The art historian under the dark cloth

The other day I came across my copy of T.J. Clark’s book Farewell to An Idea. It is a splendid work of art history, one that positively crackles with the most detailed and painstaking descriptions of Modernist artworks. As I flipped through the book, I remembered in particular the passages on Jackson Pollock’s paintings. Looking back, I had read and re-read these passages, almost as one might enjoy a novel.

Clark is an intellectual heavyweight in the old manner. He set up a masters degree in the 1970s called the Social History of Art, dedicated to a Marxist approach to art history. I studied on that programme in the late 1990s, under the tuition of Jasper Johns expert Fred Orton, amongst others. While Clark’s book is hardly light reading, it does repay the hard work it demands of the reader.

Now, I write that Clark’s descriptions stand out, but it isn’t just that these are careful and rigorous, which they are. There’s something more. They are object lessons in how to read a work of art. Clark makes every effort to convey the richness of the works he grapples with; it becomes a time consuming process of looking and looking again, a process that demands equal care with writing. The writing is not an afterthought, a means to an end in the descriptive enterprise, but a poetical analogue of the condition of paying close attention. This is perfectly in line with Clark and his ilk, who believe that canonical works of art repay that kind of close treatment. Unlike so many art historians though, Clark has learnt the figurative and rhetorical potential of his prose, and I can’t help feeling that his search for the ‘right’ phrase (a mirage of course) is a figure for our search for meaning in the painted and other material forms.

As is the tradition in so many of these blog posts, I make a recommendation to the photographer. Spend some time with Clark (or a Clark equivalent) and see how he describes the artwork. Think about how such a careful approach might be applied to a photograph - a canonical one, of course, but perhaps yours or a friends, too. Photography is so often a descriptive business. I’ve written on these pages before that there is much to learn from carefully looking at the work of others, and an analysis of composition, tone, mood, and so forth is the nuts and bolts work to be done.

This not only helps us to appreciate the finished image, but sharpens our skills of looking and in turn informs our visualisation. Indeed, as I continue to grapple with learning large format photography, I’m struck by how that format offers up a picture to be read right at the start. Under the dark cloth one has time to survey the flickering camera obscura image as if it were the final print. The Clark pacing to and fro in front of Pollock’s paintings in MOMA would be a wonderful mental guide to critical and rigorous decision making at the time of exposure. I can envisage him asking us to trace a line here, shift a little there, re-think depth of field, interpret a tonal shift. You would be right in thinking that this is not unlike the procedures recommended to us by experts like Ansel Adams, but the point here is that our resources stretch much further than the discipline of photography alone. And there are riches out there indeed.