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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

February 04, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

GEORGE BELLOWS: American Artist by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco: $22; 69 pp.). "Writers on Art," the series of little books to which this volume belongs, is one of the greatest ideas in publishing history. Mostly essays with a few pictures, the books so far have included Guy Davenport on Balthus, Charles Simic on Joseph Cornell, John Yau on Andy Warhol and Mark Strand on Edward Hopper. Would that they could be written and produced several times a year, instead of the quickie books on Nancy Kerrigan, the Menendez boys or the O.J. Simpson trial. They are delightful if you know the artists and delightful if you don't (this was my introduction to George Bellows). The author/artist pairs are lovingly chosen for affinities both ostensible and subtle: In the case of Joyce Carol Oates, her public interest in boxing (the subject of some of Bellows' most striking paintings) and her restless mind and various subject matters, also characteristic of Bellows' painting life.

Bellows died in 1925 at 42, creator of 700 paintings and thousands of drawings and lithographs. He was a student of Robert Henri, an admirer and in many ways student of Walt Whitman, a painter whose work has been likened to Thomas Eakins', Winslow Homer's and by Oates to the mysterious qualities in the work of Magritte and DeChirico. Oates describes Bellows' temperament as it is revealed on canvas as "the eerie admixture of childlike hope and precocious cynicism," extolling him at certain points in his career as a "lyric visionary," a devotee of the beautiful found in the real yet a refuter of the "foolish demand that pictures be 'beautiful.' "

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