What Painting Is
New York: Routledge, 1998. 246 pp.; 25
color and b/w ills. $31.49
The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing
New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997. 272
pp.; 87 b/w ills. $14.00 paper
Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts:
Art History as Writing, 2d ed.
New York: Routledge, 2000. 321 pp.; 39
b/w ills. $20.99
On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 346 pp.; 54 b/w ills. $69.95
How to Use Your Eyes
New York: Routledge, 2000. 258 pp.; 64
color and b/w ills. $25.49
In the past seven years, beginning in 1994, James Elkins has published ten books. They range in subject matter from archaeology to contemporary art, and from China to Mesoamerica. This rapidly growing body of work poses several problems. First, is it innovative? Does it offer new research or important revisions of previous scholarship? Second, is it a coherent project, or a series of different books on different subjects? Some prolific authors write the same book over and over, and others write books so different that their work fails to add up to a single whole. Third, are Elkins's books relevant? Does his work matter to art history? I find the work both highly innovative and coherent, but I think it is often too far removed from art history to be relevant to the new directions of the discipline.
It is helpful to divide Elkins's books, reviews, and essays into five categories. First are a group of texts on art historical methodology. They include Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: Art History as Writing; Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity (1999): a book on the historiography of Chinese landscape painting;1 and On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them.
Second are writings that generally focus on vision and the gaze. They include Pictures of the Body: Pain and Metamorphosis (1999); The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing; and the most recent book, How to Use Your Eyes.
A third category comprises of one book, What Painting Is, which is about oil painting as it is seen from a painter's point of view.2 Fourth are writings (consisting of a number of articles) on 20th-century art, mostly on modern and postmodern painting.3 The fifth category is writings on images that are not fine art, such as graphs and maps; books on those subjects include Elkins's first book, The Poetics of Perspective (1994), and the 1999 book The Domain of Images. Elkins's most recent writing is about physics and mathematics.4
These five areas seem to be unified by two concerns: an interest in images of all kinds and a fascination with the ways that scholars in art history and other fields have written about images in the past. There is the outline here of a large project to extend art history, relating it to visual studies, anthropology, philosophy, archaeology, and linguistics. Elkins is not alone in that interest. Other scholars, including Barbara Stafford, Whitney Davis, Johanna Drucker, Horst Bredekamp, WJ.T. Mitchell, and Martin Jay, have contributed interdisciplinary works to art history, and the tradition of expanding the discipline goes back to Alois Riegl.
Yet despite Elkins's surprising range of subjects, his scholarship is far from encyclopedic. He has written almost nothing on social art history, feminism, ideology, or politics.5 He has discussed a wide range of art historians and visual theorists, but he has hardly mentioned such seminal figures as Michel Foucault, Aby Warburg, and Walter Benjamin.6 He concentrates almost exclusively on twodimensional images at the expense of architecture, sculpture, and new media such as film, video, and performance. Those omissions are especially serious in a scholar who has such global ambitions. They are connected, I believe, to a deeper problem: Elkins's sense of the visual is private, nonsocial, and nearly solipsistic. …