Originally Posted: March 1, 2017
The word is out: Willard Spiegelman, Southern Methodist University’s distinguished Hughes Professor of English, is selling his Dallas condo and moving full time to New York and Connecticut.
Spiegelman — author, editor, educator, raconteur — has also long been a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and been Dallas’ most eloquent public voice in the New York media world. It’s bad enough that we’re losing him in person, but as the WSJ radically cuts back on its arts coverage, we risk missing out on him altogether.
But his many fans can take great joy that SMU’s DeGolyer Library has produced a fulsome and beautifully illustrated book of his visual arts and architecture criticism. If You See Something, Say Something is a celebration of Spiegelman’s Dallas years — all 47 of them. The book organizes 45 of his Journal reviews into three geographical categories: Texas, Elsewhere in the United States and The Rest of the World.
Pride of place goes to his adopted city, Dallas, to which Spiegelman maintains a studied distance — “in it, not of it,” one might say. Yet Spiegelman’s wrestling with what he sees as the best and the worst of his desired Dallas is wonderfully touching; it’s sort of like tough love, the kind we all need.
The essays deal with arts institutions, architecture and works of art. Only the first essay, a review of the Meyerson Symphony Center when it opened, deals with Spiegelman’s love of music. One could contemplate a second volume of this collection that gathers his equally civil reviews of the opera and concert music.
The book also omits his many reviews devoted to temporary exhibitions of works of art. Spiegelman elects permanence over transience in his selection, allowing his readers to test his views because we can visit today everything he wrote about in the past.
For Spiegelman in this collection, Texas is all about architecture, and we can tick off each of the new Dallas-Fort Worth buildings that opened since he began writing for the Journal — from the Meyerson Symphony Center to the Perot Museum of Science and Nature.
Oddly, he never writes at length about the museum building he most admires, Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum, though he does concern himself with a work of art by Jacob van Ruisdael and uses the building as an exemplar with which few other structures can compete.
The “works of art” in his Texas section are two landscape paintings — Frederic Church’s The Icebergs (at the Dallas Museum of Art) and Ruisdael’s Edge of a Forest With a Grainfield — and three works that combine art and architecture, Houston’s Rothko Chapel , Donald Judd’s Marfa work, and James Magee’s The Hill. With the latter two exceptions, Spiegelman avoids the critical pitfalls of contemporary art, preferring the safer territories of generally revered masterpieces of European art history. The arts of Asia, Africa and Latin America are left to others.
As we read this gatherum, the realities of journalism are clearly apparent. The essays are almost uniformly long — or short, one might better say. They have a “hook,” and some of these are delightfully witty, such as “From Embarrassment to Riches” for the Meadows Museum or “Great Art behind Bars” for Albany’s Old Jail Art Center.
They are also scrupulously fair, clear and informed, the latter in an utterly unpretentious, even graceful way. Spiegelman is a judicious critic, rarely panning anything or anyone, but strategically using the weapon of faint praise.
Sometimes Spiegelman has just plain fun — as when he compares Richard Serra’s immense Vortex at the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art to “a giant, upended, rusted Belgian endive.”
Other times, his writing is grave and reasoned. He delights in pointing out that van Dyck was in his 20s when he painted two enormous portraits of a man and his wife, aged 22 and 20 respectively. Reading this in the age of the millennials makes any of us stunned by the youth of this “Old Master” and his equally young Genoese aristocrats.
Do I have any complaints? Clear as the geographical structure of the book is, other even more felicitous methods of organization could be imagined. I am particularly taken with Spiegelman’s love of small, out-of-the-way museums. He goes to Texas museums in Albany and San Antonio; to museums in Shreveport, La., Tulsa, Okla., and Lincoln, Neb.; plus Old Lyme and Farmington, Conn. There is even a visit to an important garden in Kyoto that gives a little tasty otherness of the non-Western to the white-bread of European and American masterpieces.
I confess that I would have preferred a structure that told us more about the true subjects of his verbal inquiries — institutional architecture, small museums and masterpieces — rather than the potpourri of all of these arranged geographically.
Then there are the wonderful essays on individual works of art, at which Spiegelman has stared for hours, often over several days, and thought about deeply. These, too, tend to be by artists we rudely call “dead white males.” But if his material is canonical, his essays never are. Rather than making a case for the greatness of the works he discusses, he simply accepts that condition and enters their pictorial worlds as the crafted illusions they are.
In a way, Spiegelman is now at his peak production, undistracted by teaching and the unending meetings of academic life and producing almost a book a year. Perhaps he can turn his articles into more substantial essays and write new ones so that we can read his criticism not in its retail form, designed to fit the standards of The Wall Street Journal, but as a more sustained investigation of his passions.
For me, Spiegelman’s last sentence in his stunning “review” of the Piazza Navona in Rome is perhaps his critical epitaph. “Nothing overwhelms, but everything impresses.” READ MORE
Rick Brettell is the founding director of the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at the University of Texas at Dallas and a former director of the Dallas Museum of Art.