The Accidental Masterpiece

On the Art of Life and Vice Versa
by Michael Kimmelman

ISBN: 0143037331

Kimmelman is the chief art critic for the New York Times, a fact I admit to not knowing until I read a blurb on the back cover. That’s right, I don’t really keep up with NYT art coverage. I do admit to doing Chelsea gallery crawls on the rare occasions when I am in New York, though. What I know about art falls more into the category of knowing what I like when I see it, being willing to surprise myself and see new things, and searching out more information when something catches my interest.

All of which is to say that you don’t need to have majored in Art History or have a membership at the Met to enjoy this book. Kimmelman can write, and he is more interested in telling stories and thinking, as it were, out loud than he is in being a snob and showing off. That he has been able to get access to things most people can’t is true: that he manages to make you feel not jealous, but curious is skill.

The frame for his essays is not so much the sweep of art history or the politics of the art world, but what I think are more curious concerns. These are revealed in the titles, all starting with “the art of”: making a world, being artless, having a lofty perspective, making art without lifting a finger, collecting lightbulbs, maximizing your time, finding yourself when you are lost, staring productively at naked bodies, the pilgrimage, gum-ball machines and other simple pleasures.

You don’t have to be familiar with the artists he writes about; his essays provide the necessary context. Seeing larger or color reproductions of some of the works he talks about would have been good, but then the book wouldn’t be the kind of paperback you could tuck in a small bag and read on the subway or in a coffee shop. I understand the tradeoff, and think it was the right one to make, even if it did make me wish I was perhaps reading this on my iPad, with links off see more about the artists or to zoom in on the detail of an unfamiliar (and they were pretty much all unfamiliar to me) painting.

If you are interested in thinking about art, or how to think about art in more expansive contexts, you’ll probably like this book. I did.

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