I was given this for Christmas and my initial impression was that it felt similar to the Isms volume on Understanding Modern Art that I reviewed a while back. To be fair, it’s not really possible to get into a book against a background of Prosecco, rustling paper, squeals and general chat. You might think that saying, “Shush, I’m reading” is high praise for a gift but, trust me, it gets you dirty looks.
Back home, it immediately became apparent that the similarity is purely superficial. Similar titles, formats and layouts (most things dealt with in a single spread), but that’s as far as it goes.
This is a bold book. It starts with the cover, which intrigues only if you’re intrigued by that kind of thing. The piece by Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ is a slashed cloth and, while it embodies the contents of the book, it doesn’t scream “look inside me”. Given the nature of the book, it’s hard to see what would, to be honest. The next piece of boldness is to attempt, even to think of, explaining the perhaps unexplainable in a couple of pages. Whole books get written on this kind of thing, usually by people who wear large red glasses and use the word “juxtaposition” a lot.
So, what about Fontana the slasher? This is what he had to say for himself, “Matter, colour and sound in motion are the phenomena whose simultaneous development makes up the new art”. (I bet it sounds better in Italian – most things do, but try closing your eyes to slits: it makes perfect sense.). In short, graphically-delineated paragraphs (now I’m doing it, think panels and coloured headings!) Susie explains how Fontana developed his technique, how the cuts are both planned and decisive (think brushstrokes) and how he used materials that would be more than two-dimensional, a black backing often emphasising depth. I’m not saying I’m a convert, just that I understand that Fontana was not a charlatan and that these are not the emperor’s new clothes.
Let’s look, too, at something more familiar, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (the urinal). “No novice could have judged the right moment to intervene or chosen the best means to scandalise the public”, says Susie, placing the context perfectly. Duchamp was, of course, making a point in this and other pieces both about aesthetics and about the commoditisation of art; the piece is meant to be taken both seriously and not seriously at the same time, surely the best joke anyone ever played on the critics.
If you want to understand modern art but have trouble not giggling, then this is the book for you. Susie is serious without being precious and the format she has chosen takes full account of the attention span the general reader has for this kind of thing.
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