This Is Modern Art
By Matthew Collings
Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, 2000
This is not an ordinary book. It sets
out to make Modern art intelligible to a general readership, which,
while an enormous task, is ordinary enough. However the author
approaches the task in an unusual way, avoiding the well-trodden
path of "isms" and instead going after deeper questions -- of
genius, beauty, shock, jokes and emptiness. Although some questions are left unanswered, it is a readable and
entertaining book, and the reader is certainly better informed at
the end of it, and maybe in a better mood too.
Modern art has become so
fragmented and diverse in the last fifty years that no one book can
cover all the ground. For the whole of the 20th Century, art history
books tried to make the story into a single chronological one -- this
movement followed by that which led into the next, all tied up in a
neat parcel. Impressionism --> Post-Impressionism --> Fauvism -->
Cubism, and so on. But even way back then, that was not a true
interpretation of the facts: for instance, Cubism did not follow
from Fauvism, its point of departure was
Cézanne and/or Post-Impressionism, along
with other non-Fauve influences such as African art.
It is worthwhile to go back a bit though, for three main reasons: 1) the artistic events from 1880 to
1920 changed the course of art forever; 2) the new art caught the
imagination of a vast public, became hugely popular and remains
so to this day, and 3) for some, the art turned out to be
hugely profitable. It was a cocktail which whetted the
appetite of the public for more and more and more of the same thing.
But it was too good to last. When you
put the modern media into the mix, with publishing and movies and
ads and pop culture and ever-rising auction prices, along with other
barely credible things such as a urinal being worshipped as an icon
of Modern art, well, you end up as we are now, with many people
baffled and afraid of appearing ignorant, others feeling hoodwinked
or conned, and others simply wondering where all the good art went and will it ever come back. It's a mess, that's what it is.
Enter Matthew Collings, with his
soothing, anything-goes style. He aims to take away all the stress
and anxiety. His main focus is the past fifty years, but he goes
back as well to some of the strands which weave into the present
-- Matisse and Picasso in particular, and of course Marcel Duchamp.
As soon as you open the book to the Introduction, titled "Kicking Arse", you know you're in a different world. He's very good at large
generalisations -- "...new Modern art is still art. It's art because
it isn't anything else" (16) ...or, "Andy Warhol's myth is the myth
of Pop celebrity and shallowness and packaging replacing tortured
sincerity and inner depth." (27). His tone is light and airy,
detached, amused, ironic, at times even child-like, like some of
Modern art itself. He displays a sure grasp of the
work of the many artists whose work he covers and you get the
feeling he knows his stuff. And he has a way of seeming to speak for
all of us that is very appealing. (The downside, of course, is that
all of us think differently, and no two people have the same taste
or the same opinions, quite.) But by and large his tone is just
right and he is qualified for the job.
It would be a great service to
students of art to dump all the labels and isms and so-called
movements in the trashcan, and focus instead on individuals who
expressed their vision of the world in an original way. And in fact,
this is exactly what Collings does. It's not possible
to dispense with all the labels entirely, of course, but he keeps
them in the background and focuses on the individual artists. Which
is right, because when you think about it, "movements" in art are a
contradiction in terms. Art depends on originality and therefore cannot be
produced by imitators or jumpers on bandwagons (see, for instance,
the lesser-known painters in John Golding's book on Cubism, who were
well-thought-of in their day and whose works look embarrassing now).
Collings approaches his subject from six
main vantage points: the
notion of genius in Modern art; the notion of shock
and horror; the notion of beauty and loveliness; the notion of nothingness; the
prevalence of jokes in Modern art; and finally, "The Shock of the
Now" which aims to pull everything together and bring the story
right up to date. You can see right away that this is a far cry from the
usual list of "isms". It is in fact a much deeper and more
searching exploration of the subject than one normally finds in
books for the general reader.
In Chapter 1, "I am a Genius",
he shortlists Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol for the
"genius" category. Each of them in his own way changed the definition
of what Modern art is, says Collings: "With Picasso it was ugliness
instead of beauty. With Pollock it was American instead of European.
With Warhol it was irony instead of tortured emotion." (p. 30). This is
a good example of Collings' clear and pithy style. Also covered in
this chapter, and liberally illustrated, and with capsule
biographies of some of them in the wide outer margins, are Gilbert &
George, Joseph Beuys, Cindy Sherman, Sophie Calle,
Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Marcel Duchamp,
Rachel Whiteread, Jeff Koons, Willem de Kooning, Jane & Louise
Wilson. He returns to many of these in more detail later in the
Chapter 2, "Shock, Horror",
opens with Damien Hirst's vitrines of cut-up cows and goes on to an
in-depth and welcome discussion of Goya. On to Francis Bacon and
back to the Chapman brothers, Picasso's Guernica, Gilbert &
George again, Munch's The Scream, Tracey Emin, Vivienne
Westwood, Paul McCarthy, Katherine Hamnett, Vito Acconci,--
liberally illustrated and with more capsule bios. The following
passage which occurs on p. 73, refers to the Chapman brothers'
copies in sculpture of Goya's Disasters of War:
"But it might not be art they're
making. Except it must be, because even though it's only
model-making, which we know is mundane, the models are in a
white cube art gallery. And we know these galleries are
mysterious and important and places of transcendence. Everything
odd and inexplicable about Goya rushes to the foreground. And
everything that was a timeless humane truth about the horror of
atrocity seeps away."
This goes to the actual dislike people have for
some Modern art and reveals a hint of
anxiety even on the part of the unflappable Collings, an anxiety
that is to crop up again later in the book.
Chapter 3, "Lovely, Lovely",
examines the idea of beauty: is it still a valid idea in Modern art?
Collings goes to town on Matisse, takes a jab at Picasso for parodying one of
Matisse's nudes, touches on Mondrian and Morris Louis, lingers a
while in America on Jules Olitski and Alex Katz, then on the
contemporary Elizabeth Peyton; still in America, goes into some
detail on Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jasper Johns; returns to Britain
with Chris Offili's paintings decorated with and supported by elephant
dung; returns to Matisse, specifically the Vence chapel, and winds
up the chapter with four pages on Patrick Heron (about fifty of
whose paintings from a retrospective were destroyed in a recent fire
in a London storage facility). I admit that to me the Heron pieces
as illustrated here didn't have the loveliness of the chapter title, but as the author
points out, "That's loveliness for you. It's pretty subjective."
From here on, the art is less
appetising: Chapter 4, "Nothing Matters" is devoted largely
to Minimalism, starting with Martin Creed's roomful of white balloons,
followed by Ad Reinhardt's Black paintings; then
sculpture by Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin and
Robert Morris; all-white paintings by Robert Ryman; Kasimir
Malevich's Black Square of 1913, long pre-dating Minimalism
proper; Mark Rothko; Yves Klein; and so on, the whole dreary
formulaic lot. Glenn Brown might be a little different and seems out
of place in this chapter. James Turrell -- well, I don't know. Maybe
in real life.
Chapter 5, "Hollow Laughter"
is all about Modern art jokes. This should be pretty interesting but
it turns out that a lot of the "jokes" are based on text.
One artist (Richard Prince) actually built a career out of copying
jokes from joke books onto, first, pieces of paper, and then more
elaborately onto canvas when the initial venture proved successful.
Another (Piero Manzoni) did well financially by putting 30 grams of his own
faeces in cans, and labelling and signing them. Sarah Lucas turns
up again here with a wax finger on a plinth. Fluxus, Andre Breton,
George Maciunas, Guy Debord. Yawn. Sigh. Duchamp reappears, this time
that "blankness, indifference and contempt" can win out in the end.
Sean Landers and Magritte are mentioned. Martin Kippenberger gets about eight pages.
Und so weiter. (I don't know what that means. An elderly German man
says it in a novel by Willa Cather and it sounds nice.) The chapter ends with four more
pages of Richard Prince's so-called jokes. The reader wonders: Is
commercial success a sign of merit?
Chapter 6, "The Shock of
the Now" begins with a feeling of hope. But by now the author himself has
doubts and can no longer totally reassure us that all is well
in the Modern art department. Could it
be indeed that the Modern art "we" have chosen is vacuous or empty?
The chapter has lots about Bruce Nauman, good news if you're a fan;
some Julian Schnabel, more of Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol. Look out
for an original and insightful take on Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
Sigmar Polke is mentioned because he's big in America; Salvador Dali
appears again with some details of his over-the-top scandalous
lifestyle; Peter Davies, who painted various lists (in words)
of his top hundred artists; Jeff Koons and his multi-million dollar
exhibition-in-progress, Celebration, not completed at the
time of going to press; and so on. There's a description of the
popular new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in relation to which,
about a piece by one Lawrence Weiner, Collings says:
"From both positions it looks
good and means little or nothing or just something ironic, an
ironic flourish on the end of a blandness, the blandness being
the whole, bland, idiotic, curatorial mindlessness of the rest
of the exhibition."
Up to this point Collings has been so
hopeful and upbeat about almost everything to do with Modern art
that this comes as quite a shock. But it's a good shock.
Maybe those of us who fail to respond to large chunks of Modern art
are not alone. Maybe we are not so dumb after all. Who knows?
Anyway, three cheers for Matthew Collings!
The two main omissions, as I see it,
are the role of Conceptual art in the last
fifty years, and the pervasive influence of Deconstruction. Perhaps
Conceptual art is discussed indirectly, because its origin can
be traced back to Duchamp as early as 1917; but it is not called Conceptual
and its main proponent in the 50s, Sol LeWitt, does not appear in
the book. The
label doesn't matter, but the issue of ideas as the main thing in
Modern art, with the execution being delegated to others -- that
matters a good deal. For what it's worth, not much I know, my own experience is that art only happens with
the making of the marks.
And then there's Deconstruction with
its trick questions of the "Do you still beat your wife" variety.
Despite having been discredited years ago because of false logic, it is
beloved by academics because nothing can ever be solved, meaning
there will always be more research to be done (and more grants to be got). It has permeated the
academic establishment of all the humanities including the art
history and critical theory establishments. It's not something one wants to think about
much, it's too depressing. But by now a generation of art students
has grown up with it -- with what sort of effect?
A perennial if unfair criticism of a book like
this is of worthy artists left out. In Chapter 3, Lovely Lovely,
Collings might have added the interesting Laura Owens (American).
That's a mere quibble though. We had a contemporary artist of Swedish origin in
Trinidad called Lisa Henry, later Lisa Chu Foon, who died relatively
young in 1997, whose work was/is as beautiful
and original as anything I've ever seen anywhere. It's also true
that we never know in the "Now" who will be at the top later
-- or is that only a 19th-century fairytale? -- and
there is always the chance that the finest contemporary artists will
remain forever hidden, not well-enough
to get into books
To wrap up, there's stuff in here you'll find nowhere
else -- such as how some Modern artists supplement their incomes
through sponsorship deals, just like sports stars and pop stars.
There are things to make you think, things to be annoyed by, things
to make you laugh. What more can one ask?
November 22--26, 2004
"This is Modern Art" by Matthew Collings << click to see more on Amazon
An interview with Matthew Collings in 3 AM Magazine --
March 2002, even more forthright and blunt, and three books later. Quotes
from the interview: "I
think the only hope for anything creative or genuinely expressive,
is that there has to be some sort of cultural underground."
And, "In terms of avant-gardism – well, avant-gardism doesn’t work
now, because the avant-garde we have is an official one and
therefore a pseudo one. You can’t be against the system if you are
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