In the opening pages of one of his books, The Painted Word, Wolfe describes his sudden, astonishing epiphany about the radical movement of contemporary art — in particular, about the rise of abstract paintings that you look at and think, “Well, I could’ve made that.”
Wolfe’s epiphany was sparked by a New York Times critique of realism art. In short, the critic-in-chief wrote that, without a theory to go with it, it’s hard to appreciate a painting.
Wolfe vividly recalls reading this and being rattled, having a serious “aha moment.” For the first time, he finally understood contemporary art.
“All these years I, like so many others, had stood in front of a thousand, two thousand, God-knows-how-many thousand [paintings] . . . All these years, in short, I had assumed that in art, if nowhere else, seeing is believing. Well — how very shortsighted! Now, at last, on April 28, 1974, I could see. I had gotten it backward all along. “Not “seeing is believing,” you ninny, but “believing is seeing,” for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.”