BOOK OF THE MONTH (10): 25 years of contemporary art in 200 pivotal artworks (‘Defining Contemporary Art’)

When it comes to contemporary art, I often feel lost. What makes a really great work of art? Why is this painting better than that one? What are the qualities I should be looking for? When is an artist faking it? As a consequence I’m always looking for ways to sharpen my mind, to help me develop a better view and broaden my scope. That’s why I love Defining contemporary art, a new book published by Phaidon. Eight renowned curators pick 200 pivotal artworks from the last 25 years and explain why those works changed the course of art. Surprise: even a couple of Belgian artists made the cut.

Glad to know that I’m not alone. ‘The twenty-five-year period beginning in 1986 is one of the most vibrant episodes in the history of art’, the editor of Defining Contemporary Art writes. ‘It is also one of the least understood.’ So the help of 8 highly respected curators comes in handy.

The 200 artworks (‘a history of art through individual artworks’) in this heavy, big book (480 pages) were selected by Hans Ulrich Obrist (Serpentine Gallery and n°2 on Art Review‘s most recent Power 100-list), Bice Curiger (artistic director Venice Biennale 2011 and n° 26 on the Power 100), Okwui Enwezor (Haus der Kunst, Münich, curator of Meeting Points, recently on view at Argos, Brussels, and n° 52 on the list), Massimiliano Gioni (director of the Venice Biennale 2013, n° 80 on the list), Connie Butler (MoMA, NY), Daniel Birnbaum (Moderna Museet, Stockholm), Suzanne Cotter (Guggenheim Abu Dhabi) and Bob Nickas (author and independent curator).

Their selection combines the well-known and the quietly influential. You’ll come across works by Damien Hirst, Gerhard Richter, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Mike Kelley, Matthew Barney, Bruce Nauman and Jeff Koons. Some of them are even mentioned twice. And for every big name, you’ll find another one that didn’t make the cut: Anish Kapoor, Franz West, Tracy Emin, Anselm Kiefer, Erwin Wurm, Antony Gormley… 

Or as one of the curators (Enwezor) says: ‘When we hold the copy of this book in our hands, what we will find is an intellectual biography of each contributor: the kind of art we have responded to during the years in question.’ To which another curator (Nickas) adds: ‘What was curious to me, looking at the works by other contributors, was how many I felt I had also somehow chosen.’ So: 8 highly personal selections? Yes and no.

What I love most about this book is that it made me discover artists I hadn’t yet heard of, and that it drew my attention to great, influential works of art that had escaped my attention. And as I said – this being a Belgian blog – I was happy to discover that even a few Belgian artworks are on the list: Gas chamber by Luc Tuymans,  dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y by Johan Grimonprez, From the east by Chantal Akerman and The loop by Francis Alÿs. And, one funny detail: for one work of art, you’ll find no picture at all, as the ever elusive Tino Sehgal (his Instead of allowing some things was chosen) doesn’t want his work to be photographed.

Apart from picking 25 artworks, each author has also profiled a single year from that ‘contemporary’ era 1986-2010: ‘as a key point in the trajectory of this period, tracing the shifts in the creative climate and examining the artistic breakthroughs that serve as the seeds of more conventional histories.’ Completing the book is ‘a round-table discussion in which the eight authors deliberate the historical conditions and principal themes of this period’.

Frankly? I had expected more from that discussion, and while reading the descriptions provided for each artwork, you’ll realize that these might be 8 respected curators, but that not every one of them is a really gifted writer, with the ability to provide a reader with all the necessary information. Quite often you’ll get an accurate description of the work of art, but you’re left wondering why exactly this work of art is really ‘pivotal’,  how it relates to other artists and works of art.

Nevertheless: great book. I guess it’s fair to say that every art school should have a copy. For my part? Don’t expect a dance or theatre review on this blog in the coming weeks. I’m staying home. Reading, discovering.

For a short video interview with three of the curators, click here. For an interview with commissioning editor Craig Garrett, click here.

Defining Contemporary Art – 25 years in 200 pivotal artworks is published by Phaidon (€69,95/£45). More info here. You can order it here.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering why they took 1986 as their point of departure, here’s the explanation by editor Craig Garrett: ‘Until the mid-1980s a lot of people still believed in art movements. In reality, movements were always less tidy than the history books would have you believe — few artists really called themselves abstract expressionists or minimalists or conceptual artists. But the whole idea really fell apart in the early 1980s. Critics of the time made a last few attempts, but the labels they came up with — ‘neo-geo’, ‘commodity art’, ‘transavanguardia’ — never really stuck. By 1986 there was a consensus that art could be experimental and groundbreaking without marching under the banner of a movement. And today that’s still true.’)

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