In his once widely read book The Voices of Silence (1951), the critic, curator, and novelist André Malraux suggested that what made artists was their being more impressed, at a formative age, with a work of art than with actuality. It’s an appealing idea—especially if we allow a very broad definition of “work of art” and include reproductions and mass-media images—but it doesn’t explain the urgent need to make art that drives both schooled and self-taught painters and sculptors who didn’t experience that kind of defining encounter. The sculptor David Smith recalled that “other than some very, very dark picture with sheep in it in the public library,” he had seen virtually nothing growing up in Indiana and Ohio. “I didn’t know anything about art until I came to New York. [But] I wanted to be a painter when I...


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