On the Art of Life and Vice Versa

by Michael Kimmelman

Penguin Press. 245 pp. $24.95

Museums frame modern art in terms of masters such as Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, but no painter in the 20th century influenced more people more directly than a retired Air Force sergeant named Bob Ross. The lack of critical attention devoted to Ross's oeuvre is understandable, given that most of his estimated 30,000 canvases are hackneyed landscapes, essentially interchangeable. His claim to fame was never the finished work, but rather that he made his art on TV, showing hundreds of millions of people worldwide how to brush in "happy little clouds" on "The Joy of Painting."

Michael Kimmelman's unironic appreciation of Ross is characteristic of his attitude toward art. As chief art critic for the New York Times, Kimmelman has eclectic taste by professional necessity, and the artists he discusses in The Accidental Masterpiece range accordingly, from Jan Vermeer to Marcel Duchamp, Willem de Kooning to Matthew Barney. His depictions are entertaining and insightful, as artful in their own way as many of the works he discusses. What distinguishes these fine essays, though, and gives him unexpected common ground with Bob Ross, is his openness, his generosity toward subject and reader. "I hope to approach the art of seeing here in the spirit of an amateur," he writes in his introduction. "I mean amateur in the original sense of the word, as a lover, someone who does something for the love of it, wholeheartedly."

Of course, it's one thing to have such enthusiasm, quite another to communicate it: A mere 3 percent of those who watched "The Joy of Painting" ever actually touched brush to canvas. Undoubtedly, Kimmelman will also attract his share of fellow travelers -- he frankly admits to writing "a book whose deepest ambition is simply to be a good read for anyone who happens to pick it up" -- but the artists he chooses to write about (Bob Ross aside) are themselves deeply engaged in the act of looking and in opening viewers' eyes through their work.

Perhaps the most straightforward case is Wayne Thiebaud, a contemporary California painter best known for his depiction of cakes and pies, whom Kimmelman admires for showing us "what's right in front of our noses." Because of his popular subject matter and '60s pedigree, Thiebaud is sometimes categorized as a Pop artist. Kimmelman prefers to compare him with the great 18th-century French painter of still lifes and interiors Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin.

On the surface, the two artists' work looks nothing alike: While Chardin secretes careworn crockery and children's toys in darkened rooms, Thiebaud lines up decoratively colored baked goods on white countertops, composing his pictures, like a window-dresser, for maximum optical impact. Yet each artist is deeply engaged in imbuing the everyday with meaning, through the medium of paint. "Heroic artists like Michelangelo or Picasso could conjure up gods and heroes and mythological worlds, which might temporarily distract us from reality, stir our emotions, and elevate us into a higher realm," Kimmelman observes. "But it is the ability of more circumscribed artists to slow our systems, calm our minds, and show us reality as we have probably not considered it." The occasional spectacle is easy to spot, whereas a habit of watchfulness -- the patient eye of connoisseurship -- requires careful cultivation.

Which is not to privilege the quotidian. Kimmelman gives equal attention to artists working at the opposite extreme, most notably James Turrell, who has spent the past several decades tunneling into an Arizona desert volcano called Roden Crater, to create one of the largest works-in-progress of modern times. Turrell's sculptural medium is light, which he has projected, reflected, filtered and refracted to create a dazzling array of optical effects in gallery and museum installations around the world. The rooms inside Roden Crater, precisely positioned under exactingly calibrated apertures, are designed to optimize the experience of celestial phenomena. In one space, the sky appears to fall as the hours pass. In another, the moon aligns every 18.61 years. As Kimmelman describes it, "heightened perception is the goal: becoming more aware of how you see, not just what you see."

The remoteness of Roden Crater, 40 miles north of Flagstaff, is not merely a matter of $6-an-acre real estate: While Thiebaud's paintings remind us of pleasures in easy reach, Turrell's work is emboldened by its isolation and the trouble taken to find it. "Call it controlling if you want," Kimmelman writes, "but the time spent looking and thinking about a work is often proportionate to the effort made to get to it."

Accustomed to his keen critic's eye, Kimmelman is not always mindful of this lesson. If The Accidental Masterpiece has a fault, it is the impression that he gives, through his lucid description of even the most difficult art, that the discipline of connoisseurship is as effortlessly achieved as a Bob Ross landscape. Yet in a culture accustomed to viewing art vicariously through the mass media, if at all, a critic willing to place faith in viewers, guiding them to see for themselves, is a true visionary. *

Jonathon Keats is the art critic for San Francisco Magazine and a conceptual artist.

"Girl with a Pearl Earring," by Jan Vermeer"Nude Descending a Staircase," by Marcel Duchamp"Woman, " by Willem de Kooning