Top positive review
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A splendidly illuminating and thought-provoking book
on 18 May 2016
This is a very attractive, lively and often colloquial history of art from the Pre-Impressionists (Delacroix, Courbet) to the present time. In this story Gompertz always tells us what artists were trying to do. It is fairly well known what the Impressionists and Expressionists were trying to do, but many people find it difficult to articulate what exactly the Cubists and then abstract or conceptual artists were aiming at. Gompertz is a genial guide to an INTELLECTUAL understanding - though whether, as a result, the reader’s AESTHETIC response is enhanced is of course another matter. The question that some people have about, say, Carl Andre’s “Equivalent VIII” (his arrangement of 120 bricks), about Malevich’s “Black Square” or about Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” - “but is it Art? (with a capital A)” - doesn’t really go away, for all Gompertz’s demonstration that that question had been asked in the early days about many innovations which by now has been answered with an indubitable “yes”. In the later chapters, dealing with the more recent decades, he certainly goes along with his quotation from Allan Kaprow: “Art doesn’t have to look like art to be art”. Nothing is too zany to be considered art - including, as just one example, Yves Klein covering female nudes in wet blue paint and then instructing them to press themselves against a wall covered in paper to create whatever images would result. Gompertz gives us his own aesthetic - not just his intellectual - response to most of them.
I have been teaching the history of art for many years, but I found much new information and many new angles in this book, beginning with the introductory chapter in which Gompertz shows us the meanings and intentions of Duchamp’s ready-made urinal which he had signed “R.Mutt 1917" and called “Fountain”.
After that, the treatment is largely, but not exclusively chronological, though not exclusively so, since he repeatedly shows the influence that a particular art form has had not only on later artists, but on everyday objects and advertising to the present day.
And on architecture: the chapter on Mondrian’s “Neo-Plasticism” is followed by one on American sky-scrapers before bringing us to the Bauhaus (which he links with the PHILOSOPHY of William Morris - however unModernist the products of the Morris workshop were), and it is really odd to see that some of the early leading contributors to the Bauhaus Modernist style originally came from German Expressionism.
His chapter on Dadaism makes some sense out of their nonsense, and shows both its roots in earlier art (Picasso’s collage paintings) and its influence in later “installation art”.
Gompertz analyzes many paintings, only a few of which could be reproduced in the book; many others will not be known to most readers. Ideally you should read this book, as I did, sitting in front of a computer to call the works up on Google Images: without them, his verbal descriptions of them cannot possibly convey what they look like.
This is a very personal book. He is clearly a huge admirer of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Koning, his enthusiastic response going far beyond describing the aims and the abstract works of these painters. And of Anthony Caro’s red-painted metal construction called “Early One Morning” he writes, “It has the delicacy and poise of a ballerina, the resonance of a hymn and the tenderness of a kiss.” H’m.
The book also has Gompertz’s reflections on the role of art galleries, on the art market and on fashion. Whenever a modern work is shown by a Saatchi, a Gagosian or a Jopling, it instantly becomes an endorsement that what is being shown is Art, and enables quite a number of their protegés to become wealthy way beyond what all but a tiny number of artists have been in the past, as billionaires buy their works (often as an investment). Gompertz is fully aware of all this; but he sees real artistic merit in their works. For them to be considered as works of art, they do not have to do anything with aesthetics - they may, as he says about the work of Murakami, be “on one level juvenile and inane”, or, about Koons, that they are “super-saucy” (i.e. pornographic), or they may be three photographs of Ai Weiwei dropping a Han dynasty urn - as long as our study of them can decode - (and it sometimes needs a lot of knowledgeable decoding) - that they are saying something about their makers’ view of the world or of their environment.
It will be apparent from this review that I am one of those old-fashioned stick-in-the-muds who believes that, while all art originates in concepts, mere concepts are not enough. So I don’t share all of Gompertz’s judgments or those of Saatchi and Co; but I do think this is a brilliant book not pictorially interesting , giving pleasure and provoking thought on almost every page.