Archive for category Publisher: Thames & Hudson

Abstract Art: a global history || Pepe Karmel

This is one heck of a thing. Abstract art is a massive subject and to condense even a small part of it into a single volume, even one as substantial as this, seems like an impossible task.

To begin with, you have to decide whether you’re talking to the specialist, the aficionado who has the correctly sculptured beard to stroke, or the general viewer who may be tempted to ask what it’s all about and why their five-year old couldn’t have done it. OK, for sixty-five pounds and something this heavy, I think we can probably forget about the latter, but there’s still the question of audience. You need to be serious enough not to put off the specialist, but not so serious as to put off the enquiring mind.

This is where Pepe Karmel gets it absolutely spot-on. The first thing that strikes and amazes you is that the book is arranged by theme: bodies, landscapes, cosmologies, architectures, signs & patterns. This allows a vast subject to be broken down into manageable chunks (silent cheer from the general reader) and for Pepe to begin with a realistic historical image and then explain how shapes, colours and forms are distilled into non-representational images. It also means that found objects, sculptures and installations can sit with works on canvas or paper in the same section without serving only to add confusion to the narrative.

And narrative it is, because this is very much the story of how what the artist saw in front of them is translated into a piece of work that the viewer has to interpret, and which will tell them not the what, but the how and the why. For all that it can be as intellectual an exercise as listening to atonal music, abstract art is also about emotion in its purest form. When you understand it, it can be tear-jerkingly beautiful.

To get to this point, you need to be educated. It was one single caption at a small Howard Hodgkin exhibition at the Turner Contemporary in Margate that unlocked this for me. It was as simple as explaining the importance of line and contrast and was a lightbulb moment that opened up a wider understanding of abstraction in general. On a much larger scale, this is what Pepe Karmel does here. There’s a great deal of learning in this, but it’s worn lightly and you’re never asked to imagine anything – the illustration, superbly reproduced, is always in front of you.

If you want to be convinced, this is the book for you. If you’re already in that world, you may find that you’re being told a lot of what you know already, but the number and quality of the illustrations might swing it for you anyway. It’s not a cheap book, or a quick read, but equally not one to put aside in any kind of hurry.

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A Year In The Art World || Matthew Israel

An account of what goes on inside the world of art business is always going to be interesting, but the question is: for who? Is it those insiders themselves, who will probably enjoy critiquing someone else’s view? Or maybe they’ll value an insight into what everyone else involved does, assuming they don’t know that already. How about the investor? They, especially if they’re just getting a toehold, would certainly benefit from a who-does-what guide, particularly if it also covers who’s-most-likely-to-rip-me-off. Artists themselves might like that, too. But the general reader, that wider public outside the specialist market? Nope, unless it’s written like a thriller, which this isn’t.

So, this is something very niche and we can at least be grateful that the author has taken the trouble to address his specialised audience directly, rather than trying (probably in vain) to widen the appeal. I’m a bit concerned by the strapline under Matthew Israel’s name on the cover, though: “curator, artist and art historian”. If his is an authoritative view, wouldn’t the people the book is aimed at know him? Maybe I’m being cynical, but to me it doesn’t inspire confidence in his insider knowledge. The potted biography on the back flap gives him quite a pedigree, albeit most rather vague and some a bit peripheral.

I know that art is a business and that, once you get beyond artists’ private and small galleries and when the sums of money become eye-watering, a lot of very serious people have to be involved, but these are waters that attract sharks and are very much unsafe for the uninitiated swimmer.

So, to rein in my cynicism, let’s sum this up as thorough, generally well-researched and pitched really rather well between readability and superficiality. If you want a primer in the business of art, it’s a worthwhile starting point. Watch the beach safety flags, though.

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The Story of Scottish Art (updated review) || Lachlan Goudie

Scottish art has a long and noble history that is perhaps not recounted as often as it should be.

This rather delightful book is part of what looks like a new “story of” series that deals with wide vistas in a straightforward and eminently manageable way. Much of this relies on the quality of the authors – they need to be able to understand their subject intimately and select and condense their material to make it comprehensible in a relatively short narrative arc. They also need to avoid the factionalism that all too often infects art criticism (although there will undoubtedly be those queuing up to say that they’ve got the approach, the facts and the interpretations wrong). General readers will, however, just be thankful for something that doesn’t require prior specialist knowledge or become obsessed with minor detail.

Lachlan Goudie is such an author. An artist himself, the blurb describes this as “a deeply personal account”, perhaps aiming to head off perceived avenues of criticism. However, as long as you know who you’re dealing with, a less that fully objective approach can itself be interesting, and Goudie is an author who commands respect.

The book is only 384 pages. I say “only” because it covers 5000 years, which means it moves form Neolithic symbols to Glasgow’s position as a centre for contemporary art. That’s a lot of ground to cover and it’s pulling off a neat trick to do so at pace, but without becoming breathless.

There are some 180 illustrations, but as my copy is a black & white pre-press proof, I can’t comment on the quality of the reproduction.

Update, Autumn 2020. Originally announced for Spring, publication of this was delayed due to Coronavirus and a finished copy has now arrived. It’s a delight to be able to report that the quality of reproduction is excellent and the colours vibrant despite regular book paper being used, which can often mute them. The book feels as substantial physically as its contents undoubtedly are and is a genuine pleasure to handle.

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Shaping The World || Antony Gormley & Martin Gayford

Artists are not always the best people to talk about art. The creative process is intensely personal and can be driven by forces that even the practitioner does not fully understand. Equally, those who talk and write about it, are not themselves creators in visual media and have to tease the artist’s inner workings out of their own perceptions of the finished article.

However. There are times when these two worlds align, and Martin Gayford is usually one of the parties. He is one of the most cogent writers about art and the creative process there is and understands it in a way that few non-practitioners are able to. Even on his own, he is able to provide the reader with the sense of being an insider rather than simply a viewer – and this while that reader is looking at the page rather than the artwork.

Gayford is also a very effective collaborator and his conversations with David Hockney have illuminated works, the artist and the creative process all at the same time. This book takes the same approach: it is a discussion between Gormley and Gayford that covers three-dimensional work in stone, clay and metal from prehistoric times to the present day. Yes, it is substantial and it’s worth adding that the quality of production does full justice to the superb content.

If you asked a random member of the public to name a sculptor, the chances are that Antony Gormley would be the one they’d come up with. Not only will they know his name, but they’ll also be at least broadly familiar with his spare and idiosyncratic figures – the large public works such as The Angel Of The North that are impossible to ignore. We already know from other publications that Gormley can be eloquent on the creative method and he and Gayford here spark ideas off each other that are more illuminating than either of them writing alone.

A book such as this requires careful editing. All discussions include diversions and side-tracks that obscure the central point, but heavy-handed attempts to keep them at least appearing to be contiguous can easily leave the language stilted. Not so here and there’s a strong sense of a continuous narrative driven by shared enthusiasm and common, though not always parallel, ground.

This lands on you like a major work. It knows it is important, but it wears its learning lightly and, even though we probably expect it, it’s a pleasure to find that this is so.

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John Nash – the landscape of love and solace || Andy Friend

Paul Nash, the older of the two brothers, is the name most people remember. John, however, was perhaps the more influential, despite having had no formal art training. Impressively versatile, he worked in oil and watercolour as well as drawing and produced many wood engravings. Andy Friend also argues that he was one of the finest botanical draughtsmen of his age. He was held in high regard by his contemporaries, including Walter Sickert, Mark Gertler and Dora Carrington. In turn, he influenced Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden.

This is a thorough biography that is enhanced by its generous number of illustrations which, despite being hampered by the use of book rather than glossy paper, manage to leap off the page – someone has gone to a lot of trouble with the production in this respect.

To put an artist in context, especially one who was so pivotal to their age, requires a wider view and such we find here. In particular, Andy examines Nash’s relationship, both personal and professional, with his wife Christine Kühlenthal. An important figure in her own right, her voice is revealed through her letters and journals, seen here for the first time.

This is a substantial and thorough book with much original research that tells the story not just of its subject, but also much of the development of art in the Twentieth Century.

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Vincent’s Books || Mariella Guzzoni

Heer Van Gogh didn’t just paint and write letters, he read widely as well, you know. “I have a more or less irresistible passion for books”.

The primary source for this new approach to the artist is Vincent’s letters, his own eloquent commentary on his personal life and creative processes. Sometimes, you wonder whether he wasn’t maybe just a little too self-analytical. Those to his brother alone mention some 200 authors and he devoured fiction as well as monographs, biographies and museum guides. You might wonder how he found time to paint!

Do we need yet another angle on the life of someone we should really approach through their own output? Van Gogh was, after all, a painter, not a literary critic. Yes, his letters certainly can inform our view of his paintings and, it could be argued, his interpretation of what he read fed into his own work. However, an account of his reading does appear to be maybe just a little of one for the completists.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. An artist’s influences are certainly important and having Van Gogh’s own accounts of what he saw and how he reacted to it, especially when he writes as eloquently as he does, is undoubtedly valuable, maybe even fascinating.

One problem I encountered was the three-digit numbers that appear in square brackets in the text. Much digging in the supplementary material suggests that these are a reference to the archive of Vincent’s letters, but this is not explicitly stated. A note at the beginning would have been helpful.

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Vincent Van Gogh: a life in letters || Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen & Hans Luitjen

You can’t have too much Van Gogh, can you? Can you? Let’s leave that there and acknowledge that, for a man as complex as Vincent, his own words add considerably to our understanding of his work. As well as simply talking about his life, he was eloquent on the creative process itself. Artists, who mainly think visually, do not often write well – frequently either too much or too little, but our man was a deep thinker and a good analyst. Perhaps that was his trouble.

Even at over 400 pages, this is only a selection, but the editors (who are the team behind the full 6 volume edition of the letters for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) have been careful to make it representative. They also include manuscript reproductions as well as sketches and paintings that make this relevant to any study of Van Gogh’s art which is, after all, what we should be most interested in. The result is immediately accessible for anyone with maybe only a passing interest – specialists will probably have sought out the full canon anyway.

Sensibly, the arrangement is chronological, but also related to location, so that a connection with the artist’s often complex living arrangements is possible. Any temptation to try to introduce themes is sensibly avoided. Each section is introduced with a summary of that stage of Van Gogh’s life, his relationships and where he was in his artistic development. Once again, the more general reader is catered for and no detailed background knowledge is assumed.

The result is an effective and readable autobiography raisonné which is just learned enough to be authoritative without being indigestible for the audience it’s aimed at.

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Grayson Perry || Jacky Klein

I’m very partial to a bit of ceramics and I love innovation and experiment, but I’ve always found Grayson Perry a bit of a stretch. I don’t know whether it’s the Claire alter-ego thing, the artist-as-artwork, or the slightly knowing, sideways glance, but I’ve just had the feeling that he’s trying a little too hard. I know he’s good, in the way that I know Frank Sinatra is good, because people I respect have told me so and explained how.

This is my explained-how moment. I said I’d approach this with an open mind and be prepared to be a convert. It is, after all, a sumptuous publication that covers just about every aspect of Perry’s work (this third edition brings it up to date with A House For Essex and other new works that have appeared since the previous edition of 2013). There are as many top-quality illustrations as you could wish for and the generous page size means you can examine everything in detail.

Most artists would be glad to get a monograph at all and regard a second edition as true recognition. To have three, covering eleven years, and a cover price that’s frankly a steal suggests popularity of mammoth extent. It’s easy to see why the publisher is that confident. Perry has something for everyone and there’s an initial accessibility to his work that belies the considerable depth behind it. His pieces may attract crowds, but they are lot more than just crowd-pleasers; observation, detail and wry humour play an important part.

So, if I won the lottery would my first indulgence be a Grayson Perry piece? I’m not sure, but this gorgeous volume has taught me to appreciate him even more than I hoped it would.

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Women Artists: the Linda Nochlin Reader || ed Maura Reilly

Linda Nochlin was the doyenne of art historians and also a champion of women in art. Her seminal article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, which appeared in ARTnews in 1971, quite properly leads this collection of thirty of her most essential essays. If the original piece didn’t effectively answer its own question, such a substantial volume (there are nearly 500 pages) slams the contradiction firmly down in front of you.

It helps that this is, while not extensively so, thoughtfully illustrated and the publisher is to be congratulated on getting some very good colour reproduction on what is basically book paper – they’ve managed to choose a stock that doesn’t leach the life out of anything that touches it, and that’s by no means easy.

Maura Reilly, the editor, provides a handy introduction that sets Linda’s writing in context and there is also an interview in which she looks back on her life and work. Two of the pieces included were specially written for the collection.

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Turner’s Apprentice: a watercolour masterclass || Tony Smibert

The basic thesis of this is a sound one. Tony Smibert is a Visiting Art Researcher at Tate Britain as well as a trained art teacher. He is therefore well placed to conduct the nearest thing you’ll get to a masterclass with one of Britain’s greatest painters.

The question, though, is do you want to? What?, you ask. How can he even suggest that’s not a good thing? Well, Turner had such an individual style that emulating it is always going to look like imitation, and probably second best at that. Would it perhaps be better to study the Norwich School or the Twentieth Century tradition from Edward Seago onwards?

Well, the thing about Turner is that he taught us a huge amount about light and colour and was innovative not just in his day but, arguably, in the history of art. He was, you could posit, an impressionist before the Impressionists and one of the first to move art away from a very classical tradition that was getting just a little too rule-bound. It’s not just his paintings that merit further study, but his notebooks too, and there aren’t many artists you can say that about. No, you can’t: Turner’s notebooks contain a wealth of experimentation that led to some of his masterpieces.

So, having established that to sit at his feet is something worthwhile, what’s the experience like? Well, Tony is adept at deconstructing not just Turner’s paintings, but his methods of working. This is not an atelier process, where you stand in front of the great canvases and copy them, but rather of understanding and applying the methods that created them.

The book concludes with a chapter devoted to Tony’s own paintings – not just a gallery, they’re properly analysed. In these, you can clearly see Turner’s influence, but also the fact that the results are entirely original. It’s not at all a bad way of demonstrating what you should be aiming for – a deeper understanding of your own work, not that of someone else.

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