Archive for category Publisher: Thames & Hudson

Look Again – how to experience the old masters || Ossian Ward

There’s no shortage of books on art history and appreciation or of assessments, frequently offering new insights, of Old Master paintings. The sheer weight and distribution of source material ensures a steady process of well-qualified authors. Ossian Ward is Head of Content at the Lisson Gallery and was previously chief art critic at London’s Time Out magazine.

There is much in favour of this new volume. For a start, it’s compact. If you’re trying to get to grips with art appreciation, the last thing you want is to be overwhelmed by material, and this is very much a primer. While relatively elementary, what it is not is superficial. There are plenty of well-reproduced illustrations that are, within the confines of a book that would fit in a jacket pocket, generously sized. Its binding also allows it to fall open easily, meaning that the reader is not forced to peer into the spine to inspect a detail the text has fixed on. These things matter.

The text is written as a narrative and the “again” of the title refers to the viewer taking an extended look at the artwork, rather than the book being a radical departure from received wisdom. This doesn’t mean that it is a re-hash of all that has gone before, but rather a distillation for a particular audience – one that will value the concise over the exhaustive. The chapter headings are “Art as…” and topics include honesty, drama, horror and folly. These are eye-catching as much as anything else, but allow an examination of many different works from many different viewpoints. The method is not to dissect individual paintings, but rather to demonstrate a variety of ways of approaching art as a whole and to show the newcomer what to look for in terms of composition, symbols and the overall treatment of the subject.

Add all this to an enjoyable read – even a bit of a page-turner – and you have a solid winner.

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Lee Krasner: Living Colour || ed Eleanor Nairne

Lee Krasner is this year’s rediscovery. Alongside a major European retrospective exhibition and Gail Levin’s biography is this new monograph that provides an account and chronology of Krasner’s working life as well as illustrating a thoroughly representative selection of her work.

That Krasner’s reputation has been largely obscured by the superstar nature of her husband, Jackson Pollock, is now a matter of record. As an aside to this, in On Chapel Sands, her memoir of her mother, Betty, Laura Cumming recounts her saying, of her marriage to another artist, that there is only room for one painter in a family. It seems that Betty willingly turned her creative endeavour to weaving. We can also look at Rose Hilton as an example of another partner whose work was, in this case, deliberately suppressed by a husband. Yes, it’s usually the men who prevail. Maybe Elizabeth (Betty) Cumming was right and artistic differences and jealousies do inevitably affect both creativity and a relationship.

If Lee Krasner didn’t get the appreciation she deserved during her lifetime, her reputation is being salvaged by posterity, which can examine her work through the lens of history. Maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Rather than being the Wunderkind that Pollock was lauded as during his life, Krasner can be seen as an artist both of her own time and that of the decades that have followed. It may be unfair, but it provides a different and, maybe, ultimately more subtle analysis: one with perspective.

If you want a one-volume guide to Lee Krasner’s work, this is it. True, such things may not be thick on the ground but, if you had to sketch out what you wanted from such a book, the format you have here would pretty much match it. The quality of the illustrations is generally excellent and, if the odd rather elderly colour transparency creeps in, that’s probably inevitable – better to have the picture than lose it because it’s not the sharpest slide in the tray.

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Drawing: a complete guide || Stephen C P Gardner

This very thorough book really does live up to its title. The range of styles and subjects covered and the progression of the chapters provides a complete course. As a professor and administrator, Stephen Gardner has not only personal teaching experience, but also the opportunity to watch others at work and learn from their methods and (perhaps) mis-steps. It’s also worth saying that the very soft binding means that the book (it’s a substantial paperback) falls open easily and doesn’t have to be manhandled if you have both hands occupied trying to follow the exercises. Small things like that can make a big difference and, if that much thought has gone into the detail, the substance is likely to be good as well.

This isn’t, as you may have gathered, a book to dip into, try a few things and then zone out. The organisation, which is clear and structured, does mean that you can concentrate on one topic – mark-making, line, form, values, shape etc – at a time, but do expect a chapter to occupy most of a day, or maybe even a week, allowing for practice, studio exercises and a bit of revision.

Substantial in every way, this is essential reading for anyone who’s serious about drawing.

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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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