Art and cities

Modern art books

Reviewed on this page:
-- Blimey!: From Bohemia to Britpop...
-- It Hurts: New York art from Warhol to now
-- This is Modern Art
-- Supercollector: A Critique of Charles Saatchi
-- Sensation: Young British Artists...
-- The Penguin Book of Art Writing
-- Gilbert and George: A Portrait
-- Marcel Duchamp: A Life in Pictures
-- Duchamp (Great Modern Masters)
-- K Foundation Burn a Million Quid


Matthew Collings (1997), Blimey!: From Bohemia to Britpop: The London Artworld from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst, 21 Publishing, London.

The first and best of Matthew Collings's brilliant modern art books, Blimey! is probably the most readable book in the English language. "Start where you like, it's good all the way through," it says on the back cover, which is true, but it's so good you'll want to read it from the front to the back and then start again. "For every long word there are dozens of short ones," the back cover continues, in the breezy Collings style.

There's a subheading every paragraph or two, and it's just fantastically well-written and funny. Handsomely illustrated, and full of handy advice such as how to read art magazines and how to look convincing in art galleries. Matthew actually knows his stuff -- very well -- but doesn't let that get in the way of his casually witty, laconic style.

David Sylvester put it very well, in a review of this book, when he said: "One of [Matthew Collings's] great strengths is his insistence that in art things are not either/or but both/and. He is constantly aware that something can be basically flawed, can be pretentious, even a little bit phoney, but can still have artistic power."

It's a masterpiece.


Matthew Collings (1998), It Hurts: New York art from Warhol to now, 21 Publishing, London.

It's like Blimey! except about recent New York art, not recent London art. The subheadings are smaller, which is a design mistake, because Blimey's regular chunky subheadings were lovely. But otherwise it's brilliant. About two per cent less fantastic than Blimey -- maybe he had to write it in a bit more of a rush, so the jokes are less well-developed, or something -- but excellent anyway, and still very much a pleasure to read. Includes "Handy Guide to All Ideas" and loads of other great sections.


Matthew Collings (1999), This is Modern Art, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London.

Another brilliant Matthew Collings book, although this one sometimes lacks the joyousness of Blimey!, say, since it is obliged to cover the whole modern art canon instead of just the bits that Matthew has particularly insightful and/or amusing things to say about. Nevertheless it's wonderful, very instructive, and extremely well illustrated. The subheadings have thankfully become a bit bigger again, and readability is definitely enhanced when a book is split into small chunks called things like "Why Magritte is popular", "When did the now start?" and "Are drips wrong?". It's not (just?) a 'bluffer's guide' for idiots, though -- Matthew is full of interesting thoughts. And there's a lot of words in it, alongside a lot of pictures. Where does he find the time?


Rita Hatton & John A Walker (2000), Supercollector: A Critique of Charles Saatchi, Ellipsis, London.

It's not very difficult to criticise Charles Saatchi and the power he wields over contemporary art -- and artists -- in Britain and indeed internationally. At the same time, Saatchi has been vital to the emergence and survival of many very interesting artists. I read this book for its interesting insights into the contemporary art-world, and it was quite good for that, although it definitely spends much too much space telling you uninteresting things about Saatchi's businesses, houses, and activities, which you regret having spent time reading. On the whole it's a good book as long as you skim those bits.

It's very good on advertising and globalisation, funnily enough, and although art is usually considered in terms of money rather than aesthetics in this book -- necessarily, as the authors would argue that this is Saatchi's primary concern -- the parts on art are well handled. Hatton and Walker are generally sensible in their critique of Saatchi -- remaining aware that he is a complex rather than purely evil figure in the art world. Sometimes, though, the authors forget to be judicious about what they should be attacking. For example, artist Martin Maloney is quoted admitting that he finds it difficult to paint hands, saying "I do the best I can. Nobody's perfect. Maybe that's one of the things we're trying to say". Hatton and Walker are uninterested in this idea and merely sneer as if this is just an excuse by a useless artist. To be fair, though, the authors are usually not insistent that everyone should 'paint properly'.

Overall it's an excellent analysis of Saatchi's power in the art market -- the power to literally make or break young artists. But what artists would do without Charles Saatchi is less clear. Kidnap the Chancellor of the Exchequer... or embrace the National Lottery?


Various artists (1997), Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, Thames and Hudson, London.

It's the book of the Sensation exhibition. It seems more impressive now that it's upset lots of Americans than it did in 1997, and we liked it then too. The essays are quite good, but sometimes rather breathless without appearing ironic. It's a nice book. It is heart-warming to find that the best artists seem to be the ones who are well-known, suggesting that the cream really do get noticed. (The Sensation exhibition includes over 40 artists, not just the famous Emin - Hirst - Chapman ones). But maybe they only seem better than the others because their names have become appealing brands. See, it's got us thinking already.


Martin Gayford and Karen Wright (1999), The Penguin Book of Art Writing, Penguin, London.

Very good value, chunky book full of interesting stuff from artists themselves, critics, and others. Includes interviews, political art manifestos, bad reviews, encounters between artists, and lots of other engaging stuff. Super.


Daniel Farson (1999), Gilbert and George: A Portrait, HarperCollins, London.

I got this for £3.99 in a bargain bookshop, thinking that there ought to be something good in it, even though the author (pictured on the back, with the artists) looked a bit ropey. But I got it home and found that the author had been ill, and had died, so we'd better forget the 'ropey' thought... and meanwhile the book itself is a great read. It's very well-written, and largely based on the author's first-hand experience of following Gilbert and George to various international exhibitions of theirs -- in Moscow, China, New York, Stockholm and elsewhere -- during the 1990s. In that sense it's rather like Chris Heath's excellent books where he trails that other arty odd couple, the Pet Shop Boys. It offers lots of insight into their art, their personalities, and (to a lesser extent) their relationship, and is recommended.


Jennifer Gough-Cooper and Jacques Caumont (1999), Marcel Duchamp: A Life in Pictures, Atlas Press, London.

A little picture book (hardback, £5.99) about Marcel Duchamp -- inspiration and precursor to conceptual artists -- with illustrations by André Raffray. The catalogue says this: "This little introduction to the life and works of Marcel Duchamp was originally published to accompany a Duchamp retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris [1977]. Modelled on a children's book it contains 12 dead-pan full-page colour illustrations of events in Duchamp's life with an equally tongue-in-cheek, and entirely accurate, biography. The book was much admired at the time (Andy Warhol being an enthusiast, among others)."

It is a nice little book, although it doesn't always explain what it's talking about -- for example, it doesn't really tell you what The Large Glass is (you have to look in other art books to find out) even though it keeps telling you about its development. On the other hand, it's nice to see Duchamp's illustrated development, his invention of 'readymades' -- everyday objects which he turned into art by labelling them as such -- and growing fame. So it's certainly a nice little thing... but maybe not the best intro to Duchamp.


Great Modern Masters series (1996), Duchamp, Abrams, New York.

The 28-page picture book Marcel Duchamp: A Life in Pictures, reviewed above, seemed good value at £5.99. But you can get this big (A4) 64-page illustrated book from for £6.50, so it is even better value. It even contains well-written, informative text, and well-reproduced plates. Good.


Chris Brook and Gimpo (1997), K Foundation Burn a Million Quid, Ellipsis, London.

This is the book of the film of the burning of a million quid by the K Foundation -- one of the most memorable art events (or non-events?) of the 1990s. We follow the film on its tour of selected UK locations, with comments from audience members and their discussions with Cauty and Drummond (the K Foundation). It's very interesting, even though (or maybe because) the Ks seem to doubt the value of their project, and can be seen going slightly mad.