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November 18, 1987 - Image 63

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1987-11-18

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So Chic,
So Glossy
Art history on the run
know I've succeeded when my work is
talked about as though it were a movie
that had just been seen," says the artist
Eric Fischl. His strange, voyeuristic paint-
ings of suburban family life provoke a lot of
conversation-as do surprising works by
several other celebrated contemporary art-
ists. But how can you keep up with what's
hot and what's not now that art talk is as
fashionable as cinematic chatter? One de-
terminedly trendy guide is the Vintage
Contemporary Artists series, which offers
a little bit of art in a glossy package.
Designer Elizabeth Avedon dreamed up
the series and chose hip subjects for the
first four books: Fischl, David Salle,
Francesco Clemente and Robert Rauschen-
berg. She got her father-in-law, Richard
Avedon, to shoot the artists for the covers.
And she decided to keep things brief. Un-
like hefty art tomes that can break your
budget (or your foot, if you drop them),
these slender paperbacks are economical-
$9.95 each-if skimpy on pictures, with
only eight pages of black-and-white illus-
trations and four pages of color apiece.
The texts, each a long interview with
the artist conducted by a critic, can get
pretty windy. Elder statesman Rauschen-
berg, at 60, is the most fun to read. From
the deck of his weatherbeaten cottage on
Captiva Island, Fla., he recalls New York
of the 1950s, when few artists were either
rich or famous. Rauschenberg remembers
when he and avant-garde composer John
Cage sold some books one day to buy
lunch-a shared kosher pickle and beers.
He painted his famous "Bed" (1955) on a
quilt because he'd run out of other things
to paint on. But his interlocutor, critic
Barbara Rose, is too friendly. Rauschen-
berg barely mentions Jasper Johns, a
close friend in the early days, and she
never asks about their falling out.
Of the young bucks, Fischl, 39, is the
most forthright, chatty and occasionally
humorous. He describes how his paintings
are made ("my backgrounds come from
magazine photos") and delves into the
Freudian aspects of his primal scenes. "I
wanted to shock the audience," he admits.
Salle, 35, the brooding intellectual, is far
more obtuse, though sometimes inadvert-
ently revealing. He somehow doesn't un-

Forthright, chatty and downright humorous: Front and back jacket for Clemente book

derstand why his paintings-often shad-
owy images of half-dressed, contorted
women-offend feminists.
Inevitably, there's a lot of art babble on
these pages. Clemente, 35, who divides his
time between New York, his native Italy
and India, gets caught between his too-me-
ticulous English and Eastern mysticism.
He can be as lyrically baffling as his beauti-
ful art work or he can sound just plain
buggy. But at least he's earnest: "If people
could think of works of art and atomic
bombs and social structures as having the
same degree of reality in them, we would
make atremendous step forward in terms of
living." That's a nice thought, but like most
of the words in these books, it just reminds
you of what a single picture is worth.
An Exceptional Trip
The sojourn began on little more than a
whim: after two years as a graduate
student in economics at China's Nan-
jing University, Vikram Seth decided to
save money and hitchhike home to New
Delhi via Tibet. True, it would be a grueling
and perilous two-month trip of about 1,200
miles, but Seth was banking on the rewards
of taking the road less traveled. His gamble
paid off. Starting from Heaven Lake, nes-
tled in the desert of the northwestern prov-
ince of Xinjiang, he wound across the snow-
capped Himalayas, then trekked by foot
through mossy bamboo forests near Ne-

pal-and managed to glimpse a remote cor-
ner of China that few foreigners have seen.
Seth's keen perceptions and graceful
prose make From Heaven Lake (192 pages. Vin-
tage. $5.95) an exceptional travelogue. He
deftly evokes China's maddening bureau-
cracy and the tensions. between the Chi-
nese and ethnic minorities. In the few cities
he passes through, Seth notes the socialist
drabness of "standard shop cuboids," and
describes poor cobblers and tailors sitting
on the streets, "looking desultorily at the
dust whirling about in a sudden wind."
Most importantly, he etches poignant
portraits of the people he encounters-Chi-
nese, Muslims and Tibetans alike. There's
the soldier who graciously gives him a lift
on his bicycle; comradely Sui, a chain-
smoking truckdriver with an obsession for
fishing; and Norbu, a young Tibetan in
Lhasa who tells how his family was perse-
cuted during the Cultural Revolution.
Time and again, Seth is struck by their
kindness-all the more remarkable, he
notes, "from a people into whom a suspi-
cion of foreigners has long been instilled."
For all the kindnesses, Seth's journey is
filled with hard beds, bumpy roads and
spartan meals of bean curd and rice. By the
time he finally arrives in bustling Katman-
du, the mundane pleasures of "civiliza-
tion"-Coca-Cola, Tobler marzipan and
Reader's Digest-have taken on a wonder-
ful new meaning. But Seth also has the less
tangible joys that are the ultimate reward
of the adventurous traveler: a trove of
warm memories and the feeling, he says, of
being "more at home in the world."



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