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History of Art by H.W. Janson (Abrams: $40; 824 pp.; 1,256 illustrations, 177 in full color)

June 01, 1986| William Wilson | Wilson is The Times' art critic. and

Before me rests a tome battered from years of lugging to UCLA. Yellowed notes are still tucked in the pages, the index is marred with scribbled notations calculating the number of pages to be learned before the midterm. Passages are underlined with a hand that shook in rhythm to a bus jolting in and out of potholes on Wilshire Boulevard.

It is H. W. Janson's "History of Art" and looking at it still causes fingers and head to go numb from schlepping and study respectively. How could such an albatross become the object of sentimental affection? How, come to think of it, could it not?

In the 1960s the book replaced Helen Gardner's "Art Through the Ages" as the standard teething ring for the study of art history. Since then, something like six generations of university students have drunk the milk of its wisdom. In a relatively esoteric sphere where a sale of 3,000 copies is considered respectable, the volume known oracularly as just "Janson" has three million copies in print in 14 languages.

Now it is back, all spiffed up with the "Victory of Samothrace" on a gold dust cover. Janson, a distinguished New York University professor, wrote the original text with his wife, Dora Jane. He died in 1982, so the present edition--the third--was carried out by his son, Anthony Janson, chief curator at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla.

Nobody can quite explain why a book becomes a standard text, but some things are obvious. Janson beat out the competition on visuals. His type was larger, illustrations were bigger and more copious because the book moved up a format size, making the old texts looked cramped and dinky. The Janson format has become standard.

Janson's writing style is hardly zippy. He used to regularly make me drowsy, but other art authors put you in a coma. The text is almost free of gobbledygook and by now a tendency to lapse into condescension has been expunged. In my old book, for example, the opening paragraph of the introduction takes a professorial dig at philistines who know not of art but greatly of their beloved prejudices. The crack is gone.

Actually I sort of miss it.

Publicity material on this 25th anniversary edition makes much of the fact that women artists are now included as are black artists; there is also a section on the history of photography. All this is nothing but simple justice. It is hard to imagine a respectable text being issued these days without blacks, women and photographers.

What is perhaps more noteworthy is an expanded section on contemporary art. It updates the book through the waves of styles that crashed on the beach in the last quarter century--Pop, Minimalism, Earthworks, Neo-Expressionism. . . .

One can sympathize with the historian's dilemma in trying to decide which living artists belong among the great immortals. It's a bit tough to accept the idea that art we grew up with now belongs in the pantheon but, sure, maybe Ed Keinholz and Robert Rauschenberg have a shot.

It might, however, have been a good idea to quit before Audrey Flack and Francesco Clemente.

With a chapter like that, there will always be something to revise.

A classic text should not be changed too much, and this one has been deftly done. The format is further clarified with subheadings and one of those invaluable and serendipitous time lines where you can find out that, say, Delacroix was still painting "Odalisques" while Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto and Joule formulated the First Law of Thermodynamics.

The new "Janson" is certainly an improved, timely product, but I hope I will be forgiven for prefering my old copy. It's not just nostalgia. Janson der Alte weighs in on the kitchen scale at five pounds, Janson the Younger comes in at seven-and-a-half.

It's a sign of the times. Now you can study and pump iron all at once.

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