“See What You’re Missing” says that looking closely at art changes lives

At the end of his life, Francis Bacon complained to his friend, the critic David Sylvester, about the hopelessness of talking about painting: “One never does anything but talk about it – for if you could explain your painting, you would explain the instincts former BBC arts editor Will Gompertz is not so pessimistic. In See What You’re Missing: New Ways of Seeing the World Through Art, he assesses the visual instincts of his subjects and what we can learn from them.

Gompertz considers artists to be “experts” who perceive the world more deeply and more satisfactorily than others. His examples, which follow no explicit program or order, range from David Hockney to Wassily Kandinsky, Yayoi Kusama, Artemisia Gentileschi, Jennifer Packer and the 11th-century Chinese landscape painter Guo Si. Gompertz’s account differs from others, he suggests, in combining studies of “how appearance can contribute to our appreciation of artists” and “how artists look, adding to our appreciation of life.” Does one give insight into the other?

There are passages of charm. “They talk about people who see the world through rose-colored glasses,” Gompertz writes. Hockney’s lens “is on a permanent setting in Saint-Tropez, where everything is lit up by an explosion of bright colors in a rapturous celebration of life.” Agnes Martin was “a hunter in the jungle of her imagination: stalking, watching, feeling, preparing.” I enjoyed the Gompertz profiles of the one-of-a-kind sculptors El Anatsui and Eva Hesse.

In general, however, the analysis and word combinations are not particularly thorough and satisfactory. On Frida Kahlo and her work: “You cannot paint pain without hurting.” To what extent, one asks, is the reputation of “painful” paintings informed by biography? Gompertz does not say. If we take Rembrandt’s “occasion,” he notes, we “take a long, hard look at ourselves and depict what we see in a self-portrait. The result may not be a great work of art, but at least it will be a selfie with some soul.”

Merchants, museums and galleries are “luxury”. Cy Twombly’s abstraction is like “Chandler on Friends: hard to like at first, but completely irresistible after a few encounters.” Paul Cézanne’s career is peppered with “game-changing” moments and events. His “compositional style” “would probably go down with the art establishment like a crafty shrimp on a cruise ship.” Paula Rego’s The Dance has a “distinct Agatha Christie vibe.” Divination shapes were the “basis” of Georgia O’Keefe’s gift: “There has to be an application for it.”

“Look What You’re Missing” belongs loosely in the “last line” genre; i.e. any book, play, or film in which the spirit of the work’s title is channeled into its concluding statement or phrase. (For every Chinatown, there’s an Iron Man.) Gompertz ends most chapters in this vein, with an insistent reminder of his theme of “seeing and seeing.”

Fra Angelico’s achievement? “There is no fixed reality, as this monk-artist demonstrates—it’s all about your perspective.” On Gentileschi: “She removed the blinkers of assumption and presumption and showed us what we’d been missing from all those classic stories—a female perspective.” Packer: “She’s learned to see what’s not there and show us that what’s not there tells us as much about our world as what is.” A throwaway line might be necessary. Stacked one after the other, these maxims begin to grate.

“Now I wake up on a cloudy day with joy, not gloom,” Gompertz writes at the end of the book, “after being shown the splendor of the gloomy skyscape by the Romantic painter John Constable. If I’m feeling a little down, I think of Agnes Martin sitting alone in her adobe house in New Mexico and wonder how she sat there waiting for an optimistic feeling that then cheers me up. And when I open a bottle of beer,” he recounts, “I hold the metal cap in my hand for a moment and see it as a blob of ‘paint’ in one of El Anatsui’s wonderful hanging mosaic sculptures.” Gomperz is enthusiastic and open-minded, but rarely surprised. ; true vision cannot fail.

Max Carter is vice chairman of 20th and 21st century art at Christie’s in New York.

See what you’re missing

New ways of seeing the world through art

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