Robert Storr: Interviews on Art

There is, quite simply, nothing else like this. Robert Storr is a curator, critic and painter. From 1990-2002 he worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as a curator (subsequently senior) in the Department of Painting and Sculpture. He has also interviewed a huge number of artists and these have appeared, since 1982, in a variety of publications. Substantial as it is at 928 pages, this volume is just a selection.

The secret to Storr’s interviews is their intimacy. His involvement, both as a curator and a practitioner allows him insights into his subjects that breed an easy familiarity and a sense, for the reader, of inclusion in a charmed circle. A sensitive interviewer, by making the subject feel at ease and not merely on the receiving end of a questionnaire, will always elicit more information and personal insights. The discussions here range from painting and drawing to sculpture as well as installation, photography, film and performance. Storr’s interest is in the artists themselves and their intellectual and creative processes rather than any pre-conceived notion of what art might (or might not) be. As well as being an insightful interviewer, he is also a sympathetic listener and honest reporter.

The cover presents a list of the subjects included – Louise Bourgeois, Buckminster Fuller, Jeff Koons and very many more. Which ones stand out for you will depend on your personal interests, but you won’t want to read the book for those alone. Very usefully, representative samples of each subject’s work are included as well as previously unpublished photographs of the artists themselves. Books that are predominantly text-based often do not handle illustrations well and it is a point in favour of this one that it does, greatly aided by the quality of reproduction, paper used and page size.

This is a fascinating book that reveals much about the processes involved in creating works of art in many formats and media.

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Robert Rauschenberg: Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno

This series of works, created between 1958 and 1960, illustrate each of the cantos of Dante’s poem. For them, Rauschenberg used a technique that transferred photographic reproductions from magazines and newspapers onto art paper. Novel at the time, it was something he was later to develop more widely.

Creative interpretations from one medium to another are always interesting and illuminate both sides of the process. Example text is included here next to each of the illustrations and this is essential to establish a context. An illustration should expand understanding of its subject, but it will also provide an insight into the mind of the artist; in a really successful work, this will be a three-way symbiosis between the artist, writer and reader/viewer. That takes place here and it is easy to establish a contemplative state of mind. If you can get inside Rauschenberg, he tends to do that.

The nature of the transfer process Rauschenberg used does not produce clear images and the structure of these works is sometimes not immediately apparent, something that is not helped by the inevitable losses of the printing process. Even viewed full-size and in life, meaning is not always immediately apparent, although it is worth the effort. That said, as this book is the nearest many of us will get to regular viewing, it is certainly welcome.

The whole series was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art shortly after its completion and this is their publication.

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Renoir: an intimate biography || Barbara Ehrlich White

Barbara Ehrlich White began collecting Renoir’s letters in1961 and has amassed some 3000 of them. Some are by, some to and others about him, but the story they have to tell and the character they reveal underpin the “intimate” claim of the title of this really rather revelatory book.

Renoir evoked and still evokes strong feelings. You might think that the riot that accompanied the first Impressionists exhibition revealed passions of the past, but there was a mass demonstration outside an exhibition of Renoir’s work at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2015. The protestors’ objection was to the artist’s “indefensible swathes of poorly rendered treacle”. Renoir himself admitted that his professors found his work execrable.

This is not, however, so much an analysis of Renoir’s artistic legacy as of his character and his relationship with his contemporaries: other artists, dealers, models and his son, the film director Jean Renoir. Starting in poverty, Renoir eventually achieved success, but then stopped exhibiting with his friends as the association would devalue his own works. With success, however, came physical afflictions and he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis that made painting difficult and painful. It is something of a miracle that he continued and is, perhaps, a tribute to the creative drive that marks out the great artist in any field.

Most artistic studies are made from the outside, looking in. This contribution to the literature of a much-observed figure provides a sense of looking outwards from the point of view of the man himself.

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Pure Watercolour Painting || Peter Cronin

As you might expect, Peter is a member of the Pure Watercolour Society and this is a hymn to the medium.. Forewords by David Curtis and David Bellamy should leave you in no doubt about how good it is.

My first question on opening the book was: what is “pure” watercolour and how does it differ from any other kind? Peter helpfully enlightens us: “One may suspect that there is perhaps more to good painting than a huge toolkit, and it may be possible to take simple tools and use them well. This concept and approach to painting are at the heart of pure watercolour”. Put kindly, I take that to mean that simplicity is always best and that you should work with your imagination and media rather than your tools; they’re not what makes a painting, you do.

In the wrong hands, this could come across as a fundamentalist rant, but Peter lets his brushes do the talking and the work here is simply extraordinary. If he wasn’t such a good explainer and demonstrator, you could easily be put off by his virtuosity. As it is, follow his advice carefully and you’ll stand a very good chance of finishing this book a much better painter then when you started.

Watercolour is, as I think we all know, a very special medium. It’s one that does sometimes seem to have a mind of its own and is nowhere near as controllable as the opaque ones. The skill is to work with that and to learn ways of encouraging it to do what you want rather than trying to wrestle it into submission and merely working against it. Handle a wash sensitively, know when colours are going to bleed and blend and large sections will almost complete themselves.

Peter explains much about the properties of watercolour and the techniques you’ll need. He also demonstrates extensively and these paintings will show you how to produce some really quite advanced work.

It’s a bit of a tour de force.

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Modern Art in Detail || Susie Hodge

Modern art can be a hard sell to the non-specialist and requires a considerable degree of explanation and, often, a whole new vocabulary. This can lead to a sense of exclusion and a suspicion that experts (oh, don’t we hate them?) are making it up as they go along. The fact that some of them almost certainly are has nothing to do with it.

Susie is an erudite and experienced writer about art, but she wears her learning lightly. You might be forgiven, in fact, for thinking that she is a casual observer rather than one of the aforesaid experts. If there is a thing to “get”, though, she gets it and part of it is that other casual observers need simple explanations and their concerns addressed. Her previous forays into this minefield include Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That and Why is Art Full of Naked People? (the latter written for children). She has also written a number of studies of individual artists that, wisely, concentrate on the image rather than schools and places in history – although these are not ignored where they matter.

All art was, of course, modern in its day and this easily-forgotten fact slaps you in the face on the first page when you’re confronted with Van Gogh’s Church in Auvers-sur-Oise. This is wisely chosen as it combines a familiar image with a recognisable subject along with the artist’s characteristic trademarks. It is not, however, one of the more problematic paintings from his later manic phase. As well as the exploded details that give the book its title, there is a very useful sidebar of a much earlier work by Van Gogh that shows him following a more traditional path before developing his own style.

The analytical sections of the book explain each artist’s working methods: pictorial elements, perspective, colour and structure. The book is illustration-led throughout and the words are barely more than extended captions so that there is nothing to get bogged down in. The whole idea is that you should be able to appreciate a wide variety of work (although the total number is 75, they have been carefully chosen to be representative of the whole gamut of styles and movements). In short, this is about art, not academia, and it’s all the better for that.

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Louise Bourgeois: an unfolding portrait || Deborah Wye

There are many reasons to give this more than just a passing glance. Louise Bourgeois is, of course, the name of the moment and its appearance is therefore timely. However, with the imprint of the Museum of Modern Art, this carries considerable authority. The subtitle, Prints, Books and the Creative Process, is also something that should pique the interest.

The book is a carefully-structured account of an important part of Bourgeois’ work as well as a meticulously-reproduced catalogue raisonée – the quality of the illustrations is second to none. The main bulk is devoted to a series of Themes and Variations which divide Bourgeois’ work into a neatly-chosen set of groupings that introduce a sense of order into a career that spanned seven decades. This section is usefully followed by analyses of some of the artist’s working relationships with her assistant Jerry Gorovoy, her printer Felix Harlan and Benjamin Shiff, her publisher. These take the form of interviews that shine a light on the often symbiotic relationship that is at the heart of works whose production extends beyond the initial creator.

This is a major study of an important part of the work of one of the towering figures of Twentieth Century art.

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Learn to Paint Acrylics with 50 Small Paintings || Mark Daniel Nelson

I am now completely confused. When I saw this, I didn’t like it. It doesn’t compare well with its companion volume on watercolour and seems to lack the fizz that has. However, I now realise that it is, in fact, a reissue of Little Ways to Learn Acrylics, which I liked a lot.

The moral of this, I think, is always to check that books aren’t quiet reissues (this one isn’t completely silent and is acknowledged in small print on the title page). What is interesting, though, is how perception can change when comparison is made to something else. In this case, Learn to Paint in Watercolour with 50 Small Paintings has a huge amount of originality and this now looks like a pale comparison and a feeble attempt to jump on a series bandwagon. And yet it’s the same book that I liked two years ago.

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