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An Interview with Michael Kimmelman, Part II

Michael Kimmelman is the main art critic for The New York Times. He also contributes to The New York Review of Books. His most recent book is The Accidental Masterpiece.

As loyal readers may recall, I heard him speak with Alain de Botton at the 92nd St. Y a little while ago. I chatted with him earlier this week about the things one learns from collectors, throwing out books, and the 2007 art world. Part one of our converesation is here.

Liz Lopatto: Near the end of the chapter “The Art of Collecting Light Bulbs,” you write about these psychiatrists who had come around interviewing collectors to find out why they collect. And Dr. Hicks’ take is that they found out that collectors do it for the fascination of an object. Having talked to these people yourself, would you agree?

Michael Kimmelman: I’m not a collector myself. I’ve never had this particular desire. Unfortunately, I don’t make enough money to collect anything like art. I myself don’t have this passion for lightbulbs. But I think that the beauty part of that, of the doctor’s remarks, is that he ended up stating the most obvious thing about it that you can imagine, that it was the fascination of the object.

I think that doesn’t quite fully say why people like Dr. Hicks collect. Which is, yes, the fascination of the object, but not just its rarity or its beauty or its historical significance. It’s something to do with the connection between possessing that object, with being able to have some personal connection with this thing, which itself might transcend you, the collector, last longer than you, and give you some perch, like art itself, on immortality, on lasting longer than your own life. There are all these emotional intangibles that collectors feel, I think, beyond just collecting.
And maybe there is also something to do with making order out of a chaotic world. If you can put together a collection that has meaning, it almost doesn’t matter whether the things themselves are highly valued, like expensive works of art. But there’s something that you create order out of, through your collection. That little world of order is probably the heart of this issue of fascination. That’s what separates people who collect because they want to have stuff from true collectors, who themselves, I think, can be as creative as any artist.

LL: What do you think a museum curator could learn from these amateurs?

MK: Well, for one thing, the thing I learned from looking around these kinds of collections and from walking around museums with artists is that it’s important to get away from the expected, traditional, art-historically-correct, official Chelsea-based ways of looking at and talking about art. And feeling liberated to just do the unexpected, and put things together so that people look at them and are surprised.

Some of the most successful shows that museums like the Metropolitan, and the National Gallery in London and the Modern here in New York have done–the most traditional and powerful institutions–is to get artists in there and ask them to curate shows, which always end up being eccentric, which forces people to look at works of art in fresh ways. I think people come out of these shows and feel delighted by being told, first of all, that there isn’t a single way to look at art, but also by the idea of having seen something that they hadn’t ever seen before, or especially by something that they had seen before but hadn’t thought of in the way the show presented it. What I’m saying is that curators have to feel liberated, too, to just open their eyes and look around.

On the whole, it’s a tough job being a curator, of course, because you’re often caught in a tug of war between your desire to add something useful, art-historically, through the exhibition, and also to create something entertaining visually, something engaging for the general public, which needs to come to the museum if the museum is to have any value. And those things are often in some kind of tension. Curating itself is a real art when it’s done right, and it’s something that, I think, involves the creative imagination, not just the straight-forward, academically precise mind.

LL: In writing this book, you drew from your personal experience. I am thinking here specifically of Alex. He wrote something that you quoted that I thought was absolutely lovely: “Life makes sense not when reason tells you everything is as it should be. Life makes sense when some imponderable and apparently random event confirms your most irrational prejudices about the world.” Can you tell me a little more about him?

MK: I got to know Alex in college, and he was in my circle of friends, through my girlfriend at that time, and he was one of these wonderful, exotic figures, you know, raised in Europe, and always surrounded by a blue halo of Gauloise smoke. He was a brooding, somewhat sardonic character, but he was also an impeccable gentleman, and that combination was great. He clearly had set out to be a novelist, and knew this early on, and so he had all the affectations of the troubled literary figure, even as a college kid, and certainly a few years afterwards. So I think I was attached to Alex because he figured out life–certainly before I did. He was a complicated but loveable person.

And then, you know, we would see each other quite often here in New York, and I just saw him do things that seemed very adult. One of them was throwing out books, which I had never seen anyone do and seemed somehow sacrilegious. He did it with such confidence and panache, and he did it because it meant he knew what he liked and what he didn’t, and knew what he wanted. He only had so much room in his apartment, so many shelves, and it was a small studio apartment on the east side near the UN. So if he liked a book–and he was constantly getting new ones–he had to get rid of an equivalent book, a book or books of equivalent width, so the new book could fit on the shelf.

It was kind of funny that he was doing this all the time, but it didn’t seem like an important point, exactly, and then somehow, you know, in the way that these small little details in life can stick in our minds and have some larger role, I just came to see it as something symbolic, of making something creative and meaningful out of a simple act. I mean, I’m surrounded at this very second by piles of books, most of which I’ve never opened, and it’s just a sign of my indecision. I don’t know what to do. I’m too lazy, confused, and distracted to figure this out. But Alex made this constantly-changing library–if we can call it that–into something like a garden, something he was constantly tending.

And once I thought about it, it came to seem to me like a kind of self-portrait of Alex. There were other things, of course, about Alex that I don’t mention in the book that always stayed with me, and one of them was his–he only finished one novel before he died, and it reflected his interests and potential as a writer. He was one of the first people, maybe my first close friend who died. We were not so many years out of school. So naturally, Alex had a place in my memory, which goes beyond the fact that he threw out books. But I see that as a stand-in for his essentially creative imagination, and in a strange way, you might even say his bravery, because most of us don’t have the will to chuck a book if we’ve decided we don’t want it anymore.

LL: Has his novel been published?

MK: It was published, and like thousands and thousands of novels published every year, it had a brief life. It’s called Afghanistan and it reflects, I think, his particular–looking back on it now, years later–love for Nabokov, and also comes out of, as do many novels written by people hardly out of school, his experience in boarding school in Switzerland. So it sort of combines bits of Nabokov’s book, Glory, with personal memories and thwarted love affairs. It’s very much a young man’s novel, and I think he would have gone on to do really quite remarkable things.

He was really a funny person, and for a while worked at Elle magazine, in its early days. He was a wicked source of information about what it meant to be working as a young man at a women’s fashion magazine.

LL: This is a terribly, terribly broad question, but I’m afraid I have to ask. You said the state of American art was sprawling. What do you see happening in 2007 in the art world?

MK: You know, I don’t make predictions because I can’t even figure out what the hell I’m doing this afternoon. [laughs] It wouldn’t be uncommon for people to say, and I think this is more wishful thinking than anything else, that the art market which dominates the way people now think about art, will have–what is it called on Wall Street?–a correction. That happened before, and caused much hand-wringing and bank-account checking. But also I think maybe it could be a useful thing for the art world–not that one doesn’t wish people success, just that success now has a lot to do with just the sheer amount of cash that floats into the art world, and not particularly to do with the quality of all the things that are sold for lots of money.

Besides which, let’s face it: there is something absolutely obscene about rich people spending quite this much money on works of art when there are other things in the world one could spend their extra $150 million on. I hate the sort of crude argument, “Why are you spending a million dollars on a painting when there are people starving in Africa?” but on the other hand, when you start getting into figures like $140, $150 million dollars, it just reflects what can only be described as a horrible social pathology, and there’s something so twisted about the idea that this is a useful way for us to distribute our fortunes. It’s somehow immoral.

LL: Which artists–if any–are you thinking are promising?

MK: You can ask away, but I really can’t answer that question, because first of all, I don’t know and second of all, I hate to hitch my wagon to an artist in particular. But I always find that just at the moments when I’m feeling all is lost, there turns out to be something really interesting going on. We’re talking right now, when Art Basel is on in Miami, this orgy of capitalist excess and socializing, and right now I’m writing about a guy, Rick Lowe, who started something called Project Row Houses in Houston. Rick’s effort to combine artist residencies with genuinely important social programs–he has a young mothers program, with residencies for young mothers who want to finish school, housing for those with low income. And this is all in the third ward of Houston, which is predominantly black and has been so for a while a poor part of Houston and is now being gentrified, in part because of the success of people like Rick Lowe. So his job now is to preserve the historic elements and to create affordable housing that mixes with residencies for artists, because that whole mix of art and community and work has proven to be very successful for him there. You know, and while people are busy throwing their money around, there are also people out there doing something really remarkable, maybe the most remarkable public art program in the country right now.

So just keep your eyes open. You find all sorts of things going on.