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The Least I Can Say
 
Oh, the vagaries of greatness!

Excuse my sigh, please. It traces back to a glimpse of a book cover resting innocently atop a stack on a table at Barnes & Noble. Clasped hands against a black and white nun’s habit and a beaming smile upon that kindly, bespectacled face, Sister Wendy.

Etched over the blackness of her cloak, an “A” and an “M” to begin the golden letters of her title; American Masterpieces: Sister Wendy Beckett’s Selection of the Greatest American Paintings; a fine volume of prints depicting some of the most familiar and celebrated paintings by American artists as chosen by an authority known for the grace of her presentation of art history to the otherwise ignorant masses. “Otherwise ignorant” because the culture of fine art seems not to enjoy the higher priority status in the culture of America as some other forms of mass-produced and cash-producing varieties of art–those eternally repackaged and Wal-Mart accessible pop songs of past decades sitting next to the CD player, for instance.

It seems that in the arts, standards can easily become blurred with the values of commodity and familiarity breeds sales. Popularity is not so much defined by taste as by exposure. Taste, in fact, can be manufactured by exposure, as any good marketer knows, and Sister Wendy’s popular PBS television series has exposed millions to a regimen of art to which they might otherwise have remained oblivious. I just hope we can assume that the good sister did not have to suffer the indignity of having to reject her network advisors’ suggestions for a follow-up series with more punch–Sister Wendy’s Selection of the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll, perhaps.

Ah, but don’t misunderstand me, please. I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. I mean no slight to an erudite, Oxford-educated and well-meaning art authority who has chosen the “best of the best” to pour into our daily coffee. It is a noble undertaking and I applaud all such efforts. It is only that in doing so I must heave a ragged sigh for those many fine American artists not included among her selections.

As I stood there in the bookstore turning pages, I noted with some satisfaction, the inclusion of many great names in American art. Sister Wendy’s prance through the Gallery of Fame reflected a certain bend toward security and inventiveness which any lover of art could appreciate. It is also certain that she is secure that she can control her own inventiveness within proper bounds. And why not?

Take, for example, her interpretation of Ellsworth Kelly’s painting Rebound, which she finds so “strangely” titled. Its off-white surface marked is by dark, curved triangular intrusions from the top and bottom. Sister Wendy properly observes that this artist “has always moved from some specific shape, either natural or constructed, which he then isolates...” She tells us that “It is equally possibly to read this picture as two great white curves- one far more rounded than the other...” and that “In the minds who view them, they arouse ideas, suggestions, memories. There is implicit pathos, need, desire and passion...”

All well and good. “The shapes mean what we make of them,” she declares and applies her own criteria of memory and suggestion to see “The quivering intensity with which they reach toward each other may remind us of Michelangelo’s great fresco, where God’s finger stretches out to Adam, sparking him into life. Rebound has the same tension, the same implicit movement, although here it is concentrated and distilled- the lower swooping up with passion, the upper moving down with more regularity but equal force.” Ah, go, sister, go! I am so thankful that she provides such a pulsating explanation for what I had assumed was an appreciation of retreating buttocks in a thong swimsuit at the beach. Well, at least, that explains the title.

I suppose we all have our limitations. So, I wouldn’t even complain about Sister Wendy’s inclusion of Ad Reinhardt’s deliciously austere canvas Timeless Painting, which is, of course, limited to one color. He was, after all, the “quintessential Minimalist” who professed great admiration for an “unmannered” and “styleless” ideal and who felt that “No other art or painting is detached or empty or immaterial enough.” I’ve had my Zen moments. I can dig it. In fact, the painting reminds me very much of my absolute favorite work in a Benjamin Moore catalog, “Rich Navy.” Or was it Glidden who painted that one?

Sister Wendy’s precision of accuracy is positively uncanny when she tells us “Look as we will at Timeless Painting, no shape will form itself in the depth of this canvas.” So true, and so dumbfounding that we shiver...but the immeasurable contribution this work makes to the arts becomes strikingly apparent when she observes that “...if we gaze long enough at this sizable square, we will lose ourselves in the intensity of the color, and experience the mystic freedom that the artist intends to communicate.” You just cannot get more perceptive than that! I had the exact same recognition the 210th time in a row I played a particular Merle Haggard song. It is, as Sister Wendy finds Agnes Martin’s extremely subtle Untitled No.3, an “overwhelmingly spiritual” involvement.

Now, we know that Sister Wendy’s preferences are her own. They are not meant to represent those of the publisher, her television producer or the organization whose uniform she graces. True, the latter is a spiritually-based consortium or fraternity known to have been so inquisitive about human cultural affairs that it became history’s greatest patron of art, before the corporation. But it was not the church which decided upon which works to feature. It is solely the author that we can credit.

And, yes, even if we have a bit of fun at Sister Wendy’s expense, her book presents an invaluable survey which includes superlative works by Twombly and Warhol and even that draft-dodging scamp John James Audubon. We can scarcely quibble with such fine choices. But where,where are the bones of the corpus artificium? Where is the unforgettable work of masters not recycled in these bargain bins? Is it that a painting of an Alex Katz or Jasper Johns can be reproduced at more of a discount than some of the artists overlooked in collections like these? Could it be that reproduction rights were purchased by a rival corporation?

The powers that be in today’s world have decided that everything and anything is for sale. They have even presumed to privatize the electromagnetic spectrum! Even now our governments are selling pieces of the spectrum to the highest corporate bidders and no one even dares question the outrageousness of that idea. So far, they haven’t touched the visible section of the spectrum but when they do get to it, the art world will notice. When Monsanto owns exclusive rights to the color red and your child has to pay a royalty to draw an apple in school, then you’ll wake up!

But when will you awaken to the incredible richness of culture lost when a vast array of our finest artists are ignored in favor of the same-old, same-old? Why isn’t there space in such a collection as Sister Wendy’s for the work of painters of unquestionable greatness such as Ivan Olinsky, Robert Brackman, or Robert Philipp?

If there happen to be old friends and mentors of yours truly in these alternate selections, what of it? Such coincidence merely reinforces one’s confidence to never, never make the monumental oversight of omitting them in a list of renowned American painters. Do I, personally, have a shade more respect and affection for the work of genre artists, portrait painters and impressionists than for some of the Minimalists chosen by Sister Wendy? Guilty. But, tell me, what is there not to like?

If I may beg your indulgence, to consider the neglected mastery of Robert Philipp, please turn to page 28 while I dismount this rickety soapbox and head for my CD collection.

—Jeremy Sedley
 
2007 Book Art Press