33 Artists in 3 Acts by Sarah Thornton is on my reserve list at NYPL
Booklist Reviews 2014 November #1 *Starred Review* The intrepid and inquisitive Thornton once again guides readers on a journey through the often confounding upper echelons of twenty-first-century art. In her best-selling Seven Days in the Art World (2008), this art historian, sociologist, and chief art writer for The Economist ushered us into art's spheres of commerce. In her new, even more revealing and resonant book, artists take center stage. Thornton is curious about how artists address concerns personal, societal, and professional. In the post-Duchampian world of anything-is-art-if-the-artist-says-it-is, many artists find that they cannot concentrate solely on making art because they need to establish a public persona to represent and promote their work. Therefore, Thornton perceives, artists' studios have become "private stages for the daily rehearsal of self-belief." The "3 acts" of the title refer to how this effort plays out in three realms— politics, kinship, and craft. Between 2009 and 2013, Thornton traveled to 14 countries on four continents and visited 130 artists. The 33 who made the cut are all well-established as well as, in most cases, "open, articulate, and honest." Curiously, Thornton discovered that the most problematic question she posed was, "What is an artist?" That's because, in part, the romantic view of the artist as a struggling loner has been eclipsed. Successful artists are now entrepreneurs and "ideas people liberated from manual labor" as they oversee sizable administrative and production staffs working in state-of-the-art facilities—digital versions, Thornton observes, of the bustling ateliers of top Renaissance painters. With her acutely perceptive reportorial eye and keen ear, Thornton not only discerningly profiles each artist; she also contrasts and compares them. In the book's most provocative pairing, Thornton considers the slick, calculating, megarich American Jeff Koons versus the courageous, forthright, besieged Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei, famous for such installations as Sunflower Seeds (2010), in which 100 million handmade, painted porcelain sunflower seeds covered the floor of a vast hall in London's Tate Modern. Thornton meets with cheery Koons in his fancy, high-tech command center and tries to steer him away from his "well-rehearsed patter," while she is deeply moved by Ai's candor, determination, and ethical valor when she visits him in his raided and decimated studio after his arrest and grueling detention. Thornton runs into Koons at art events all around the world, while Ai, his passport confiscated, remains under house arrest, unable to attend the installation of his own exhibits in the U.S. and elsewhere. Thornton spends time with Koons' British counterpart, headline-grabbing, big-money Damien Hirst, who is trying to return to painting after years of putting sharks in tanks and covering skulls with jewels. She also illuminates the lives and work of such thoughtful, risk-taking, socially concerned, poetic, and ironic artists as, in Mexico, Gabriel Orozco, in Chile, Eugenio Dittborn. Each encounter is a revelation. In the "kinship" category, Thornton considers complications and affirmations within a family of artists: plucky and unnerving photographer Laurie Simmons, who has recently created a series of portraits of an eerily realistic Japanese sex doll; painter Carroll Dunham, who creates comically, grotesquely, and earthily explicit figures; and their daughter, writer-director-actor-producer Lena Dunham of HBO's Girls. Kinship takes on a broader definition in Thornton's portrait of photographer and sculptor Rashid Johnson, who is "fascinated with the problem of how to be black." Thornton reveals the artist behind the many masks of photographer Cindy Sherman and the disquieting personae of gutsy performance artists Kutlug Ataman, Andrea Fraser, and Marina Abramovic, who tells her, "Artists should be the oxygen of society." Collagist Wangechi Mutu, who confesses, "I am too obsessed with the emotions that my work exudes to outsource it," answers Thornton's central question, "What is an artist?," by defining artists as "individuals that speak for the group. . . . We're like a tattletale . . . or an alarm-raiser." Mutu also muses, "Art allows you to imbue the truth with a sort of magic, . . . so it can infiltrate the psyches of more people, including those who don't believe the same things as you." Exceptionally knowledgeable, receptive, witty, and crisply expressive, Thornton conveys a phenomenal amount of fresh information and frank and vivid impressions in her eye- and mind-opening forays into the art world's inner sanctums. Taken together, these vibrant portraits constitute an invaluable, incisive, and exciting guide to today's deliriously diverse, sophisticated, scandalous, and profound art world. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.