Recently I began reading an old book that traces the history of art criticism as a discipline, which the author starts much earlier than I would have ever imagined -– in Greek times (‘Chap. 2: Art criticism in Greece in the third century before Christ and its conditions,’ etc.). I had come across this book as I have the labor of love of sorting through (with the help of a very able assistant) the library of Joseph Randall Shapiro, which he donated to the Museum of Contemporary Art upon his death in 1996 at age 90+
(being of a heritage and era where exact birthdates were often obscure). I loved Joe Shapiro, his passion for life and art, and the obvious sustenance he drew from art. I even loved his undisguised delight in and appreciation of “the fairer sex” (which disturbed many) and felt it was a privileged view on a courtly time that was fast disappearing rather than some sort of rude affront to my gender. Joe did not disguise that he loved to lunch with “his harem,” mostly curators and other museum people — female of course — at those dreary sorts of middlebrow restaurants that sprang up in the 1950s and 1960s, i.e. The Homestead in Oak Park. Very few of these places exist today and thus can exist in some sort of rosy glow of nostalgia. In reality they were pretty awful. When invited, however, I always attended, and when I had business with Joe, as I often did, I would bring along other female MCA staffers who had not heard his repertoire of humorous stories which would slowly wind into the realm of bawdy jokes if his listener(s) seemed comfortable. Of course it wasn’t so much that he enjoyed the food at these restaurants. It was the company and conversation that he craved, and it was as much sustenance to him as the daily special. He was an esthete who could converse on the highest levels about art, yet what really tickled him was to author an advice column for the MCA staff newsletter titled “Joe Sez” (which was compiled, incidentally, into a bound volume and presented to Joe, who is often called the “father” of the Museum of Contemporary Art in appreciation for all he did).
To handle his books is to be overwhelmed by memories of his Oak Park home, stuffed with Balthus (five or six of them), Cornell, Matta (including his masterpiece The Earth Is a Man),
Klee (his tiny work Tod im Garten
), Dali, Delvaux, Ernst, (including the stunning Spanish Physician
), Kupka (the spectacular [for Kupka] Reminiscence of a Cathedral
of 1913 which surely every Disney animator who worked on “Fantasia” must have been familiar with), Magritte, Gorky (including his absolutely heartbreaking Scent of Apricots on the Field
), and Francis Bacon, most of which he donated to either the Art Institute of Chicago or the MCA. In fact, he donated much of art collection during his lifetime, for he loved his artworks like children (an increasingly old-fashioned notion as well). He understood that the ultimate expression of that love was to send them off into the world. He even gave his paintings and sculptures nicknames. For years the signature Magritte masterpiece of “men-fish” in the MCA’s collection was called “Song of Love” rather its proper name, The Wonders of Nature (Les merveilles de la nature)
, because Joe looked at the stony, cold figures as they crowded against one another and saw only love.
The books are not fancy, fine editions. They are all fairly ordinary: the cloth covers and brittle, acidy paper of the commercial press. Many are paperbacks. Somewhat to my surprise, they are not adorned with bookplates, tho’ many are signed as gifts from dear friends, including artists. A Modern Book of Esthetics
, Rader, copyright 1935, is adorned, rather, with pencil marks and notes in Joe’s hand, especially the essays by Jung (‘Psychology and Literature’) and Hume (‘Of the Standard of Taste’). Another example is The Meaning of Modern Sculpture
by R.H. Wilenski (?), published in 1932, with the subtitle ‘An essay on some original sculpture of the present day together with some account of the methods of professional disseminators of the notion that certain sculptors in ancient Greece were the first and the last to achieve perfection in sculpture’ that makes me realize Chris Ware is probably reading the same sorts of books as Joe did. There was James Thrall Soby’s Modern Art and the New Past
, (1956), an anthology of the critics writing first published in the Saturday Review
, another dusty relic of times gone by. And a Modern Library edition with the price tag of $2.50 penciled inside the cover (a used book perhaps?) of Philosophies of Art and Beauty
, featuring ‘Selected Readings in aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger.’ (Ah, to have aesthetics stop with Heidegger, what an opium dream….) And then Lionello Venturi’s (?) History of Art Criticism,
E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., New York, 1936, with the tattered dust jacket folded up and stuck between the final pages and the back cover.
I don’t know what I was looking for when I picked up this book and decided that rather than relegate it to the “book sale” pile, I would bring it home and read it. But upon flipping through it, toward the end of the book, I came across these passages:
"The opinion that in the nineteenth century there was not an art so great as in the preceding centuries is a stupid one…at least eight painters of the nineteenth century were of supreme greatness: Goya, Corot, Daumier, Manet, Renior, Cézanne, Seurat, Van Gogh. These are enough to give us assurance that art is not dead; that our aspirations, our ideals of yesterday have found their perfect pictorial expression. And they direct us to what is produced of authentic art at the present time.
It is evident that so long as we refer to information of sources…without re-living them, without transforming them in our thought, without having reduced them to present life, there is no history but only chronicle." (p. 312)
The thought that there is no history, only chronicle, without deep knowledge of and authentic reconsideration of the past (and let’s definitely not make the mistake of using the word “history” here as a synonym for the past) fell on particularly receptive soil. It is something I think about a lot, but recently I have been thinking about this very thing in regards to Chris Ware, as I am doing a show of his work at MCA that opens in May. Mr. Ware does not claim to be an artist, but that does not disqualify him from making art, as Joe Shapiro himself might have intoned in his unique voice, breathy, and rather high for a man of his size, for he was tall, especially for his generation. I have been trying to grapple with the fact that Chris Ware’s work affects me so deeply, given that I am hardly in what might be thought of his ‘demographic’ (being old enough, as Joe Shapiro might have quipped, to be his older sister who was well out of the house by the time he came along). I even have wicked thoughts like, Is Chris Ware merely the Saul Steinberg of the current contemporary art scene? for, looking to Joe and his contemporaries who formed the post-war generation of arts patrons, one found Saul Steinberg cartoons in virtually every collection. And then I come to my senses and go, “Nawhh.” For one thing the ‘hip’ collectors are not really hip to Chris Ware. Thank goodness, as Magritte might say, for the Wonders of Nature.
Excuse my cynicism. I don’t mean to imply that Saul Steinberg suffered by being collected by collectors like Joseph Randall Shapiro. He didn’t. It is only his reputation, not the works themselves, that twisted about to become the guy
who did “those spiky, weird,
beloved illustrations, er, artworks,” in the minds of the general art world, where things like reputations are as slippery yet important as earthworms are to healthy soil. Chris Ware’s works are bullets to the heart. Saul Steinberg’s are diversions that went well with the books in the library, whether they be tattered utilitarian volumes like Joe Shapiro’s or an untouched set of leather-bound classics from the Franklin Mint (which incidentally got out of the book business in 2000; I guess the desire for leather-bound classics can be met by the resale market via eBay).
Let me say it again: Without a deep knowledge of and reconsideration of the past, there can be no history. There can be only chronicle. A chronicle is a perfectly fine thing, but a history makes life worth living. A chronicle would be a listing of all Joe Shapiro’s acquisitions and when he made them, how much they were worth, and how much they got at auction when he sold some of them because he thought his beloved wife Jory would certainly outlive him and needed to be taken care of (she passed several years before he did). A history is that Joe loved his wife Jory more than anything, even those many considerable paintings that he thought of as his children, and one of his proudest possessions was a portrait done of her when she was young by an obscure local painter. He would never fail to point it out when yet another first-time visitor was given “the tour.” He would challenge the visitor to identify the painting. Usually there was panicked silence. This certainly wasn’t a Delvaux or a Balthus. A sly, delighted smile would gradually spread across Joe’s face as the visitor continued to sputter and squirm. “That’s my girl,” he would finally say in his breathy, gentle voice, “That’s Jory.”