this book is the lack of “art-speak.” Anyone who has ever read an exhibition catalog or a review in a tony art magazine knows what I mean. Ninety percent of the time, the prose is gobbledygook. For example (from a recent exhibition catalog): “[This exhibition] aims to turn observation into interaction and reimagine the trade show platform as an opportune playground, instead of the curator’s exhibition ideal.” Huh? In How to See, the writing is completely friendly to the layperson, and, judging from the blurbs on the back cover, admired by art cognoscenti. I mean this with the deepest sincerity and respect: Salle describes art with the same joie de vivre as my favorite art critic/historian, Sister Wendy, the nun who wanders around the great museums of the world explaining art to us amateurs. Sister Wendy has been vilified by her fellow art critics. But artists and audiences cherish her.
My enjoyment of the book started with the cover. The words of the title are out of order: to How See, but next to the words are numbers (2. to 1. How. 3. See) which, if followed sequentially, offer the title with word order corrected: How to See. As this book is (mostly) filled with essays about mid-20th-century artists up until today — and this art often demands that the audience actively participate in the work almost as much as the artists themselves — the cover design is a lovely visual pun, making us participate even in the title.
I wonder if the title is also an oblique reference to that art appreciation stalwart, Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts, which, in addition to Janson’s History of Art, has been the de rigueur text for art history classes. Although helpful to many, the lifeless, clinical prose of these “classics” pales in comparison to Salle’s unbridled enthusiasm; would that How to See were the first text that art history students be assigned.
Here is Salle describing seeing the famous Jeff Koons sculpture made of flowers:
Koons’s Flower Puppy […] is the single greatest work of public sculpture made after Rodin that I’ve seen. I once spent ten days in Bilbao, Spain, where the second of the litter permanently resides, its flowered tongue delicately dangling out of its mouth in front of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim […] I approached the building on foot each day and experienced a kind of fraternal joy on seeing the puppy — first, just a shape in the distance, then gradually the realization: it’s a dog! — that I’m not sure I had ever felt before. I was so grateful for its being there; it was such a gift. I never tired of seeing it; I just was happy that it existed. What more can an artist do?
I read these words, and I, too, realized that when I am stressed I instinctively head across town (easier than booking a trip to Spain) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for solace. And now, thanks to Salle, I can articulate my joy: art is a gift.
One has to participate to enjoy this book. The only photographs of the discussed works were low-resolution (black-and-white reproductions at the beginning of each chapter). I am convinced that Salle relished the performance art he was engendering, as he pictured us readers rushing to Google the work described to see it for ourselves after reading Salle’s vibrant visual descriptions.
Here he is describing 88-year-old Alex Katz:
He can paint a swath of landscape — a white pine silhouetted against a late-afternoon sky, its sweeping horizontal branches made with very wide brushstrokes that arch upward to finish in satisfying, meaty points — repeatedly, and come up with different results every time because of the specific physical energy and tempo brought to bear on each iteration.
I don’t think I’ll ever see an Alex Katz work the same, even though, as Salle writes, “you could recognize a Katz if it fell out of an airplane at 30,000 feet.”
Since I’m an enormous Katz fan, Salle was preaching to the choir. I’m less fond of Christopher Wool’s word paintings. Of course, the gift of a truly great critic is to make the reader see the work differently, to understand something that was previously a mystery. “The experience of a Wool painting starts with reading but is more like being read to: as we look, a voice other than one’s own intrudes. Wool’s paintings directly address the viewer: to look is to be harangued; the paintings come with their own megaphone,” (italics mine). Mission accomplished.
Along with illuminating essays on world-famous artists such as Sigmar Polke, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, and John Baldessari, Salle also introduced me to artists I had only heard about in passing: Robert Gober (“The work [‘Untitled’] represents a singular moment — one of failure, enervation, defeat, exhaustion — and makes of it something exhilarating”) and Dana Schutz (“Her paintings depict weird, funny characters in scenes cut from whole cloth, and her imaginings are inseparable from the way she renders them in paint. She handles the brush as an extension of herself, and the connection between her arm, shoulder, wrist, and fingers is more convincing than that of any other painter her age”). As I didn’t really know Schutz’s work, it was impossible for me to go on without searching out her images. I enjoyed experiencing the work on my own (although I hate seeing art through reproductions), but I now had my personal guide to show me how to see it.
In addition to contemporary artists, we also get an exuberant essay on perhaps my favorite painter, perhaps the best painter who ever lived (art criticism mine!): Piero della Francesca. It was an interesting reversal of sorts, reading this essay, as I well knew the paintings described, so in effect I was looking backward at a work to rediscover it. Salle’s muscular prose always delivers: “Piero is a monarch because of his style — the insouciance, the sweetness of it, the lilting, floating quality of his figures. Honest solidity of form on one hand and weightless arabesques on the other […] Light and air seem to move through it.”
In all my numerous gallery visits, I don’t think I ever wondered what a critic would think of a particular work. I wasn’t interested. But now, exploring the galleries of Manhattan and Brooklyn, I eagerly await Salle’s thoughts on some of my favorite young painters, such as Nick Farhi, Adam Parker Smith, and Christopher Beckman.
Finishing the book (with a huge smile on my face), I had to once again reflect on the title. Did Salle show (or teach?) me how to see? Or was it merely his interpretation of the work that was a value unto itself? The answer is both, of course, but interpretations of art are a dime a dozen; it was his lessons on seeing that transformed this book into a literary work of art. Here is Salle teaching us how to see an Albert Oehlen: “One thing Oehlen added to the conversations is the veil — drippy, drapey washes and skeins of thin, liquid color. The veils obscure the painting underneath, partly nullify it, but in places allow the boldly, absurdly printed fabrics to poke through and reassert themselves.” He teaches us to see the different levels, explains what the washes are made of, and describes the end results. All in two sentences.
One of the last essays in the book is called “A Talk for the First Day of Class.” I’m not sure whether this is an actual speech Salle gave or the speech he hopes every new art student would/should hear on this imagined first day. Never mind. He said it perfectly: “The problem remains: the art is mute, but we want to talk. How to talk about art in a useful way, in a way that is relevant to both the viewer and the art.” That is what How to See is all about.