Archive for category Author: Kelly Grovier

On The Line: Conversations with Sean Scully || Kelly Grovier

Serendipity is a weird thing. Books go on my reviewing shelf in no particular order, often not even that of arrival. Size, weight and whether or not I’ve got them out for initial perusal all come into it. It is therefore very much by chance that two artists whose work involves lines and shapes should come together. This piece on Sean Scully comes immediately after one on Bridget Riley. And that, before we get too bogged down, is where the comparison ends.

Books such as this stand or fall on the quality of the writing. A subject can be as in demand and as intriguing as you like but, if the format of the interview, the reporting of what was said and the editing are not pitch perfect, the whole edifice falls. The interviewer has to understand the character of the subject, the questions to ask and how to ask them not least in order to gain the respect of the interviewee. More, perhaps, than anything else, they need to have an understanding of their subject’s work in order to get them to expound in ways that will interest the reader. Fail to get inside the mind and all you’ll get out of the exercise are platitudes and stock responses.

This book is the symbiosis this sort of thing should be. The word “conversations” in the title is important, because the format is not simply question and answer, but rather exchanges in which both parties give as much as they take. Grovier interpolates quite a lot of commentary between the exchanges that explain the background to what is being discussed, bringing light to what might otherwise seem a rather closed exchange and putting the author in the place of the reader, as well as vice versa. Quite simply, to read the book is to gain a feeling of being present. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but Grovier manages it with aplomb.

The conversations of the title range from Scully’s supremely humble background to his development as an artist, move to America and the development of his vision, influences and working methods.

If you enjoy good writing, this is a must. If you want to know what goes on inside an artist’s mind, and Sean Scully’s in particular, it’s an essential.

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A New Way of Seeing || Kelly Grovier

The subtitle, The History of Art in 57 Works, indicates just what a fascinating idea this is. It is also, of course, a fiendishly difficult trick to pull off – one false step in the choice of pieces, or one allusion misplaced and the whole structure is in danger. You will probably have your own ideas of what should have been included or left out, but there’s a sure-footedness to the curation that makes the thesis hard to argue with.

Grovier is a perceptive critic and analyst and doesn’t just use obvious choices as a convenient hanger for the conventional story. This is not just a list of works with standard links from one school to another. Rather, he picks often familiar pieces apart, looking for small details that enhance their meaning and significance. This does not, as it so easily could, result in a clever reading that showcases the author’s learning, but rather adds, as intended, to the reader’s understanding and appreciation. At the same time, it reminds us to look with a fresh and enquiring eye and not always to accept the received view. That’s quite an achievement.

As well as looking at detail, Grovier compares the main work to others in the same genre, but rarely from the same period or even the same medium. Figurative works can lead to photographs: Rodin’s The Thinker includes a look at an André Gill caricature of Charles Darwin as a monkey. Matisse’s The Dance considers not just other work by Matisse, but also William Blake’s Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. It all makes perfect sense and adds a context that goes far beyond that which is immediate.

This is, indeed, a very handy and beautifully illustrated overview of art history, but it’s also about looking and seeing. The choice of works is catholic and designed to work with the thrust of the thesis, but overall, it’s a case well made.

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Art Since 1989 || Kelly Grovier

1989 was a fine year. Not perhaps as erotique as its 20-year predecessor (© Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg), but an interesting one nevertheless, and most remarkable for the fall of the Berlin Wall in the November. That wasn’t the trigger for any major art movements, but it’s as good a starting point as any and, if a week is a long time in politics (© Harold Wilson), 26 years is a very long time in terms of contemporary art.

This is an entertaining and well thought-out narrative that knits together, as far as is possible, the many strands that make up the work of the last quarter-century. It is, says the blurb, “a reassessment of art’s place in society and the financial value that should be placed on it”. The period, it adds, “has seen a complete untethering of what art can be”. Well, the vision that Kelly Grovier conjures up in the first paragraph of his introduction will be either iconic or nightmarish according to your taste. It also suggests, I think, a willingness not to take a subject that could get very hipsterishly beardy too seriously. Navel-gazing is never attractive in an art critic.

Such an upheaval as the book predicates is a lot to cover in 224 pages and this is a brave and largely successful attempt. The blurb (always the first place to go for what the publisher thinks a book is about) tells me that this is part of Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series. This is, I think, a hint not to look for too much depth, but rather to regard it as a primer, and it’s none the worse for that. Sometimes you long for an overview and this is a pretty majestic one.

As well as a consistent narrative and a fair amount of text (squeezed in by small, but not unreadable type), the book is filled with illustrations – some 220 of them – as it should be. 200 seems to be a magic number here, as it’s also the number of artists featured. These range from Jeff Koons and Banksy to Christo and Cornelia Parker. Ai Wei Wei crops up in the first illustrations, the sequence Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn, one of the first acts of art as vandalism (or is it?). Immediately, your definition of art is challenged.

I’ll admit that I’m a bit bothered by the concern with the financial value of art. I know we have to consider it, and that the right name can demand millions but, in the end, shouldn’t the critic look at it for its own sake? And anyway, who’s right, you, me or Brian Sewell (of blessed memory)? Maybe it’s the buyer, but we all know they have more money than taste.

Enjoy this. You’re supposed to.

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