02 November, 2010

2 November - Lives of the Artists

LAUNCHPROJECTS - I just read Calvin Tomkin's Lives of the Artists. This collection of artists profiles, originally published in the New Yorker over the span of a decade, is basically the the E! True Hollywood Story of some of the most famous (and incidentally rich) artists living and working today. It describes the quirks and fixations of Damien Hirst, Cindy Sherman, Julian Schnabel, Richard Serra, James Turrell, Matthew Barney, Maurizio Cattelan, Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, and John Currin.

This book was panned in a 2008 Bookforum review by Martha Schwender. After she accurately points out that Cindy Sherman is the sole female profiled amidst a "depressingly narrow, predictable bunch...many are the spiritual heirs of Tenth Street—heroic white males—remade for the market/ media age" she goes on to assert that "it’s hard to imagine that an average working artist will actually feel good after reading Tomkins’s volume. I kept thinking of the psychologist I know who won’t put People magazine in her waiting room for fear of discouraging her clients, since its celebrity-obsessed message is that you’re a loser simply because you’re not famous".

Lives of the Artists is unquestionably the People Magazine of art books and is not a collection of art criticism. What the book does provide, however, is a uniquely intimate and honest look at some of the most iconic stars of today's art world. Yes, it details what they wore, how much they drank, and which stars have been seen at their openings and in their bedrooms. But the artists profiled have each in their own way fundamentally changed the way we view and discuss art. Tomkins provides an intimacy that is exciting, juicy, and occasionally insightful.

In the preface Tomkins remarks that "biography has informed our understanding of art. In my experience, the lives of contemporary artists are so integral to what they make that the two cannot be considered in isolation. If the work is interesting, the life probably is too." When I teach Art History, I incorporate some of the juiciness and scandal of artists' lives (of any era) to help the work come alive to students. Even the most famous works of art were not made in a vacuum, and the drama of every day life informs each and every work of art - whether it be Cindy Sherman or Leonardo da Vinci. This book provides exactly that context - the texture and shape of the lives of some of the most iconic artists of our times.

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