The Magazine

The Standard Reader

Thomas M. Disch on Roger Kimball, David Skinner on Sarah Stewart Taylor, and more.

Sep 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 03
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Books in Brief

Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in An Age of Celebrity by Roger Kimball (Ivan R. Dee, 275 pp., $26). Nothing so conduces to make one's opinions seem incontrovertible as to find a critic who announces them as his own. I think Richard Diebenkorn is the greatest American painter of the last forty years; Roger Kimball ranks him among the best four or five. I think the huge ark of minimalist art at the Dia:Beacon museum is an aesthetic boondoggle on a par with Teapot Dome. Roger Kimball is no less appalled and inveighs against its New York Times promoters as "cynical" and "ultimately pathetic." Clearly, Kimball knows his business.

The only judgments he makes that I can't vigorously second are of painters I haven't seen: John Dubrow, Odd Nerdrum, William Bailey. His reviews make me hungry to see what I've missed, if only in a color plate. Sadly, his book lacks that pricey amenity. But in his summary assessments of painters familiar from books and museums he allots stars and demerits judiciously, demurring as to the greatness of Paul Klee, who is only "a major minor artist," and giving a gentle boost to Fernand Leger's sagging reputation.

Finally, as with most collections of reviews, pith and vinegar are at a premium, and it is in Kimball's pans and pot-shots that he comes into his own. Few critics are candid in their detestations, but Kimball is an honest hater: deadpan in delivery, deadly in his accuracy, especially against critics writing in doublespeak, like the lamentable Rosalind Krauss. Any art lover who has despaired of the debased currency of contemporary art criticism will find good cheer in "Art's Prospect."

--Thomas M. Disch

O' Artful Death by Sarah Stewart Taylor (St. Martin's, 279 pp., $23.95). "I'm imagining you as a corpse. You'd be lovely." That's the opening of my friend Sarah Stewart Taylor's winning mystery. "O' Artful Death" follows gravestone-art expert Sweeney St. George as she pursues the true story behind an unusual headstone in the cemetery at an old artists' colony in Vermont.

Byzantium, the colony, has the self-important air of such communities, distinguished by artistic aspiration if not achievement. But it is also a place of warmth and charm. And there would be something perfect about this failed utopia were it not beset by a string of recent crimes that have escalated to include murder.

At first the murders appear related to a land dispute over the possible construction of ski-bum condos--a typical instance of the novel's comic spirit. An after-dinner scene of Byzantium descendants gets boozy, and one character speculates, "Is impressionism justification for homicide, but not Dadaism?"

Among its many accomplishments, "O' Artful Death" reminds one of the joys of fictional weather and physical scenes. The reader wishes it were already winter and he were stomping down the snowy lanes of rural Vermont with a thermos of cocoa in his pack. And the story's wintry atmosphere of promise unrealized hangs sweetly over every page. To her credit, Stewart Taylor is generous with her funny old WASPs, creaking floors, and stories of artists never to set the world on fire.

--David Skinner

Brideshead Regained by Michael Johnston (Akanos, 320 pp., $24.95). A sequel to Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited." I've always thought the worst idea ever to come down the literary pike was the attempt to write a sequel to Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita." I was wrong.

--J. Bottum