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What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange… (edition 2012)

by Will Gompertz

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Member:sjmckee
Title:What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art
Authors:Will Gompertz
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Rating:****
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What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art by Will Gompertz

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Some of you might notice my avatar; it stems from the Human condition, and defines the struggle….okay it is really just me playing around in MS Paint and has no deep meaning. But as Gompertz shows that is how art evolves, from the artists that defy the establishment and later become the establishment. This provides a great overlook amongst the various eras of art, (although one subtitled Mind Games could be applied to more groups.) Since art is a visual medium, I would have liked to see more pictures of the pieces that he talked about.

Free review copy. ( )
  mrmapcase | Oct 7, 2013 |
The BBC’s Arts Editor, Will Gompertz, is unusual for an arts commentator – he has a sense of humour and a mission to enthuse us about his subject. He is uniquely qualified – having worked for the Tate Modern and performed a stand-up show about modern art at the Edinburgh fringe. A colleague of mine met him at a recent charity event, and said he was wacky and brilliant company – he sounds a great guy, and he always comes across as if he enjoys his job when you see him on the TV.

I love art – ancient and modern. I know what I like, but I don’t know enough about most of it to set it into context properly, especially modern art. In that, I have taken after my father, who enjoys modern art for what it is – which in some respects is what many abstract or minimalist artists intended, but I haven’t needed to take it further – until now, when I managed to get my hands on a copy of Gompertz’s new book.

What are you looking at offers a personal introduction to the subject aimed at a wide audience. Gompertz is the perfect guide through the web of all the ‘isms’ and movements of modern art.

After a sketch outlining the first true avant-garde act of modern art – Duchamp’s 1917 work, ‘Fountain’ – a signed urinal, we divert back to the Impressionists, the previous band of art rebels, to set the scene. Talking about abstract art in general, Gompertz says:

"You could argue that Manet started it all back in the mid-nineteenth century when he began to remove (abstract) pictorial detail in his painting The Absinthe Drinker (1858-9). Each subsequent generation of artists eliminated yet more visual information in an attempt to capture atmospheric light (Impressionism), accentuate the emotive qualities of colour (Fauvism), or look at a subject from multiple viewpoints (Cubism)."

From then on it’s a broadly chronological journey up to the present day from the Impressionists through Bauhaus and Surrealism to Pop-Art and bringing us totally up to date with the YBA (Young British Artists). A helpful fold out ‘tube map’ of the isms and key artists shows how all the different schools of modern art grew out of each other and how they interlink, and a handful of colour plates and a few monochrome pictures help elucidate the key works described.

Gompertz’s style is clear and easy to read, chatty and humorous when needed and it is full of anecdotes which bring the artists to life. Whether you agree with him or not – I’m afraid that no-one will make me enjoy the paintings of Bacon or De Kooning – I did appreciate reading about them. He also has no sacred cows:

"There are times when those of us involved in the arts talk and write pretentious nonsense. It’s a fact of life: rock stars trash hotels, sportsmen and women get injured, arts folk talk bollocks. Among the main culprits are museum curators, who have a tendency to write slightly pompous, wholly incomprehensible passages exhibition guides and on gallery text panel. At best their talk of ‘inchoate juxtapositions’ and ‘pedalogical praxis’ baffles visitors: at worse it humiliates and confuses and puts people off art for life. Not good. But in my experience the curators are not trying to be deliberately obtuse; they are talented individuals catering to an increasingly broad constituency."

There are omissions – the Op Art of Bridget Riley only gets a passing reference, as does early David Hockney. Others who don’t feature include Georgia O’Keefe, giant scribbler Cy Twombly (another artist I don’t get!), much of sculpture, photography in general except for the work of Cindy Sherman, and installations of the kind that tend to win the Turner prize, which is another thing Gompertz doesn’t comment on. A book of this kind can’t hope, or want, to be all-inclusive however, and all the key artists and art movements are there and will give you a path for further personal research. An appendix lists where you can see the works mentioned.

I found the chapter on Post-Modernism particularly useful. For instance, you have to know that Cindy Sherman’s photographs are designed to be stills from non-existent movies that reference other films. Gompertz says: “But the truth is that Postmodernist art rewards knowledge much like a cryptic crossword, where comprehension comes from solving the puzzle.”

While I know this is not per se a picture book, a few more illustrations scattered through the text would have been welcome. I didn’t really need the occasional cartoons that pop up here or there – the only slightly heavy-handed nod to remind us this is a book for everyone. There are two sections containing around 20 colour plates, plus another fortyish illustrations in black and white. Given that the book’s RRP is £20 (not £19.99!), another insert of colour plates, even if it added a couple of quid more, would have been nice – someone willing to pay £20 would probably part with £22 say, (or it’s on-line discount price equivalent).

I’m lucky enough to have seen works by many of the artists mentioned, so I could visualise most of the broad styles from Gompertz’s great descriptions. I learned a lot, and I’d recommend this book thoroughly for its lucid text, (another good Christmas present idea).

Going to see art is better though, and my next visit to the Tate Modern will be a very different experience – which is, of course, what the author hopes we’ll all do having read his book. (8.5/10). ( )
  gaskella | Jul 23, 2013 |
When I read, in relation to this book, 'Move over Gombrich - there's a new art book in town!', I thought 'in your dreams'! The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich is a classic, responsible for starting many a life-long enthusiasm for art and architecture, myself included.

Will Gompertz is a delightful and thoughtful BBC arts presenter and his writing is witty and very readable. In 'What are you looking at?' he charts the progress of Modern Art from the work Delacroix and Manet of the second half of the nineteenth century, through Marcel Duchamp and his notorious 'Fountain' at the dawn of the twentieth century to the more recent phenomenon that is the YBA's.

There are chapters on Impressionism - pre and post, Cezanne, Primitivism/Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Kadinsky, Constructivism, Neo-plasticism, Bauhaus, Dadism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism/Performance Art, Minimalism, Postmodernism and Art Now.

So, who is this book aimed at? I think even the knowledgeable, well read art fan will find this volume useful (my own particular enthusiasm is architecture and I found the chapter on the Bauhaus enjoyable). The complete beginner will be intrigued. Gompertz's enthusiasm for his subject is infectious - he doesn't set out to preach or convert but to enlighten.

I would, however, liked to have seen more illustrations (perhaps I mean better illustrations). We are given 29 half-page colour plates and 39 black and white illustrations within the text - a little conventional, given the subject of the book. Nevertheless we are given a wonderful fold-out timeline in the form of Beck's London Tube map.

For me this book has come to my aid at just the right time. For years I have been giving young people, Godchildren etc the Gombrich book - they will now be given a copy of this book when they get old enough, perhaps about sixteen years of age. ( )
  Stromata | Nov 20, 2012 |
The author, Will Gompertz, is the BBC Arts editor and former director of London’s Tate Gallery. He takes us on a tour of modern art that is chronologically arranged, but focused on the question of what constitutes “art” and how that idea has unfolded over time.

He includes a lot of fascinating gossip and background about the artists of the “modern” period, and very informative vignettes about how they influenced one another. The competitive Picasso, in particular, responded to the achievements of his artist friends first by being mesmerized by them, and then trying to better them. (And succeeding time after time!)

The author shows quite clearly how each movement in Modern Art segued into the next, as the artists - often working together - tried to solve problems that arose, such as, for example, representing three-dimensional subjects on a two-dimensional canvas. What he writes of Braque and Picasso during the Cubist period could apply to other groups of artists as well:

"…they were like a pair of jazz musicians, improvising with all manner of material and riffing ideas off each other.”

Even if you just go through the book to note the evolution of how artists defined art, you can get a sense of its general development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The concept of "what is art" changed from skill in exact representation, to getting to the "heart" of what was being seen, to excelling in design rather than illusory deception, to conveying concepts rather than materiality, to making an immediate and memorable connection with the viewer, to focusing on insight rather than sight, to prompting us to pay more attention to the everyday and the overlooked, to trying to create order out of chaos, to getting us to see that the viewer is as much a part of the work of art as the work itself.

And what about art that is totally abstract? Just lines and squiggles and colors? Gompertz maintains:

"It’s a surprisingly tricky thing to pin down exactly what it is that makes those lines any different from the lines you or I might draw, but there is a difference. There is something about their fluidity, or composition, or shape that has millions of us flocking to modern art galleries to see abstract paintings by the likes of Mark Rothko and Wassily Kandinsky.”

He explains how each generation of modern artists removed more and more traditional details in their paintings so as “to capture atmospheric light (Impressionism), accentuate the emotive qualities of color (Fauvism), or look at the subject from multiple viewpoints (Cubism).”

Eventually, of course, the details were removed altogether. Artists came to see themselves as not in the business of “reproduction” at all, but rather of exploring new ways to represent truth “that might provoke previously untapped thoughts and feelings in the viewer.”

My favorite chapter (that is, the one from which I learned the most) is the one dealing with Pop Art. My reactions themselves could have been transformed into a pop art canvas: “Wow!” And “I never thought of that!” And “How devilishly clever!”

A recurring theme in the book is how advances in the other arts (especially music), the sciences, and even politics echo, reinforce, and reverberate with, changes in art. Sometimes abstract art is meant to be like music; sometimes it is meant to be like the mind; and sometimes, it is meant to suggest sociological commentary and/or change. And similarly, giants in the fields of music, psychology, science, and politics have been stimulated in their thinking by ideas they gleaned from artistic trailblazers.

Laudably, Gompertz also lets us in on a rather disappointing fact about modern art. He writes:

"And yet, for all the rhetoric about creating new utopian societies and smashing the old elites, there has been one voice that has gone largely unheard. … Where, you might wonder, are the female artists?”

He includes a section on the marginalization of women artists such as the great Freda Kahlo, while noting that this situation continues even today, in an art world still largely dominated by white men.

Gompertz begins and ends the book with musings about Marcel Duchamp, the artist whom most contemporary artists cite as an influence, and whose seminal work “Fountain” is, according to the author, “the single most influential artwork created in the twentieth century.” The author concludes that whereas Picasso may have been the dominant force in the first half of the 20th century, “there is no question that the second half has increasingly been played out against a backdrop of Duchampian mind games.”

Discussion: The subtitle of the book is “The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art,” and this is so apt. I must have said “who knew?!!!” at least twenty times while reading this. (Moreover, Jim’s occasional challenge of details in the book sent me off to google many times as well, finding not only that in every case that the author was indeed correct, but also thereby exposing me to even more fascinating bits about the item in question.) (FYI, the biggest question was about the feasibility of the production of 100 million porcelain individually hand-painted sunflower “seeds” by Chinese artist Wei-Wei and 1600 assistants, a brilliant exhibit as explained by Gompertz, but also one requiring that each artisan had to have produced 62,500 seeds. How did they do it and how long did it take? Read an interview with the artist, here.)

Evaluation: Gompertz is excited and passionate about his subject. He wants us to love and appreciate art, and his enthusiasm is infectious. His prose is animated and entertaining. (In fact, this book was an outgrowth of the author's standup comedy show in the UK about modern art.) There are a gazillion fascinating and eye-opening (both literally and metaphorically) concepts presented. Since most of them have to do with visual communication, however, the book clearly would have benefited from more illustrations. Even the few full color plates included are so helpful that it’s a sin there aren’t more!

It is not a book once can (or should!) scan or race through. Rather, I think it should be sampled and savored and contemplated, bit by bit. I could see it as a text [non-traditional in the sense that it is not academic in tone at all] for a delightful evening class on art that meets once a week, and during which we see many slides while discussing the salient points of each chapter. (And then we break for wine and cheese and fruit, artfully arranged on a tilting table….)

Rating: 4/5 (I would have rated it higher had there been more illustrations, although in truth, there would have had to have been so many, it would have trebled the size and cost of the book. Maybe it would make a better online book, with hypertext links….?)

Highly recommended! ( )
  nbmars | Nov 18, 2012 |
Art used to be so simple: a picture of a King, Queen, or a hero/heroine; perhaps slightly touched up, but essentially WYSIWYG. Then some clever dick invented photography and artists, concerned that they were likely to be viewed as surplus to requirements, became interpreters of life, the universe and everything.

It didn't take long for ordinary chaps, like me, to get lost in a sea of strange images and sculptures, all claiming a deep significance that passed us by: leaving that uneasy feeling that we were being conned. A trip to an art gallery does little to alleviate these feelings: a splodge of paint, a pile of bricks or a dead shark - all accompanied by a pretentious write up designed to tell those who claim to 'get it' that they are clever and that those who do not, that they are worthy only of being scrapped from the sole of the believer's shoe.

Help is needed and this book is the ideal entrée to a subject that loves to cover itself in subterfuge. Will Gompertz does not try to convince the reader of the awe and wonder required to become worthy of modern art, he simple relates the story of why and how the different genres came about. Mr Gompertz treats the reader as an adult: someone capable of making us his/her own opinion as to whether a group of artists, or an individual work is worthy of attention. He very rarely allows his own opinions to surface and even then, does not insist that the reader agrees.

Considering that it is slightly less than four hundred pages in length, and that it is copiously illustrated, this book does an excellent job of explaining one hundred and fifty years of art. The book begins with a pastiche of the London Underground Map used to show the major artists covered by the book by time and group. This, in the way of a map, is useful to ground the reader as to when and where each artist fits into the grand scheme of things. The text itself, is written in a knowledgeable, but light style. I would profess no more idea of modern art than the average bloke in the street, but I was able to understand and never felt that the author was talking down to me. I will not pretend that I shall be rushing to the next Tracey Emin exhibition but, even with works such as hers, I have a greater understanding as to what she is telling us. Of course, one may say, with some justification, that art should stand by its own merits and not need an instruction manual but, does not a Shakespeare play mean all the more when one has a little idea of the socio-political situation prevalent at the time that it was written?

All knowledge is good and, whether we like it or not, the art genie is out of the bottle and we are not going to persuade him back to the narrow confines of a picture of the Queen. The main point of this book is to say that if we spent a little less time shouting this is/is not art, and more looking at something that we understand; we would perhaps have less expensive rubbish and more art in our galleries. ( )
  the.ken.petersen | Oct 13, 2012 |
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Presents an irreverent narrative tour of modern art that explains its cultural relevance and why it is so compelling, tracing a century's worth of movements, achievements, and masterpieces that have reshaped the art world.

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