The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa


A New York Times bestseller—a dazzling and inspirational survey of how art can be found and appreciated in everyday life

Michael Kimmelman, the prominent New York Times writer and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, is known as a deep and graceful writer across the disciplines of art and music and also as a pianist who understands something about the artist's sensibility from the inside. Readers have come to expect him not only to fill in their knowledge about...

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A New York Times bestseller—a dazzling and inspirational survey of how art can be found and appreciated in everyday life

Michael Kimmelman, the prominent New York Times writer and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, is known as a deep and graceful writer across the disciplines of art and music and also as a pianist who understands something about the artist's sensibility from the inside. Readers have come to expect him not only to fill in their knowledge about art but also to inspire them to think about connections between art and the larger world - which is to say, to think more like an artist. Kimmelman's many years of contemplating and writing about art have brought him to this wise, wide-ranging, and long-awaited book.

It explores art as life's great passion, revealing what we can learn of life through pictures and sculptures and the people who make them. It assures us that art - points of contact with the exceptional that are linked straight to the heart - can be found almost anywhere and everywhere if only our eyes are opened enough to recognize it. Kimmelman regards art, like all serious human endeavors, as a passage through which a larger view of life may come more clearly into focus. His book is a kind of adventure or journey.

It carries the message that many of us may not yet have learned how to recognize the art in our own lives. To do so is something of an art itself. A few of the characters Kimmelman describes, like Bonnard and Chardin, are great artists. But others are explorers and obscure obsessives, paint-by-numbers enthusiasts, amateur shutterbugs, and collectors of strange odds and ends. Yet others, like Charlotte Solomon, a girl whom no one considered much of an artist but who secretly created a masterpiece about the world before her death in Auschwitz, have reserved spots for themselves in history, or not, with a single work that encapsulates a whole life.

Kimmelman reminds us of the Wunderkammer, the cabinet of wonders - the rage in seventeenth-century Europe and a metaphor for the art of life. Each drawer of the cabinet promises something curious and exotic, instructive and beautiful, the cabinet being a kind of ideal, self-contained universe that makes order out of the chaos of the world. The Accidental Masterpiece is a kind of literary Wunderkammer, filled with lively surprises and philosophical musings. It will inspire readers to imagine their own personal cabinet of wonders.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The art tastes of Michael Kimmelman are undeniably eclectic. The chief art critic of The New York Times enjoys the works of Duchamp and DeKooning, but he also revels in the far less well known efforts of light bulb collector Hugh Francis Hicks and Charlotte Solomon, a secret painter at Auschwitz. Accidental Masterpieces celebrates the creative impulse wherever it emerges; auction prices and museum acquisitions play little, if any part in Kimmelman's eye-opening evaluations.
Jonathon Keats
As chief art critic for the New York Times, Kimmelman has eclectic taste by professional necessity, and the artists he discusses in The Accidental Masterpiece range accordingly, from Jan Vermeer to Marcel Duchamp, Willem de Kooning to Matthew Barney. His depictions are entertaining and insightful, as artful in their own way as many of the works he discusses. What distinguishes these fine essays, though, and gives him unexpected common ground with Bob Ross, is his openness, his generosity toward subject and reader.
— The Washington Post
Adam Phillips
When he writes in an interesting chapter on collecting that the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, devoted to human medical specimens and oddities, "can seem neatly to blur the distinction between science and art by dwelling in the marvelous," we know it isn't that simple. But Mr. Kimmelman's prose is always more subtle than it seems - the idea of neatly blurring is in itself interesting.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The chief art critic of the New York Times, Kimmelman (Portraits) delivers an uplifting art-is-good-for-you message that is surprisingly easy to swallow. Intelligent but not obscure, warm but not intrusively personal, Kimmelman manages in 10 chapters to cover a lot of ground, with a working definition of "art" that goes far beyond what's found in galleries and museums. The reader encounters not only the likes of Pierre Bonnard and Matthew Barney but Hugh Francis Hicks, a serious collector of lightbulbs, and Frank Hurley, whose miraculously preserved images of the 1914 Antarctic Endurance expedition are as haunting as any "art." This is Kimmelman's point: though passionately concerned with "gallery" art, he is more concerned with the rewards of aesthetic experience, how the attentiveness we bring to art can help to make a "daily masterpiece" of ordinary life. Kimmelman's enthusiasm is infectious; he has an impressive ability to incorporate recent artistic trends into his argument; the chapter on "The Art of the Pilgrimage," for instance, discusses the earth art of Michael Heizer and the minimalism of Donald Judd with a clarity that doesn't shortchange the work's difficulty. If Proust can change your life, so can Bonnard. (Aug.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this ten-essay collection filled with various platitudes and deep thoughts about the connections between life and art, Kimmelman, chief art critic for the New York Times (Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre, and Elsewhere), examines the theme of the accidental masterpiece-a universal, "creative impulse, a deep compulsion pursued to the nth degree" that when recognized by individuals renders their lives artful and results in art that resembles lives. Relating to the lives and works of famous and lesser-known artists and literary figures-e.g., Pierre Bonnard, Paul C zanne, Charlotte Salomon, Lewis Carroll, Nancy Holt, and Matthew Barney-as well as to those of explorers, obsessives, enthusiasts, amateurs, collectors, and others, Kimmelman successfully argues that art can be found in ordinary experiences as well as extraordinary ones. By way of several diverse examples and an encompassing literary framework, he provides readers with valuable insight into his subjects' lives and works as well as into their own. Kitschy and candid yet thought-provoking and uniquely awesome, this stimulating but not-too-scholarly book is recommended for most public libraries and some special and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/05.]-Cheryl Ann Lajos, Free Lib. of Philadelphia Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The chief art critic for the New York Times offers an amiable, even breezy discussion the about the ways various artists transform their circumstances into works that can inform and enrich the rest of us. Kimmelman's overall take can be ascertained from the fact that beautiful is the second word in the first chapter, delicious the last one before the bibliography. Beauty and deliciousness fill the pages in between, as do numerous anecdotes about artists (noted and otherwise), descriptions and analyses of individual works, conversations with creators, bons mots and cliches, wisdom and waggery. Strolling through life and galleries with Kimmelman (Portraits, 1998) is a bit like an afternoon with a loquacious, jovial uncle whose ceaseless river of words doesn't always feature fresh water. Still, the overall experience remains memorable. The author writes with consummate ease and lucidity about a world he knows intimately. He wants to show us that the struggles and obsessions of artists parallel our own-and that the glories they create can be ours both directly and vicariously. We hear about Bonnard's long obsession with his model and lover, Marthe, and we're invited to see that solitude and private passion can stimulate our own creativity. Kimmelman climbs two mountains and considers the experience only diverting, thus confirming his notion that, unlike our ancestors, we find it difficult to see the sublime in nature. He goes on to craft fine chapters about the art of photography; about a Baltimore dentist who collected 75,000 light bulbs, including some from the Enola Gay; about Jay DeFeo, who spent 11 years working on a single massive piece, The Rose; about the use of nudes. This latterchapter contains a terrific running account of Philip Pearlstein at work with his models. Kimmelman also takes us along on his personal pilgrimage to New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Texas to see large, site-specific works. Ebullient brightness permeates these pages, illuminating even the darkest corners. (Illustrations throughout)Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143037330
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 7/25/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 541,798
  • Product dimensions: 8.20 (w) x 4.96 (h) x 0.46 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Kimmelman is chief art critic of The New York Times and a contributor to The New York Review of Books. A native New Yorker, he was educated at Yale and Harvard, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and is the author of Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre and Elsewhere, which was named as a notable book of the year by the Times and The Washington Post. He has written and hosted various television shows about the arts. He is also a pianist.

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Table of Contents

The Accidental Masterpiece Introduction

The Art of Making a World
The Art of Being Artless
The Art of Having a Lofty Perspective
The Art of Making Art Without Lifting a Finger
The Art of Collecting Lightbulbs
The Art of Maximizing Your Time
The Art of Finding Yourself When You're Lost
The Art of Staring Productively at Naked Bodies
The Art of the Pilgrimage
The Art of Gum-Ball Machines, and Other Simple Pleasures

Selected Bibliography

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 15, 2008

    Easy, enjoyable reading

    I chose to read this book for an art criticism class. I really enjoyed Kimmelman's writing style because it talks about art in a way that is humorous and easy to understand. This book is a very light, but highly interesting read. Kimmelman explains his views on how it can be found all around us as he provides biographical information about acutal well-known artists. He tells stories about their lives that help the reader better understand why they made the art they did, and how in many cases, their lives were a form of art in themselves. Kimmelman also provides stories about insights he has gained from his own experiences with art, from watching the process of a painter of nudes to visiting a light bulb museum to climbing a mountain in France. As an artist, I have been intrigued by the idea of art in daily life for a while, and Kimmelman helped me see some great new perspectives. Reading this book helped me want to get going on making new art, as well as to be more aware of the art that surrounds me. It may sound cheesy, but I found many of the stories within this book really inspiring, particularly those about artists who gave all they had, even their lives, for their art. Anyone with any level of interest in art could enjoy this book!

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    Posted December 8, 2009

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