What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye

Posted August 21st, 2012 under Art History, Books, Contemporary Art, Modernism

Will Gompertz has produced a richly detailed and highly entertaining history from Delacroix to Damien Hirst, says Martin Herbert, reviewing “What Are You Looking At?”

“Few are the histories of modern art that name-check Beyoncé, David Foster Wallace and Susan Boyle, describe the saturnine Paul Cézanne as “the Cool Hand Luke of the Parisian avant garde” and originate in an Edinburgh Fringe stand-up comedy show. Then again, few who ply their wares in Edinburgh are former directors (albeit of media) at the Tate Gallery and currently arts editor of the BBC.

Will Gompertz is a somewhat askew figure but a sharp-minded one. And “What Are You Looking At?”, while travelling from Delacroix and Manet towards the present in a way that many histories of modern art have done before, is a book that only appears idiosyncratic. In actuality, it makes good business sense.

Over the past decade, Gompertz notes upfront, contemporary art has acquired a new audience, a Tate Modern-cruising “youthful crowd uninterested in all those brown old paintings” and attracted by “art that was like them: desirable and modern”. But that’s just the surface – the problem of “comprehension” remains – and so this substantial, highly readable volume is primarily for them. Picking apart the daisy chain of artistic movements leading up to today’s conceptually informed pluralism, it’s a detail-rich, anecdote-heavy repackaging of a familiar model: the late, great Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New redone à la Bill Bryson or (down to the explosion-in-a-font-factory cover design) John O’Farrell.

Gompertz starts, predictably enough, with Marcel Duchamp, before rewinding to mid-19th-century France, then zooming forward through Impressionism, Cubism, Minimalism, Post-modernism and the historical innovations hitching them together. Getting from artist to artist, moment to moment with unshowy adeptness, Gompertz closes with Damien Hirst and Banksy. What he does with his standardised template, though, is to filter out all jargon and pretension and filter in plenty of fun. ”

Read on at The Guardian.

Image: Damien Hirst’s Sympathy in White Major – Asbolution II (2006, detail.)