Archive for category Subject: Art Appreciation

Writings On Art || Robert Storr (ed Francesca Pietropaolo)

“One evening, early in our acquaintance, my great-aunt took me downtown to the loft of William Rubin, the then newly named chief curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA … In the whirlwind of that evening, for the first time I “met” Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude, Frank Stella, Patty and Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, Jasper Johns, and Lee Krasner.”

WOW, now there’s an introduction to the New York art scene of the 1960’s. The tale comes from Robert Storr’s introduction that tells how he fell into art criticism pretty much by accident. It sure helps to have had a relative who was friends with Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas.

Storr’s pedigree is, I think we can therefore agree, impeccable. But what about his ability to write? Francesca Pietropaolo, the editor of this generous and eclectic compilation, describes him as “terse, elegant, inquisitive, witty, poetic, contrarian and at times animated by a vernacular verve all its own”, writing in a way that speaks to both the specialist and the general public. This is a gift that can’t be manufactured (she adds, by way of emphasis, a quote from William Carlos Williams: “I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it” – and amen, I say, to that).

I could go on with the quotes, because Storr has almost infinite self-awareness and uses the writing process not just to convey what he knows, but to learn about what he doesn’t and it’s a journey he is careful to include his readers in. To read him is to go on a voyage of discovery with an enthusiastic and inquisitive but also well-informed guide.

Such is the quality of the prose that it would be easy to read this from cover to cover, but it is probably best taken slower, absorbed, considered and its lessons permitted to mature. His pieces will make you think and you should take time to do that. It’s a mark of good writing.

Part of the joy is finding that, while you probably wanted to know more about Louise Bourgeois, Jean-Michel Basquiat or Jackson Pollock, there are other – many other – names which will not be so familiar and which you might be tempted to skip, except that you want more of Storr’s work and you’ll devour anything he gives you. And that, gentle reader, is the mark of great writing.

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The Whole Picture – the colonial story of the art in our museums || Alice Procter

This is about as timely as it gets and is certainly woke. Alice Procter’s Uncomfortable Art Tours around museums in London were born out of a sense of frustration at a lack of acknowledgment of colonial history in art galleries.

This is only partly true, as any historian worth their salt knows about the role of colonialism in mainly the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. I would like to think that an image such as The East Offering Its Riches to Britannia, painted for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, could not fail to make any viewer feel at least a little uncomfortable. Images of kangaroos, however, perhaps more simply educate a willing public about the fauna of distant lands – even if they were invaded and their indigenous populations subjugated. Dürer, of course, famously drew a rhinoceros probably only from a description. It would not be unfair, I think, to say that George Stubbs was not quite so well-informed. And then we have the famous Tipu’s Tiger, an automaton that mauls an unfortunate British soldier. The point that Procter makes rather eloquently here is that while the original is in London, only a rather poor plastic copy exists in the original location.

This, of course, raises the perennial question of whether all art should remain where it was created, or whether it can be moved about the world. It is inevitable that such moves will involve a degree of plunder and this is not limited to a single place or civilisation. Sometimes, the very movement becomes the story itself and history can lend an awful lot of perspective – we can marvel at a Roman statue of a legionary dominating a subjugated Celt without feeling the need to ask for the whole of modern Italy to be cancelled.

To be fair to this book, and its author in particular, this is neither preaching nor a rant, but rather an examination of a subject that is very much to the fore. Should we pull down statues of slave traders or let them stand and tell the story of how they came to be there? Which one illuminates history and which consigns it even further to the dark recesses of memory than it already is? If you want information that will help you think, it’s here.

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Spirit of Place: writers and the British landscape || Susan Owens

It’s hard to know where to file this. Is it art or literary criticism? (A British Library cataloguing in publication record is available for all you perplexed librarians out there.) I write about art, but my background is in English literature and I only narrowly escaped librarianship, so I suppose I ought to be qualified to have an opinion.

It’s an intriguing concept. The idea of British (for which, read mainly English) landscape painting has been described as an Eighteenth Century invention, which is also conveniently about the same time that modern literature came into being. No, you shut up, I’ve read Beowulf, Chaucer, Malory, Defoe and even Thomas Nash – I’m perfectly well aware of how we got to the modern novel.

The principal idea in this genuinely intriguing book is that the British Landscape is a construct, a quasi-romantic ideal that exists chiefly in the mid of its creators. Susan Owens looks as far back as Bede and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the latter, the concept of redemption through a green world progression is one that finds echoes later in Shakespearean comedies, as eloquently exemplified by the critic Northrop Frye. Into this, she weaves Gainsborough and Austen – the former’s landscapes certainly informing our mental images of the latter’s settings.

The narrative continues as the whole concept is refashioned by succeeding generations to reflect their own concerns, obsessions and preconceptions as much as representations of reality itself. I shall close here, merely pausing to say “Mervyn Peake” and leave you to think.

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Brief Lessons in Seeing Differently || Frances Ambler

This is that rare beast, a book which is as valuable to the artist as it is to the art consumer.

Under a series of heads – See things in a fresh light, Learn the advantages of a different angle, Give yourself time and be still, etc – Frances Ambler provides advice on how to improve the quality of your art. Each section is short, as the title implies, and provides an outline that’s effectively a model for further study. Go away and think about it is her message. Much of it could also apply to ways of looking at paintings, hence the convenient dual appeal.

It’s an excellent idea and succeeds admirably in its aim to be thought-provoking. The use of examples adds weight to the arguments, but you’d better hope you have access to the artists and works cited as there are only a few illustrations, and those are grouped together at the back. To be fair, including more would take this beyond the realm of the budget pocket book into a larger, possibly coffee table tome. To avoid it simply being a large slab of text, the designers have used typographic tricks which you might find annoying if you hang around too long.

For all that, it’s a fun book, which I think is what it intends. After all, as Frances says, “The mundane becomes special as soon as you pay attention to it”.

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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.

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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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200 Words to Help You Talk About Art || Ben Street

File this under Fun and please don’t take it too seriously.   Yes, of course you need to be able to drop Mimesis, Primitivism, Anamorphosis or Neue Sachlichkeit into any post-dinner party conversation and it’s helpful to know what they mean if anyone decides they do and wants to challenge you.   Too much Pinot Grigio can make even the most reclusive guest argumentative.   It’s handily small, too, so you can slip it in your pocket as a quick crib-sheet should things get ugly.

Even better, it’s arranged by theme: Media, Techniques, Movements, etc so that you can browse easily and there’s a contents list to make finding (say) Maquette a matter of moments.

A dictionary would be sorted alphabetically and be much more inclusive than this – think 2000 words at the very least.   This, though, gives you a basic grounding and, if you were inclined to be a bit less flippant than I’ve been, you’d find it an excellent grounding in art terms, movements and styles.

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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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A History of Pictures (rev ed) || David Hockney & Martin Gayford

It’s worth noting that, although this bills itself as “from the cave to the computer screen”, it is specifically not a history of art, at least not in the academic sense. Rather it is, as the title clearly tells us, all about the image.

Dry, it is not. With David Hockney’s forthright views and Martin Gayford’s lucid writing, it never could be. Both are authorities in their own way and the form of the book is a dialogue that crackles with assertion, expertise and even tension. The process is entirely subjective, which is as it should be. Art is, at its root, not about styles, schools and methods. It’s about getting an image – often a narrative – down on paper or canvas. Even when that image is an avowed record – how that landscape looked on that day, the face of that statesman or the embodiment of that classical tale – there’s always a degree of editorial control. How do those figures relate, how does the light fall on that cottage, are the features in that portrait a little blurred or sharply-defined, implying an aspect of character?

This is billed as a compact edition of the original (paperback, slightly smaller page size) with a revised final chapter that updates the coverage of digital art, of which Hockney is an acknowledged master. It adds three of his new artworks, including the stained glass window at Westminster Abbey that was unveiled in 2018.

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The Pursuit of Art || Martin Gayford

There’s a delicious archness to the title of this entertaining book that isn’t apparent from merely knowing what it is – in fact, it could be self-defeating, as it suggests a rather worthy tome dedicated to the labour of Being An Artist.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, of course this is about the creative mind and its processes and, yes, you’d want to read it on that basis because … well … Martin Gayford. It is also, however, the story of his travels in search of art and artists. These, it turns out (should we be surprised?) do not simply involved rocking up at the studio door and being welcomed with open arms. Not all artists live conveniently close to a bus stop, train station or car park and some pieces, such as Brancusi’s Endless Column necessitate a hair-raising journey through a mountain pass and on roads that have partly washed away. The job of the critic doesn’t just involve sitting behind a typewriter and trashing reputations (that’s the reviewer’s job – ed).

So, this is a personal account of tracking down artist and artworks, of planned meetings and chance encounters. Sometimes, it’s a bit like climbing a mountain to seek out a shaman in search of wisdom and then discovering that there was no great revelation and that the effort itself was the enlightenment.

Writing about art is a serious business and can all too easily disappear up its own fundament. This, then, is a breath of fresh air and an indication that even the greatest writers don’t always take themselves entirely seriously. It would be so simple, writing about difficult journeys, to chronicle every twist, turn and impediment, but Gayford is too smart and too good a writer for that. The sense of distance and effort is there, but the passage of time is often only hinted at – a passing reference to a meal, for instance, can indicate that we are several hours on. As Gayford himself concludes, “The pursuit of art is a journey that never stops; the more you see, the more you want to see”.

After I’d sampled this for the purposes of a review, I kept going back to it and it eventually made it to my bedside table. It really is a thumping good read.

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Landscape Painting Now – from pop abstraction to new romanticism

Having relatively little in the way of critical or appreciative analysis, this is mainly a showcase of contemporary work. It is none the worse for that and, lacking an academic tone, is free to concentrate and, more importantly, allow the reader to concentrate on the art itself.

To establish some sort of order, there are general chapter headings – Realism & Beyond, Post-Pop Landscapes, New Romanticism, Constructed Realities, Abstracted Topographies and Complicated Vistas. These are, it should be said, largely curatorial constructs, but they provide a nice framework within which to order a wide variety of material. Within each section, works are arranged by artist and with a short introduction to each – handy especially for those who are less familiar.

The whole thing is substantial, both in extent and format, and conveys a sense of completeness that won’t leave you questioning whether more, or different, works should have been included. The market isn’t immediately obvious, although I suspect that anyone interested in contemporary art would be able to find a convincing reason for wanting it, and parting which what seems a relatively modest forty quid.

If nothing else, it proves that landscape painting is alive and well in the Twenty-First century.

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