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What Are You Looking at? by Will Gompertz

What Are You Looking at? (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Will Gompertz

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2561163,738 (3.82)2
Title:What Are You Looking at?
Authors:Will Gompertz
Info:Viking (2012), Hardcover, 256 pages
Collections:Your library

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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 (2012)



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English (7)  Dutch (2)  Spanish (1)  Catalan (1)  All languages (11)
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
Too hard to get into ( )
  cjordan916 | Sep 6, 2015 |
My three star rating is an average. The text of this book deserves 5 stars; more than 5 stars. But it has one fatal flaw that makes me want to give it no stars at all: it explains modern art by reference to hundreds of specific paintings, statues, buildings, and installations of which it fails to provide any photos. Sure, there are a couple of dozen color photos, but they represent very few of the artworks described, and are grouped toward the back of the book, forcing the reader to constantly flip back and forth. And there are some black and white photos too which, while located near their descriptions, are not just black and white versions of full color art but are of such low resolution that diagonal lines and edges look like stairs. While this could have been the only book you would ever need on the history of modern art (through the date of its publication at least), as it is, while still very educational about art, it is also unfortunately even more educational to authors and publishers about what not to do when publishing a book about art. If the author and publisher ever release an updated edition with full color, high resolution, photos of all the works mentioned, close to where the works are mentioned in the book, I would buy this book again, and pay a multiple of the price of this book for it. One can at least hope, can't one? ( )
  tnilsson | Nov 5, 2014 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
Ondanks dat de lezer af en toe genoodzaakt is van de bank af te komen om de afbeeldingen online op te zoeken, is dit boek een aanrader voor iedereen die wat over moderne kunst wil leren. Gompertz weet op zeer toegankelijke wijze een brug te slaan tussen de moeilijke ’taal’ van de moderne kunst en de onwetende beschouwer. Het museum lijkt opeens een stuk minder ver weg.
Het is een bewonderenswaardig doel om de ontstaansgeschiedenis van de moderne en hedendaagse kunst te willen vertellen en Will Gompertz is er door zijn tomeloze interesse en enthousiasme in geslaagd. Laat je niet afschrikken door de slecht vertaalde titel, (de Engelse titel is: What are you looking at? 150 years of modern art in the blink of an eye); dit boek is al met al een lezenswaardige reis door de kunstgeschiedenis.
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"We all know what Modern Art looks like. We've seen Monet's water lilies, we've admired Picasso's nudes, and we've gawked at Damien's shark, as well as the price tag. But what does it all mean? What is Modern Art? Who started it? Why do we love/hate it? And why is it such big money? What Are You Looking At? takes the reader on a captivating tour of modern art from Impressionism to the present day, telling the story of the movements, the artists and the wonderful works that not only changed art forever, but helped create and define the modern world. Refreshing, irreverent and extremely accessible, the book is rich with extraordinary tales and anecdotes - a coffee morning in Paris with Monet and the Impressionists, Marcel Duchamp purchasing his famous urinal, Sir Nicholas Serota, the Director of the Tate Empire confessing his terror at not knowing what to think every time he encounters a work of art for the first time. It also lifts the lid on the astronomically expensive art sales - how buying modern art has become a sound investment- and explains how the market really works - the artists, the dealers, the auction houses and the curators. With wonderful humor, down-to-earth storytelling, and a flair for odd details that spark insights, Will Gompertz is the perfect tour guide for Modern Art. He is a former director of the Tate Gallery in London and the BBC Arts Editor, so he brings both considerable expertise and genuine love of the subject to this informative and engaging narrative. What Are You Looking At? doesn't just tell you if a work of art is any good or not; it does much better than that. Will Gompertz arms us with the knowledge to be in a position to make our own minds up by telling us the one thing that we've always wanted to know: what are we looking at?"--… (more)

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