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Some Primers on Painters Are Artless


Every once in a while, somebody calls to ask for the title of a good introductory book about a modern or contemporary artist. It's a hard question to answer.

Serious, authoritative art books generally demand a certain level of cultural knowledge and art viewing experience. Coming in cold, you're likely to be baffled by alien terminology and references.

Enter Abrams, the New York art book publishing house. Perceiving an untapped niche market, it has issued "The Essentials," an illustrated series debuting this fall.

In 112 pint-sized pages, each $16.95 book discusses--in an "upbeat, conversational tone," according to the press release--the life and work of one famous artist. (So far, there are volumes on Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper, Vincent van Gogh and Salvador Dali.)

These volumes are so wildly uneven, the series seems to be engaged in a learning curve of its own.

The dirt-dishing style of a Vanity Fair magazine profile puts "The Essentials: Jackson Pollock," by Artforum magazine writer Justin Spring, at the bottom of the list. A blurb on the book jacket excitedly mentions the "sexy" aspects of Pollock's drip paintings and various aspects of his biography, including "his mental breakdown" and "his death in a car crash." Sexy?

On the first page, Spring announces that he'll discuss "the man, the myth, the movement, the art." Interesting how the art comes last. The book is driven by "the myth," a juicy tale of self-abuse, machismo and poverty, most recently retold at length in a controversial 1990 biography ("Jackson Pollock: An American Saga") by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.

There must have been many troubled, alcohol-abusing womanizers from the American West who died in car crashes. But only one of them painted "Lavender Mist" or "Blue Poles"--gorgeous, seminal paintings you can lose yourself in, which merit only a passing remark from Spring.

Filled with a buckshot round of miscellaneous factoids--including "sound bytes" (otherwise known as quotes)--pages devoted to side issues (such as the official titles of the paintings), and the attempts to sum up existentialism or Carl Jung in 100 words or less--the book gives the paintings short shrift.

Abstract Expressionism also fails to come into focus, largely because Spring seems out of sympathy with it. His jumpy, wise-guy style denies the inherent poetry in the work.

To be fair, any discussion of Pollock has to range over an enormous cultural territory. Given the minuscule available space, the book has some good points.

Quotations from Pollock at various stages in his life are a valuable resource. Spring brings a feminist sensitivity to the problems of Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner--a noted painter in her own right--and his first dealer, Betty Parsons. Cult painter John Graham gets due credit as a Pollock mentor--though, in common with all the other artists cited as influences, none of his works are reproduced.

Speaking of reproductions, the tiny format does nothing for Pollock's spacious drip paintings. Too bad Abrams didn't accompany the book with a fold-out reproduction of one work in its true dimensions. Suggestions for further reading also wouldn't be amiss.

Spring redeems himself with a fine book on Hopper, an artist whose paintings are much-loved but whose life was, as the author writes, "an uneventful one, alas." This inconvenient fact--and perhaps also Hopper's lack of inherent hipness--seems to free Spring to discuss Hopper's stark painted universes with sensitivity and grace.

Larger cultural issues (including Hopper's influence on film noir), and biographical information flow naturally from the private, somber quality of the work itself. Spring's treatment of Hopper's wife, Jo, a frequent model for the paintings, suggests he is familiar with the latest research, including Gail Levin's 1995 "Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography."

Even a book for beginners should be based on an up-to-date, scholarly grasp of the material, which seems lacking in the Dali book by Forbes magazine art critic Robert Goff. (With no bibliography it's hard to know what sources he consulted.)

Goff was faced with the challenge of cutting through the fog of mystique that has grown up around Dali. Similarly, Ingrid Schaffner, author of the Van Gogh book, had to deal with the cult status of a 19th century artist better known for his ear-cutting episode and 1980s sales figures than the startlingly visceral quality of his best work.

Neither book is ideal. Schaffner repeatedly lapses into a chirpy style better suited to MTV. Goff, an uncritical booster of Dali--an artist whose later work is largely scorned by art historians--fails to illuminate the big picture of surrealist art. Still, the little volumes offer basic information an art newbie can't easily find elsewhere, including discussions of certain paintings.

Maybe someday Phaidon will publish a modern art equivalent of its best-selling "Art Book" and excellent "Photo Book," affordable and well-designed compendiums of hundreds of images, famous and obscure. These are books purely about looking, which is always the best place to start.

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