Commentary Magazine



Is it possible to write interestingly about uninteresting art? Of course–good critics do it every day–but the real trick is to write interestingly about a style of art that the reader dislikes. A case in point is Erin Hogan’s “Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the Land Art of the American West” (University of Chicago, $20), which I read in a single delighted sitting despite the fact that I don’t share its author’s taste for large-scale minimalist art. Part of the reason why I liked “Spiral Jetta” so much is that Hogan, the director of public affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago, writes with the infectious gusto of the true believer. To hear minimalism described as “ambitious, beautiful, rigorous, geometric, engaged with questions of form rather than personality, aiming at the eternal without irony” is to wonder–briefly–whether there might possibly be more to Philip Glass than meets the ear. (Answer: no, no, a thousand times no.) But what makes “Spiral Jetta” so readable is not so much the art that is its nominal subject as the quirky, engaging personality of the woman writing about it.

“Spiral Jetta” is the story of an aesthetic pilgrimage taken for reasons having little to do with art. Hogan is a longtime city dweller who, by her own rueful admission, dislikes being alone: “I take comfort in being surrounded by a constant clamor of voices–of strangers, of friends–and el trains and car horns and music from passing cars and the rhythms of the boys drumming on overturned buckets on the sidewalk.” So she hopped in her Volkswagen Jetta, drove west and spent three weeks visiting such giant-sized landmark earthworks of monumental minimalism as Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” and Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field,” not merely to see them for the first time but in the hope of “testing and challenging myself, breaking out of my nine-to-five routine and trying to find something in myself beyond the ability to answer e-mails, attend meeting, and meet friends for cocktails.”

As it happens, Hogan was disappointed by most (if not all) of the works of land art that she saw, and she tells of her dissatisfaction with charming candor. The trip itself, however, proved to be far more satisfying, if not infrequently frightening, and when it was over Hogan realized that she was the better for having plunged heedlessly into the wild:

While I certainly hadn’t managed to free myself of anxiety–getting lost, cougars, mechanical failures–I had come to enjoy the liberating feeling of solitude that had so far eluded me….The life of a drifter–minus the poor hygiene–was beginning to appeal to me. However, as an astrologer once told me, “You are not that kind of person.” He is right, but at least I had become the kind of person who could fully enjoy a trip like this.

In case you’re wondering what Erin Hogan’s neurotic dislike of spending time alone has do with art criticism, she offers this thought-provoking reply:

People visit the Museum of Modern Art to learn about modern art, not about themselves. But would more people come if they thought some sense of personal transformation were at stake? I set out on my trip wanting to learn about art, but I was realizing that the most significant thing I learned out in the west was via art, not about it. Does that make “Lightning Field” more or less valuable than analytical cubism?

No matter how self-evident you think the answer may be, it’s still a good question–and “Spiral Jetta” is a very good book.