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What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art Hardcover – October 25, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Gompertz succeeds in his stated mission to take a “personal, informative, anecdotal, and accessible” approach to defining the full spectrum of modern art movements, beginning with impressionism, by portraying the instigating artists and explaining what they were up to and why. A former director of the Tate in London, and currently the arts editor at the BBC, Gompertz is adept at elucidating complex aesthetic ideas and artistic techniques and linking revolutionary art movements to social upheaval (war, communism, the Holocaust) and scientific and technological developments (quantum physics, television, the atom bomb). He revels in the creative, multidisciplinary synergy surrounding such key figures as Monet, Picasso, de Kooning, and Warhol. And he daringly takes a novelist’s approach to such foundational acts as Duchamp’s purchase of a urinal in New York City in 1917 to create a “readymade” sculpture that embodied the pivotal realization that if an artist says something is a work of art, it is. Gompertz adeptly divides each broad movement into its intriguing subgroups and includes many more artists, critics, and dealers than the usual suspects. His dissections of performance and conceptual art are uniquely clarifying, and he even coins a keenly apt term for such current provocateurs as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons: the “entrepreneurialists.” A deeply enlightening and buoyant history of modern art and beyond. --Donna Seaman


“Gompertz has an uncanny knack for making difficult art (and ideas) easy…A lively, witty account of the major moments and movements of the past 150 years.”–Associated Press
“An insightful love letter to modern art and an irreverent rejection of the notion that its pleasures are reserved for a chosen few… Each [chapter] hums with engaging history and entertaining anecdotes, cheeky asides and accessible, illuminating criticism.” –NPR
“Gompertz is determined to dispel the layman's fear of the modern art world and those who inhabit it. What Are You Looking At?, which comes out this week, does a very good job of this—replacing isolating esotericism with witty and chatty commentary.” –Interview  
“A deeply enlightening and buoyant history of modern art and beyond.” –Booklist (starred review)
“[A] highly lucid, lively, and buoyantly composed history…while his tone is breezy and conversational, [Gompertz] astutely and often wittily describes the core of every movement and its key artists.” –Publishers Weekly --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton Adult; 1St Edition edition (October 25, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0525952675
  • ISBN-13: 978-0525952671
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #161,421 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Viviane Crystal VINE VOICE on October 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Here is a comprehensive, readable book for those ranging from art lovers who those looking at modern art and thinking, "I don't have a clue to what this is!"

Beginning with a short overview of how art as investment increases for both living and dead artists, the author begins with the story of how Marcel Duchamp rocked the art world with his "Fountain," a urinal turned upside down with some drilled holes. The point? What do you see? The artist would say to keep looking and then the layers of meaning may unfold for the viewer - or - perhaps it's just a urinal which elicits a variety of responses from the viewer. Is Gustave Courbet's "The Origin of the World" pornography or much more than its surface physicality? These flagrantly different conceptions are comic yet also a window into the world of contemplation and artistic creation that spans 150 years, that which is called "modern art."

The text then covers multiple schools of art, beginning with pre-Impressionism and Impressionism which is much more than many viewers perceive of as "just dots" and really convey the first time artists wanted to paint outdoors, carefully watching how light and shade created beauty in nature's everyday scenes. It also describes how the artists of this period risked so much and even started their own schools to rival the prevailing "Academy" system, speaking for the passion of creativity that they felt deserved a larger, appreciative audience.

So this story continues with coverage of Cezanne, Primitivism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Neo-Plasticism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism, Minimalism, Post-Modernism, and Art Now.
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37 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Vikhawk on January 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover
The book is an excellent history of modern and contemporary art. If you know nothing about modern art, you will have a very good understanding of it after reading the book. He starts with Impressionism and discusses all of the major artists and movements up to the present time. It is well written and is meant for the general reader. Although he puts many photographs of the art that he discusses in the book, my main criticism of the book is that he fails to put photographs of all of the paintings and sculptures that he mentions. I would estimate that he left out photographs of about half of the artwork that he discusses in the book. It is very difficult to follow the discussion about a painting if you aren't familiar with the art and you don't have the picture in front of you. Because of this, I continually had to go to the computer and pull up the picture on the internet to understand what he was talking about. Then with the picture on the computer, I would read his discussion of the piece of art.

Finally, although the book claims that you will understand modern art after reading the book, he didn't convince me. For example, he explains one painting as "representing the entire cosmos, and all life within it." That appears to be a conclusion rather than an explanation as to why a black square on a white canvas is great art. However, if you have any interest in modern art, I definitely recommend this book. It is an excellent introduction to modern art and I just hope that any subsequent edition puts pictures of all the artwork in the book. If he had pictures of all of the art that he discusses in the book, I would have given it five stars.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Montana Skyline on August 13, 2013
Format: Hardcover
If you want to better understand the subject and method of modern art, Gompertz has provided a splendid primer. While I suspect that even the art sophisticate can enjoy his insights and wit, this really is written for the rest of us. Gompertz provides a lively, chronological tour of the art and artists that have supplied the last 150 years of modern art, and does so with equal parts of humor, respect and affection. It is evident that he wants you to appreciate --and enjoy-- modern art as much as he does. While applying his own erudition with the lightest of touches, Gompertz succeeds in educating his reader's sensibility and leaves you wanting more. How many books of art history/criticism can claim so much?

Even more plates and illustrations would be a plus, but many are included, and these are very well selected to tell the story of modern art's developing styles. I tend to reserve 5 stars for "classics" that are not to be missed. Whether this short book will be considered a classic of its kind, I don't know, but if you are looking to be both instructed and entertained on the subject of modern art, I don't think that you could do much better.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Sigrid Olsen on December 21, 2012
Format: Hardcover
With Sir Nicholas Serota's recommendation on the back, one can almost be certain that this will be a great addition to the armchair art historian. The stories in the book are written in an interesting manner...and not glib or patronizing which is the downfall of many "art history for the masses" books. Gompertz treats his subjects with respect, but just when the reader is prepared for him to veer off into a lurid biographical tidbit...he keeps the focus on the paintings and art techniques. This is the real strength of the book, and very few authors can manage the balance when they attempt to educate.

I enjoyed perusing the "tube map" of modern art on the inside front and back covers. I do wish, however, that Gompertz would have taken a chapter out to focus on some of the German/Austrian painters, including Dix and the New Objectivity, along with the work of the expressionist Kokaschka...who had a breakdown, and created a life size puppet of Alma Mahler (which he later painted and the painting is in the collection of the Stuttgart Art Museum). The German museums are teeming with many of these artists, but in this case, perhaps Gompertz could not cover it all.

I can this book no greater compliment than this:

Mr. Gompertz reads like the great teacher he is.
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