Saturday, August 3, 2013

Art Reads: What Are You Looking At? The Surprising, Shocking and Sometimes Strange Story of Modern Art

"The problem we all face when encountering a new work of art, is one of comprehension.  It doesn't matter if you are an established art dealer, a leading academic or a museum curator; anyone can find themselves at a loss when facing a painting or a sculpture fresh out of an artist's studio."
-Will Gompertz

Have you ever felt intimidated by an ominous, seemingly random, perhaps simple or crude piece of art when you stood before it in a museum or gallery?  You aren't alone, and Will Gompertz quite eloquently explains just that in his book, What Are You Looking At?

Even professional artists, art historians and seasoned art-goers can feel confused when confronted with a new piece of Modern or Contemporary art.  Answering the question of "Is it art*?" is the first step to unlocking any mysteries within a piece, and Gompertz's outline of Modern art history from Pre-Impressionism to Contemporary art proves to be a very useful and insightful key to aid the process.

*Note:  Answering "Is it art?" is very different from "Is it good art?"

File:Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant, 1872.jpg
Impression: Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1872, oil on canvas

Case in point: when Monet dared to venture outside of his studio, and present the world with his intensely colored, loosely brushed paintings, the critics shuttered and sarcastically scoffed at his "impression."  According to art critic Louis Leroy, "Wallpaper in it's embryonic state is more finished than that seascape!"  You could argue that he was right in a sense, but there was a revolution going on in the art world, and comparing a painting to wallpaper was just silly.  

History has proved Monet to be a genius, and Gompertz wittily narrates the evolution of Modern art through the lens of international events, politics, psychology and sociology.  A prior director of the Tate gallery in London, Will Gompertz weaves art's 20th century story in plainspoken, candid terms.  He fearlessly takes a bit of creative license by narrating the occasional imagined conversation or meeting between two artists, and even reaches out on a limb to attempt to define an "ism" for today's Contemporary art scene.

Vincent van Gogh. The Starry Night. Saint Rémy, June 1889
The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, 1889, oil on canvas

As you turn the pages of this book, watch art history travel from the Belle Epoque in France, to war-ravaged Italy, Germany and Russia, and onto the shores of America.  Then watch art go global again in high-end galleries, auction houses, and back to the streets of the people.

Pablo Picasso. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Paris, June-July 1907
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso, 1907, oil on canvas

Umberto Boccioni. States of Mind I: The Farewells. 1911
States of Mind I: The Farewells by Umberto Boccioni, 1911, oil on canvas

The Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917, glazed porcelain and black paint

Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue - Piet Mondrian
Composition C (No. III), with Red, Yellow and Blue by Piet Mondrian, 1935, oil on canvas

Jackson Pollock Working in His Studio by Martha Holmes for Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images, 1949

Andy Warhol, ‘Marilyn Diptych’ 1962
Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol, 1962, acrylic on canvas

Maid Sweeping by Banksy, 2006, graffiti street art

Gompertz points most of Modern art's evolution back to Duchamp's Fountain, which I found to be a unique perspective.  He finds that to be the seminal moment when art, and the artist, freed itself from the establishment.  After Duchamp's Dada art movement, art could be made of any material and was pared down to its simplest elements, with conceptual ideas taking center stage. 

My biggest criticism of the book is it's lack of photographs.  I was unfamiliar with a lot of the pieces Gompertz starts to analyze in great detail, so I kept my iPhone handy to Google images for reference.  I also wish he spent more time including women artists in the story of Modern art.  He did mention Lyubov Popova as part of Constructivism, Yoko Ono as part of the Fluxus movement, and Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas as Contemporary artists, but notably excluded the pioneering work of Georgia O'Keefe, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Judy Chicago, just to name a few!

Despite these shortcomings, I do highly recommend the book, whether you are an art veteran or beginner.  I enjoyed reading about the influence that 20th century history and progress had on the art world, and the affect that artists have had on our contemporary understanding of visual art and design.

Happy Reading!

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