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Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts) Hardcover – 29 Oct 2006

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (29 Oct. 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 069112678X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691126784
  • Product Dimensions: 25 x 23.7 x 2.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 383,689 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description


Winner of the 2006 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Arts and Art History, Association of American Publishers

"With the publication of Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe, we have a welcome reminder of the high esteem that abstract art came to enjoy in its heyday. . . . Pictures of Nothing, based on a series of lectures that Mr. Varnedoe gave at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, is a book that everyone with a serious interest in modern art will want to read, and it has the additional merit of being well-written and excellently illustrated."--Hilton Kramer, Wall Street Journal

"Pictures of Nothing [is] the transcribed text of one-time MoMA chief curator Kurt Varnedoe's final lectures. . . . [T]he talks are not just for Varnedoe completists--they tackle the question 'What is abstract art good for?' and constitute the charismatic scholar's final word on the subject."--ArtNet.com

"Your favorite realist's eyes might suddenly pop open after reading Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe. . . . The art historian . . . is a clear-eyed, eloquently plain-spoken, unfaltering guide through the thickets of drip painting, minimalism, and more. Why abstraction? Look here for an answer."--Nancy Tousley, Calgary Herald

"The knowledge that this would be Varnedoe's last public appearance brought a plainspoken urgency to the lectures that's carried over to this transcribed and edited text."--Peter Goddard, Toronto Star

"Varnedoe's enthusiastic insights fill the pages. Through his descriptions, bare, arbitrary or seemingly interchangeable works start to bristle with distinctiveness. . . . His vision of America's abstract half-century in Pictures of Nothing is . . . eclectic and embracing."--Edmund Fawcett, RA Magazine

"[These] lectures are remarkably fresh and conversational--not only because Varnedoe did not have a chance to edit and revise them, but also because he gave these lectures, as he did every other lecture, entirely from memory. . . . Varnedoe's lectures reveal the positive role of abstract art in modern cultural life. . . . Varnedoe insists; abstract art is difficult, it takes practice to understand, and if it is governed by rules that appear arbitrary, that only makes it like every other cultural practice."--Daniel A. Siedell, Christian Today

"Kirk Varnedoe's book . . . confronts the central question of modernism: How are people supposed to understand pictures that appear to be self-referential?"--Philadelphia Inquirer

"Readable and elucidated by well-chosen examples that help illustrate changing trends in a fast-paced time."--Globe and Mail

"Kirk Varneode begins by pointing out that the development of abstract art coincided with the cataclysm of World War I, which jarred artists into revolutionary forms. . . . [An] extraordinary series of lectures."--Sheila Farr, Seattle Times

"Elegiac, in the truest sense of the term: It is the pensive summation of a career undertaken by a man in the last stages of a devastating illness, and it is, too, the posthumous reckoning of his words by his closest friends. . . . [T]his book is a remarkable trace of its author. . . . He wanted to insist that any art worth looking at had, at least, many stories to tell."--Aruna D'Souza, Bookforum

"Pictures of Nothing examines how, while names like Pollock, Mondrian and de Kooning are immediately recognized for their significance in modern culture, the importance of depicting squares or splattered paint is not as widely understood. With humor and candor, Varnedoe illuminates the meaning behind nonrepresentational works of the past 50 years--the contradictory intentions of Josef Albers's and Carl Andre's shared geometry or the minute artistic details of Robert Smithson's massive Spiral Jetty."--Museum News

"An eminently readable, deeply insightful book."--Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times

"Varnedoe is a pragmatist. To those who would say that abstract art is a classic case of the emperor's new clothes, he simply says that it has been around for more than a century and that is proof enough of its efficacy. What he wants is not to validate what artists have been doing all this time but, rather, to find cogent ways of talking about it and, hence, a deeper understanding. . . . What this wonderful book shows is that although the original motivations behind abstract art were puritanical, crypto-religious or collectivist, it has flourished as a series of secular, diverse, individualistic, private visions. Society thrives, Varnedoe bravely suggests, when it gives free play to these visions, even those that initially seem absurd, banal or hermetic."--Sebastian Smee, The Australian

"A provocative defense of modern abstraction. . . . Varnedoe's analysis of abstraction, using specific works, helps make sense of various approaches to non-representational art."--Edward J. Sozanski, Journal Sentinel Online

"Expressed in vivid, accessible, and often passionate language. Varnedoe . . . speaks as a teacher."--Arthur C. Danto, ArtNews

"This is an important time capsule of cultural history, grappling with 60-plus-years' history of abstract art's legacies. . . . [T]his book captures the cadence, energy, and verve characteristic of Varnedoe's immensely effective lectures. . . . Erudite in all the best ways, this book is also deeply human, born of love for the experience of art. . . . Highly recommended."--Choice

From the Back Cover

"Varnedoe was an especially distinguished and influential curator and interpreter of modern art, and this book, in effect, is his last testament. It is in the analysis of specific works of art or bodies of work by a specific artist that Varnedoe shines, reflecting his long career of intimate study of art objects. He is commenting on some of the most challenging of artists, the likes of Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, and other innovators in abstraction of various kinds. There are some truly refreshing moments where Varnedoe has the courage of his convictions and explains why one artist of merit should receive more of our attention than another artist of merit-in effect, distinguishing between greater and lesser merit, rather than just good or bad."--Richard Shiff, University of Texas

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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Mr. R. Bates on 4 Feb. 2007
Format: Hardcover
I went into this book vaguely curious; I came out of it enthralled, impassioned, inspired. Varnedoe's exposition is brilliant: he really brings out the developments in philosophy and technique of abstraction from Pollock onwards, and makes a compelling case for linking it to the best features of our society, namely democracy, humility, freedom. He steers a careful and respectful course through the disputes, shock-tactics and grandiosities of some practitioners, always bringing it back to what is beautiful, awe-inspiring, seminal. By reading this book you will discover lots of names and images that will stay with you, and acquire a truly meaningful understanding of the ideas and feelings behind the most vital art of the past 50 years.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Reich Claude on 12 April 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is unquestionably a brilliant book. In six consecutive lectures delivered at the National Gallery in Washington in 2003, the last one three months before his untimely death, Kirk Varnedoe manages to give a clear, erudite and broad view of abstract art over the last fifty years. Rather than dwelling exhaustively on one artist or on one work, he covers the whole range, from Pollock to Taafe, from Stella to Ryman, from Judd to Morris, from Johns to Marden, from Andre to Serra, etc...True, he tends to limit himself to American abstract art, or abstract art insofar as it is linked in some way or other to American art (as when he analyses Richter's abstractions in relation to Stella and Pollock), but the text is so lively and insightful that the reader readily forgives this slightly nationalistic bias.

Varnedoe's core idea is that abstraction, far from representing the end of art, actually is a constant renewal of it, offering endless possibilities of rebirth. It is the permanent creation of something new, that only exists on its own and does not stem from or bases itself upon anything that existed prior to its creation (a good example is illustrated by a huge 1970 untitled Cy Twombly painting).

Varnedoe's gift as a wonderful orator and storyteller, never pedantic, always to the point, transpires in every line of this book and shows us what a great loss his death was to American culture and to the arts in general.

Highly recommended, also for the quality of the many illustrations of almost every single work alluded to in the text.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Bethany Rachel Murray on 2 Nov. 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A fantastic collection of lectures about the development of Abstract Art since the 1960s. This book gives a well thought-out discussion into the changing and developing approaches to art-making including a great chapter about Abstract Art itself and moves on to talk about Minimalism and the way such approaches have changed the face of Contemporary Art.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By D. Evershed on 30 Aug. 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A wonderful, personal reflection on abstract art and much more over the past 50+ years. Goes beyond Danto and Gombrich. A fascinating read.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 18 reviews
80 of 82 people found the following review helpful
The Voice of the Master Aesthete 27 Oct. 2006
By Michael Salcman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Three months before his untimely death from cancer, Kirk Varnedoe, former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, delivered the 2003 Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery in Washington. This beautifully designed book represents a careful transcription of the tapes and videos made during a bravura performance; it reads as if Varnedoe had actually had an opportunity to edit the material but sadly this was not to be the case. The highly readable finish of the text is entirely due to Varnedoe's extraordinary skill as a public speaker, a teacher who spoke in perfectly edited paragraphs with nothing but an outline and his slides before him. His love of art, his verbal wit, his lack of condescension to his audience all come through on the page; the voice that became so familiar to millions through his many televised appearances echoes as you read his words. His theme, the history of Abstract Art since Pollock, was chosen in specific response to the famous Mellon lectures on representational art delivered by EH Gombrich fifty years before. Varnedoe is never doctrinaire in his artistic choices or his angle of analysis; Pictures of Nothing is a wonderful introduction to a subject that often perplexes the general reader.

Varnedoe trained in an era when the importance of the art object and the personal response it evoked retained primacy over the gathering obfuscations of theory; his close reading of major works is never less than revelatory, in particular his encounters with the paintings of Jasper Johns and the sculptures of Richard Serra. His comparisons of objects from the hands of different artists is always apposite and sometimes surprising in an aha sort of way or "why didn't I think of that?"; for example, how Philip Taafe makes use of the Madame Torso motif in a Hans Arp relief. The six chapters follow the order of the six lectures. His chapter on the abstract elements in the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein is particularly good and he has many new things to say about Gerhard Richter. Varnedoe is best when discussing art that still falls under the umbrella of Modernism (c.1970); the closer he comes to the present era, the shakier his choices become. He is eager to point out how thin the line is between representation and absraction but does not discuss de Kooning much, nor does he quote his famous statement that every abstraction must have a resemblance. Varnedoe closes with a statement of faith in works of art and abstraction in particular; his last words are painfully apt, "And now, I am done."
49 of 50 people found the following review helpful
Spirited defense of abstract art 17 Dec. 2006
By Decker F. Walker - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The book is an excellent introduction to contemporary art for non-specialists. It's the best, least doctrinaire, most convincing case for abstract art that I've ever encountered. Varnedoe supports his case superbly with close readings of dozens of works illustrated throughout the book. He's a fine, sensitive, appreciative critic and just to read his appreciations and analyses of these works an education in contemporary art. Most authors who write about abstract art (or modern art, interchangeable terms for present purposes) direct their books either to its champions or its critics. Varnedoe has written a book about abstract art for the rest of us, who mostly are not sure what to think of it.

Varnedoe thinks it's good and important for several reasons. First, because it suits our restless, ever-changing reality, crossing every boundary seeking something new and better. Second, it offers individuals freedom not just to express themselves but to create new visual languages that expand expressive possibilities for everybody. Third, because it explores the "borderland around the opening into nothingness" by casting out already formulated images in favor of pure shape, color, texture reduced to their essence and presented for our unmediated perception. Last, and most fundamentally, because it persists: "It has been done. It is being done...and... it will be done." There must be something worthwhile here if so many talented people over so long a time spend their lives in the enterprise of abstract art.

If only he had had enough time to engage in a dialogue with skeptics. Varnedoe addresses realism briefly when he rejects the thesis that the conventions of realism developed in the West since the Renaissance (perspective, light and shade defining form,...) are somehow natural or hardwired in humans. What is hardwired, Varnedoe claims, is communication, negotiation, invention, but not any one visual code. Fair enough. But this one counter argument to but one rationale for realism hardly justifies dismissing a tradition that has spanned 500 years, dozens of cultures, and countless masterpieces.

Despite Varnedoe's spirited defence, I'm left still wondering. Are the new resources of visual expression created by, for instance, embalmed sheep and steel cubes, really that rich? Richer than art created by contemporary realists who depict people, scenes, and situations in highly meaningful ways, far beyond the veiled and arguable meanings of most abstract works, and are also beautiful as two-dimensional surfaces?

But I fear that the merits of the case do not matter. Realism is old fashioned, a fatal flaw in our novelty-seeking culture that Varnedoe rightly recognizes as the audience and market for abstract art. The rest of us will have to learn to like it. And there's much to like, as Varnedoe shows us in this book.
45 of 49 people found the following review helpful
Certainly about something! 12 Nov. 2006
By Wayne Dynes - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
One should not be deterred by the silly title, for this book is about something important indeed. In my view the development of abstraction is the most significant development in the visual arts over the last 100 years. To be sure, Varnedoe deals only with the second half, the era since Pollock, but that is the portion that most of us have experienced. If you are still puzzled by abstract art, this inviting, accessible volume is the book for you. Also, in reading it one has the sense of participating in a tribute to its gifted author, who died of cancer three months after completing the lectures. His friends have done a remarkable job of editing.

I have two criticisms, though. 1) A pragmatist, Varnedoe eschewed grand theories, holding that the vital matter lay in the details. Yet he moves swiftly from one object to another. Anyone who has attempted to teach this subject (as I have) knows how important it is to avoid the habit of skipping from flower to flower. It would have been helpful if Varnedoe had devoted at least one lecture to only two or three objects, showing how they work in detail. 2) The text is mainly about American abstract art. Only a few Europeans get a look in, and that is because the remind the author of some American work. Many of us can remember a time when European artists like Soulages, Hartung, and Fautrier were spoken in the same breath as the American abstract expressionists. There are many other European abstractionists who are worthy of attention. But Varnedoe has reinforced the stereotype that the first fifty years of abstraction belong to Europe, the second fifty years to the US.

Still, this is a beautiful book and I expect to return to it often.
36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
If You Could Have Only One Art Book... 14 Jan. 2007
By Delana Bunch - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I'm married to a librarian and between the two of us, we have at least 8,000 books (we both love books just about more than anything), but if I could only have one book - this would definitely be it. The late Kirk Varnedoe, former Chief Curator of MoMA, has so clearly, easily and deliciously put into one gorgeous volume the whole picture of what I've been studying my you-know-what off to understand over the past 7 years. I've been The Menil Collection's Twombly Guard during those 7 years, so you can believe that I am especially enthusiastic with Varnedoe's illuminating explanations on Cy Twombly's art! Buy this book and I guarantee you will not be disappointed. The reproductions are also first-class. Varnedoe gave these lectures knowing that he was dying of cancer; his last sentence is "And now I am done." Three months later he did die and was never able to see them published. This book may be the best book that has ever been written about abstract art.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Highly Recommended 6 Dec. 2007
By P. B. O'sullivan - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Pictures of Nothing is an important addition to my library. Currently completing my MFA, the lectures in this book have been both challenging and enlightening, broadening my understanding of contemporary abstract art. It is both a "cover to cover" read and a reference dipper. Written in an informed, passionate and sometimes humurous style Varnedoe's lectures are a joy to read. Well illustrated with wide-ranging coverage of art and artists within the field I can give this book 4 1/2 stars and a high recommendation.
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