In our own ways, we can all relate to New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman's idea of art as "points of contact with things greater than myself." Indeed, the mild-mannered Kimmelman is nothing if not humble in the face of art. In his new book of ruminative essays, "The Accidental Masterpiece" (256 pages. Penguin Press), Kimmelman engagingly examines art matters ranging from Michael Heizer's massive 30-years-and-counting earthwork project in the Nevada desert to the late whispery-voiced TV art instructor Bob ("happy little cloud") Ross. On the other hand, Cambridge University art historian Alyce Mahon--often described in print as "feisty"--has an agenda. In "Surrealism and the Politics of Eros, 1938-1968" (240 pages. Thames & Hudson), she sets out to prove that surrealism didn't die with the fall of Paris in World War II. Indeed, she contends, its combination of sex and subversiveness survived to play a big part in the political upheavals of 1968 and is still alive today in "artists, writers, thinkers and activists who are committed to the power of the unconscious."
Taken together, these two books demonstrate the range and power of modern art, as well as the value of both casual and scholarly responses to it. From the critic's traditional vantage points of a quiet gallery and a comfy armchair, Kimmelman tenderly considers soap bubbles and gumballs painted centuries apart by Chardin and Wayne Thiebaud. But he also gets off his duff and actually climbs Cezanne's beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire. (Of course, Kimmelman nerdishly buys his "first pair of hiking boots... on the Upper West Side of Manhattan" in order to do so.) In the poignant chapter "The Art of the Pilgrimage," our intrepid critic visits a Matthew Barney film shoot in the Utah salt flats and, as the sun sets, finds himself lost with a photographer in a jeep stuck in a rising desert sea. Anybody who's that self-effacingly reckless about going to see art deserves our attention.
Mahon is less intellectually modest. Her estimation of the power of Woman in surrealism portends a feminist slant on that male-dominated art movement. But she makes her case fairly and clearly. Born of Freud and the hideousness of the first world war, surrealism was a vital cultural part of the resistance against the Nazis. Mahon maintains that through four rather "official" exhibitions in 1938, '47, '59 and '65, the movement nurtured a "surrealpolitik" that--at least up through the 1960s student uprisings--made it an effective thorn in the side of repressive bourgeois orthodoxy.
Both books have their shortcomings. Surprisingly, for a leftist scholar, Mahon misses an opportunity to explore how nasty ole capitalism co-opted surrealism into just another form of entertainment. And after a while, Kimmelman's regular-guy niceness wears a bit thin. You wish he'd take an intemperate potshot or two at artistic self-indulgence and pretentiousness. But Kimmelman is right to say that "not all art comes to you, or even should come to you, easily. Sometimes you have to go to some length to meet it." For serious art lovers, these two books should be pleasurable first steps.