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Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art

 

Review of

Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art

A sourcebook of artists' writings

Edited by Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz

University of California Press, 1996

Weighing in at just over 4 lbs, this 1000-page book is a tremendously interesting and comprehensive anthology of artists' writings, interviews, manifestoes, statements, letters and so forth, covering the period from the end of World War II to about the mid-1990s.

Conceived as a textbook for students of art and art history, it is organized into nine sections, each dealing with a major area of contemporary art. Each section has an introduction by one of the editors, and there is a General  Introduction at the beginning by Kristine Stiles.

The sections are: 1. Gestural Abstraction; 2:Geometric Abstraction; 3: Figuration; 4: Material Culture and Everyday Life; 5: Art and Technology; 6: Installations, Environments, and Sites; 7: Process; 8: Performance Art; 9: Language and Concepts.

Beginning with Jackson Pollock's Guggenheim Application of 1947 ("I intend to paint large movable pictures which will function between the easel and the mural. ..."), in here you will find words by most of the major artists of the last fifty years, excepting painters such as Picasso who, from the standpoint of contemporary theory, belonged to an earlier era. His influence, though, hovers over the whole book and all the artists in it, much as Shakespeare's influence still hovers over literature, as Harold Bloom has argued.

Visual artists are notoriously variable in their ability to express themselves in words and in this respect the anthology does not disappoint --and in fact the variation makes the volume a great dip-and-browse book (I should make clear at this point that I have not read the whole book). A few of the selections are all but unreadable; others are models of well-expressed original thought.

Sol LeWitt, for instance, needs a mere paragraph to clarify what Conceptual Art is all about.

Francis Bacon explains that he prefers to paint people he knows from photographs and memory because if the person is in the room with him he feels inhibited about distorting their image (I can totally relate to that).

Alice Neel is as truthful and honest and interesting in a 1983 interview with Patricia Hills as she was in her marvelous portraits.

Some excerpts from here and there:

Jean Dubuffet, 1951: "Written language seems to me a bad instrument. As an instrument of expression, it seems to deliver only a dead remnant of a thought . . . I believe (and here I am in accord with the so called primitive civilizations) that painting is more concrete than the written word, and is a much more rich instrument for the expression and elaboration of thought." (p 192, Figuration).

Jeff Koons in1988, describing his search for a company to produce large porcelains, gives an intimation of how profoundly the rules have changed: "Then I went to Italy . . . thinking that the Italian mentality is much more courageous . . . In the end, my Michael Jackson piece will be the largest porcelain ever produced in the world. So what I was doing was financing their experimentation . . . The way it works is that one of the factory artists makes the model and signs it. I sign underneath the piece with the date and number of the edition. I have them sign it because I want them to give me 100%, to exploit themselves." (p. 382-3, Material Culture and Everyday Life).

Ad Reinhardt's Twelve Rules, so utterly negative as to border on nihilism, explain his all-black paintings and strike a chill in the warmest heart (p 89--90, Geometric Abstraction).

The video artist Nam June Paik said in Art and Satellite (1984): "God created love to propagate the human race, but, unawares, man began to love simply to love. By the same logic, although man talks to accomplish something, unawares, he soon begins to talk simply to talk." (p. 435, Art and Technology).

The sculptor Anthony Caro asserted in 1979 that ..."Abstract art which is not expressive becomes arbitrary or decorative" -- thus putting down his stake in an old debate that is likely to continue into the foreseeable future -- if, of course, the world as we know it has such a thing as a foreseeable future (p. 104, Geometric Abstraction).

The selections are presented without comment apart from the section introductions. The source for each selection is given in a footnote on the page where the piece begins, a considerate decision on the part of the editors much-appreciated by this reader.

I hope the titbits quoted above will give a tantalising flavour of the riches to be found in this anthology and will whet the reader's appetite for more. The illustrations are sparse and in black and white only, but are exceptionally well chosen -- not a cliché among them, and some refreshing choices -- as in Lucien Freud's startling portrait of Francis Bacon, and Giacometti's self-portrait scribbled on a paper napkin.

M.A., October 14, 2004, modified November 14, 2004

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