LEARNING THE LANGUAGE: RECENT ART BOOKS

 

 

 

It's tricky, isn't it? Is drawing a preparation for something, is it of the moment in sketchbook, is it how an artist works it out before committing to canvas, or is it just work on paper - whether or not it uses paint or not? As I get older I get more and more interested in the idea of drawing as an end in itself. The most exciting book that has come in recently is Marianne Burkhalter's Finding Buildings (Scheidegger & Spiess), a collection of her chalk drawings. These seem to be the initial ideas generated by an architect: bold lines, swirls of colour, patterns and sometimes overwritten notes. They are beautiful, vigorous and energetic pieces of art; goodness knows how they make the journey to the actual finished structures which are photographed here. I'd be very interested to see that process documented.

 

 

Prints are of course a way of making repeat images (and sales), although of course a good artist will use the distinctive processes available to them rather than simply make reproductions of their own work. In The Complete Prints (Lund Humphries) we see Albert Irvin exploring screenprinting and woodblock, as well as monoprint, techniques to make smaller versions of his glorious and colourful paintings, in the main in an ongoing relationship with Advanced Graphics in London.

 

Screenprinting involves layers of ink being laid over the previous layers and whilst Irvin's paintings are never muddy, his works on paper are particularly lucid and clean, fizzing with gesture and surprises from across the spectrum. This complete set of images shows the gradual unfolding of Irvin's print work, from earlier work very much related to his painting to a more controlled and slightly tangential set of marks and ideas, as well as experiments in new colour and shape relationships. Mary Rose Beaumont discusses and charts this artistic journey in clear, engaged prose, ensuring that this volume is a welcome and essential addition to the documentation of Irvin's work.

 

 

'Ekphrasis' is of course the representation of one artistic medium in another. I'm particularly interested in the way language (and I'm really thinking about poetry here of course) relates to visual art. Jean Francois Lyotard's Sam Francis. Lesson of Darkness (Leuven University Press) offers us a hybrid of philosophy, imagistic response and creative description, although it often remains unclear how these relate to Sam Francis' work. There's too much melodrama and overstatement here for my liking; all too often I simply end up thinking 'what?' as Lyotard goes off on one in phrases such as 'Flying the colours of making themselves seen' or ''Through colours, the eye advances into the white of its deliverance'. Mostly it appears Lyotard is struggling with the images he is considering, unable to deal with them in their own terms, as pieces of art. He prefers to make vapid if grand assertions and invent narratives to suit. This edition isn't helped by rather dull and flat reproductions of Sam Francis' work compared to the original edition, although I do prefer the new smaller format.

 

 

The writers in 1969-1999. Neo-avant-gardes, Postmodern and Global Art, the latest in Skira's Art of the Twentieth Century series, have no such problems dealing with art. Here we find a clearly-flagged up and described number of subjects such as 'Land Art' or 'Art & Media' succinctly and expertly described and contextualised, along with a collection of beautifully reproduced and catalogued images.

 

This volume of course has to deal not only with the (alleged) death of painting, but the proliferation and spread of new media, the influence and interpretation of postmodernity, the fine art adoption of photography and performance, as well as the continuation and renewal of sculpture, painting and drawing, previously the core of the fine art tradition. This it does, managing to combine brief history and important-and-obvious examples with plenty of new and less well-known names and works.

 

It's particularly interesting to read European takes on 'The New British Sculpture of the 1980s', as well as see Arte Povera and Land Art elevated to perhaps more central roles in the scheme of things than we might be used to in Britain. It is this willingness to argue and recontextualise, to forge (where appropriate) new international and cross-genre links between artists that makes this book esepcially revitialising and intriguing. Here politics, media and cultural theory, modes of dissemination, film, photography and painting rub shoulders in a lively and informed dance, reinvigorating art history and criticism, fuelling new debate and thought. I am greatly looking forward to the next volume in this exciting series.

 

 

Someone whose work could be discusses in terms of linking or involving several artistic disciplines is Garry Fabian Miller. Moving from a documentary engagement with nature, where plant material such as leaves or seed pods where photographed using cibachrome paper as light shone through the plant material itself, Miller now makes abstract images using light flooding through coloured jars of oil and water. These photograms are mysterious, vivid and vague images, often distant cousins to Albers' squares of colour, but offering up their own gloss, deep spectrum and soft edges.

 

In The Colour of Time (Black Dog Publishing) these images are beautifully reproduced, as one would expect, and rather pretentiously contextualised in terms such as 'epiphany', 'moral question' and 'pictur[ing] the cosmos', which I feel does the work no favours. Miller has always spoken openly about the routines and structures he uses to live by, his concern with quiet and nature, and has always been able to articulate his own ideas about photography in general and his own work, but here - as it has to be said he has done previously - he seems to be allowing others to discuss his work in terms that perhaps do not necessarily sit at ease with his own artistic practice.

 

Previously Miller allowed Sister Wendy Beckett and others to weave a religious sensibility around his work, which was sometimes at odds with his science-based work if not his quaker affiliation or his interest in pilgrimage and the social role of the parish in Britain. Here, he allows a new set of critics - Marina Warner, Adam Nicolson and Nigel Warburton - to add philosophical weight to his work. But does suggesting that Miller's art 'seem[s] to come from another world' or that 'It is at the edge of shapes and where the colours blend in to each other [] that Fabian Miller's art works its magic' add anything to our understanding of this work? Aren't these rather strange terms to be using in the 21st century? I have no wish to be reductionist or suggest that art work cannot move a viewer, but this Romantic version of things is vague and ill-defined.

 

Miller continues to intrigue, especially in terms of his overall trajectory and repositionings within the art world, and I was particularly interested to read about his self-initiated projects producing work intensively for periods of a year, but I do find myself distanced from this work, both in exhibition and reproduction, for it seems slight and glossy, however beautiful and careful it is in its use of colour and shape. Whether presented to us in crafted wooden cabinets or blown up large to dwarf and impress us, I want more than swathes of blurry light, however beautiful they may be.

 

 

Someone perhaps more down-to-earth and less inclined to philosophical contextualistion is Anthony Caro. Having previously fought and won battles concerning painting his metal sculptures, and allowing them to stand free instead of put on a plinth, not to mention wars about size, he now seems have returned in his work to a simpler, more straightforward place. There, his work gathers up readymade tools and implements along with slabs and plates of metal to make sculptures that have a clarity and presence all of their own. They build on not only Caro's own vast experience and knowledge but also playfully revisit and acknowledge work by other sculptors such as David Smith.

 

In Anthony Caro. Small Sculptures (Lund Humphries), H.F. Westley Smith brings a critical and evocative eye to bear on a number of specific works and series of works from 1966 to 2008, including a particularly fascinating discussion of his paper sculptures, before we get a glorious 100 pages of full colour reproductions accompanied by not only the titles and details of size and materials, but also by short, informative critical descriptions. These works are truly drawings in air, full of implied line, gesture and mass totally at odds with their actual size or designation as 'small'.

 

I'm not so won over by the later work in Paul Moorhouse's companion volume Anthony Caro. Presence, but the earlier constructed and brighty painted work is striking and unforgettable as are some of the large assemblage like gatherings of work from the 80s, or the works which relate to the smaller works, yet are more than just blow-ups of them. Works such as the Towers and other walk through pieces seem less convicing, as do the clean minimal lines of a font made for a church in Bourborg, France - although the same church's altar is fantastic. As with the smaller work there are echoes and nods to David Smith's work, particularly when shown in outdoor shots, and a vigorous sense of movement and regard for material. Moorhouse grapples with this as well as ideas of shape and presence in his essay, and if Small Sculptures remains my favourite, this volume is still a worthwhile companion.

 

     Rupert Loydell 2010