top of page

It may seem like I read a fair number of dense books and I guess I do, but I always keep a mystery or an espionage novel going. I’ve read a lot of different authors over the years. One of my favorite mystery authors is Michael Connelly. He’s the author of the Harry Bosch novels. Bosch is a fictional police detective in the Los Angeles area. To my way of thinking, the book version of Bosch is not very much like the character as represented in the TV series “Bosch.” The book Bosch definitely has a hard-core side, but he has a saying, “Either everyone counts or no one counts.” He says that whenever there’s a case in which some of the other officers don’t believe the crime is worth investigating because the victim of the crime is a drug dealer or a prostitute or somebody considered the “dregs of society.” Then Bosch says, “Either everyone counts or no one counts.” I find this reflects his more sympathetic side, which I didn’t see much of in the TV portrayal of the character. Like the TV character, though, Bosch in the books is a rebel and he does investigate crimes on his own time because politics have dictated that he should be doing something else or not investigating that crime at all. Bosch also investigates cold cases, aka “hobby cases,” which is common among police mysteries.

Another mystery author I like to read is Robert Crais. He writes the Elvis Cole mysteries. Elvis a private detective and he’s often accompanied in the books by a friend, Joe Pike, who has a security service. One thing I like about the Elvis Cole mysteries is that the author, Crais, seems to have a sense of humor, and sometimes when you are reading so-called hard-boiled mysteries, the hard-coreness can get to you a little bit. Crais’ sense of humor helps to lighten things up. For instance, in his office Elvis Cole has assorted Jiminy Cricket figurines on his desk and a Pinocchio clock whose eyes move from side to side.

One of the things I like about mysteries and espionage novels is when they go into detail about how a crime is solved or even how a crime is plotted, as is the case with Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. That book carefully depicts the pains to which the shooter went in preparing for the assassination of Charles DeGaulle. It describes how the he took three or four separate trips around Europe to obtain things needed for the crime -- identities, the gun and ammunition. Two of the trips were devoted solely to the gun and ammo. On the first of these, he ordered the gun custom made, and on the second he picked it up. Forsyth just went into excruciating detail, and I find that interesting.

When it comes to murder mysteries, the British seem to have a special talent. My wife and I have been watching a lot of British mysteries on Britbox TV lately, including Jonathan Creek, Hercule Poirot, Father Brown, Shakespeare and Hathaway, and of course the various renditions of Sherlock Holmes. All of these have in common a sense of whimsy and humor.

One of the more intriguing mysteries I read was The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. It’s about a murder that happens at a monastery in the 14th century. Umberto Eco was a specialist in Medieval culture as well as a semiotician (semiotics is the study of signs and symbols). I’ve actually read several of his books on semiotics, as well as several other of his fiction books. His books on semiotics are interesting, but in terms of his fiction, The Name of the Rose is best. Foucault’s Pendulum, while not a mystery, would probably come second.

A few years after reading The Name of the Rose I came across a book of annotations for it called the Key to The Name of the Rose. He made a lot of allusions to history, philosophy and literature in The Rose. For instance, part of the plot of the book involves the burning of the library in the monastery. The name of the blind librarian was Jorge of Burgos. This is a reference to the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, who was blind during his later years, was director of Argentina’s National Library, and was a major influence on Eco. Eco’s fictional books are filled with allusions like this.

Espionage writers I’ve read lately include Daniel Silva, Dan Fesperman, and Alan Furst. Some of the authors I read have been journalists and some have actually worked for the CIA. These occupations gave them tremendous knowledge about history and political situations vis-à-vis their book’s plots that other authors with different backgrounds don’t have. I feel like I am learning real history along the way. Alan Furst in particular considers himself a historian. Furst’s books involve the time period in Europe from 1933 – 1944, which covers the rise of Nazism in Europe. His characters and plots always involve Paris, but also usually involve Eastern and Central Europe. Some of Dan Fesperman’s novels also involve these parts of Europe, particularly the Balkans, and it is through Fesperman’s books set in this area that I became interested in Furst’s Balkans books. The cultures of Eastern and Central Europe are interesting to me because they have been influenced by the Far East and Middle East as well as Western Europe. In fact, the people of the Balkans are a nebula of multiculturalism, with different languages, religions, customs, and politics.

Another espionage writer whom I like a lot is Martin Cruz Smith, who wrote Gorky Park. Some of Smith’s fiction is about gypsies. Gypsies apparently have traditionally made their money through either selling horses (nowadays cars) or working in metal. Smith wrote many novels set in Russia with Inspector Arkady Renko as his lead character. Smith made numerous trips to Russia doing research for the Renko novels. I particularly remember one of his books entitled Wolves Eat Dogs which was about the effects of the Chernobyl accident years after it had occurred. Smith talks especially about the effect on the plant and animal life of that region. Smith was a very engaging individual -- I emailed Martin Cruz Smith twice, and he replied both times.

A mystery writer whom I discovered relatively recently is John Harvey, a British writer. Harvey is most famous for his Charlie Resnick novels. Resnick is a police detective who likes jazz and espresso, two things I also like. In fact, the mystery writer Michael Connelly’s Bosch character also likes jazz, some of the same bebop jazz that Charlie Resnick likes. I also emailed John Harvey and he replied. I mentioned I was having trouble finding some of his books in our local library. He asked me which ones I had not read, and lo and behold! He sent me two packages of paperback books. Harvey’s books have a very languorous rhythm, a strong sense of place or atmosphere, and pacing that is very assured. Another thing notable about Harvey is that he features police characters who are black and female.

I’m leaving out a ton of writers here. I went through a phase a few years back where I was reading Scandinavian mysteries: Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, for example), Jussi Adler-Olsen (e.g., The Keeper of Lost Causes), and Henning Mankell (Inspector Kurt Wallander series) among others. One author I can’t leave out is the Scottish author Ian Rankin. His police characters are Detective Inspector John Rebus and Detective Sargent Siobhan Clarke. I have a bit of a problem with the Rebus character finding the solution to his crime while in the deepest alcoholic hazes. That strains credulity. However, one thing that the Rebus character has – and shares with most good police/PI characters – is a dogged determination to solve the case. Walter Moseley’s “Easy” Porterhouse Rawlins in another wonderful character to read. One final novelist I want to mention is Robert B. Parker, who wrote the Spenser series. My wife (who has her doctorate) loves that series because there is a running joke about Spenser’s girlfriend knowing things because she has her PhD. You know, as I keep going I keep thinking of more authors, but I need to stop somewhere. This is it.

4 views0 comments

Photo in Alexis Cairns Artists Profiles Project

Peter Agostini, 1960

Stephania: Peter Agostini was famous. What was it like being a student of his?

Breck: I had Agostini for a watercolor class and a painting seminar. He was a typical New Yorker and could size you up quickly and could tell you things you needed to hear in few words.

Stephania: Like what?

Breck: One time he told me something that I have never forgotten. It was my first semester. The professors were doing a critique of a graduate student. Agostini said, “Criticism can kill a young artist.” I didn’t know if he was trying to tell me how to do critique or if he was telling me because he could see I was a kind of sensitive young guy. I don’t know. I remember it in my own teaching, though.

Stephania: What was Agostini like in the classroom?

Breck: He was a sculptor primarily. In painting, he used to emphasize that you need to go IN to the picture.

Stephania: What does that mean?

Breck: He meant, a lot of people feel, the painting has to imply depth or needs to play with depth or depth needs to be a part of it, even though it’s a two dimensional thing. Not everybody would agree with that.

Stephania: What else did he say?

Breck: He said, like when we were setting up and working on a still life, “Don’t just look for the color of the object, look for the color that’s in the air outside the object.” That’s pretty profound.

Stephania: So do you do that? Do you think you look for the color in the air around the objects you paint?

Breck: Probably not as much as I should!

Stephania: Speaking as a non-artist, I am curious. How do you do it?

Breck: You look.

Stephania: That seems a bit disingenuous!

Breck: You look! I look and try to figure out what color I see. When you paint you are painting not just an object, you are painting the area around the object and under the object and between it and other objects. So looking for the color of the air outside can help you pinpoint where the object sits in space. It can help locate it in space for the viewer, too. It has a place to be. It has an environment. It has a place in which it belongs. The space around it. That’s where it is, that’s the space it’s in, and that’s where you try to place it in your painting. I think I’m getting too intellectual here. But the color that you see around an object? You’re trying to articulate space when you’re doing that.

Stephania: What other things would he say?

Breck: He would say to ask yourself, “Is it here or is it there?” He would also often say, “Art is about the search. It’s not about the finding, it’s about the search.” That means once you find it, you have to put it aside and go do something else.

Stephania: Meaning?

Breck: When you’re making art or creating, he compared to it to a search. Like when you are working from life, where does the edge of the object occur – over here? Over there? You need to constantly be looking.

Stephania: Are you talking about proportions?

Breck: Partly. But color, too. Or if you’re working conceptually or you’re a writer, you need to be looking for what you want to say, then when you find it, you’re done. Quit working on it. Work on something else.

Another thing he was big on was the castoff. The thing you make art of. The thing you were ready to throw away. THAT’s what you make art out of.

Stephania: Did he like to use found objects in his sculpting?

Breck (opening Macbook and pulling up images): Not exactly. I found some good examples of his work online. He would take plaster casts of things like crumpled pieces of paper or cardboard and such and exhibit them.

Photo by Alexis Cairns in Artist Profiles Project

“The Hurricane,” by Peter Agostini, 1962, plaster

Here’s one of the rear end of a horse.

Stephania: Is that humor on his part? A horse’s ass?

Breck: No, not at all. He found horses very erotic. He used to say that the rear end of a horse is a lot like the rear end of a woman. Agostini said that art was sexual. He also said that I was more intellectual. He was talking about my art. It wasn’t as sensuous as he felt it ought to be, I think.

“Horse,” by Peter Agostini, 1941

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Stephania: What kind of work were you doing then, mainly abstract expressionist?

Breck: No, working from life. At UNC Greensboro at that time, it was working from life, representational work.

Stephania: Do you think he was right about you?

Breck: He was right in that I was more intellectual as a person than sensual as a person. I think the intellectual side probably helps me as a teacher, to explain things to students.

Stephania: How much do you think your work is influenced by Agostini?

Breck: Some. Not as much as by Andrew Martin. And not as much as by Maud Gatewood or Robert Marsh. But you asked about abstract expressionism. Agostini knew the abstract expressionists – knew Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, those guys. He was closest to Franz Kline and Arshile Gorky. He said that Gorky was the one who knew art history, and that Gorky was the one who told the others about art history. Peter was probably “second generation” abstract expressionists, but he knew those guys.

De Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, Barnet Newman, Clyfford Still, they were the first generation. But they all hung around together, all of them. Joan Mitchell. She was one of more of a second generation. They would hold forth a lot at the Cedar Tavern Bar in NY. There was a PBS series narrated by Dustin Hoffmann called “Strokes of Genius.” When they were doing the episodes on Gorky and Kline, they interviewed mainly Peter Agostini.

Peter could cut to the chase real quickly, though. He could get to the meat of the matter.

Another thing he would say was “Don’t jazz it up.” Don’t embellish it. Don’t guild the lily. That’s what I took it to mean.

Stephania: I feel like you succeed at that. You don’t overdo your paintings.

Breck: I try not to.

12 views0 comments

This blog discusses Michael Fried’s concepts of absorption, “theatricality,” and “antitheatricality”, and Meyer Schapiro’s unique use of formalism to describe Early Medieval and Romanesque art.

Breck: Michael Fried is someone I read a lot – in fact, I have read almost every one of his books on art criticism and art history. His essay of 1967, “Art and Objecthood,” was a seminal essay in modern art criticism. He wrote a great deal of art criticism in the 60s and he’s written art history and criticism steadily since then. He’s also written about literature, and he’s a published poet of some renown. He’s a very interesting thinker – very good at making you think about visual art and how or why a work of visual art is successful (or not).

Stephania: What do you mean by successful?

Breck: Successful in this context means whether or not it is able to communicate the artist’s intentions to the viewer.

Stephania: So tell me about Fried. I’ve heard you talk about his concept of antitheatricality. Where does that come from, and what does it mean?

Breck: Antitheatricality is a thesis that I think he developed as a graduate student, and it is difficult to understand. It means art that isn’t exhibitionistic or overly dramatic is “antitheatrical,” and art that is exhibitionistic and highly dramatic is “theatrical.” According to Fried, there is a tradition of this antitheatricality that began in France in the 18th century. I’m not sure, but I think he tries to trace it back in Italian art as least as far back as Caravaggio in the 17th century, but I don’t know if I am reading him correctly. He values antitheatrical art over theatrical art. Fried argues that whenever a self-consciousness of viewing exists, absorption (being absorbed in the artwork) is compromised and theatricality results.

Stephania: That doesn’t make sense to me. If a work is dramatic – whether joyful, tragic, morbid, or whatever, that is when I feel like I become most absorbed in the work. I can look at it for long periods and almost move into it. I mean, would he call the Sistine Chapel theatrical? I walked around practically in tears staring at it until my neck hurt too much to continue. I was very aware of being in a place of almost mystical beauty, and felt awestruck that I, Stephania Smith, could stand beneath a ceiling that was painted over 500 years ago.

Breck: It helps to have a little background. Most of what Fried writes is art history. He did his doctoral dissertation on the French painter Manet but later came out with a trilogy of books related to these concepts. The first was entitled Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, (Diderot was a French philosopher of the 18th century). The second was Courbet’s Realism (which had to do with French art in the 19th century; Courbet was a 19th century French realist). The third was Manet’s Modernism (Manet was a French artist of the late 19th century). So in these books he introduces the concepts I’m talking about: absorption, theatricality, and antitheatricality. Fried mostly traces the concept of antitheatricality through French art, though there are traces of it elsewhere.

In “Art and Objecthood” he talks about the theatricality of minimalist art, which he preferred to call literalist art. He said, “The answer I want to propose is this: the literalist espousal of objecthood amounts to nothing other than a plea for a new genre of theater, and theater is now the negation of art. Literalist sensibility is theatrical because, to begin with, it is concerned with the actual circumstances in which the beholder encounters literalist work. Morris* makes this explicit. Whereas in previous art [here quoting Morris] ‘What is to be had from the work is located strictly with [it],’ the experience of literalist art is of an object in a situation – one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder.” As I noted above, Fried believes that absorption (or being truly absorbed in the artwork) cannot exist when the viewer is aware that he or she is looking at the artwork.

Stephania: So it’s kind of like that self-consciousness precludes true appreciation of the art? Me thinking, “Here I am, looking at art,” means I can’t fully absorb the content of the work? And when he speaks of theatricality, does that term refer to a characteristic of the artwork itself that evokes this self-consciousness? Or does he mean that theatricality is a characteristic of the situation? My sense is that it is the first one – certain art is theatrical.

Breck: Yes, that’s true.

After I read his essay “Art and Objecthood,” I was about two-thirds of the way through one of his art history books before I realized that when he was talking about theatricality and theater, he wasn’t talking about theater, the art form, per se. He was talking about art which is overly dramatic. I think the best explanation I’ve read of what he is talking about is when Fried quotes Wittgenstein talking about actors being trained to imagine a fourth wall existing between them and the audience.

Stephania: What are the first three walls?

Breck: Those are the back and two sides of the stage. The fourth wall stands directly between the front of the stage (and hence the actors) and the audience. Theatricality is when the actors are very aware that they are acting for an audience and they are inclined to overact or overdramatize. It’s a showiness, I think, that Fried is talking about. On the other hand, if there were this wall that prevented the actors from seeing the audience, then they would “act” their parts more naturally and more true to the characters. It’s a parallel with artists. Sometimes the artist was being theatrical – being aware of his or her audience and kind of playing to that audience. That produces theatrical art.

Stephania: So tell me about Schapiro.

Breck: The last couple years I have also been reading Meyer Schapiro. I’ve especially looked at what Schapiro has written on Modern art, and on Early Medieval and Romanesque art. Interestingly, his writing on Early Medieval and Romanesque art seems to bear more on formalistic concerns, which is normally what art critics write about when they are writing about Modern or Contemporary art. By formalistic concerns, I mean for example what he talks about in patterns in early Hiberno-Saxon manuscript illumination. The illumination is the pictorial decoration and embellishment in the manuscript, not generally the textual calligraphy. These manuscripts are works copied by monks in monasteries located in what is now Ireland, Scotland, and England. Schapiro talks about how the patterns in these manuscripts can be seen as reflecting a meditative state of mind or a more agitated, earnest state of mind. He’s able to do this by describing both the depiction of representational things and the depiction of abstract shapes and the way in which the monks in the monasteries depicted those shapes. (For those unfamiliar with formalism in art, it refers to the analysis of art objects in terms of their form – their visual aspects, like shapes and styles, and the way they are made.) Schapiro states that the more agitated style may reflect a more evangelical zeal in the monks doing the illuminations.

Rothko Pollock Still

Think about the difference between the frenetic active surface of a Jackson Pollock painting or a canvas by deKooning vs. the meditative nature of those big squares of color by Mark Rothko or the large canvases of Barnett Newman or Clyfford Still. What’s interesting is how Schapiro is able to bring this kind of modernist formal analysis to bear upon what the monks, who were artists, were doing a millennium ago.

Schapiro also makes the case that often once the monks/artists had expressed the intent of the monastery (both religious and political), they were relatively free to express themselves in their work. This leads me to wonder if, once the artist had fulfilled their main task of satisfying the abbot, the abbot didn’t care about what little embellishments were put into their illuminations. I say this because, as Schapiro pointed out, sometimes there were some pretty profane images in there (such as whimsical secular images of animals as church clergy, or humorous to sometimes violent autoerotic images, for example).

One of his essays, “Frame, Field, and Figure,” uses formalistic analysis on (among other

things) an illuminated manuscript of the author page of the Book of Matthew from Northumbria or Echternach (they’re not sure which). They call those the Echternach Gospels, however. The four authors of the gospels (the Four Evangelists) each have a symbol, and the symbol for Matthew is a man. This particular illumination has as its central figure Matthew’s symbol of a man, sort of cylindrical shaped. From the head extend two bars, and from the top and bottom another two bars. At first glance one might think this represents a crucifix. He states, “In form it may resemble a cross, but the mode of constraining the figure, which it clamps in place, and it’s continuity with the surrounding frame through the interlace filling [in the frame] convinced me that it has a role other than that of symbolizing a cross.” In his formalist analysis, Shapiro goes on and looks not only at shapes, but at what shapes do, or the visual effects they produce. Shapiro states, “[The clamps and frame around the figure are] a fundamental invention of the artist, a new way of realizing the immobility of the figure and his nature as an evangelist who ceremoniously displays his open book.”

It’s just interesting to me how Shapiro uses a 20th century form of analysis on these artworks from the 7th and 8th centuries.

*He is referring to the Minimalist sculptor Robert Morris.

16 views0 comments
bottom of page