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Lives of the Artists: Portraits of Ten Artists Whose Work and Lifestyles Embody the Future of Contemporary Art Hardcover – October 28, 2008

4.5 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In these biographical essays on 10 of the most interesting contemporary artists, Tomkins's access is astonishing, as when he dines with Jasper Johns and his wife in their Caribbean home in St. Martin, watches John Currin paint or receives revealing gifts from Maurizio Cattelan (he loves giving odd presents to his friends.... His gifts to my wife include a large three-dimensional display ad for Oscar Mayer franks...). A deft biographer, Tomkins (Duchamp) gives a lesson in his craft: how to balance present with past, the specific with the general, personality with context, features with flaws—all in the space of 20 pages. Tomkins is a ruthless observer. On Cindy Sherman watching a slasher movie, he writes: She slides down in her seat like a teenager, knees pulled up, and giggles at the gory parts and the in jokes.... He is also a generous critic of the cult of artistic personality, so that Julian Schnabel's ego appears charming and Richard Serra's notorious anger seems a measure of his dedication to his work. Books that trade on content that originally appeared in the New Yorker have become a small industry, but not all are as intimate as this one. (Nov.)
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From Booklist

Tomkins, author of an outstanding biography of Duchamp, assembles a guide to the age of anything-is-art out of 10 of his incandescent New Yorker profiles. Reveling in the long tradition of parsing artists’ lives launched in 1550 with Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Artists, Painters, and Sculptors of Italy, Tomkins has chosen his “eminent” artists wisely. The earliest essay is his 1999 piece on the perpetually controversial Damien Hirst, which is undiminished by the intervening years and briskly updated, as are each of the other equally memorable portraits, including the 2008 piece on John Currin and his evocative uniting of Old Master techniques and twenty-first-century oddities. Tomkins is equally intrigued with the many faces of Cindy Sherman, painter Julian Schnabel’s metamorphosis into a Cannes-anointed film director, Richard Serra’s flintiness, the confounding contrast between Matthew Barney’s oh-goshness and the baroque bizarreness of his films, and James Turrell’s austere and ambitious desert quest. With inquiries into Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, and Maurizio Cattelan rounding out this smart book, Tomkins covers the art spectrum with panache. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (October 28, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805088725
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805088724
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #909,200 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By H. Domke on March 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover
It's hard to understand a lot of the contemporary art in museums and galleries. You can't just look at it and say "I like it", instead you have to learn about the concept behind it. You have to read the "owner's manual" to really get at what the art is about. The hard part is finding explanations about the art that make sense. Much of what is written is pretentious and painful to read. I've given up trying to read "artist statements".

The solution is to find the people who know how to write about art; people like Peter Schjeldahl, David Hickey and Calvin Tomkins. For my birthday this year I was given Calvin Tomkin's new book "Lives of the Artists" and I highly recommend it.

He writes:
"Formalist art critics used to say that that the life of the artist was irrelevant to an understanding of his or her work. This may be so for certain critics, but ever since 1550, when Giorgio Vasari published the first edition of his "Lives of the Most Eminent Architects, Painters, and Sculptors of Italy" (the title I shamefully swipe here), biography has informed our understanding of art. In my experience, the lives of contemporary artists are so integral to what they make that the two cannot be considered in isolation."

Each chapter in the book is devoted to a major living artist:

Damien Hirst
Cindy Sherman
Julian Schnabel
Richard Serra
James Turrell
Matthew Barney
Maurizio Cattelan
Jasper Johns
Jeff Koons
John Currin

To get the flavor of his writing, consider the opening paragraph:
"Making art is both harder and easier than it used to be.
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Format: Hardcover
I loved this book! I actually thought it was going to be short biographies of Old Master artists, so I was surprised to find essays about the contemporary art world. The artists portrayed here are all modern (and living) conceptual and/or abstract artists. The current "hot" artists like Damien Hirst are here, as well as the older members of the modern art movement, like Jasper Johns.

I don't follow the modern art scene that closely, so this was all refreshing and new for me. I was familiar with some of the names in the book, but not with all of the artwork described. Tomkins clearly loves art and appreciates artists, and is able to write in a clear, lucid manner about the artworks themselves. None of that crazy "artspeak" jargon that I've read in some of the modern art magazines. He followed the artists around to get his material, and clearly spent quite a bit of time with all of them. After reading each chapter, I felt compelled to look for art by those particular artists, and he really piqued my interest in them. I had heard of and seen artwork by a couple of the artists in the book, but hadn't been impressed by it previously, but the way that Tomkins explains the art and lets the artist explain the motives behind their work, it made me want to look at the art again with a new perspective.

If you are unfamiliar with the modern art world or are interested in learning about contemporary art, this book would be a perfect introduction to a few of the top names out there today. It's in-depth and beautifuly written.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I love this writer. He has a bit of everything, intelligent, but not pretentious. Insightful and just enough juice. He has a sense of the times and ART. I LOVED Living Well is the Best Revenge, How can you not love that Title. I use it all the time to get through difficult times.

This is a tremendous read, RICH and extremely resourceful. The subjects are all intelligent, successful human beings, a great study and the work is brilliantly portrayed, VIVID. Tomkins is an extremely visual writer. Brilliant.

This is also an important piece of work for the Arts. Its a testament to the times of the artwork and the lives of the artists. Great Work.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am a general reader and a general lover of the visual arts, who often finds contemporary conceptual art difficult to keep up with. I turn to books like Lives of the Artists in an attempt to keep current and for interesting conversation. Lives of the Artists, with its emphasis on the artists' lives rather than art genres and trends makes it more interesting conversation than edification, but that's okay.

Tomkins, art critic for The New Yorker, had years of articles from which to choose, and he chose biography as his organizing theme, a la Giorgio Vasari, of the movers and shakers in the contemporary international art world. His selection skews to the most controversial, provocative and/or innovative: Jasper Johns, Maurizio Cattelan, Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, James Turrell, Julian Schnabel, John Currin, Richard Serra and Matthew Barney. Tomkins does a good job of introducing the artist in a current scene, before cutting to the back story to scribe the arc of career, inspiration and critical reaction. This mostly works, though the first profile in the collection, of Damien Hirst, had the ring of a VH1 "Behind the Music" rock star story. Tomkins provides updates on each career, current as of 2008 when this book was prepared. Alas, there are no illustrations, no images of the subjects' work or of them.

One thing I could not help but notice about the collection: though the author notes in his preface that there are thousands of working artists living and producing in New York City alone, and he had years of his own profiles to select from, he chose a line-up that is starkly white, and with the exception of Cindy Sherman, male.
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