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Book Review : Art Can Help


Book Review Art Can Help: New and Selected Essays By Robert Adams Reviewed by Karen Jenkins “Robert Adams’ timely new book, Art Can Help is an invigorating response to a waxing cultural despair over the state of the world and our dubious agency in it. Offered not as a mere balm, this collection of just over two dozen short essays is a quietly powerful argument for what art can and should mean in our lives."
Art Can Help: New and Selected Essays 
By Robert Adams. Yale University Art Gallery, 2017.
 
Art Can Help: New and Selected Essays
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

Art Can Help: New and Selected Essays.
Text by Robert Adams.
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, United States, 2017. In English. 92 pp., 34 color illustrations, 5½x8¼x½".

Robert Adams’ timely new book, Art Can Help is an invigorating response to a waxing cultural despair over the state of the world and our dubious agency in it. Offered not as a mere balm, this collection of just over two dozen short essays is a quietly powerful argument for what art can and should mean in our lives. Two opening passages unpack the formative influence of Edward Hopper on Adams’ way of looking at and making art. The texts that follow delve into favorite and affecting photographs around which Adams champions a deeply personal experience with art, one which demands accountability and an intrinsic connection between art and life. The Introduction and Afterword bookend Adams’ lyrical unraveling of art that ‘helps’ with a bald critique of the failings of that art practice that he sees as facile or empty. He writes: “This atrophying away of the genuine article is a misfortune because, in an age of nuclear weapons and overpopulation and global warming, we need more than ever what art used to provide. Somehow we have to recommit to picture making that is serious.”

Art Can Help: New and Selected Essays. By Robert Adams. Yale University Art Gallery, 2017.
Art Can Help: New and Selected Essays. By Robert Adams. Yale University Art Gallery, 2017.

A weighty directive to be sure, but these essays not only deliver; they elucidate and delight. I happily read all 88 pages in one sitting, my shared love of photography and belief in art’s centrality to life burnished anew. With graceful brevity, Adams offers narratives that are at once sharply focused on the contents within each frame and that send the reader off on trails of expansive analogy to literature, poetry and music. Many reflect his abiding commitment to the landscape and how art can challenge our incursions and insults, as well as sustain our experience of beauty and the sublime. The “wonderful gloom” of Wayne Gudmundson’s photograph of abandoned grain elevators is balanced for Adams by a flight of birds and a tree’s wing-like boughs, together “a melodic answer to the bass line of the deserted buildings with their static darkness.” In discussing Eric Paddock’s photograph of a distant railroad crossing in a vast Colorado plain, Adams speaks to emptiness and solitude, conjuring both the views once commemorated in “quietly local postcards” as well as poet William Stafford’s take on such landscapes conjuring “space, and the hurt of space after the others are gone.”

Art Can Help: New and Selected Essays. By Robert Adams. Yale University Art Gallery, 2017.
Art Can Help: New and Selected Essays. By Robert Adams. Yale University Art Gallery, 2017.

Most stirring for me were those passages that foreground art’s capacity to re-engage us in life, as active and accountable participants, as well as those that lauded a life devoted to its creation. He sees the empathy and culpability in Garry Winogrand’s photograph, shot through a windshield, of a calf stumbling between two opposing cars on a western road, arguing that his “photograph keeps us alive, overruling all assurances from behaviorists that we are never guilty.” In ten short paragraphs illustrated by two photographs from Judith Joy Ross’s Portraits of the Hazleton Public Schools, Adams folds us into his unforgettable relationship with these works, from the notion of a shared experience of pain to a hope for the future, crafted on both aesthetic rigor and visual and narrative delights. When he writes, “This is the sort of thing that is worth a life,” we are powerless to disagree. It is one of Adams’ many gifts that a lifetime of serious attention to looking at art and making photographs has yielded these captivating, important takes on what 35 odd pictures mean to him. Whether we share his wonder with these views, or have our own sacred fold, he wins the day not with heavy-handed insistence, but with an understated authority encompassing intelligence, wonderment and a devotion to looking carefully and owning what he sees. — Karen Jenkins

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.


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