A Gentle Times Critic Goes On a Grand Tour

There are few things more humiliating than crying in Chicago. (One of them is crying in Detroit, which I have also done.)

Not long ago, I spent the optimal amount of time in Chicago, which is five hours. As a matter of habit, I spent those hours at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1997, the museum received from the Lannan Foundation a passel of Gerhard Richter paintings. The paintings, including Woman Descending the Staircase, were temporarily installed in a very claustrophobic room.

For no known reason, alone and pressed upon by these wild cold paintings, I had a … something. An ecstasy? A moment of exhaustion? A revelation?

And then I returned, myself and not myself, to the train station and continued out west.

That experience is, with fewer tears, the subject of Michael Kimmelman’s wide-roaming, friendly and erudite new book, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. His idea, expressed as a non-chronological junket of artists far and near, is a simple one, and populist at heart: He believes that there are more ways of making and enjoying art than can be contained on canvas and in stuffy galleries.

Mr. Kimmelman, the mild-natured chief art critic of The New York Times, has been for a while now less a critic and more a hagiographer. He has seemed unwilling to use his position as a pulpit.

His recent review of the Robert Smithson exhibition at the Whitney ran as a long, long introductory profile. When he returned from the Venice Biennale this June, he emphasized its “Rashomon-like” nature: Visitors there couldn’t, or wouldn’t, decide what they liked, he reported, and only then, gently, did he offer his own endorsements. In May, for the Times Magazine, he profiled 97-year-old architect Oscar Niemeyer. Most memorably, early this year he nailed a profile of the reclusive Nevadan land artist Michael Heizer.

It’s clear that Mr. Kimmelman likes and respects artists. And he’s wise to have found himself this niche. Daily arts criticism is grueling; it requires a constant, intense clarity possessed by very few. And I presume that the best way to remain unsullied by the resurgent importance of the marketplace in the art world is to turn to the lives of our largely non-commercial saints.

But Mr. Kimmelman isn’t merely steering clear; he’s also stepped up to confront the dark forces at work. In May, he attacked the tacky ways of museum money-making, calling MoMA “Modernism Inc.” and P.S.1’s Greater New York exhibition “a shallow affair in thrall to the booming art market.” Last month, he denounced the whorishness of today’s museums. For the even-tempered Mr. Kimmelman, writing that “museums, having devalued their principles for short-term gains, may earn the public’s contempt in the long run” is akin to a less kindly—but still accurate—critic declaring, “These fuckers are crooks!”

And The Accidental Masterpiece is Mr. Kimmelman’s quiet explication of the philosophy that guides this daily work.

But … I once had a lover who believed that he was different because he was an artist. He’s in prison now—not a coincidence—and so he no longer has the opportunity to paint. And yet he still carries this identity status with him. His relation to his government, to his home, his clothing: Everything is predicated on (or, more often, excused by) this sense of identity.

The idea that an artist is a different sort of person is a lie. “To live intensely is one of the basic human desires and an artistic necessity,” writes Mr. Kimmelman of Pierre Bonnard and us all. These essentialist ideas about artisthood scamper—discreetly, for the most part—throughout the book. Mr. Kimmelman’s thesis and, I think, his true belief is that the joys of art may be found in pilgrimage, in obsession, in collecting, in enjoying extremely private activities, even in just looking. Any of us, artist or not, can experience this joy. But Mr. Kimmelman cannot quite shake the mistaken idea that artists are a race apart.

“Most artists, like most people,” he writes, and the emphasis is mine, “have one good idea or maybe two in life, and that sustains them.”

The book reaches a climax with one of his favorite topics, the great outdoor artists, particularly Michael Heizer. These are difficult folk, rugged outsiders with big personalities: Donald Judd, James Turrell, Walter De Maria. Mr. Kimmelman writes, “It occurred to me, talking with [Heizer], why all these artists chose enormous western states … to work in: perhaps they imagined no puny eastern state was big enough to hold two of them.” Which is a funny line, and therefore totally worth it, but surely the megalomania of the earth artist is not very different from that of the i-banker?

But Mr. Kimmelman wants to believe, and that’s enough. His guided tour—of the Victorian photographs of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson; of Antarctic photographer and Shackleton expedition member Frank Hurley; of Cézanne and Bonnard; of the blessed television painter Bob Ross; of Eva Hesse; of Nazi victim Charlotte Salomon; of Dr. Hugh Hicks, the dentist who collected 75,000 light bulbs—trips intelligently and casually through time and space and across all genres.

As a travelogue, The Accidental Masterpiece rings absolutely true, and just lovely.

This is what Mr. Kimmelman means:

Two artists I know (and once represented, when I was misguidedly an art dealer), a sculptor, Stefanie Nagorka, and a painter, Joy Garnett, took a trip together to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Although seeing the Jetty—and, as Mr. Kimmelman points out, making a pilgrimage of the flight and the difficult drive is an essential component in the pleasure of that sort of artwork—was impressive and meaningful to them, they were most taken with something else.

This something else was orange flags on sticks. The flags are used in Salt Lake City, apparently, by street-crossers. Little baskets of them wait at the intersections. Although this civic program had only begun there in 2000—it had spread from Washington State and has since made it as far as Washington, D.C.—the flags seemed like the amazing remnant of some ancient and foreign ritual.

And it was the mystery of the orange flags—site-specific, and magical, and alien—that transported them artistically. And so, of course, they had to have them. They stole some, and brought them home with them.

Choire Sicha is a senior editor at The Observer. A Gentle Times Critic Goes On a Grand Tour