It is doubtful readers will ever look at a Goya with Roy Lichtenstein, or visit the Constables at the Victoria and Albert Museum with Francis Bacon. So readers should be grateful to Michael Kimmelman for letting them in on the conversation as he accompanies working artists through several of the world’s greatest museums. Unfortunately, there is a parsimonious allocation of pictures. While Lucian Freud haunts London’s National Gallery after hours or Kiki Smith darts about the Met, the poor reader is left paging through a meager allocation of black-and-white illustrations.
Even these selections are often set rather inconsiderately against the text, so that while Kimmelman looks at Velasquez with Leon Golub or Cezanne with Brice Marden, the third member of the party is left alone in a sea of text. Sometimes, hunting hopefully onward while finger-marking his place, he tracks down an illustration several pages further on. All too frequently, the search is fruitless. It is not easy to appreciate Hans Haacke on Courbet, or Lichtenstein on Cezanne or Gauguin, with no visual aid at all.
It must, then, be a tribute to Kimmelman’s direct, journalistic style that this is ultimately such an enjoyable collection. It is exciting to venture with the journalist and Lucian Freud into London’s National Gallery in the small hours, or to join the knot of people who gather to hear Richard Serra expound in front of Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm.” It is a thrill, even to leaf through a book of paintings from the Louvre with Balthus, venerable but frail, and it is great fun to take Cindy Sherman to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for her first time in ages. Delacroix thought all artists should go to museums to steep themselves from time to time in great and beautiful works of art. Kimmelman has allowed readers the privilege of tagging along.