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What is modern art? Who started it? Why do we either love it or loathe it? And why is it such big money? Join BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz on a dazzling tour that will change the way you look at modern art forever. From Monet's water lilies to Van Gogh's sunflowers, from Warhol's soup cans to Hirst's pickled shark, hear the stories behind the masterpieces, meet the artists as they really were, and discover the real point of modern art.
You will learn: not all conceptual art is bollocks; Picasso is king (but Cezanne is better); Pollock is no drip; Dali painted with his moustache; a urinal changed the course of art; why your 5-year-old really couldn't do it. Refreshing, irreverent and always straightforward, "What Are You Looking At?" cuts through the pretentious art speak and asks all the basic questions that you were too afraid to ask. Your next trip to the art gallery is going to be a little less intimidating and a lot more interesting.
With his offbeat humor, down-to-earth storytelling, and flair for odd details that spark insights, Will Gompertz is the perfect tour guide for modern art. His book doesn't tell us if a work of art is good; it gives us the knowledge to decide for ourselves.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-07-09
- Reviewer: Staff
BBC arts editor and former Tate director Gompertz sees a paradox in the contemporary “love affair” with modern art: while people increasingly visit museums such as MOMA and the Pompidou, they often do not fully comprehend what they’re looking at. Gompertz’s aim is to demystify modern art, to provide a basic history of each of its “isms,” and show how these movements are interconnected. Gompertz’s highly lucid, lively, and buoyantly composed history begins with Duchamp’s omnipresent influence on the history of modern art and then chronicles movements that led up to and followed Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), from pre-Impressionist artists Manet and Courbet to contemporary artists Banksy and Ai Weiwei. Gompertz devotes a chapter each to 20 artistic movements, and while his tone is breezy and conversational, he astutely and often wittily describes the core of every movement and its key artists. The result is an entertaining and elucidating guide to modern art, refreshing in its approach and intentions, that will interest the general reader and art enthusiast. B&w art throughout, 8-page color insert. (Oct.)
Images of beauty, truth and the absurd
Surround yourself with the creative vision on display in a variety of new art books. Curl up with essays likely to change or challenge your outlook, or dip into survey books for old favorites and new discoveries. As photographer Elliott Erwitt explains, “It’s about reacting to what you see, hopefully without preconception.”
Start with a new edition of The Art Book, a massive A-to-Z collection first published in 1994 and now updated with 70 new artists and 100 new artworks. The volume’s large format and 600 color illustrations make it a joy to peruse, a fun, informative juxtaposition of classic and contemporary, with everything from Da Vinci and van Gogh to Warhol’s “Marilyn.” The latest additions are varied and eye-catching, such as Thomas Demand’s “Kitchen,” a photo of a life-size cardboard reconstruction of the farmhouse kitchen where Saddam Hussein was found hiding in 2003.
The Art Book is indeed a grand anthology, featuring paintings, sculptures, photographs, performance art and installations. Each page or spread spotlights a work of art and its artist. Brief glossaries define technical terms and artistic movements; there’s also a list of museums and galleries where the works can be found. This diverse assortment is guaranteed to fascinate and provoke a variety of art lovers.
THROUGH THE LENS
Also comprehensive, yet more narrowly focused, is another massive volume, Roberto Koch’s Master Photographers, filled with 20 game-changing artists from the 20th century. Editor Koch devotes 22 pages to each photographer, including an introduction, short biography and a collection of phenomenal photographs with brief commentary.
The artistic range is broad, from the joyful humanity captured by Elliott Erwitt to the iconic Depression portraits by Walker Evans. Englishman Martin Parr “has made supermarkets, country fairs, and working class beaches his own personal trenches,” brilliantly capturing, for instance, a woman biting into a burger at Disneyland in Tokyo.
In stark contrast are the haunting political statements by James Nachtwey, such as the brutally scarred face of a Rwandan death camp survivor, the dying body of a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan or the horrific sight of a skeletal famine victim crawling through dirt in the Sudan.
A TRAINED EYE
Two new books will help art lovers fully appreciate the artistic world’s vast array of styles and goals, the first being John Updike’s Always Looking: Essays on Art. The prolific novelist published two companion books before his 2009 death (Just Looking and Still Looking), and this new collection is accompanied by more than 200 color reproductions. Most of these exhibition reviews first appeared in The New York Review of Books.
Updike’s noted treatise, “The Clarity of Things,” tackles the question, “What is American about American art?” in a discussion exploring artists such as John Singleton Copley and Winslow Homer, along with more modern names like Joseph Stella and Mark Rothko. Reading these insightful essays feels like wandering through notable galleries with Updike as your docent, leaving his audience informed and fulfilled.
PAST MADE PRESENT
For a more lighthearted but no less valuable learning experience, dive into Will Gompertz’s What Are You Looking At? The Surprising, Shocking and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art. A former director of the Tate in London and now BBC arts editor, Gompertz explains his hope to offer “a personal, informative, anecdotal and accessible book that takes the chronological story of modern art (from Impressionism to now) as the basis for its structure.”
In these highly readable essays, Gompertz calls Cézanne “the greatest artist of the entire modern movement,” and his description of Duchamp’s creation of his famous urinal (called “Fountain”) reads like a short story, concluding, “It is Duchamp who is to blame for the whole ‘is it art’ debate, which, of course, is exactly what he intended.” His final chapter, “Art Now,” makes mention of Shepard Fairey’s Pop Art treatment of a 2008 Barack Obama poster and British street artist Banksy. Gompertz writes, “I suspect if Marcel Duchamp were alive today he would be a street artist.”
For an in-depth look at one artist, try Georgia O’Keeffe and Her Houses: Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu by Barbara Buhler Lynes and Agapita Judy Lopez. This absorbing book shows how O’Keeffe’s two New Mexico homes and their surroundings affected her art, comparing, for instance, a photograph of a patio and door with the painting that it inspired, “Black Door with Snow.”
When O’Keeffe purchased Ghost Ranch in 1940, she wrote her husband, Alfred Stieglitz: “I would rather come here than any place I know. It is a way for me to live very comfortably at the tail end of the earth so far away that hardly any one will ever come to see me and I like it.” Five years later she purchased Abiquiu and restored it, using that house in winter and Ghost Ranch in summer. This book is filled with photographs, art reproductions and numerous anecdotes about O’Keeffe and the luminous art she produced in these special places.