Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Artists

by Drew Martin

I recently finished reading Lives of Artists by Calvin Tomkins, which is simply a collection of his articles for The New Yorker. For the most part, they have the other-worldly elitist slant you would expect from The New York Times about overpaid yuppies who have fantastic lives. Perhaps the quick-witted cartoons of The New Yorker and its magazine format typically make their articles seem excruciatingly long but in book form, however, they seem incomplete.

Not to say I did not enjoy reading it (I did) but the brief survey of each artist came across as formulated and statistical:

a humble start + perseverance x conviction = success

To the book's credit it is certainly informative. I learned, for example, that the man of steel, Richard Serra, was originally an English major at my Alma mater - UC Santa Barbara and started working with lead because of his good friend, the minimalist composer, Philip Glass who had access to it through his day job as a plumber.

The biographical sketches include Matthew Barney, Maurizio Cattelan, John Currin (work pictured below-right), Damien Hirst, Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman (unfortunately the only woman discussed, pictured above-left) and James Turrell.

A review I came across by Martha Schwendener is perhaps the best consideration of the book, which likens the profiles to the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous:

"When you borrow the title of your book from Vasari, legendary chronicler of the Italian Renaissance, some claims are implicit. Vasari, after all, was candid about his aim to install certain artists in history, and his picks have mostly stood the test of time. Tomkins’s Lives follows a different criterion of canonization. We’re not reading about artists per se but market-approved art stars, the celebrity-culture concept that has all but replaced Vasari’s notion of the divinely appointed genius."

From this perspective many of the quotes come across not as insightful but simply privileged and delusional such as John Currin's "I came to the conclusion that there is no misery in art. All art is about saying yes, and all art is about its own making."