How to Read Contemporary Art: Experiencing the Art of the 21st Century (Paperback)

Michael Wilson

ISBN 10: 1419707531 / ISBN 13: 9781419707537
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Synopsis: Today’s artists create work that’s challenging, complicated, and often perplexing, and this book offers a guide to understanding—and enjoying—the wide range of works on display in museums and galleries worldwide. How to Read Contemporary Art provides a thoughtful, accessible, and lavishly illustrated look at the ever-changing world of art at the beginning of the 21st century. Organized alphabetically, the book encompasses photography, installation, sculpture, painting, video art, performance, and more. Author Michael Wilson explores the impact of a broad selection of the most prominent artists at work around the world today, including Francis Alÿs, Allora & Calzadilla, Luc Tuymans, and Marina Abramović.

From the Author: From an interview with the author on the Opus Insiders blog:

OPUS: As the former editor of Artforum's U.S. reviews, a reviewer for countless art magazines, and a contributor to exhibition catalogues, you have written on many artists. Is How To Read Contemporary Art your first generalist publication?

MICHAEL WILSON: I have written for a general audience before from time to time, but How to Read... marks the first time I've done so at length, and with such freedom in terms of the selection of subjects. My hope is that the book will be useful to both an art-world readership and to one coming to the subject afresh. I have been careful not to dumb down subtle and complex practices, but have also tried to avoid shrouding them in obscure theory or obtuse terminology. And when a reference is unfamiliar to readers, I hope that, rather than erecting a barrier to understanding, its context will encourage further exploration.

How did you approach the notion of contemporaneity, and how did you define the broad territory of contemporary art, both in terms of temporality and geography? 

This is a perhaps surprisingly complex question that I begin to explore in the book's preface. During the span of time covered by the book--the past twenty years--the meaning of the term contemporary art has shifted. While at it simplest it still denotes work made by living artists, it came to be identified first (arguably) with postmodernism, then with "post-movement" practice, and most recently with a kind of way of being an artist that hinges on active engagement with a cross-disciplinary network which includes not only other artists but also critics, curators, and collaborators from other fields. Contemporaneity is, above all, about being part of a cultural conversation that is still in progress. As to geography, I have tried to make choices based on art that, even when it addresses a specific local situation, resonates beyond its immediate context.
     
How to Read... presents a selection of 175 artists. Did you have complete choice over the selection or did you work jointly with Ludion, the publisher of the "How to Read" series?

Ludion's vision for the book was that it should focus on established artists with international profiles actively exhibiting in museums and biennials. This meant that many younger, up-and-coming artists were excluded, as were "modern masters" whose place in art history is assured but who are not part of the conversation to the extent they once were. With this emphasis established, the publisher left the choice of artists entirely to me--a gesture of enormous trust that did nothing to aid the decision-making process!
   
According to what criteria did you select the artists included in the book?

I tended to use a broadly defined notion of influence as a yardstick. I tried to select artists who were not simply well known, but who represented a particular kind of thinking and/or making. I imagined a pub/dinner party/gallery opening conversation about contemporary art and thought about which artists and ideas it would seem essential to be aware of in order to participate with confidence. This is not to suggest that my selections constitute some sort of new canon, simply that they are already part of the contemporary art discussion for reasons that can be identified and debated. That said, not every artist included is representative of a tendency; some aresui generis but equally vital in their individual brilliance. So while it might be hard to think of many artists directly influenced by Brian O'Doherty, say, or Johan Latham, they remain, I'd argue, key figures. 

What was your process in writing the descriptions of the works? Did you base your writings on previous research you did about these artists? Did you interview some of them?
 
I drew on a great variety of sources in my research including books and journals, websites and blogs, and museum and gallery materials. And yes, I did also make use of my own previous writing on a number of the artists included. Interviews were not my most important source, but I don't believe this is necessarily a flaw. Artists can be disproportionately persuasive in conversation, and I've learned from exhibition reviewing that maintaining a certain distance can actually be helpful in formulating one's own perspective as opposed to inadvertently parroting a manifesto.

Were you concerned with representing all the various media in the contemporary art spectrum (painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, photography, video, computer-generated art, performance, and so on)?

I did attempt to address a wide range of mediums but not at the expense of broader significance. That's to say, I wasn't going to include any artist simply on the basis that they were the greatest ship-in-a-bottle maker of their generation if I didn't consider ship-in-a-bottle making to be a significant practice. And I certainly didn't include a certain number of any particular kind of artist simply for the sake of statistical even-handedness. But the contemporary art world does of course incorporate an enormous diversity of materials and methods, and the book does reflect this. 
 
How do you feel your own experience informed your choices?

My experience certainly influenced my choices; how could it not? I tried not to be overly guided by personal taste--there are artists in the book who I don't "like" per se, but who I considered necessary inclusions for reasons already stated--but avoiding personal enthusiasms would, I think, have made for a rather sterile result. I grew up in London, studied in various parts of the U.K. (including Northern Ireland), and have lived in New York for the past twelve years. This history has undoubtedly helped shape my preferences, and in this the book is, I suppose, "biased." However, I was concerned to base my choices on work that I had seen in person; a writer from the Southern hemisphere, say, would undoubtedly have featured more art from that part of the world. I am a single individual with a specific body of knowledge and experience, and the book reflects that without apology.

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Title: How to Read Contemporary Art: Experiencing ...
Binding: Paperback
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