Art criticism by sound bite

The 20th Century Art Book
October 25, 1996

Much has been written about the death of the author. In some of our Eng Lit departments they talk of little else, but it looks as if the art history mob have actually made it come true. This book really does not have an author and it is every inch a publisher's artefact, though with not quite as many arty facts as its publicity would have one believe. It is, indeed, almost flauntingly anonymous.

The usefully wide jacket flaps have no blurb, but both carry a list of the 500 artists each represented by a single page, bearing a colour plate sufficiently large as to leave space only for a text which is concise, or exiguous, according to one's taste, and a few cross-references to the names of other featured artists. Very much a question of art history and criticism by sound bite.

A more conventional blurb appears where the title page would normally be. Thus there is no title page, and hence no room to list an author. A single line of type above the publisher's logo constitutes the table of contents and begins "The 500 artists page 4". On page four, instead of the promised list, much as in another kind of book one might find aardvark, one finds the name Acconci Vito.

Tucked away at the back, occupying infinitely less space than the photo credits (surely a sign of the times), there are "Contributors and Consultants": Rachel Barnes, Martin Coomer, Carl Freedman, Tony Godfrey, Simon Grant, Melissa Larner, Simon Morley, Gilda Williams. Yet while every photograph is given a full, if not actually fulsome, acknowledgement, the authorship of the individual textual contributions and consultations can only be guessed or divined.

I have gone on at such length about these bibliographical minutiae because I think they are indicative of the purpose, style and quality of the book. Words matter much less than pictures. It would not do for Gombrich but it does indeed make this an archetypal late 20th-century art book and as coffee table material it undoubtedly succeeds on its own somewhat limited terms.

The cross-referencing is meant to give readers useful signposts and to make them think and make connections, but it is, inevitably, a hit-and-miss affair. If one looks at the entry on Jack Yeats, one is sent off to Auerbach, De Kooning, Kossoff and Kantor, no doubt because they all used heavy impasto, but why no reference to Kokoschka (himself rather feebly represented) when the two great painters had formed a perfectly understandable, and justifiable, mutual admiration society?

While this book is a brilliantly thought-out commercial package, it is merely an anthology. It should therefore be treated like any anthology of verse or prose or music, where all that matters to the individual reader or user is who's in and who's out. Making all due allowance for the need to satisfy the American market this selection is such an absolute stinker that I cannot even approach completion of my own wrong ins and outs. Still, one must try and, more or less at random, here are a few pets and hates.

Helen Chadwick, who died tragically young, was a genuine agent provocateuse but was she really worthy of inclusion at the expense of Lynn Chadwick? (Reg Butler is also missing.) If tailoring the book to the international market was necessary, the publishers obviously did not much care about the Commonwealth. Australia has Boyd, Nolan and Tjapaltjarri but no Blackman, French, Fairweather, Drysdale, Dobell and Whiteley to name, as they say, but a few.

As for Ireland, there is only Jack Yeats and, according to where one places him, Bacon. Where is the wonderful le Brocquy and half a dozen other excellent painters?

We get all the currently admired Americans like Judd, Flavin, Andre et al, but do not get fascinating older 20th-century US artists like Sloan, Glackens, Albright, Pippin, etc.

Turning to England, we have Gilbert and George but no Gertler. We have Gabo but not Pevsner, and where are Ayrton, Colquhoun and MacBride, Minton, Vaughan, Bawden, Craxton, William Roberts, Robert Bevan, Terry Frost, William Scott, Coldstream, Ceri Richards? One could, but must not, go on and on and it could be argued that not all of those just mentioned are giants of our century. But presumably the team of consultants who regard those I have listed as unworthy of inclusion are equally sure that their selection of virtually every short-listed Turner prize candidate is a dead cert for posterity.

I have not done an exact count but I am pretty sure that there is a disproportionate weighting in favour of those born after 1950, which does not make sense in relationship to the fact that so many of the best artists represented here were inevitably born before 1900 and a significant number were actually doing good work in the last century.

Given the problems of selection, the inclusion of so many "artists" who are simply competent photographers makes little sense. But it is not all irritating. There is even some humour, whether alphabetically unconscious, in juxtaposing Ivon Hitchens with Damien Hirst or wittily, having booted out Augustus John in favour of his more talented sister Gwen, in choosing her portrait of his wife Dorelia.

On the whole it is best to ignore the text, which contains too many candidates for Pseuds Corner and tells us that spazialismo translates as "spatialism" or that photomontage is a form of collage. Just enjoy the pictures and then lie back and argue.

Tom Rosenthal is a collector of 20th-century art and chairman of Andre Deutsch Ltd.

The 20th Century Art Book

ISBN - 0 7148 3542 0
Publisher - Phaidon
Price - £25.00
Pages - 512

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