There’s a whole litany of quotations and anecdotes permanently lodged in the brain of anyone who has ever studied art history, truisms that gladden the hearts and ease the jobs of people who write gallery guides and museum press releases. Some of these tags are so tidy that you might feel justified in dismissing them as apocryphal if they weren’t so well documented. There is Cézanne’s recommendation that painters “treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone”; Picasso’s assertion that “nature and art, being two different things, cannot be the same thing”; and Mies van der Rohe’s authoritative declaration that “less is more.” Everyone knows that Ruskin accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face,” and that Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was described as “an explosion in a shingle factory.” The most illuminating of...


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