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

  • Will Gompertz
  • Dutton
  • 435 pp.

This tour of art from the early 19th century to the present identifies the social, economic and technological trends affecting the visual artist.

Reviewed by Mindy C. Reiser

If you’ve ever been baffled by an exhibition at an art museum or wondered what exactly was before you at an art gallery, Will Gompertz’s What Are You Looking At? might well provide clarity and help dissipate at least some confusion. Mr. Gompertz, a former Media Director for the United Kingdom’s Tate — a network of four museums housing the national collection of British art and international and modern art — and current Arts Editor for the BBC, has authored a guide primarily focused on the art of the past 150 years. Written in a conversational style, enlivened by flashes of wit and occasional cartoons, and rich with asides on the doings of the art worlds in Europe and the U.S., Gompertz takes the reader on a tour of the art movements from the early19th century through the present.

In his 20 chapters, Gompertz works to set the context for the shifts in the presentation of reality by the artists he sees as the major innovators and path breakers in the visual arts. While the reader may quarrel with some of Gompertz’s choices for the pantheon of greatness (Marcel Duchamp is a special favorite), the author well explicates the concerns, visions, and struggles of the European and American visual artists who have, indeed, transformed the way the world is seen. The book is not meant to be a scholarly tome, directly credits only a few art history studies and has no footnotes, but Gompertz has clearly immersed himself in a broad array of art-related publications and considers the broader social, economic and technological trends that affect the visual artists and influence the broader cultural landscape.

In his admixture of humor, imagined dialogues among celebrated artists, brief biographical vignettes and often truly illuminating analyses of specific artworks, Gompertz does raise the important questions as to what the artistic enterprise is all about. He shows how artists expanded their subject matter, bringing onto the canvas the mundane and the marginal; he describes artists’ shifts toward greater abstraction of forms and their ability to embrace multiple perspectives within individual paintings. In Gompertz’s rendering, the art movements of the past decades speed by: Impressionists, Cubists, Constructivists, Surrealists, Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists and Postmodernists and their successors all get their due. Many readers may find the author’s discussion of art from the 1950s onward particularly illuminating.

He is at some pains to argue for an underlying seriousness in works that some may dismiss out of hand, such as Yoko Ono’s 1964 “Cut Piece,” an invitation to onlookers to cut into her dress, thus underscoring vulnerability and violence; or the 2010 piece of Marina Abramović, “The Artist is Present,” in which, silent and motionless, the artist sits on a chair at the Museum of Modern Art with the interested museum visitor invited to sit in silence opposite her. Some visitors sharing this experience with the artist reported undergoing deeply spiritual experiences. Gompertz praises British artist Damien Hirst’s “A Thousand Years” — a 1990 work including the head of a dead cow, flies and maggots, sugar and an insect electrocution device — calling it a powerful depiction of “life and death, birth and decay,” a subject he notes is “as old as art itself.” The reader may choose to bypass such artworks, but Gompertz well argues for their place within the centuries-old art-historical canon. In his exploration of installations, such as Carl Andre’s 1966 “Equivalent VIII” with 120 firebricks arranged in two layers in the shape of a rectangle, which to the uninitiated may have neither rhyme nor reason, Gompertz describes how for some influential contemporary artists, the interplay of viewer, object and space is prime; while other artists hope to awaken the spectator to at last truly see the texture, solidity, or grain of the material he employs.

The author, who has been immersed in the UK art world for more than three decades, is keenly aware of the long reach of commerce and finance into the artistic realm. In passages that would do sociologists proud, he describes the critical role of the art dealer, from Paul Durand-Ruel’s support for Claude Monet and Camille Pissaro, to Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and his stipends for Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, to Leo Castelli in New York City and his influential role in showcasing the emerging and established stars of the art world: Jackson Pollack, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol but a few from Castelli’s stellar collection. Gompertz also introduces the reader to more recent entrants into the top tier of art dealers — Jay Jopling of the White Cube Gallery in London, and mega art-deal broker Larry Gagosian, owner of 12 galleries in Europe and the U.S.

Gompertz is so struck by the rampant art-world commercialism in recent decades that he designates the period from 1988-2008 the time of the arts entrepreneur. With a mixture of amazement and dismay, he charts the increasingly stratospheric prices paid for artworks: £153 million for the work of Damien Hirst placed at auction at Sotheby’s in 2008 (and bypassing the heretofore essential intermediary role of the art dealer) and $104 million for Giacometti’s “Walking Man 1” in 2010.

What Are You Looking At? is a book that most readers would probably not wish to read straight through over one or two evenings (it is, after all, 395 pages of text!).  Each chapter, while building on the ones before, can also be read on its own. For a foray to the Hirshhorn Museum’s exhibition of the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the museum-goer might well prepare herself by reading Gompertz’s chapter 20, “Art Now: Fame and Fortune,” to learn something of that place within the contemporary art world where Ai Weiwei resides.

While the book contains 29 color plates and 39 “figures” in black and white, a wider selection of plates and figures would have served the reader better. Gompertz elaborately describes at length a number of artworks he deems singularly important, but nowhere in the volume are their images to be found. This leaves the reader frustrated, indeed. What the reader is given, however, is a schematic diagram that sets out the multiple art movements of the past 150 years, along with the names of the artists most prominently associated with them. This may aid in keeping straight the proliferation of arts movements, their divisions, fissures and influences. Another unexpected boon to the reader is a listing of the museums that house the major artworks identified in the text. Buoyed by Gompertz’s lively overview of the art world’s recent trajectory, the reader may well be inspired or provoked to venture forth and render her own judgment on an artwork of special interest; better equipped now to become her own critic.

Mindy C. Reiser, Ph.D. is a sociologist whose doctoral research explored U.S. cultural policy and the role of arts councils in community life. She also directed a multicultural arts festival in Waltham, Mass. with the support of the Waltham Arts Council and the Waltham Public Library System.

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