Aztec statue of Coatlicue, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (photo by Estudio Michel Zabé)

In her recent New York Times review of a show at the Guggenheim Museum curated by artists, Roberta Smith writes about the value of allowing artists free range in museum collections: “They often ferret out neglected or eccentric treasures … and in using the creations of others to make new connections, artists also show new sides of themselves.”

This dual benefit is evident in Jori Finkel’s new book, It Speaks To Me: Art That Inspires Artists, wherein she asks 50 artists worldwide “to discuss a museum piece that intrigues or inspires them from their hometown.” Her specific request is a smart one because it asks artists to highlight work that any of us might experience in person (assuming we can get there). Everything in this lavishly illustrated book (even the “Contributors” section includes a full-color image for each artist) urges readers to make the effort to look. Finkel taps artists not as experts or scholars, but as seers. As people who look for a living.

It Speaks To Me: Art That Inspires Artists by Jori Finkel

She opens with a discussion of her “love-hate relationship” with wall labels: “In the field they’re called ‘didactics,’ which may give you a sense of where they can go wrong.” She lists their defects, from boring to overly informative, “Some are loaded with historical detail, conveying information on the obscure duke who commissioned the painting centuries ago.” Full disclosure, there’s no didactic too didactic for my taste, but point taken. This book instead caters to a different kind of nerdiness. That is, a passion for objects, an ardor that reaches across time and space with surprising urgency.

Arranged alphabetically by artist, discussion begins with feminist performance artist Marina Abramović on Boccioni’s Futurist sculpture, “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” and ends with James Welling on a staid Wyeth seascape, “Northern Point.” As these two examples amply illustrate, you’d mostly never guess who picks what, which is both charming and enlightening.

Aztec Sun Stone. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (photo by Estudio Michael Zabé)

There are some exceptions. Mexican artists Pia Camil and Gabriel Orozco each choose Aztec sculptures, for example, which may be unsurprising since it’s shared cultural history, but their reasons are deeply personal. Orozco selects the “Sun Stone,” “probably the most famous sculpture in Mexico,” a work he first saw as a young child while holding his mother’s hand. Earlier in the book, Camil has discussed a statue of Coatlicue, mother of the sun god, “a beautiful image of a woman with two serpents for a head and two serpents as arms” that “combines beauty and darkness, or birth and death.” She describes visiting Coatlicue while pregnant and feeling that “the entire power of femininity, the monstrosity of maternity, was with me.”

This personal connection with art across time is naturally a big theme of the book, as are connections of artistic vision. David Hockney, for example, dissects a surprising Edgar Degas, “Rape of the Sabines (after Nicolas Poussin),” at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena (after reading this book, I made a list of works in California collections so I can see them for myself). Hockney concentrates on the lost pedagogy of copying “masterworks” and, in keeping with his interest in optics, on the technique behind Poussin’s painting, and the Degas copy of it. Hockney mostly ignores what is depicted on canvas (hint: rape) for the professional fascination of how it’s done.

Nicolas Poussin, “Massacre of the Innocents” (via Wikimedia Commons)

Edgar Degas, “The Rape of the Sabines (after Nicolas Poussin)” (circa 1861-1862), oil on canvas (courtesy the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena)

However unlikely, Poussin is the only artist to make two appearances in Finkel’s book (though his first is mediated through Degas). Annette Messager selects Poussin’s “Massacre of the Innocents” and, unlike Hockney’s eschewing subject matter for technical skill, it’s the pathos of mothers enduring the murder of their children that holds her gaze, just as, she says, it haunted the work of Picasso and Francis Bacon. In a single page Messager expresses everything that art can be: tradition, inspiration, connection. And how art of the past is often timely. “The painting,” she says, “reminds us of the history of terrorism.”

The artists in It Speaks To Me explore the insistent pull of objects on the self and soul, one the “art curious” can experience right alongside art professionals. Finkel’s excellent book, neither full of jargon nor dumbed down, speaks persuasively to both.

“You can’t legislate what really matters to you,” writes Edmund de Waal, regarding Pieter Jansz. Saenredam’s “The Interior of the Grote Kerk at Haarlem,” whose whitewashed church interior from the Dutch Golden Age might seem inconsequential compared to the work of Rembrandt or Vermeer. But those stark white surfaces matter to de Waal, and that’s more than enough. It Speaks To Me inspires readers to look for themselves, and in looking, to find what matters.

It Speaks to Me: Art That Inspires Artists by Jori Finkel is out from Prestel

Bridget Quinn is a writer, critic and art historian living in San Francisco. She’s the author of She Votes: How U.S. Women Won Suffrage, and What Happened Next, illustrated by 100 women artists, and Broad...

One reply on “A New Book Culls the Favorite Museum Pieces of World-Famous Artists”

  1. My hometown was Cozad, NE. My ‘hometown’ artist was Robert Henri. It wasn’t until decades after I escaped the midwest that the full influence of his work and teaching was revealed to me. To this day, I seek out his works in major museums and all too frequently they are in storage and ‘not on display’. I would love to have more of his ‘common man’ work in the public conscious, as he was truly ahead of his time, preferring to paint the real people of America, as opposed to portraits of the socialites and ‘important’ people who not only paid his way, but opened doors for him. People like Mabel Dodge of Santa Fe, without whom he would not have made the acquaintance of native New Mexicans in the early 1900s. The fact that he grew up in the Nebraska prairie among the Pawnee tribe in the late 1800s had to have a significant influence in his choice of subjects in later years.

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