Talking About Art
Recent art books, July 2009

In my humble opinion you can never have too many Francis Bacon books. Each different reproduction of the same painting reveals something new; every book seems to contain one or two paintings I haven't seen before. Francesca Marini's Francis Bacon title in the Skira Mini Art Books Series is no exception, and at 4.99 you couldn't ask for a better pocket-sized introduction to this master painter's work. Stunningly designed in striking red and black type, with highlighted quotes from Bacon himself, the 96 pages are packed full of 4-colour images, including a new-to-me 'Portrait of a Head'  and a diving nude. The orange paintings are particularly vibrant and lifelike in reproduction here, as are the grey/purple popes.

The book ends with a useful biographical timeline, some excerpted critical essays, and a brief bibliography. It's smart, sassy and useful, as is Flaminio Gualdoni's
Pop Art title in the same series, which follows the same kind of format. And if it reinforced my opinion of how shallow Pop Art was, it certainly helped me understand the movement a little better and introduced me to a lot of new work from the artists involved.

If you want more words about Bacon, then I recommend Michael Peppiatt's
Francis Bacon. Studies for a Portrait (Yale, 18.99), a fantastic anthology of essays and interviews from 1963-2007. There's mercifully little of the ego and pomposity of David Sylvester at work here: Peppiatt appears to be much more at ease with his subject, whilst still managing to probe and question the artist. He also allows Bacon to speak for himself rather than offer his own opinions. The essays, gathered from a number of art journals and catalogues, occasionally repeat themselves and should perhaps have been edited for this volume, but are a fascinating mix of review, biography and criticism.

Overall, Peppiatt's tone is readable and genial - a welcome relief from some volumes of artspeak, and conveys a real feeling of warmth for and engagement with both the artist and his work. This really is a good addition to the shelf of work about Francis Bacon (and is probably out in paperback soon).

Not always as consistently lucid and engaging, Artists Talk. 1969-1977 (ed. Peggy Gale, Nova Scotia College of Art & Design) is nevertheless a fascinating collection of lectures, talks and question & answer sessions by an important array of artists from 30 years ago.  The likes of Carl Andre, Joseph Beuys, Dan Graham Sol Lewitt, Mel Ramsden for Art & Language and many others articulate their exploration of conceptual and minimal concerns in their art, and engage with bemused and awkward audiences and faulty tape recorders along the way!

Sometimes the artists seem caught up in theoretical loops, unable to speak plain English (or American) or articulate what on earth they are getting at. At other times they are jocular and engaging. Beuys and Andre are on particularly good form, as is Sol Lewitt. The book is a hefty paperback of almost 400 pages and could have done with some editing and some illustrations of the artists' work. As it is, it is presented as 'transcriptions of historic talks', which seems to me a bit of a cop out. Nevertheless, there is plenty to explore and engage with here.

As there is in
Illumination (ed. Karen Moss, Merrell, 35), which considers the idea of both physical and spiritual light in the work of four American Modernist artists (which the book presents as two pairs): Georgia O'Keeffe & Agnes Pelton, Agnes Martin and Florence Miller Pierce. I came to this volume because of Martin, whose work I admire tremendously, and was delighted to be introduced to the work of Miller Pierce, who was previously unknown to me. Although sometimes working with much less restrained colour, and otherwise in the very different medium of resin forms, there are clear minimalist and aesthetic/spiritual links at work here, which Timothy Robert Rodgers lucidly articulates in his essay.

Rodgers title, 'Mapping an Internal World', seems to me to be the heart of the matter here, something which Karen Moss picks up on in some ways in her piece 'Art and Life Illuminated'. I'm less convinced by the paintings of, or essays on, O'Keefe and Pelton, which stray into vague and udnefined ideas of nature and mysticism, which for me are exactly the problem with the paintings discussed! The clunky and simplistic symbolism and over-vibrant colours have none of the simplicity and transcendence of the more-focussed work of Martin and Miller Pierce. Pelton especially is prone to drawing lurid occult signs and forms over her paintings.

Anyway, this is an intriguing book and - I imagine - an intriguing touring show. (Oh to be in California in the sunshine....) It's always good to see the work of previously neglected artists and to recontextualise the art you do know. This book does much to add to the ongoing discussion of nature and mysticism in art, as well as the concept of private and public illumination.

There is little room in Flaminio Gualdoni's Art. The Twentieth Century (Skira, 15.95) for this kind of discussion. Gualdoni prefers a straightforward run through established movements and histories, despite his foreword where he declares that he offers '[a] necessary reassessment', and although on one level I can't question his choices and grouping, it might have been more interesting to find some new ways of considering the work he does; perhaps a more rhizomic or thematic exploration as opposed to the same old linear history of art group followed by art movement followed by art group...

Having said that, as with the Skira mini art books I mentioned above, this weighty paperback is full of superb reproductions of both expected masterpieces and unexpetced examples of chosen artists' work, mostly in full page glory. Gualdoni is good at giving the reader social, architectural and design context for fine art, as well as offering a wider European context often missing from these type of art histories. He's less good at 'New Media' howver, and the book rather fizzles out with a token list of artists who might be grouped under this heading, failing to link it back to previous chapters on street art, body art & performance or conceptual and land art, all of which seem to me - along with technological developments and innovations - to be part of artists' concerns with new media.

But I quibble. Within this rather old-fashioned organisation of the 20th century there is much of interest and plenty to surprise. Skira's bold and striking design is used to good effect here and I'm sure this volume will become a standard reference book for both the casual and more specialist reader.

    Rupert Loydell 2009