by Kirk Varnedoe. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2006, 304 pp, $45.00.
Kirk Varnedoe’s metaphor for modern art comes from the legendary story of William Webb Ellis, who picked up a soccer ball and ran with it at England’s Rugby School in 1823. Varnedoe, himself a rugby player of considerable ability, points out that what onlookers saw as “a fine disregard for the rules” was actually the seeds of a new sport. Varnedoe sees art in a Hegelian sense, with new forms of art constantly emerging as new artists challenge the rules of those who precede them. The book’s chapters were originally delivered as the Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in 2003 and were Varnedoe’s final works, as he died of cancer shortly thereafter. The lectures were never rewritten for publication; thus, they carry the freshness and energy of his greatly appreciated lecturing style.
The book is marvelously illustrated, with dozens of small but high quality prints illustrating each point, all selected with the good taste and historical sense of a scholar who was Professor of History of Art at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and also a curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. For me, the book was slow and difficult to read, but only because there was so much art that I found myself returning to each paragraph and picture several times in an effort to grasp the points made by Varnedoe. To my delight, I began to see for myself what Varnedoe was attempting to convey.
What emerges first and foremost is an appreciation of the genius of Jackson Pollock. Each chapter begins by recognizing what Pollock did to make his paintings so vibrant and emotive. I turned time and again to the Pollock illustrations, seeing how truly dynamic they were and how richly they conveyed a sense of energy and movement, and I was disappointed when the artists following him could not convey the same sense of vitality. Varnedoe would intercede, however, and patiently explain that modern art is a risk and that abstractions strive to convey more with less.
I began to grasp this point when I read Varnedoe’s comparison of Frank Stella and Victor Vasarely. Varnedoe was in awe of Stella, a Princeton-educated artist and the most scholarly of the abstract painters following Pollock. Using crudely painted lines and rough canvas, Stella captured the vitality that others would miss. Stella’s The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II (1959) was described by the artist as “negative Pollockism,” but it is clearly an extension into geometric design of what Pollock had accomplished with paint drippings. Vasarely, on the other hand, came from a background in commercial illustration, and his slick geometric designs, produced for mass distribution, appear almost identical to Stella’s. However, Vasarely’s repetitive geometric designs do not have Stella’s sense of rhythm, and while they are interesting to look at, in the end it is Stella’s paintings that taught me more with each look. Varnedoe regards Pollock and Stella as examples of how much can be communicated through art, while presenting Vasarely as an example of how the artist can miss this target, even while producing initially pleasing designs.
Ultimately, we come to the “pictures of nothing,” the title of the book. The phrase comes from a critic of the 19th-century English painter J.M.W. Turner, who filled his seascapes with vast sweeps of vapor, instead of the finally detailed renderings of clouds and waves that his viewers expected. Paintings that are unexpected and that initially engender skepticism—as viewers wonder if what they see is simply random, thoughtless design—are for Varnedoe the opening gambit of the modern artist. The viewer should be challenged to bring as much thought to the viewing as the artist did to the painting.
The archetypal piece of modern art that challenges viewers is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a urinal that Duchamp purchased from a plumbing supply company and submitted to a New York City art show. Varnedoe does not dismiss the piece, but rather catalogs all the ways artists have since repeated this challenge. Varnedoe writes that irony is the essence of abstract art because it leaves viewers on edge, not knowing if what they are seeing is art or anti-art. However, Hegelianism triumphs and Varnedoe, aware that he is dying, closes the book with an expression of faith that the artistic process—connecting and disconnecting viewers with nature, culture, and history—will somehow freshen the vision and appreciation of each.
Book review accepted for publication October 2007 (doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2007.07101624).
Reprints are not available; however, Book Forum reviews can be downloaded at http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org.