London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2008
The trajectory of Eleanor Heartney's writing does nothing to suggest that this monumental work was formulating in the background. In the past decade, there have been few works to compete with this rigorous project, which Heartney set herself. Art Since 1900 is, however, a necessary precedent, composed as it was (for Thames & Hudson) by Hal Foster, Yve-Alain Bois, Rosalind Krauss and Benjamin HD Buchloh. This work offers a masterly compendium, which, with a plethora of information, largely answers all possible questions about the respective developments of modernism, antimodernism and postmodernism. Such grounding, or indeed earthing, constitutes a necessary preliminary as well as a continuing reference source for the bold extrapolations developed by Heartney into the realm of contemporary art.
Jean-Francois Lyotard is, in terms of his 1979 treatise The Postmodern Condition, quoted as asserting that '… in the postmodern era, comprehensive theories of history, social systems, or science are no longer tenable' and emphasises that accordingly '… we must abandon universal principles in favour of micro-narratives'. This principle, in effect, becomes the leitmotif for Heartney's organising structure, whereby the book divides into sixteen sections prefixed by the word 'Art', these are: Art & Popular Culture, Art & the Quotidian Object, Art & Abstraction, Art & Representation, Art & Narrative, Art & Time, Art & Nature and Technology, Art & Deformation, Art & the Body, Art & Identity, Art & Spirituality, Art & Globalism, Art & Architecture, Art & its Institutions, Art & Politics and Art & Audience. This list gives some idea of the thrust of the book - to investigate predominantly, but not exclusively, key preoccupations where they have influenced creative thinking.
Without undertaking a detailed analysis of the chapters, it is useful to pick out one or two. Art & Architecture, subtitled 'The Utopian Fallacy', displays certain common misconceptions in the art world. One is to assume that the 'utopian impulse in architecture' has failed, so 'freeing the architect from the role of social visionary'. That is something of an over-generalisation. Professional institutions in the architectural world, which control education, still impose a level of social commitment as opposed to purely consumerist indulgences. However, Heartney redeems herself on this point by starting the section with reference to the outstanding American radical in this realm, Gordon Matta-Clark. The quality of transparency, which much preoccupied architectural theorists in the 1970s, is then skated over, with no attempt to express the idea of 'phenomenological transparency' (as developed by Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky in 1971). This could be equally subversive to that utopian vision, which Rowe was subsequently to call into question over the next generation from Cornell. Indeed, many of the art-architectural works exemplified here by Heartney unwittingly underpin those ideas.
Choosing, at random, another chapter - Art & Spirituality, subtitled 'Rediscovering Transcendence' - perhaps, as it happens to be closer to Heartney's own preoccupations, it is by contrast impressive how the author amplifies her thesis with works from Chris Ofili, Alma Lopez, Mark Wallinger and Ron Kitaj. However, in the latter case, although referred to in the text, it would surely have been more appropriate to use Kitaj's masterwork, 'If Not, Not' (1975-76) with its references both to the Vietnam War and the Holocaust, which have a more universal relevance perhaps than the work selected, 'The Jewish Rider' (1984-85). Anish Kapur's, Cloudgate, likewise seems ill placed in this section, and the absence of Joseph Beuys - a most spiritual, shamanist of artists - seems inexplicable. However, the author takes pains to emphasise the inclusiveness of the work, and its various chapters.
The book is more comprehensive, notwithstanding such criticisms, than it has itself claimed. It is not, in fact, fully acknowledged either in the main introduction or in the chapter lead-ins how 'demountable the sixteen sections can be, in a truly postmodernist meta-narrative'. It is actually possible here to reverse the entire sequence of events. It might have been better to start the book with 'Art & Audience'. Indeed, 'Art & Politics' could have been readily integrated in one of three or four other chapters, such as 'Art & Today'.
The book is an invaluable and essential item for students and academics. The game of substitution can be played over the selection of works throughout, which is part of the value of this widely inclusive taxonomy. Combine this volume with Art Since 1900 (reviewed here in 2007) and one can see how two major art publishers, each of great repute, have clearly and conclusively resolved for their market the question of familiarisation with 20th- and 21st-century art. Having said that, both works, are essential compendia for curators, museum directors and private collectors. Never have the scholar and the consumer each been so well served as now. The two books are mutually inclusive.
Big Bang: Creation and Destruction in 20th Century Art
The Pompidou Centre does not usually present its art works thematically. But, as its latest exhibition, 'Big Bang' demonstrates, its approaches are expanding and developing and the Pompidou is indeed the space of iconoclasm it was intended to be. Its exhibition really is a blast.
West Meets East in a DADAdventure
Just as the extensive exhibit, 'DADA', which revisited the movement, closed at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, a small but appealing coda is being presented by the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York. According to Corina Suteu, director of the Institute, 'DADA ... born Romania' is a direct response to 'DADA', which premiered in February 2006 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and closed on 11 September at MoMA. 'DADA' proposed both Zurich and New York as the birthplaces of a phenomenon that claimed to have no boundaries or limitations and was, in fact, a truly international movement.
Nordic Dawn: Modernism's Awakening in Finland 1890-1920
This timely exhibition and catalogue can be accessed in Europe until 26 January 2006. It is timely because it appropriately adjusts the balance of influences upon Finland at this crucial period and thoroughly and effectively reviews the special influence that Finnish art gave to the wider European spectrum. Stephan Koja, an expert on Gustav Klimt, is currently a curator at the Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere Vienna and co-ordinates important contributory essays from a wide range of Finnish scholars.
Book review: The Formalesque: A Guide to Modern Art and its History
According to the Australian art historian Bernard Smith, The Formalesque: A Guide to Modern Art and its History, is 'probably his last book'. At 91, he is probably right. What is certain is that this, his swan song, has lost nothing of the fresh, understated authority that characterises sixty highly prolific years of writing, lecturing and international publishing. Smith is affectionately described as the father of Australian art history.