Michael Kimmelman
Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met,
The Modern, The Louvre, and Elsewhere

Random House, 1998

By Caterina Pierre

When I was a young MA student I was often subjected to classes comprised of both art history and art studio students. Often I begged to be delivered from the long hours of having to hear professors repeat the most basic art historical concepts and historical data for the benefit of the MFA students. The seemingly unendless critiques by these students of famous works of art in relation to their own was to my young mind an affirmation of the artist as a being who never develops past the Lacanian mirror stage. How boring some of these discussions were! And what bearing, what value, did they have to the history of art? Certainly nothing, I would have thought then.

Now that I am older (and would like to believe wiser), I think differently. Thus, after reading the first fifty pages of Kimmelman’s Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, The Modern, The Louvre, and Elsewhere, I immediately recalled my grad school experiences: artists talking with art historians about art they knew only from “within”. Arguably this process is important from an art historical standpoint, as much of the value of a historical object lies in its ability to “speak” to a future time, place, and/or person. An artist such as Gustave Courbet (discussed with admiration in the book by Balthus, Murray, Sherman, and Haacke) remains important today because of the ability of his art to address certain issues of, let us say, style and politics, which are still engaging to artists.

Kimmelman seems to expect that most art historians will find that the book lacks merit, noting that those he showed it to reacted with “condescension” to the artist’s remarks (introduction, p. xvii). One wonders if the author actually did show the material to any art historians at all, as one may find it hard to believe that they would fail to see the inherent value of the discussions. Certainly someone with art historical training would wish the book was written with more complexity, more depth within each exchange, more source material, and certainly more of Kimmelman himself, who stays in the background of each “portrait”, allowing each of the artists’ opinions to flow freely. But possibly this is its major strength, this ebb and flow from artworks to artists to artworks, the historian only acting as if from above, controlling the events like a god.

Some of the “portraits” are better than others, the finest being those which give an equal glimpse both the artist doing the speaking and the artist/artwork to whom s/he refers. Interviews with Balthus, Bacon, Lichtenstein, Kiki Smith, and Freud accomplished this best. Interviews with Serra and Murray are possibly the least successful, because they involve too much information about what they thought of other people’s art and less about their own. Sherman’s essay claims that she had never seen certain famous works before (the Courbets), and LichtensteinÕs essay comment that Kimmelman “[s]houldn’t believe anything I tell you,” act as an interesting insight into how artists often try to camouflage their sources. Yet the words of an artist are an art historian’s greatest gift, especially once that artist becomes part of the past (the interviews with Lichtenstein and Bacon, for example, become more valuable as texts now that their real voices are gone, do they not?).

My only real criticism is the ratio of male to female artists interviewed: only five of the eighteen interviews were conducted with women, and of those only three were interviewed independently (Spero was interviewed jointly with Golub, and Rothenberg with Nauman). This seemed to be seriously negligent, and I thought it should not go by without being mentioned.

So, what did I learn from Kimmelman’s Portraits that I did not learn in my MA program? Maybe that other, more scholarly, art historical writings are also “portraits”, not only those of the artists discussed, but also of the art historians themselves- what turns them on, what correlation do they see between themselves and the artists they write about (or interview, as the case may be), and how they too live through the lives, and the art, of others.

I also learned that I have gotten old. I have become patient, willing and eager to listen and learn, even from people that I think lack the historical knowledge that I have, and of which I am so egotistical. Lacan would have had a field day with me.