Category Archives: Art

Lit Fans Bid U Adieu

The Abbeville blog has MOVED! You can now read this post here.

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Secretary of the Arts Petition

The Abbeville blog has MOVED! You can now read this post here.

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New Feature: “Dear Abbeville”

Not long ago, reader Julie Weathers suggested a new addition to the Manual of Style: a Q&A column called “Dear Abbeville.” Touched by her faith in the multifarious expertise we claim to have, we couldn’t let her down; besides, the pun on “Dear Abby” was too good to resist. As of today the column is an official feature, so we are soliciting questions from you, our readers, on the following topics:

  • Art (including painting, sculpture, architecture, and design)
  • Books and Literature (both old and new)
  • Publishing (the nuts and bolts of the business, the state of the industry, etc.)
  • Editing and Language (grammar, punctuation, diction, usage, spelling)
  • New York City (New York City)
  • Style (e.g., travel, luxury, wine—whatever this may mean to you)
  • The Universe

Please restrict questions to those that cannot be better answered via our FAQ page or a simple Web search. Blatantly self-serving questions (e.g., “In your opinion, how stylish is my personal website, www.monkeysuncle.org?”) will be summarily dismissed. Beyond that, anything is fair game, so fire away! All questions should be submitted to the email address given on our Contact page, or via the Comments form. Disclaimer: accurate, useful, or even serious answers are not guaranteed. Not all questions submitted will be answered. Not all questions answered will be published. That said, we will do our level best on all of these counts. Except for the “serious” part.

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Andrew Wyeth R.I.P.

christinas-world

Christina’s World, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy Wikipedia.

As everyone will have heard by now, Andrew Wyeth has died at the ripe old age of 91. We wanted to take a moment to remember him—and of course, to weigh in on his legacy, since as his Times obituary duly noted, his work was both extremely popular and highly controversial.

Wyeth touched a nerve in the midcentury art world for a few simple reasons: he was a realist painter; he had a public; his most famous work—Christina’s World—was accepted into the Museum of Modern Art in 1948, a provocative choice at the time. His detractors saw him as a reactionary, a purveyor of clichés, and (to quote E. B. White on critical slights against Thoreau) a kind of glorified Nature Boy. Others saw darker shades and deeper mysteries beneath the technically flawless surface. His son, Jamie, compared Wyeth’s paintings to Robert Frost’s poems: “At one level, it’s all snowy woods and stone walls. At another, it’s terrifying. He exists at both levels. He is a very odd painter.”

The comparison is precise and apt. Frost, too, was dismissed by many as a regionalist hack, until skillful readers and critics realized that poems like “The Most of It” and “Directive” were complex, powerful, universal—and indeed, terrifying in a peculiarly modern way. Now that the art-world politics of fifty years ago are a relic and, as the Times summarized, “the traditional 20th century distinction between abstraction and avant-gardism on the one hand and realism and conservatism on the other came to seem woefully inadequate and false,” we can assess Wyeth’s work, too, on its own terms without polemicizing about genre. To be a realist is not necessarily to be a literalist; to use an old-fashioned idiom is not necessarily to lack new ideas. Christina’s World is also Wyeth’s world distilled: isolated, alien, disturbing, fraught with an inexplicable cruelty that must be struggled against grimly. Why, sort of like the modern world!

In terms of technique, too, Wyeth was no complacent greeting-card realist. Says the Times: “The public seemed to focus less on [Christina’s World‘s] gothic and morose quality and more on the way Wyeth painted each blade of grass, a mechanical and unremarkable kind of realism…” Yet the unwashed masses may have been on to something that the Times and many critics overlook. Wyeth’s obsessive fidelity to textures and surfaces often heightened reality almost to the point of abstraction. In Black Velvet, his portrait of a nude Helga Testorf reclining on the titular fabric, the minutely-observed velvet looks somehow softer and sleeker than the real thing—and far stranger than abstraction could have rendered it. The composition, too, has a beautifully abstract quality: the nude seems at first to be hovering in empty space until the viewer looks closer and marvels at how rich that space really is.

Finally, speaking of Helga Testorf: Wyeth’s having painted his neighbor for years unbeknownst to his wife—and possibly having slept with her—and making boatloads of money off the revelation either way—is the kind of bona fide scandal the art world could really use these days. We have a soft spot for that kind of juicy hoopla, as well as for real-life artist-muse relationships (cf. D. G. Rossetti and Jane Burden, or if you prefer, D. G. Rossetti and his pet wombats). Lately the closest thing we’ve had to shocking art gossip is the second-rate Aliza Shvarts affair. Andrew Wyeth, we’ll miss you.

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Marginalia: BridgemanArt.com

 bridgeman

Some months ago we wrote about the party thrown at the Museum of Sex by the Bridgeman Art Library to celebrate the launch of their revamped website. This gave us an opportunity for plenty of puerile humor, but we never followed up afterward to let you know: how did the site turn out, anyway?

Very well, we are pleased to report; a tour of the new BridgemanArt.com has left us thoroughly satisfied with its handsome design and improved usability. The homepage is dominated by a large-scale slide show of images from the collection, all quite striking (the opening image was originally Collier’s Lady Godiva, as though in continuation of the “Sex in Art” theme of their party; we hope they’ll rotate that one back in at some point, as it made for a stirring first impression). The site is noticeably easier to navigate than its former incarnation, and the collection itself, as always, is superb. We think both will be of great practical use to authors and publishers looking to stock their books with beautiful and difficult-to-find old pictures; certainly we have turned to Bridgeman for numerous projects in the past, and will continue to do so.

Oh, and the article we wrote on the MoSex party, with its jokes about deer ménages à trois and dirty monkey videos? They found it—and liked it, enough so that they offered to mention it in their “News & Features” section. We’re flattered, but they should know this will only encourage us. On the other hand, maybe this means we’ll be invited as officially tolerated, lovable scalawags to all their future events?

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On “The Painted Word”

tomwolfe

Image courtesy tomwolfe.com

Note: We are discarding the editorial/royal “we” for today’s post.

As a bit of remedial vacation reading, I finally got around last week to reading Tom Wolfe’s 1975 classic The Painted Word. A brief book with a simple yet devastating thesis, it chronicles the process by which, according to Wolfe, modern art from 1950 through 1975 discarded not only realism and representation but also “lines, colors, forms, and contours…frames, walls, galleries, museums” and “disappeared up its own fundamental aperture” to become “Art Theory pure and simple…literature undefiled by vision.” In this new order of things, prominent art critics such as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and later, Leo Steinberg ascended to reign supreme, while the artists they championed, from Pollock to the Conceptualists and beyond, soon became the servants of the critics’ pet ideas.

Throughout The Painted Word, Wolfe carefully avoids taking aim at modern art per se, which he disparages only indirectly or by implication. (“As for the paintings—de gustibus non disputandum est. But the theories, I insist, were beautiful.”) Despite his famously dandyish suits, Wolfe is not an aesthete but a social satirist first and foremost, and the real subject  of his book is the incestuous art community, which he estimates (in 1975, but perhaps little has changed since then) to comprise no more than 10,000 members worldwide. Having dubbed this community Cultureburg (a weak pun on the surnames of the critics mentioned), Wolfe skewers it by tracing the way in which idiosyncratic, often half-baked theories spread throughout it—”virally,” as we would now say—to become unquestioned dogma. Thus The Painted Word is a study in what Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.”

As such, it succeeds wonderfully; the apoplectic reactions it received from artists and critics upon its publication testified to the nerve it had struck. An especially ripe target of Wolfe’s scorn is Greenberg’s concept of flatness, i.e., the discarding of all three-dimensional effects such that a painting does not violate “the integrity of the picture plane.” In theory, a recipe for an interesting mode of representation, but in practice, an increasingly absurd dogma that sent artists scrambling to achieve “purity” by ridding their art of all “illusions”—and finally, of any content whatsoever. Following this madness through Wolfe’s jaundiced eye is heady fun, and tends to confirm the worst suspicions of those who, like me, are skeptical of much modern art to begin with.

At the same time, there are some obvious flaws in the argument Wolfe advances, even if the nature of the book makes these somewhat unavoidable. He doesn’t quote the criticism of Greenberg, et al. at length, allowing them to “defend themselves” properly; he savages them rather than engaging with them. But of course, to engage at length would slow the pace of the satire, and the interested reader is free to read these critics’ lucubrations in full if he or she dares. Likewise, Wolfe doesn’t advance any aesthetic values of his own to counter those he mocks—but again, he is interested in social observation, not art criticism, and would have undercut his own detached perspective by posturing as a rival Clement Greenberg. If this approach occasionally causes him to underrate some worthwhile artists—such as Roy Lichtenstein, whose wit and technical skill Wolfe can’t quite bring himself to denounce entirely—then the sacrifice seems necessary to a case that, at the time, was crying out to be made.

In the end, the most serious failure of the book is one of prophecy. Like many a satirist—Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind—Wolfe has a keen eye for the past and present and virtually no insight into the future. At the close of The Painted Word, he imagines enlightened 21st-century art scholars looking back with “sniggers, laughter, and good-humored amazement” at the follies of their forebears. In reality, of course, we have plenty of our own follies to contend with: a contemporary art market facing a dangerous speculative bubble (this can’t be too surprising to the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities); contemporary art that often strives simply to feed that market; and a critical landscape that is still overrun with Theory, less and less of it “literate” in any sense. New voices are needed to satirize these new absurdities, since Wolfe, whose prose in 1975 was already problematic (Oh, exclamation point! How quickly you ruin otherwise decent sarcasm!) and has steadily degenerated since, is no longer the man for the job. Neither is the author of this post, but I hold out hope that the ultimate peanut gallery, the blogosphere, will eventually produce someone capable of filling Wolfe’s shoes—and that the art scene will eventually produce more of the only real cure for bad theory: good art.

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On "The Painted Word"

tomwolfe

Image courtesy tomwolfe.com

Note: We are discarding the editorial/royal “we” for today’s post.

As a bit of remedial vacation reading, I finally got around last week to reading Tom Wolfe’s 1975 classic The Painted Word. A brief book with a simple yet devastating thesis, it chronicles the process by which, according to Wolfe, modern art from 1950 through 1975 discarded not only realism and representation but also “lines, colors, forms, and contours…frames, walls, galleries, museums” and “disappeared up its own fundamental aperture” to become “Art Theory pure and simple…literature undefiled by vision.” In this new order of things, prominent art critics such as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and later, Leo Steinberg ascended to reign supreme, while the artists they championed, from Pollock to the Conceptualists and beyond, soon became the servants of the critics’ pet ideas.

Throughout The Painted Word, Wolfe carefully avoids taking aim at modern art per se, which he disparages only indirectly or by implication. (“As for the paintings—de gustibus non disputandum est. But the theories, I insist, were beautiful.”) Despite his famously dandyish suits, Wolfe is not an aesthete but a social satirist first and foremost, and the real subject  of his book is the incestuous art community, which he estimates (in 1975, but perhaps little has changed since then) to comprise no more than 10,000 members worldwide. Having dubbed this community Cultureburg (a weak pun on the surnames of the critics mentioned), Wolfe skewers it by tracing the way in which idiosyncratic, often half-baked theories spread throughout it—”virally,” as we would now say—to become unquestioned dogma. Thus The Painted Word is a study in what Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.”

As such, it succeeds wonderfully; the apoplectic reactions it received from artists and critics upon its publication testified to the nerve it had struck. An especially ripe target of Wolfe’s scorn is Greenberg’s concept of flatness, i.e., the discarding of all three-dimensional effects such that a painting does not violate “the integrity of the picture plane.” In theory, a recipe for an interesting mode of representation, but in practice, an increasingly absurd dogma that sent artists scrambling to achieve “purity” by ridding their art of all “illusions”—and finally, of any content whatsoever. Following this madness through Wolfe’s jaundiced eye is heady fun, and tends to confirm the worst suspicions of those who, like me, are skeptical of much modern art to begin with.

At the same time, there are some obvious flaws in the argument Wolfe advances, even if the nature of the book makes these somewhat unavoidable. He doesn’t quote the criticism of Greenberg, et al. at length, allowing them to “defend themselves” properly; he savages them rather than engaging with them. But of course, to engage at length would slow the pace of the satire, and the interested reader is free to read these critics’ lucubrations in full if he or she dares. Likewise, Wolfe doesn’t advance any aesthetic values of his own to counter those he mocks—but again, he is interested in social observation, not art criticism, and would have undercut his own detached perspective by posturing as a rival Clement Greenberg. If this approach occasionally causes him to underrate some worthwhile artists—such as Roy Lichtenstein, whose wit and technical skill Wolfe can’t quite bring himself to denounce entirely—then the sacrifice seems necessary to a case that, at the time, was crying out to be made.

In the end, the most serious failure of the book is one of prophecy. Like many a satirist—Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind—Wolfe has a keen eye for the past and present and virtually no insight into the future. At the close of The Painted Word, he imagines enlightened 21st-century art scholars looking back with “sniggers, laughter, and good-humored amazement” at the follies of their forebears. In reality, of course, we have plenty of our own follies to contend with: a contemporary art market facing a dangerous speculative bubble (this can’t be too surprising to the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities); contemporary art that often strives simply to feed that market; and a critical landscape that is still overrun with Theory, less and less of it “literate” in any sense. New voices are needed to satirize these new absurdities, since Wolfe, whose prose in 1975 was already problematic (Oh, exclamation point! How quickly you ruin otherwise decent sarcasm!) and has steadily degenerated since, is no longer the man for the job. Neither is the author of this post, but I hold out hope that the ultimate peanut gallery, the blogosphere, will eventually produce someone capable of filling Wolfe’s shoes—and that the art scene will eventually produce more of the only real cure for bad theory: good art.

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New Year, Fresh Links

2009

Happy 2009 to all! Now that the champagne has flattened and the headaches (including the headache that was last year) have begun to subside, we thought we’d pour a sparkling libation of links culled from our blissful hours of vacation reading:

We have some choice articles (and images) of our own planned for the coming months, starting with a very fun interview on Monday, so join us next week for the resumption of regular updates—and with it, the dawning of a new annus mirabilis of style.

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2008 Highlights

2008

2008: a year of sweeping political change, jarring economic upheaval, and amidst it all, the official launch of a plucky little weblog called The Abbeville Manual of Style. Most people won’t be sorry to see this year end, but for us it’ll always hold a touch of nostalgic appeal, so we thought we’d take a moment to look back at, and link back to, our favorite 2008 posts. As we noted recently, we couldn’t have picked a wilder year in which to start writing about art, publishing, and New York City, since all are currently undergoing volatile transformations. Perhaps, in hindsight, the Exploding Motorcycle Incident from this summer—which we’ve listed under “Miscellaneous” below—wasn’t so random after all; perhaps it was just a sign of the times.

Art

Travels in Italy, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

Gustave Courbet: The Origin of Style

Culture Wars and Trophy Art

Whitney Museum Hijinx and Those Interstitial Spaces

Books/Publishing

The Great Debate: E-Readers

Literacy Declines; The Semicolon Trembles

Paul Simon, Author

Nobel Savages

Interviews

“Grammar Girl” Mignon Fogarty

Bob Duggan of Art Blog By Bob

Raymond Hammond, Editor of The New York Quarterly

Charles Pfahl, Artist

Miscellaneous

Abbeville vs. Chicago Battles

“Abbeville Gallery” Photography

Exploding Motorcycle!

The Universe

And that was the year that was.

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From the Abbeville Workshop

It’s Abbeville Holiday Gift Book Recommendation Day! Recently we’ve been trying to keep this space clear of blatant advertisements (stealthy links are always to be preferred), but during the holidays it just can’t be helped. One of the nice things, at least, about a little company like ours is that the same people trying to sell you products also had a strong hand in creating those products. Here are a few recent releases that we’re proud to have helped edit and design—and that we think might make excellent gifts for the stylish people in your life. (Click the links below the cover images for full bookpage details.)

egyptian   india2

Egyptian Wall Painting                         Daughters of India

museumoftheirown   tea

A Museum of Their Own                       The Tea Drinker’s Handbook

That’s three beautiful art books, two of which explore and celebrate the (still) underappreciated work of female artists, plus one funky-shaped, steamy tome for tea lovers. And speaking of winter drinks, we thought we’d throw in a bonus today: a couple of classy drink recipes guaranteed to induce merriment, courtesy of Abbeville’s American Bar:

  • Whiskey Hot Toddy
  • 3/4 oz lemon juice
  • 1/4 oz sugar syrup
  • 1 1/2 oz Bourbon
  • lemon
  • clove
  • Heat in a heat-resistant glass, fill with hot water, add lemon slice spiked with clove.
  • Waldorf-Astoria Eggnog
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/4 oz sugar syrup
  • 3/4 oz tawny port
  • 1 1/2 oz Bourbon
  • 3 1/2 oz milk
  • 1/4 oz cream
  • nutmeg
  • Shake well over ice cubes in a shaker, strain into a large highball glass over ice cubes, sprinkle with nutmeg.

In the immortal words of the drunk Santa in Miracle on 34th Street: “It’s cold outside! A man’s gotta do somethin’ to keep warm!” And now if you’ll excuse us, we’re about to have our own jolly holiday lunch here at the office…cheers.

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