Book Review

As an artist and art critic, Patricia Rosoff knows that audiences often feel stymied by contemporary art that seems to them ugly, unskilled, inaccessible, or gimmicky. “I hope by this book,” Rosoff writes, “to loan you my eyes and my empathy, professional and personal, as I bring you with me through the galleries and museums in which I have grappled with ideas and questions that are not yet codified into art history books.” She’s also a teacher of art and art history, which makes her the perfect companion. In these essays, Rosoff is both expert guide and life-long student, working out her own struggles with contemporary art in prose that’s as clear as it is insightful.

This collection of essay-reviews and interviews draws from over fifteen years of Rosoff’s published writing about gallery and museum shows in Connecticut (where she lives and teaches), Massachusetts, and New York, in which she chronicles her own encounters with the work of over forty contemporary artists. Each piece is tied to a particular show, exhibit, or installation, but they all move deeply into the territory of the essay. Rosoff continually returns to central questions about how we look at art, the relationship between art and reality, innovation and the breakdown of genre, why we make art, and the dialogue between art and culture.

Learning how to look at an artist’s work is a fresh challenge in every case, as Rosoff demonstrates. Our eyes are not “innocent” in the nineteenth-century sense of being unbiased. Rosoff tries to approach every artist with what Kandinsky called “objective subjectivity” (her own term is “thoughtful neutrality”) and walks us through the necessary work we have to do to be aware of our own preconceptions. Many of our most unconscious attitudes date back to the Renaissance, she explains, when “the object of painting was the eloquently indiscernible illusion.” These ideas are still so ingrained in our culture as to be invisible to us. We can’t help but absorb them, but if we look at a contemporary piece in that context, we’re applying standards of perspective, anatomy, composition, and color harmony that artists broke with over a century ago.

One of my own assumptions was made clear to me in reading Rosoff’s essay on the 1998 exhibit Monet in the 20th Century at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I realize now that when I looked at Claude Monet’s gorgeous landscapes, haystacks, cathedrals, and water lilies, I took those to be his subjects, and relegated the light in his paintings to a supporting role. I knew his project was to explore “what unblended hits of the color spectrum, mixed in the retina (not on the painter’s palette) might do to suggest outdoor light,” but it would take a small but important shift in perspective to see that light was the only subject that mattered, and to understand in a visceral way that Monet was inventing a new way of seeing and a new language of painting all at once.

That is Rosoff’s point: It can be all too easy to receive a hit of sensual pleasure and move on without actually connecting to the labor, innovation, and meaning in a piece of art. She works to inhabit the context, to understand what conventions an artist embraced or rejected, what questions are being asked, and then to examine how—through form, materials, or process—an artist attempts to answer them. This is what she means by “empathy.” In her essays she shows us how she works toward professional judgment by way of empathy, making sense of her own experience of a work in order to understand what it achieves.

No art is off-limits here. Rosoff considers masters such as Joseph Cornell and Chuck Close, but also graffiti art and faith-based art, conceptual and performance art, and hard-to-categorize, genre-bending art like that of Ellen Carey’s abstract photographs or William DeLottie’s “systems” that he “paints” using wall hangings and carefully placed lights. The fundamental role of context makes the book cohere. Essays are grouped by inquiry, and Rosoff prefaces each with a commentary that both situates it in a larger narrative and comments on her process. I appreciate how assiduously she questions her own judgment, especially when approaching work that she finds difficult or off-putting. Carl Pope’s Palimpsest—a video that depicts him being branded, cut, and tattooed—is deeply disturbing to her, but she pays close attention to how successfully he maintains his stance as subject not object, and the carefully worked out ideas behind his decision to use his own body as his canvas.

She grounds her inquiry in history, highlighting dialogue between artists past and present who might, at first glance, seem to have nothing to say to each other. Writing about Spencer Finch and his 1997 show of “objects that might loosely be called paintings, if their titles didn’t jarringly abut their visual realities,” she compared Finch’s examination of color with Monet’s. Though one is concerned with memory and the other, light, both artists investigate subjectivity:

What is the color of blue in the patch of sky where the space shuttle Challenger exploded in January 1986? What is the color of pink of the pillbox hat that Jackie Kennedy wore when JFK was assassinated?

 Can any of these colors even be recalled exactly, let alone simulated in art? And if experience can be firmly attached to visual perception, have we not diminished the experience? These are the questions a young Spencer Finch has raised, his theories mimicking those of Monet, that stubborn, insistent old observer. Finch is nodding to the Master, and ever so gently, mocking him—and us…but at the same time, holding a door open to where we might go from here.

 In writing on Sol LeWitt and conceptual art, she notes that while some might blame LeWitt for the “unrelatability” of conceptual work, Leonardo da Vinci was actually the first to argue for elevating idea over execution. Da Vinci sought to raise the status of artists from mere artisans to intellectuals, who are in fact “working when they seem to be doing the least, working out inventions in their minds, and forming those perfect ideas which afterward they express with their hands.” She slips the reader these nuggets of historical information, as well as pithy explanations of artistic movements, seminal works, and processes—just enough information, just where you might need it. As Rosoff writes: “Too much teaching can kill an experience; too little reinforces prejudice. The curator’s talent must be to intrigue, not to preach.” It’s clear she sees her own role in the same light.

Rosoff’s focus on abstraction threads through all of these essays. Over the course of the book, her observations accrue to help us understand abstraction as concept and reaction rather than movement—a set of principles rather than a style. In the context of Jacqueline Gourevich’s map-like paintings, she shows us how the reduction (which is to say, abstraction) of natural forms makes clear their commonalities: “the crack of a stone is telescoped into the path of a river, the haze of a distant atmospheric event is mirrored in the dissolving slurry of a puddle.” Bryan Nash Gill’s sculptural forms spring from natural materials, such as tree bark, that he alters to give us back a familiar figure (“tree”) in an unfamiliar form (“Blow Down,” a single forty-three-foot piece of bark skinned from a spruce tree, flattened, and tacked to the gallery wall). Rosoff teaches by example, demonstrating how abstraction (which means “dragged away”) removes us from the world we know and allows us to see the familiar with fresh—even innocent—eyes.

For Rosoff, questions about how to judge art’s importance go hand in hand with examining why we make art in the first place. In the section “Kandinsky Called It Inner Need,” she examines the work of Joe Coleman, a resolute outsider with a “medieval” sensibility for whom art might be the anchor that keeps him sane. She looks at Lee Lozano, an uncompromising artist whose extreme conceptual projects (such as refusing to interact with another woman from 1971 until her death in 1999) disrupted her life and sanity. She also profiles a group of prison artists, whose “inner need” leads to remarkable ingenuity. They work with what little they can get, in one case making astonishing sculptures from discarded food trays, chalk, and floor wax, in another soaking Skittles to use their pigment when paint is denied. Rosoff quotes Phyllis Kornfeld, a prison arts instructor and author of Cellblock Visions, as saying, “It’s so intense there [in prison], and it’s the only experience of humanity they have.”

The dialogue between writer and reader, artist and viewer, art and culture, is ultimately about that experience of humanity. As Rosoff writes, “The pleasure of art—like the pleasure of watching a child explore a world brand-new—is in being able to borrow a hungrier eye, to slip into a more sensitive skin.” I reveled in seeing this marvelous array of artists through Rosoff’s eyes. The personal essays she includes in the afterword might seem an odd choice for some critics, but not for someone as interested in context as Rosoff. Reading about her early exposure to art, her teachers and how she learned to forge her own way as an artist, adds another layer of meaning—and pleasure—to this nuanced work.


About the Reviewer

Anne McDuffie was awarded a 2012 Individual Artist grant from 4Culture for “Deep Geography,” a series of poems written in collaboration with painter Ann Vandervelde. Recent work has appeared in Fugue and is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review.