Contemporary art Fairs Books USA

He knows what he likes

A “neutral” guide to contemporary art reveals Michael Wilson's preferences through the artists he selects

Neo Rauch, Das Kreisen, 2011. The German artist is included in Michael Wilson’s book. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York, and Galerie Eigen + Art, Berlin/Leipzig

It is testament to the strength of the contemporary art business that a survey of 175 “mid-career” artists should be considered, as the publisher’s blurb on the back cover of How to Read Contemporary Art suggests, “a vibrant and accessible companion for art lovers everywhere”. The author, the art critic Michael Wilson, can even afford the luxury of excluding many of the names most familiar to a lay audience—Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Paul McCarthy—and many others who are approaching the final chapters of their careers or whose influence is perceived to have waned.

The focus is on artists who have achieved “a level of international recognition”, which loose criterion allows for the inclusion of household names—Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci, Larry Clark, Damien Hirst—alongside a new generation of artists whose practice is specific to the early 21st century (such as Paul Chan, Tino Sehgal, Cory Arcangel, Ryan Trecartin and the Bruce High Quality Foundation). The artists are the subject of a concise text outlining his, her or their practice, with particular reference to a handful of reproductions on the facing page.

The book’s strength is the precision and clarity of Wilson’s writing and his evaluation of a bewildering range of media, styles and subject matter according to the same, simple measures outlined in his introduction: “Does the work of art pose and prompt interesting questions? Do its material, formal and conceptual elements work effectively with each other? Does it interact productively with its context? Does it achieve what it set out to achieve?” His prose is mercifully free of jargon and characterised by a tidy, clipped style that connects artists’ work to that of their peers and predecessors without labouring the links. His illuminating identification of Mike Nelson’s practice with the novelists Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft, for instance, exemplifies Wilson’s ease with a wide range of references. The reader is thus introduced to the artist’s work by a combination of its cultural context and the description and analysis of key works.

Studiously neutral in tone, Wilson’s writing does not betray personal preferences for one artist over another, except on those occasions of damnation by faint praise. Damien Hirst, for example, is included for the persistence of his “unique influence” on the way artists market themselves rather than for his work, despite being “routinely lambasted as a mere publicity-seeker and his work attacked for its perceived lack of subtlety”. The criticism is attributed to unnamed critics, rather than framed as an expression of the author’s own opinion.

Wilson’s tone might be neutral, but his selective approach to established artists is not. His choice of some over others serves to build a story about the art of today by juxtaposing the latest practice with, for instance, John Latham (1921-2006), rather than the younger, better known and still prolific Tracey Emin. The implication is that, in defiance of market value and popular visibility, the former’s work is more attuned to the prevailing culture of our time than the latter’s. Whether or not readers agree with that tacit judgement is less important than that they recognise it is being made. Wilson himself acknowledges his role as adjudicator in his introduction by posing the question, as a reductio ad absurdum, of why Thomas Kinkade, the very successful purveyor of kitsch, should not qualify for an entry here.

The book is most successful when readers alight upon an artist with whom they have only a passing familiarity. Wilson’s astute summation of the work of Jessica Stockholder, whose “grandest installations cascade through interiors like lava flows” and “embody the continued value of pleasure in a physical and psychological environment”, encouraged me to seek out more about this artist of whom I knew little but who has clearly influenced (or at least anticipated) the more recent work of artists such as Helen Marten and Samara Scott.

This is, ultimately, less an objective survey of art being created and seen now than a diagnostic separation of the still-relevant from the passé. How to Read Contemporary Art will be enjoyed by casual art lovers as a handy Baedeker to an increasingly internationalised and over-populated art world, while insiders will quibble over the exclusion from this anthology of their personal favourites. The most interesting discussion occasioned by the book is, however, what this carefully curated selection tells us about the state of art now, apparently devoid of the stylistic groupings, ideological affiliations or “movements” that art history has applied retrospectively to previous eras. Wilson, as elsewhere, leaves it to the reader to decide.

The writer is the co-founder and editor of the White Review and a freelance writer on the arts

How to Read Contemporary Art, Michael Wilson, Thames & Hudson, 396pp, £24.95 (hb)

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