Contemporary art Fairs Books United Kingdom

The good, the bad and the missing

The problems inherent in “up-to-date” list books

Compared and contrasted: Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, and Jenny Saville’s Propped, 1992

In his introduction to 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age, Kelly Grovier quotes Vincent van Gogh’s letter to his brother Theo in 1889, in which he appraised his recent work and dismissed The Starry Night, among other paintings, as lacking “individual intention and feeling in the lines”. Whatever it said about his state of mind at the time, Van Gogh’s failure to recognise his achievement with that great work sums up the perils, for artists, critics and curators alike, of assessing art in the present, and particularly in attempting to establish its place within a canon or at the heart of an epoch. It’s a problem that resounds in Grovier’s book and in the latest volume of Taschen’s “Art Now” series, both recently published.

Grovier is conscious of being a hostage to fortune—he admits at one point that his quest is “preposterously unprovable”—but nevertheless sticks his neck out, choosing 100 works by as many artists, made between 1989 and today. So what is an era-defining work? Grovier writes that, even if it “may be found wanting on aesthetic or even moral grounds”, it is “nevertheless recognised for its capacity to articulate something fundamental about the era and its artistic sensibilities”.

Refreshing read

This beautifully illustrated volume is superior to many list books in its singular and often original voice. Key to his argument is the idea that significant works do not just exert influence on subsequent developments, but also connect to the past, and this provides many of the strongest moments in the short texts that accompany his selections. It is refreshing to read Jenny Saville’s bulky female nudes in connection not with Rubens but Van Eyck, when Grovier looks at the extreme foreshortening in Saville’s Propped, 1992, in relation to the distorting effects of the mirror in The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Similarly, Tracey Emin’s My Bed, 1998, is considered alongside Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, 1781. The richness of Grovier’s interpretations is enhanced by frequent references to philosophers and poets, but occasionally one longs for more hard information about the works’ genesis—he neglects to mention the depression that prompted Emin to stay in bed for a long period, before deciding to preserve it.

But the book also falls foul of the problem that afflicts all such endeavours, in its inevitably baffling choices. Grovier’s are unusually narrow: he is based in Britain and it tells in his Anglocentric selection. No less than 30 artists are British-born or have developed their careers in Britain, and many of the other works were shown in the UK—a dreadful Paul McCarthy inflatable that stood outside Tate Modern and Marcus Harvey’s crass and parochial painting Myra, 1995, are among the more mystifying inclusions.

Art Now Vol. 4, meanwhile, focuses on artists who “exemplify developments [in contemporary art] since 2008”. It is a useful, well illustrated reference book up to a point, especially for the reader less familiar with the contemporary art world. Typically, some artists remain from the last edition, others are dropped and new blood is added. Pleasingly, it is not simply in thrall to the young and trendy—many long-established artists, John Baldessari and Barbara Kruger among them, feature alongside more recently emerged figures like Adrián Villar Rojas and Karla Black.

But it pales in comparison to its nearest competitor, Phaidon’s “Cream” series, the most recent of which was 2010’s Creamier, where you have ten different curators with every edition, each selecting ten artists.

Perplexing omissions

Art Now is full of perplexing inclusions and omissions. The exclusion of Mark Leckey, who has proved prolific and influential in the period, is bizarre. Tino Sehgal’s absence, when he has had a huge recent presence, is similarly glaring, but his insistence on a lack of visual documentation of his choreographed performances no doubt scuppered his inclusion. Indeed, the recent growth of live art, of which Sehgal is a linchpin, is largely ignored—a fact made all the clearer in the decision to omit Marina Abramovic in a period in which she has made some of her best work.

When so much is experienced in the moment or online, it raises questions about the ability of even the better books of this ilk to keep pace with developments in contemporary art and makes their claims to accurately reflect new art seem rather spurious. And given the pace of change in the art world, especially as its geographical centres broaden and disperse, the “now” that such books seek to capture passes almost as soon as the book is sent to the presses.

100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age, Kelly Grovier, Thames & Hudson, 320pp, £35 (hb); Art Now, Vol. 4, Hans Werner Holzwarth (ed), Taschen, 576pp, £34.99 (hb)

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