Lives of the Artists


Giorgio Vasari, an Italian Renaissance era artist and historian, is remembered today mostly for his “Lives of the Artists” (the full title is actually: “Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori” -“Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.”) He’s considered to have more or less invented art history through biography (though he had a bit of a prejudice towards Florence, and included a lot of gossip). But Vasari is so well-known, that I wondered what to expect when I picked up a book called “Lives of the Artists” which was published in 2008. I found that the title is very clever — as well as a nod to Vasari, it takes quite seriously the proposition that an artists’ approach to living, his or her ‘lifestyle’, is integral to what is being made.

The author is Calvin Tomkins, a Grand Old Man of art criticism who has been writing for The New Yorker for many years. The book is actually a collection of his essays on various contemporary artists written over a period of about 15 years. Each is a long, carefully researched and thoughtfully reasoned article, replete with insightful commentary and vivd descriptions of the art works themselves (it’s an unillustrated volume). I was completely drawn in, and became absorbed in Tomkins’ explanations of some of the more obscure contemporary artists of the era.

It felt rather voyeuristic to peek into the homes and lives of the artists, hear what their friends were saying of them, what the Art World was saying, how the viewers at their gallery exhibitions reacted, what they eat for lunch, where they take their holidays, who they married and unmarried, what their dog is like, and how they explain their big ideas. Actually, most of them don’t explain their ideas at all. Or sound quite incoherent if they try. Thank goodness for the prism of the intelligent and insightful Calvin Tomkins.

He covers ten artists in this book. Damien Hirst I’ve seen in a big retrospective exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. I kind of get Damian Hirst. He covers Cindy Sherman, who was represented by a couple of her ‘reconstructed’ photos in the recent ‘Pop to Popism’ exhibition at the AGNSW. Cindy Sherman, I admire. He covers James Turrell, he of the Skyspaces and works in light that are presently the subject of an exhibition at the NGA.

Then there’s Jasper Johns, famous for his ‘Stars and Stripes’, one of which I saw again at the MoMA in New York last November. And Jeff Koons whose super-sized ‘Puppy’ made of flowers I have seen exhibited in Sydney at the MCA, and at the Guggenheim in Bilbao (though I was thankfully unaware of his pornographic photos – I’ll try to return to that state of blissful ignorance). And there’s Richard Serra, who makes monumental things out of metal – I’ve seen some of his things, too, also at the Guggenheim in Bilbao. They make some sense.

Of the artists unfamiliar to me, Tomkins covers Julian Schnabel, who makes films and paintings, and is, apparently, very rich. And Maurizio Cattelan, an Italian artist who makes sculptural  installations but doesn’t like to be referred to as a conceptual artist (he’s done Adolf Hitler praying, and JFK in a coffin). And John Currin, who takes porn pictures from the internet and turns them into technically wonderful portraits in Renaissance-style poses.

And finally – Matthew Barney. Of all these contemporary artists, many of them of the “post-studio” variety (meaning they have the ideas, and a team of other people make the actual artworks), Barney is possibly the most obscure. He makes very long movies, and accompanying sculptures, drawings and objects. A lot of the content is fairly revolting (think excrement and sex, often closely involved) and obscure to the point of impenetrability. (He is also famous for having been married to the Icelandic singer Bjork, though they’ve now split up and she’s made a heart-rending album of songs about it). Even Tomkins, who clearly has a lot of insight into contemporary art, the trends, the themes, the way artists think, has a bit of trouble getting to grips with Matthew Barney.

Then I discovered that MONA, the extraordinary Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, was hosting a Matthew Barney exhibition. AND had just installed a new James Turrell ‘Skyspace’ of their very own. So I thought I should go and take a look.

The brand new (Jan 2015) James Turrell 'Skyspace' at MONA

The brand new (Jan 2015) James Turrell ‘Skyspace’ at MONA

IMG_1107The Matthew Barney Exhibition ‘Rivers of Fundament’ proved as obscure as expected. Far be it from me to try to explain it here — just know that it involves references to (amongst many, many things) Ancient Egypt, Norman Mailer (especially his novel ‘Ancient Evenings’), the decline of the Detroit car industry, opera (the score, by Jonathon Bepler, forms a three-act opera), a river, salmon, kinky sex and quite a bit of poo. If you’d like to read more, MONA attempts an explanation of sorts here, and has pictures of the art works which support the six hour film. I didn’t have time for the film. Heck, the odd-ball collection of art, sculpture, film-making memorabilia, and objects from MONA’s own Ancient Egyptian collection took me more than three hours to contemplate. it was necessary, you understand, to read every bit of the accompanying info on the iPod thingy that MONA supplies in lieu of explanatory signs. At the end of it, I can’t help but sympathise with the title of The Guardian’s review of the film when it was shown at the Adelaide Festival last year: What was that all about then?

But there was another name sprinkled throughout Tomkins’ ‘Lives of the Artists’, another New York artist whom he didn’t make the subject of a full essay, but who seemed influential on a number of his contemporaries – Chuck Close, whose works are the subject of a big exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Sydney right now. This wheelchair-bound artist concentrates on portraiture — a bit out there in comparison to the Barneys of this world? But what portraits they are. His huge monochrome painting of ‘Bob’ (it’s not a photo) is owned by the NGA, and is one of its most popular pieces. The MCA exhibition – “Get Up Close to Chuck” – explores his techniques, including painting and print-making with and one a variety of materials. The process is fascinating and looks astonishingly tedious. The results are absorbing. This was one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in a while.

So much art, so little time…..


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