Archive for category Publisher: Thames & Hudson

The World Exists to be Put on a Postcard || Jeremy Cooper

We don’t send postcards any more. Social media and increasing costs have put paid to those snippets of holiday life that were at once intriguing, informative and frustrating. If you want to know that the weather is frightful, that the dog has a cough or Mavis a new top, you’ll have to turn to Past Postcard on Twitter (please do, it’s great fun). Those cardboard rectangles depicting sunny beaches, donkeys in hats, the shopping centre or new roundabout have been consigned to history. And maybe that’s a good thing.

But postcards have also been a part of the art world for several decades – this book and its accompanying exhibition at the British Museum covers the period from 1960 to the present day. The mood is always a bit left-field, revolutionary or subversive. This isn’t superfine art, but rather a semi-private world where the message is more personal. Mavis may not have a new top, but, in Art News Revisited (1976), Hannah Wilke has none at all – it’s part of a series where she uses her own body to make a feminist statement. A decade later, Michael Langenstein presents surreal images that include the Statue of Liberty in a yellow vest (how very now) and a parking meter on the moon.

The whole is basically art as non-art, but in an entirely artistic way. Yes, that is contradictory, but that’s the point of the form and, seeing what is largely a fragmented movement (if it was even that) together demonstrates that there was and is a theme and that art can, and probably should, be controversial and ask awkward questions.

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Lee Krasner: a biography || Gail Levin

I’m always a little (well, more than a little) doubtful when someone is described as “better known as the wife of”, but the fact is that Lee Krasner was married to Jackson Pollock. It’s a sad fact that married female artists tend to be overshadowed by their spouses but, if you’re the other half of a major figure, maybe that’s inevitable. Pollock would probably overshadow anyone.

Having got that off my chest, let’s have a look at Lee Krasner in her own right. This is, the blurb announces, the first full-length account of her colourful life, going on the mention her “extrordinary story”. Let’s now bring that and my first paragraph together: “I was in on the formation of what all the history books now write about the abstract expressionists. I was in the WPA, part of the New York School, I knew Gorky, Hoffmann, de Kooning, Clement Greenberg before Jackson did and in fact I introduced him to them. But there was never any mention of me in the history books, like I was never there”, Krasner remarked rather acidly in 1973. Like I said, men obscure women and the kick-starters behind big figures sometimes get punted into the touchline of history.

So, how does this resurrect a forgotten – ignored, even – figure? Gail Levin is careful to document Krasner’s life in full and also to provide a proper critical appreciation of her work. The fact is she could, and should, have been one of the big names of Abstract Expressionism. It’s not so much that she wasn’t written into history as that she was actively written out of it. No-one puts Pollock in a corner.

Lee Krasner has for a long time been poorly served. She deserved better and she has it here.

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Chromatopia || David Coles

This is a visual feast. Its presentation is very much in the mould of cookery porn (if we can call it that) – sumptuous illustrations that make you want to rub your face in the plate and absorb the delicious goodness before you. Information is there, but presented in a narrative form rather than simple step-by-step instructions (in the case of cookery) or bald scientific facts (in the case of colour).

Most artists would benefit from at least a little information about what’s happening on their palette, but the chemistry of it all is probably beyond them and certainly more than they need. If you do want that, Ralph Meyer’s authoritative Handbook of Art Materials and Techniques is there for you.

If the mere thought of that makes your eyes glaze over, help is at hand in the form of this book. You are, as I’ve already hinted, going to love looking at it, but there’s also a potted account of history, properties and uses that won’t leave you wanting less. Is Cochineal really made of blood? Did you know that Cobalt was named after a malicious goblin? Did you ever feel the need to? Probably not, but it all adds to the rich pageant presented here and the sense of fun, of finding out about things just for the sheer pleasure of it.

Am I going to list all the things the book could tell you? Hell no, of course I’m not. A mere list of useful information would be boring and this is emphatically not that. Sit down, tuck in your napkin and fill your boots (yes, I am mixing metaphors, what of it?). I said this was a feast, didn’t I?

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Seven Keys to Modern Art || Simon Morley

This broadly academic look at art from Matisse to Louise Bourgeois is also a commendable attempt to bring serious art criticism to, if not the masses, then at least the more general reader.

The Keys of the title bear enumeration: Historical, Biographical, Aesthetic, Experiential, Theoretical, Skeptical and Market. The idea is to present a common, formulated approach that evaluates all works equally. The thesis is further simplified by focussing on only twenty works which must, necessarily, stand as representatives of their genres. It becomes apparent that this isn’t, in fact, a work of art history, criticism or evaluation, but rather about a way of seeing and understanding. You’re not here to learn about specific works or artists, but rather how to function when presented with something new. This all rather implies an unemotional, maybe even entirely cerebral way of appreciating art and I’m not entirely convinced any artist would welcome it, even if it did get you a distinction in your PhD thesis.

It’s an interesting idea though, and Simon Morley carries the whole off with gusto and aplomb. I would have liked the illustrations to be more prominent, perhaps. They’re not only quite hard to find, but also quite difficult to see in the relatively small page format. I leave with the feeling that this is more about the writing than what the writing’s about, and that’s a shame.

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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: the whole story || ed Stephen Farthing

It’s a bold title and an even bolder undertaking. Telling the story of art from cave painting to Post-Modernism is always going to be a difficult task and there are bound to be drawbacks and trade-offs. I’m not going to make list of what I think has been omitted but, if this is a game you want to play, knock yourself out. Doing that, though, is to miss the point. This isn’t the art history book to end all art history books, the last one you buy after a lifetime of study. Rather, it’s a handy introduction for those with a less than total, or maybe a passing, interest in the subject. It’s a single volume that won’t break the coffee table or occupy a whole shelf of your library. It provides both a straightforward chronological overview of the development of techniques, movements and styles. If you want to know more, there are plenty of sources of further study.

The trade-off that I hinted at previously is that each section is necessarily concise, but that may also be what you want from a book of this type. The number of illustrations is impressive and there are also useful detail analyses of the major works shown. This, of course, leads to rather small sizes and this can be frustrating. Again, however, it’s part of the nature of the beast and, in the end, worth accepting as part of the broad scope offered in a book that’s ultimately very manageable, both physically and intellectually. At a whisker under £20, it’s also stonkingly good value.

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Josef Albers: life & work || Charles Darwent

Josef Albers was one of the members of the Bauhaus, that institution that did much to revitalise creative life in Germany after its defeat in the First World War. Less well-known than names such as Gropius, Klee and Kandinsky, he was, however, responsible for much of the spirit and direction of the school.

Albers’ fame is mainly built on his work in America, where he relocated after the dissolution of the Bauhaus in 1933. It was there, now in his 60’s, that he worked on Homages to the Square, a series of 2000 images that explore the interaction of colours. If this reminds you of Robert Rauschenberg’s Black and White paintings, the influence is palpable. Much of Albers’ archive is devoted to correspondence with John Cage (whose 4’33” was itself influenced by Rauschenberg’s white canvases), Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson. That list itself shows the breadth of Albers’ interests and influence, representing as it does music, art and architecture.

This is an extensive and very complete biography of a figure who, although not now widely known, was one of the Twentieth Century’s great creative theorists. The roll-call of those he taught and who felt his influence is testament enough to his importance and this, coinciding with the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, is a timely reminder of his genius.

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