PLAYING WITH THE EDGE

THE PHOTOGRAPHIC ACHIEVEMENT OF ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE

One of our leading postmodern critics captures, in decorous prose, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's putatively outrageous social and aesthetic vision. As art critic for the Nation, Danto (Philosophy/Columbia Univ.; Embodied Meanings, 1994, etc.) reviewed the now legendary retrospective of Mapplethorpe's work held at the Whitney in 1988, shortly before the photographer's death from AIDS. This appreciative but tentative review (the first to be written of the three included here) serves as a benchmark, showing how far Danto's understanding of Mapplethorpe has traveled since. In an introductory essay, Danto recreates how the Whitney exhibition's ``brilliant syntax'' spoke to him. Coming upon Mapplethorpe's disturbing images unawares, Danto felt that he truly encountered the photographer as he passed through the galleries. Soon thereafter, attacks from the cultural right on exhibitions of his sexually explicit work brought Mapplethorpe posthumous celebrity. Writing a long essay on Mapplethorpe for an art book, Danto came to believe that the photographer ``embodied the seventies in America . . . artistically the most important decade of the century.'' Reprinted here, that essay forms this book's core. Sparse reproductions nail down Danto's points without distracting from his argument. Characterizing Mapplethorpe as ``playing with the edge,'' Danto refers not only to his search for transcendence through transgression, but also to his rigorous delineation of his subjects. This disciplined aesthetic has been denigrated by art world insiders who consider formal accomplishment politically suspect. Having compromised neither his extreme lifestyle nor his artistic ethic, Mapplethorpe was outside the bounds of both mainstream American sexuality and elite cultural taste. Danto's accomplishment here is to suggest how his life and work address the central concerns of both. Incisive and passionate, Danto's testimony makes an important intervention in debates over Mapplethorpe's importance. (31 duotones)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1995

ISBN: 0-520-20051-9

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Univ. of California

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1995

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An overreaching microanalysis that will try the patience of even the most diehard art lover.

STAYING UP MUCH TOO LATE

EDWARD HOPPER’S NIGHTHAWKS AND THE DARK SIDE OF THE AMERICAN PSYCHE

Musings on the famous “diner” painting and its place in American culture. Stick with the painting.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Edward Hopper began his most famous work, Nighthawks. The painting depicts three customers, a couple and a lone man, seated in a nondescript New York diner being waited on by a single attendant. It’s unquestionably an icon of American art, but debut author Theisen’s attempt to define the painting’s cultural significance proves to be a case of overkill. His rambling commentary is filled with hazy logic and questionable conclusions—at one point, he suggests that the customers may be preparing to rob the diner. Offering background on virtually any topic that has even marginal relevance to Hopper’s work, the author provides, among other things, the history of cigars, of diners, of cigarettes, even of coffee. He also slips in plot outlines of films and novels that he considers relevant, from Taxi Driver and The Asphalt Jungle to Moby-Dick and The Executioner’s Song. Most of these comparisons veer between the obvious and the ludicrous, and almost all convey the unmistakable whiff of pedantry. The exercise would be more bearable if Theisen were a skillful writer. But his choppy, awkward and occasionally ungrammatical prose makes for difficult and tedious reading. To wit: “Travis buys a bunch of guns on the black market and tries to save a twelve-year-old prostitute named Iris whom he’s befriended by going on a rampage, murdering her pimp and two other men.” Here and there, the author does offer an intriguing tidbit: There were 312 bicycle manufacturers in the U.S. in 1890; Henry Ford wouldn’t hire smokers. Theisen also makes some worthwhile points when discussing Hopper and film noir, a genre the artist apparently admired.

An overreaching microanalysis that will try the patience of even the most diehard art lover.

Pub Date: July 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-312-33342-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2006

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Lively, intelligent and interesting—a look inside not just a single family, but also an entire artistic tradition now...

RED BRICK, BLACK MOUNTAIN, WHITE CLAY

REFLECTIONS ON ART, FAMILY, AND SURVIVAL

From Benfey (English/Mount Holyoke Coll.; A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, 2008, etc.), a lyrical but unsentimental family memoir, taking in art, memory and time.

The circumstances of the author’s youth are not entirely rare: On one side, the bloodline extends far back into the American colonial past, on the other to just a few decades in the lives of refugees and exiles. Thus our narrator, as a boy, found himself at a basketball awards dinner where trophies were followed by a father-and-son game, his German-accented father dressed in coat and tie, awkward. “He could no more play basketball than fly to Mars,” writes Benfey. However, his American grandfather was a more practical sort, a bricklayer who once traveled from North Carolina to the Benfey home in Indiana just to lay in a mantelpiece, showing his grandson how to apply mortar, “spread with a pointed trowel like icing on a cake.” Disappointments gave way to understandings as the years passed. Forging links to a deeper past, the author looks at great naturalist William Bartram and explores the hidden past of his parents—he discovered, for instance, that his mother had been engaged to be married before meeting his father, a fact that would rattle any sensitive kid. Benfey’s account, as he puts it, is more geological than chronological, bound together by the clay worked by his artful ancestors and, in one extended section, by the against-the-grain teaching that took place at Black Mountain College in North Carolina courtesy of a small troupe of brilliant European exiles. “Black Mountain had seemed almost a mythical place during our upbringing, a tether linking our flat Midwestern childhood to the vivid summers of artistic innovation and adventure,” he writes—how many other childhood homes had a painting by Josef Albers in the dining room?

Lively, intelligent and interesting—a look inside not just a single family, but also an entire artistic tradition now largely forgotten.

Pub Date: March 19, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59420-326-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012

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