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From the Louvre to Penn Station: Michael Kimmelman on the Politics of Portraiture

Like any good storyteller, Michael Kimmelman began by capturing his listeners’ attention with a famous name and a strange circumstance: eating Chinese food in Paris with renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Kimmelman, already a well-known art critic for The New York Times, had planned to go the Louvre with Cartier-Bresson, but the two took a detour to a Chinese restaurant when they found the museum was closed due to a strike. They eventually ended up at the Pompidou Centre discussing how “tremendous freedom and discipline” had formed the painter Pierre Bonnard into the “great artist of the century.”
This was just the first of many such names and circumstances that formed the virtual walk through museums, cities, time and space that made up Kimmelman’s recent talk at the Manetti Shrem Museum. The lecture wove together Kimmelman’s work as an art critic and his turn to architecture as a topic that expanded the ethical and political potential of the art gallery.
His meetings with artists at museums all over the world would form his book, Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre, and Elsewhere, in which he sought to “learn how [artists] found meaning in the work of other artists.” When different artists circled back to the same pieces as previous interviewees, the project also offered the “Rashomon-like” experience of seeing the same thing through different eyes.
Inevitably, Kimmelman’s meetings were especially revealing of the artists themselves, who are usually only accessible to viewers through their work. For instance, Kimmelman’s “really weird” meeting with painter Lucian Freud consisted of a painfully prolonged audition, involving communication only through the painter’s lawyer, multiple flights to London, snappy responses to 1 am phone calls and white-knuckling through a terrifying middle-of-the-night car ride with the artist’s whippet, Pluto, clinging to the seats. Luckily, London’s National Gallery opens for Freud whenever he arrives, so Kimmelman ultimately found himself in the museum with the artist discussing the eroticism of Jean-Siméon Chardin’s The Young Schoolmistress long before dawn.
Though fascinating, these meetings and conversations are now in the past, and Kimmelman has turned his attention to issues of public housing, public space, infrastructure, community development and social responsibility as an architecture critic.
Kimmelman’s investment in these issues demonstrates where his past work as an art critic and his current work as an architecture critic overlap. Fighting for better architecture, he explained, is not just about the aesthetic beauty of the spaces we build and share, it is about using the public voice of the critic to support a more equitable and ethical city as an architectural expression—a portrait or perhaps a self-portrait—of our “humanity.”
He discussed his interest in efforts to make cities more livable and humane. In New York, he is currently championing a move to revamp the organization and design of Pennsylvania Station to address overcrowding, sanitation and other issues.  (The state of the station can be gleaned from SNL’s “Weekend Update” anchor Colin Jost’s recent quip that the waterfall of brown sewage that rained down on passengers last week was “an event Penn Station commuters are calling ‘an improvement.’”)
He also shared a striking example of how buildings and spaces can be an essential manifestation of community and hope. The Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan began as a chaotic ramshackle assembly of tents, but soon after it was established, residents began to reshape it into a city with streets, homes, and businesses. People cobbled together structures using their creativity and bits of other buildings (apparently, a police station disappeared overnight and all the pieces were absorbed into other buildings by morning). Residents cultivated gardens, ordered delivery from the local pizza parlor—also the main source of information for finding an address in Za’atari— and, though they couldn’t travel, they made plans for visitors through the on-site travel agency.
–Jennifer Tinonga-Valle, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in the Department of English

This page was last updated: May 15, 2017



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