Monday, April 2, 2012

How to Read a Modern Painting by Jon Thompson

On a recent trip to central New York State I finished my airplane reading before the return flight. Standing in the gift shop at Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery I scanned for something to read on the flight home. Considering that I was in an art museum the book's subject matter was set. My other criteria was size - I wanted something that was small enough to read and carry comfortably through the airport. Obviously not the best criterion for a good book.

The book I found was Jon Thompson's How to Read a Modern Painting: Lessons from the Modern Masters.

At the time of purchase, sharing my thoughts here was never part of the plan. But this blind squirrel found an acorn and scored big on both accounts. Thompson's book was enjoyable, fact-filled, and helped me learn more about modern art. It was also a comfortable 10" x 7" x 1" in size.

How to Read a Modern Painting consists of 370 pages where every pair of odd and even pages was a self-contained essay on a single significant painting. The essays include a brief biography of the artist and an analysis of the painting including a full-color plate of the work. In some cases another painting or two, by the same or related artists, were shown in smaller size for comparison. Artist or critic quotes were included in the analysis.

For example, Agnes Martin's Morning 1965 is featured on pages 302 and 303. The essay begins with her Canadian youth and her move to Manhattan in the 1950s. Barnett Newman advocated for her first show in 1958. At first glance her work might appear to be American Geometric Minimalist but its actually too contemplative to fit that genre. Her paintings appear "empty and formless but capable of yielding up all forms." Simply constructed, they are not simply apprehended with their shifting and wavelike movements.

Agnes Martin, Morning, 1965
The book proceeds chronologically from Gustave Corbet's The Artist's Studio, 1855 to Andy Warhol's Camouflage Self Portrait, 1986. Because prefer more recent works I read book backwards. The book covered all the usual suspects and it was nice to see artists and works that I enjoy. But the real joy was finding common influences among artists that never were apparent (to me). You could see who knew whom, what paintings share common elements and techniques, and how certain themes snaked there way forward through history. More interestingly, it was fun to find contradictory ideas about painting. For example, Willem de Kooning felt every artist operated within the history of painting whereas Clyfford Still said his paintings weren't influenced by anything that came before.

This book was perfect for casual reading since you only had to read two pages at a time. But at the same time, the number of paintings and the insights of the essays allowed you to learn by comparing and contrasting. What I still don't understand are all the names of the various schools of painting - cubism, dadaism, expressionism, minimalism. All the boundaries seem to blur together. However, there was another book on the shelf about -isms in art. Maybe I'll get that one on my next trip to Buffalo.


Francis Shivone said...

Nice. I love stumbling upon a good book.

I'd comment on the subject matter but I know nothing.

Jim said...

Thanks for the recommendation. Unlike Francis, not knowing won't be an impediment towards my commenting :-)

Have you seen Sister Wendy (Beckett's) art program on PBS/BBC? The scant episodes I've watched (during pledge week...) were entertaining and informative.

My only exposure to cubist art was the cubist web site article on Satire Wire. I do, however, very much like this painting since visiting the Tate in the mid 90s.

(Awesome - the captcha word is "blingese"!)

John said...

Fran: Knowing nothing never stopped me from commenting.

Jim: Never watched Sister Wendy's program, nor have I heard of it.

Also, one reason I like abstraction is that it's hard to tell what the painting is. It's not like you say "Oh, it's a bowl of fruit."