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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
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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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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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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. Women mostly appear as bit players in these stories, as girlfriends, wives, muses, studio assistants and, in a couple of instances, "porno" subjects. Is this representative of the world of art right now? It feels more like the night before the women's and civil rights movements injected a more inclusive diversity into our cultural reflection.
Written in a breezy, well-informed style which I generally like -- I've read a number of Tomkins' books -- but several non sequiturs slipped by his editor. I occasionally got the feeling that the text had been dictated, with minimal revisions. But lots of good facts and impressions, from an author who has spent, in some cases, decades getting to know his subjects.
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.
One really big complaint though...not the writing but eBook technology: why is "performance" always spelled "per for mance?" Many other words were consistently mangled. Several sections were marred by this kind sloppy formatting that I seriously doubt was seen in the "analog" version. I think I deserve my money back. I'm sure if I submitted a manuscript with these kind of errors to Amazon, I'd be laughed out of a contract. Fix it!