Perhaps we are all susceptible to the appeal of slightly whimsical compendiums. No. 1: First Works by 362 Artists falls exactly into the category of book that is by turns infuriating and insightful but ultimately fascinating. Each chosen artist was asked to select the one work they consider their creative watershed, whether it occurred early on or recently in their career. Accompanying the 500 illustrations is a gamut of artist statements ranging from the pithily confessional to the ludicrously bombastic. It is in many ways not a book best read straight through but rather dipped into, an absorbing collection of anecdotes that act as appetisers for more sustained investigation.
The criteria for a first work were left open and have been fulfilled in a variety of ways. Some artists understood the premise to be the earliest expression of their artistic endeavour. The influential feminist artist Judy Chicago selected a bold gestural drawing made at the age of five while attending art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her Rubicon was a realisation of her prodigious cultural ambition: "I became lost in a visual world that became more real to me than my everyday life... I was utterly convinced that I would make a contribution that would assure my becoming part of art history."
Others cite a specific epiphany with art that triggered their drive to become artists. When he was 15, Stephen Balkenhol visited the cutting-edge Documenta 5 art show every day during the summer of 1972 in his hometown of Kassel. This catalyst inspired him to transform his bedroom into a museum-like interior of sculptural installations. These rites-of-passage narratives are very informative if you know how they influenced the artist's subsequent development.
Then there are those brave enough to show works from their formative art-school years. Often strong traces of the fully formed personality can be seen in embryonic form in the early works. Sean Scully, known for his uncompromisingly abstract painting, here appears as a 19-year-old, having painted an image of cacti in pots. It is in the dramatic verticals of the background and opposing foreground horizontals that we clearly see his mature concerns quoted in precis. For others, an event later in life changed their consciousness and whole working process. Lari Pitman talks of the transformative experience of violent physical trauma: "I became harder, more sentimental. A heightened existentialism conversely induced a greater love of life." It is easy to buy the myth of an artist's career being a seamless professional escalator, and several entries puncture this illusion by grounding our perceptions in key events in their lives. In 1990, Shirin Neshat revisited Iran and tried to come to terms with the change its society had undergone, from an identity as "Persians" to "Islamic fundamentalists". The result was her ten-year body of work Women of Allah , which marked her own "renewed faith in art as a truly transformative expression".
The demography of the 362 artists is telling: two thirds are American, half of whom are based in New York. The remaining third is split - 102 Europeans and 18 from the rest of the world. When one subtracts the six Japanese, the total of artists outside America, Europe or Japan is only 12. There are no representatives from the Indian sub-continent, China or Australasia. Africa yields only two. This is a great shame because the best entries contextualise the personal history of the artist within the wider issues of their times and society. Surely a representative world voice would only add to this richness of experience?
Many of the names are unfamiliar - I knew under half by reputation, which raises two issues for the general reader. Where the concept of first works succeeds is when one knows how it compares with present work. If you have not encountered an individual before, it is difficult to make any connection to their development, therefore the impact is greatly curtailed.
I wish each artist had been allotted a double page, with one side for the first image and the other reserved for a short statement and small illustration of their current work. While the bias of New York artists is skewed from a global perspective, I am grateful to have been introduced to new faces such as Vik Muniz and Ernesto Neto. But the editors leave us without the means to explore further. Could we not have been given the websites of individuals or at least their galleries?
There is a cruelly humorous by-product of artists being allowed to select their own statements, Matisse even warned us against any speech at all.
Artists' writings can be an unfortunate distraction set alongside the eloquence of their art. A case in point being R. B. Kitaj's bald assertion:
"I am 73 now and I think I can draw as well as any Jew who ever lived, or better." At points the text becomes spoof-like in its convolutions, and my prize goes to Judith Barry, on her 1977 installation: "A metaphor built into a metaphor and turned in on itself, predicated on the idea that the present is created out of the past in predicating the future..." Sadly, the accompanying illustration is printed upside down, which is perhaps the best comment.
The look and feel of the book is substantial, from the excellent red paint No. 1 graphic on the cloth cover to the perfect bind-stitching inside. But for a primarily visual document the layout is extraordinary, with an almost random relationship between text, image and empty space. However, these are small gripes when set beside the enormous rewards of discovering what makes for so many different first works.
Mark Cazalet is an artist currently designing a set of copes for the Bishop of Essex and illustrating the forthcoming Thomas Hardy Poetry 1912-1913 , to be published by Old Stile Press.
No. 1: First Works by 362 Artists
Editor - Francesca Richer and Matthew Rosenzweig
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 419
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 0 500 51267 1