"What is abstract art good for? What's the use--for us as individuals, or for any society--of pictures of nothing, of paintings and sculptures or prints or drawings that do not seem to show anything except themselves?" In this invigorating account of abstract art since Jackson Pollock, eminent art historian Kirk Varnedoe, the former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, asks these and other questions as he frankly confronts the uncertainties we may have about the nonrepresentational art produced in the last five decades. He makes a compelling argument for its history and value, much as E. H. Gombrich tackled representation fifty years ago in Art and Illusion, another landmark A. W. Mellon Lectures volume. Realizing that these lectures might be his final work, Varnedoe conceived of them as a statement of his faith in modern art and as the culminating example of his lucidly pragmatic and philosophical approach to art history. He delivered the lectures, edited and reproduced here with their illustrations, to overflowing crowds at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in the spring of 2003, just months before his death.
With brilliance, passion, and humor, Varnedoe addresses the skeptical attitudes and misunderstandings that we often bring to our experience of abstract art. Resisting grand generalizations, he makes a deliberate and scholarly case for abstraction--showing us that more than just pure looking is necessary to understand the self-made symbolic language of abstract art. Proceeding decade by decade, he brings alive the history and biography that inform the art while also challenging the received wisdom about distinctions between abstraction and representation, modernism and postmodernism, and minimalism and pop. The result is a fascinating and ultimately moving tour through a half century of abstract art, concluding with an unforgettable description of one of Varnedoe's favorite works.
Kirk Varnedoe(1946-2003) was Professor of Art History at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton from 2001 until his death. From 1989 to 2001 he was chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For many years he taught at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. His many books and exhibition catalogues include A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern and, with Adam Gopnik, High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Earl A. Powell III vii Preface by Adam Gopnik ix Note to the Reader by Judy Metro xvii Chapter 1: Why Abstract Art? 1 Chapter 2: Survivals and Fresh Starts 47 Chapter 3: Minimalism 91 Chapter 4: After Minimalism 145 Chapter 5: Satire, Irony, and Abstract Art 191 Chapter 6: Abstract Art Now 239 Acknowledgments 275 Index 277 Photography and Copyright Credits 287
What People are Saying About This
Varnedoe was an especially distinguished and influential curator and interpreter of modern art, and this book, in effect, is his last testament. It is in the analysis of specific works of art or bodies of work by a specific artist that Varnedoe shines, reflecting his long career of intimate study of art objects. He is commenting on some of the most challenging of artists, the likes of Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, and other innovators in abstraction of various kinds. There are some truly refreshing moments where Varnedoe has the courage of his convictions and explains why one artist of merit should receive more of our attention than another artist of merit-in effect, distinguishing between greater and lesser merit, rather than just good or bad. Richard Shiff, University of Texas