Big Dumb Books on Contemporary Art

Big Dumb Books on Contemporary Art

Postby CAP » Thu Nov 13, 2014 12:10 pm

100 Painters of Tomorrow – Kurt Beers – Thames & Hudson ISBN 9780500239230 32.00 x 24.00 cm 288pp 330 Illustrations, 320 in colour
Art Now! Vol. 4 - Hans Werner Holzwarth, Taschen, Hardcover, 8.5 x 10.8 in., 576 pages

They just keep getting bigger and dumber, pacing a general inflation in the art market. And these books are all about marketing, not art historical research, criticism or even any meaningful analysis of market trends – just a mindless assembly of favourites and fairly tepid tastes. I don’t recommend either of these obviously, but it‘s perhaps worth reflecting on the phenomenon. 100 Painters of Tomorrow is particularly anodyne as a survey of the potential currently available to painting. It’s all rather familiar, tidy and prim. But the object is hardly accuracy or tolerance; rather a shallow exercise in positioning or advertising. The books target their subjects as buyers really, look to sell the most to the easiest. This is hardly novel in niche publishing, where various omnibus or almanac editions at least cover their costs by mentioning as many interested parties as possible. This works for anything with a widespread and dedicated participation and more so these days as printing costs are driven down by global ‘competition’, if we can call it that. The books promise some sort of recognition or prestige for included parties, but prestige for which they will eventually pay.

It’s no more than a cosy feedback loop in other words, whereby dealers and artists in this case, gain a hefty coffee table-sized tome that mentions them, but does little else, and which they naturally endorse as implicit prestige of publication. And naturally, the more they adopt the practice the more momentum it attains. Publishers and their market scratch each other’s backs, even if the scratches grow somewhat perfunctory. But there is no sustained argument or discussion concerning selections, no interpretation or analysis of works. In fact such books amount to not much more than elaborate sales brochures. Readers from outside the charmed circle can only puzzle at inconsistencies and the sheer excess of examples. These matters beg questions of criteria for which there is no rationale beyond privileged promotion. How many is too many? It’s all about who pays.

In place of a criterion, 100 Painters of Tomorrow offers an elaborate process of selection, whereby a panel of ten curators and critics, together with editor, Kurt Beers chose from open submissions that numbered ‘over’ 4,300 aspiring artists. Submissions took the form of JPGs plus CVs, implicitly an online procedure. At the same time, ‘over 100’ prominent art schools around the world were invited to submit suitable candidates. So the book can hardly be faulted for size of sample. But the logistics of scrutinising so many JPGs, the stages and criteria – whether JPGs were finally adequate in themselves, how much time the panel spent with submissions in private and in consultation, with actual works, indeed criterion for inclusion on the panel, remains suspiciously opaque. And given the emphasis on youth and art schools, which obviously could easily have accounted for the entire selection; the inclusion of a number of older, established artists from New York and London seems inappropriate. How much of tomorrow are we talking about? Nina Bovasso, Carla Busuttil, Tomory Dodge, Milena Dragecevic, Emma Talbot, Julia Wachtel, Matthew Weir and Lara Viana all have been exhibiting for a number of years. Wachtel was born in 1956 and has works in the MoMA NYC, Whitney, MoCA L.A. and Saatchi collections. Dodge has a similar distinguished record. Weir was previously included in the 2006 publication, Painting People. Dragecevic was included in the 2011 publication Vitamin P2, Phaidon’s entry in this unfortunate category of art book. But at least there the claim is only for consensus across preceding 21st century surveys, rather than some reckless prediction. Incidentally, Emma Talbot’s name is not even spelt correctly on the website for 100 Painters of Tomorrow, with its tedious Flash animation.

As always, there are puzzling omissions, such as Jonas Burgert, a rising Berlin star for the past couple of years, Martin Galle or Robert Seidel recent graduates from the Leipzig Academy, French painters like Guillaume Bresson, Valerie Favre or Juliano Caldeira, but this may be justified through lack of submission. It would be interesting to know whether the likes of a Dodge or Wachtel actually submitted personally, via gallery contacts or more informally to the panel. Either way, it hardly does justice to a claim for ‘up and coming’. But beyond basic questions of qualification there is the widespread but misplaced assumption that youth brings with it innovation or change. While it is true tomorrow belongs to today’s youth, by the time they take possession they are unlikely to still be young. The fact is art schools can provide students with the skills and context to allow them to enter the discourse of the art world in its broadest sense, but they are no guarantee that the student will have anything of interest to contribute. Increasingly, art schools have proceeded by stages, or literally degrees, hoping to cultivate the artist’s identity or brand while amassing skills and experience. Selection for post graduate degrees then becomes an agonising call on who looks a probable market winner for a school to invest in. Art schools are looking for a track record of producing prompt or short-term winners, after all, mostly to justify exorbitant fees. This only invites an equally cosy collusion with galleries and collections. It’s easy to then see why art schools would be eager to participate in 100 Painters of Tomorrow’s ‘process’.

Art history however, argues otherwise. Cezanne, Gauguin, Kandinsky and Mondrian were all middle-aged by the time they made their historic break-throughs. Pollock, de Kooning, Guston, Warhol and Rosenquist proceeded by more circuitous routes after art school. And it’s not that art schools weren’t good enough then, but simply that art schools are not enough, no matter how attenuated or protracted their placements and consultations. It is precisely a more direct and unstructured engagement with the wider world that ultimately serves as inspiration. Training is one thing, a responsive personality and opportunity another. Maturity takes time. In this respect one might have expected some older, as yet unrecognised artists to make the list for 100 Painters of Tomorrow, but there is little or no evidence of this because the feedback loop with curators, galleries and art schools effectively excludes this segment, and with it, the possibility of bolder reappraisal and invention, born of experience. Part of the reason the selection looks so cautious and dull is because the panel simply cannot look beyond their own narrow peer loyalties. They need to get out more – not to the endless global carnival of art fairs or biennales - but to step back for a moment into the real world. Equally, the reason too much of the work looks dry and sterile is because artists proceed from academic and didactic theses, necessary as student exercises perhaps, but fatally short of individual distinction.

If Thames & Hudson consistently comes a poor second to Phaidon in art publications, it ought to be all the more galling for German publishers Taschen to also outclass them. Art Now! Volume 4 takes a broader brief, surveying fine art in general in the second decade of this century. But it similarly skips analysis for predictable market favourites in generous numbers. It’s been a while since I looked at an Art Now – the tri-lingual first edition in 2002 produced in association with The Art Newspaper was edited, significantly, by curators and dealers, Uta Grosenick and Burkhard Riemschneider. There the selection was flawed by a bias toward installation and video and its European exponents. It was, by any measure, a shocker. Happily, Volume Four, edited by jobbing arts editor and book designer Hans Werner Holzwarth, manages a more balanced selection. But texts are still no more than brief and breathless hyperbole or press releases, any kind of coherent perspective or formal analysis conspicuous by its absence. Taschen makes no bones about their priorities either: ‘Think of this tome as a global go-round of the world’s most influential galleries: if it’s hot in the art world today, it’s in this book. And the heat they crave, needless to say, is in market prices rather than critical appraisal or public curiosity; the emphasis on galleries not artists, much less works. Bids for a glimpse of the future are here reduced to a celebration of quick profits.

But again, the massive book is aimed at those anxious to appear informed and active as buyers or sellers - and collecting these days is increasingly just a brief interval between the two. It is firstly a big book to sit on shelves or coffee tables for those evidently lazy in reading or shallow in appreciation. Acumen or any substance to judgements is permanently deferred, exchanged for strings of superlatives, spurious sociology or geo-political sympathies. It’s all about loyalty and networking. Aesthetic qualities remain nothing more than the inscrutable whim of collectors, their consultants and curators. Dumb? This kind of book aspires to be merely a succession of colourful pictures, devoid of context or content, advertising an arbitrary, evanescent notion of value. Still, at least Art Now! Volume Four is not fixated on youth. Its pricing index stretches back to dinosaurs like Bruce Nauman, David Hockney, Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha and Chuck Close, but not, say, Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer, Frank Stella, James Rosenquist or Richard Serra, surprisingly. It may be just a pricing thing, but who would guess that Chuck Close was hotter than Sigmar Polke? Similarly, younger artists qualify not so much for the megabucks as persistent public profile. Hence someone like Anri Sala makes it in, not for sales grosses but as a favourite of international curators. Regular appearances in biennales and other international surveys are clearly expected to pay off at some point. Discussion might usefully suggest when.

Other choices look much less convincing. Walton Ford, Theaster Gates, Luis Gispert, Klara Lidén, Richard Phillips, Mark Ryden, Piotr Uklański, and Danh Vo are not in here because they are hot but because someone wants them to be seen as hot and has probably paid for the privilege. Ostensibly, they may have been selected for their variety. But their variety is mainly in their lack of heat in this company. And again, numerous alternatives spring to mind but the opacity of the selection process only serves to trivialise the project. Those that need a big fat book to bolster their interest will find they have been sold short, although that may take some time. :roll:
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Re: Big Dumb Books on Contemporary Art

Postby jasperjoffe » Fri Nov 14, 2014 6:54 pm

I don't think people pay to be in these books
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Re: Big Dumb Books on Contemporary Art

Postby CAP » Tue Nov 18, 2014 12:35 am

If not in cash then favours ;)
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Re: Big Dumb Books on Contemporary Art

Postby jasperjoffe » Tue Nov 18, 2014 4:59 pm

Doubt it's quid pro quo. Just people wanting to attach themselves to the same superficial crap that they think other people think is cool.
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