At Large  March 21, 2022  Barbara A. MacAdam

Art Books to Add to Your Reading List Spring 2022

Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash.

As I edge out of almost-post-pandemic confusion and lethargy, three books have awakened my curiosity and steered it in very different directions, together navigating the treacherous shoals of the twentieth-century art world.

University of Chicago Press.

Cover of Harold Rosenberg: A Critic‘s Life by Debra Bricker Balken.

The most notable of these three books is the biography Harold Rosenberg: A Critics Life by art historian and critic Debra Bricker Balken. An exceptional achievement, the book is both fact-filled and nuanced.

A Socialist and contrarian, the Brooklyn-born Jew was best known as the art critic of the New Yorker from 1962 to 78 and for his famous essay “The Herd of Independent Minds.” He also coined the term “action painting” in an essay for ARTnews in reference to the gestural Abstract Expressionists.

Balken describes an often controversial twentieth-century figure in Rosenberg. He was a brilliant intellectual, a wise guy, a bully, insecure, an outsider, a lothario, and a leader in the literary and artistic life of the period.

He was connected to and engaged with all who mattered at the time: from Sartre to Hannah Arendt to (of course) Clement Greenberg, whose Formalism stood in irritating opposition to Rosenberg’s “action” position.

© The Saul Steinberg Foundation: Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Saul Steinberg, Portrait of Harold Rosenberg, 1972. Watercolor, crayon.

Rosenberg could take a joke. We still see his huge, intimidating image in the depictions of cartoonist Saul Steinberg. When he began writing for the New Yorker, he was affectionately taunted by the painter Ad Reinhardt, who wrote: ”You belong to the slicks now yet you still talk to working-class stiffs like me, you’re ok, Ad.”

Courtesy of Penguin Press.

Cover of Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by Alexander Nemerov.

Differently formidable was Helen Frankenthaler, whose coming of age is observed in Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by Alexander Nemerov, who guides us through the privileged precincts of Frankenthaler’s life. The book intimately traces a decade in the development of the artist.

The daughter of Supreme Court judge Alfred Frankenthaler, she attended the Dalton School where she studied with Mexican mural painter Rufino Tamayo and then Bennington College, where she was taught by abstractionist Paul Feeley.

New York city mid-century was elegant and inviting; bohemian and bourgeois cultures coexisted and interacted. Frankenthaler was of both worlds.

The book features the stars and highlights of the art world at the time, her five-year tempestuous relationship with Clement Greenberg, and her bumpy marriage to Robert Motherwell.

We witness the city itself, the jealousies among friends, Frankenthaler’s intellectual influences, and her artistic ones, from Rubens to Pollock and Gorky.

Frankenthaler said of Rubens that his paintings gave her “a charge.” She once mused, “I do think that the first second of seeing a great painting is only a charge; and then you can look at the whys of it.”

Nemerov explains that Frankenthaler wanted to achieve that in her work and to “convey the sense of being alive at a certain time,” and points to the crucial artistic tension between abstraction and figuration.

Cover of The Vanished Collection by Pauline Baer de Perignon.

Cover of The Vanished Collection by Pauline Baer de Perignon.

Pauline with the de Largilliére painting.
Julien Baer. 

Pauline with the de Largilliére painting.

Lastly, there is the disturbing but gently told mystery entitled The Vanished Collection by Pauline Baer de Perignon. This true story of a single, “forgotten” episode in a long-running series of art-restitution sagas reveals how an inexperienced, self-taught investigator uncovered a Nazi-era art theft through clever detection and extraordinary persistence. 

The author, a young mother and writer in Paris, inadvertently discovers the life of her great-grandfather, a prominent German-Jewish art collector, as well as his collection of Impressionist paintings. She can only view these artworks—which include a striking de Largilliére painting—through images in a dust-covered book found tucked away in her aunt’s library. As she begins to unravel the threads of the mystery, she also untangles the roots of her own uncomfortable heritage as a Jew in post-WW2 Paris.  

Sotheby's

Nicolas de Largillierre, Portrait of a Lady as Pomona, c 1710-14. Sold at Sotheby’s New York for $1.23 million.

It’s a tale about the restitution of an eighteenth-century painting by Nicolas de Largilliére and how de Perignon tracks down her roots as she runs into distant, unknown family members, and reflects on the nature of shame and pride in the lives of victims. 

At one point, De Perignon reflects on how she could have asked her father to tell her about Jules Strauss had he not died when she was only twenty. She writes, “It was before I was bold enough to ask him about the war, about his parents and grandparents, about his emotions and his memories.”

Her journey of discovery takes us from the occupation of France to the present time, all in pursuit of when and whether these paintings were stolen by Nazis.

Her curiosity piqued, she turned to detective work beginning at the Museé D’Orsay, where a librarian told her how she would have to trace everything, from the provenances of her grandfather’s holdings to his friends and his collecting propensities. Her pursuit ultimately took her through the archives of the Louvre, the Dresden Museum, and Gestapo records and led her to Marc Masurovsky, the American co-founder and director of research at the Holocaust Art Restitution Project. 

The punchline is that the splendid de Largilliére painting sold at Sotheby’s New York for $1.23 million on January 27.

About the Author

Barbara A. MacAdam

Barbara A. MacAdam is a New York-based freelance editor and writer, who worked at ARTnews for many years as well as for Art and Auction, New York Magazine, Review Magazine, and Latin American Literature and Arts. She currently reviews regularly for The Brooklyn Rail.

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