Spencerian visions and the art of Sylvestration

Frances Spalding applauds two enthralling new collections of art criticism; Paper Museum by Andrew Graham-Dixon, HarperCollins, pounds 25 About Modern Art by David Sylvester, Chatto, pounds 25
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One of the striking things about The Independent when it was launched in 1986 was the generous amount of space it gave to art. It allowed the young Andrew Graham-Dixon not just to react to exhibitions but to tease out a line of argument or an unexpected thesis in his reviews. The results were immensely readable, intelligent and stimulating. But art critics come and go, often finding, as David Sylvester did when he wrote regularly for the New Statesman, that the job, by its nature, uses them up. It is to Graham-Dixon's credit that, ten years on, he remains chief art critic to The Independent and is still writing with passion and insight.

An art critic can change the way we live. Carefully prepared schedules have been thrown askew by a review that makes a visit to a particular exhibition suddenly imperative. Surprisingly few words can stimulate enthusiasms which burgeon and take root. These two books offer just this kind of danger: both authors grapple intently with meaning and appearance in art, offering ideas and perceptions that keep the reader hooked.

For Paper Museum Graham-Dixon culled from his cuttings books 62 pieces. They are informative, well researched, thoughtful and direct. Where it is necessary for him to summarize existing opinion on an artist's work, he does so in words that are freshly minted. Occasionally his conclusions jar: the argument that Giacometti's theme is "fear of open spaces" is much too limiting; and to dismiss Stanley Spencer's visionary paintings with the remark that he painted best when facing facts ignores the obvious: that everyday facts are the material out of which Spencer constructed his visions. But for the most part it is difficult to argue with a critic as persuasive as this. Time and again he cuts through to some central perception, as when he observes that Lautrec painted, "not the relations between people, but the distances that separate them''.

Earlier this year, in his A History of British Art, a book timed to coincide with a series of television programmes, Graham-Dixon acknowledged a debt to David Sylvester. Respect for this senior grandee does not, however, prevent him from criticising the "inflationary rhetoric'' which Sylvester brought to his essay on Willem de Kooning for the 1995 Tate retrospective. Sylvester's habit of making sweeping assertions - Barnett Newman is "the greatest painter to have emerged since the Second World War'' - gives About Modern Art a hectoring tone. Emphatic judgements imply that the canon of art remains fixed and that Sylvester's concern is purely with the first division. This attitude may seem oppressively conservative. Nonetheless, these critical essays are deeply fascinating. They also constitute a genre that is entirely Sylvester's own.

At the Royal College of Art in the 1950s tutors used to joke that, if David Sylvester appeared in the the Senior Common Room, some of their lunchtime chat would reappear a week later in The Listener having undergone "Sylvestration''. There is no doubting that Sylvester has listened a great deal to artists' views, but his method depends crucially on a dogged examination of his own sensations in front of art. Though he is often acute on the relationship between a work of art and the period in which it was made, he is less interested in history than physical presence; it is the impact a painting or sculpture makes on us that he tries to catch - how it affects the head, heart and guts.

He argues convincingly that Sickert's late works achieve "the most startling and brutal originality and modernity''. Equally gripping is his revelation of the pain and anxiety that lay behind Matisse's stated desire to put "the lightness and joyousness of springtime'' into his art. And in one startling parenthesis he drops the remark that a Mondrian abstract is as intimate as a Dutch Interior. But his provocative apercus need to be read within the context of the observant, lengthy arguments which tug and pull at the mind with great persistence.

These essays, many of which have been reshaped and recycled over the years, are the product of sustained brooding on art, of a painstaking search for the right words to catch a particular experience or sensation. He is not the first to marvel at Cezanne's ability to give us both flux and a sense of endurance. But he takes this observation further and finds in this reconciliation of contradictory states "a moral grandeur which we cannot find in ourselves''. Elsewhere, in a painting of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire he notes how the sky "is keeping the lid on the tumult below.'' His accuracy is wonderful.