100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age

Kelly Grovier, Thames & Hudson, £35

Every now and then a book about contemporary art appears which informs it audience in ways that neither the author nor the publisher probably quite intended. This seems to be the case with Kelly Grovier’s 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age, newly published by Thames & Hudson, just in time for this year’s Frieze Art Fair. This is, without a doubt, a book that no one interested in contemporary artistic manifestations should ignore. Adorned with a cover that suggests the blurred double vision one suffers after a bad knock on the head, it has a comprehensive suite of illustrations, well reproduced in good colour. The choice of names is extremely informative concerning the state of the art world right now. It is perhaps a little more difficult to be complimentary about the text. The flavour of this is well illustrated by this, the final paragraph of Grovier’s description of Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God:

“What a strange geometrical hinge Hirst’s outrageous jaw is. It defines our age eloquently, an era of recycled retro that forgot it was retro. When the skull was first unveiled as part of the British artist’s exhibition ‘Beyond Belief’, the lavish security it enjoyed as though it were the rediscovered crown jewels of a legendary realm, led many to attach to it an invincibility that could laugh in the face of time’s ravaging, as though a work of art that could conquer death had at last been found. Others may have seen little more than a gaudy trick, which the slightest wrinkle of a gallery rug might send smashing into eight thousand broken engagement rings.”

This at least avoids the total opacity of academic Art English, though the first sentence is baffling enough. The description is energetically hyperbolic, but manages to have its cake and eat it. The author adroitly dodges questions about the ultimate importance of the piece described, whether within a contemporary context or out of it.

What the book, and its author, can’t avoid are the results of simple statistical analysis. For example, look at these figures: counting occasional pairs – artists who work together – as a single entity, 32 of those listed are based in Britain, mostly it seems in London. A high proportion – perhaps two-thirds ­– are British born. An almost equally large proportion are associated with the so-called YBA movement.

The next largest group comes from the United States – 26 in all, though seven were not originally American. To this one might add the name of Cy Twombly, always considered to be an American artist, though he spent most of his career in Italy. A conspicuous omission is James Turrell, surely one of the most poetic and fascinating artists now living.

Conclusion: just short of 60% of the artists who made ‘defining’ artworks in the period under review came from the Anglophone art world. Among these were more Brits than Americans. And the YBA movement, according to the choices offered here, was far and away the most important art movement of its time, regarded in global terms. Does anyone really believe that?

Other well-represented countries are Germany and France. For Germany, however, the list contains only four German-born artists out of nine – Gursky, Richter, Gregor Schneider and Neo Rauch. The others come from elsewhere – for example, Sean Scully, now completely cosmopolitan, with studios in Bavaria, Barcelona and New York. Scully, who is of Irish extraction, began his career in Britain, and had his first exhibitions here. Other artists living and working in Germany come from Argentina, the Lebanon, Denmark and Italy. To the list of German artists one can add Anselm Kiefer, indelibly German, though he now lives and works in Paris, and Martin Kippenberger, who was born in Dortmund, travelled restlessly, and died in Vienna. Other celebrated German artists are absent – Baselitz, Immendorf, Penck, Fettting. So is Sigmar Polke. Conclusion: German Neo-Expressionism must be thought of as largely a spent force.

Five French artists are listed, plus Kiefer and also Thomas Hirschhorn, who comes from Switzerland. None of those native to France are primarily painters. Conclusion: the long tradition of French dominance in painting is now in its coffin. In fact, the steep fall in French representation, compared to the situation say fifty or sixty years ago, is a marker for how far French cultural prestige has now declined. Germany counts for far more creatively. Berlin has attracted quite a number of non-German artists who once might have settled in Paris, to be near the centre of things. So, for that matter, has London.

There is a scattering of artists from Latin America – one from Brazil (Ernesto Neto), one from Colombia (Doris Salcedo), one from Mexico (Gabriel Orozco). Two more artists included, now living in Mexico – Francis Alys, and Santiago Sierra – did not originate there.

After that: three artists from China (one, inevitably, is Ai Weiwei), Two from India. Two from Poland. Two from Canada. One from Spain. One from Belgium. There is a sole representative from Italy – apart, that is, from Twombly. The book suggests that the only major artistic personality that this traditional home of the visual arts now has to offer is the arch-jester Maurizio Cattelan. One artist from Japan. One from the Netherlands – Marlene Dumas, who, though born in South Africa, has spent her entire career in Amsterdam. And just one from Africa itself – the white South African William Kentridge. There is no black African artist. Chris Ofili, who might seem like a candidate, is British born. He now lives and works in Trinidad. Nobody at all from Russia. The enthusiasm for Russian contemporary art that flourished in the 1980s, at the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika initiative, has now apparently evaporated, displaced, perhaps, by an enthusiasm for China. Clearly the vaunted internationalism of contemporary art world has its limits.

The book scores fairly high in terms of making a place for female artists. In all, there are 23 inclusions – almost a quarter of the total. Rather strangely, however, no fewer than nine of these are British. Evidently we now, here in Britain, do ‘politically correct’ better than anyone else. Yet the most important feminist artist now living – still very active – is the American Judy Chicago, far more of a pioneer than any of these Brits. However, her epoch-defining installation, The Dinner Party, is some time ago now, which may be a reason for her omission. The Dinner Party is, nevertheless, still available today at the Brooklyn Museum.

100 Works is extremely interesting and informative about the media used by the hundred artists selected for immortality – or at any rate selected for their potential historical significance. Forty of them – 40% – can be defined as makers of installations. Not quite 18% are painters. The rest are occupied with other creative forms, with photography and video occupying a rather smaller place than one might expect. There are very few old-school public monuments, with a message for anyone who might encounter them. The most conspicuous are Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, and Rachel Whiteread’s Nameless Library, Holocaust Memorial at the Judenplatz in Vienna.

There are several points to be made about current installation art. First, it is extremely dependent on official support – it is representative, in most of its manifestations, of that paradoxical entity, the ‘official avant-garde’. Many of the installations celebrated here have been presented at major museums of contemporary art, or as part of major art biennials. That is, they are an accepted component – the ‘circuses’ – of our present ‘bread and circuses’ official culture, characteristic of Western European democracies and also of the United States, but not so prevalent or firmly established elsewhere. The installations are also physically ephemeral for the most part. That is, if you missed them when they were initially shown, you will probably never now catch up with them again. Not even those where the mechanisms involved are almost childishly simple, such as Martin Creed’s The Lights Going On and Off. This means that these art works can only ‘define our age’ through the operation of perhaps unreliable individual memory. Who, in any case, can have managed to see them all at first hand?

The only way most of us can hope to see them now is through books such as this one, which also attempt to tell us what opinions we should form. Yet wait – there is another paradox here. The conventional art book, text and illustrations on paper, is not nearly as efficient in conveying information about large, often labyrinthine three dimensional objects as film. Meanwhile hybrid art ‘books’ – so called – are increasingly available on portable tablet computers through the use of Apple’s iBook software. If these forty installations were all visible on an iBook, each represented by a film clip or a series of film clips, one would have a much better idea of what they are really like, and therefore of both their strengths and their deficiencies as works of art. This is dinosaur technology inefficiently trying to convey information about what is proclaimed to be a new age.

I called this a bad book, yet also said that it was a book that no one interested in contemporary art should miss. The reasons are twofold. First, it does undoubtedly offer a lot of information about the current state of contemporary art, though not always information that tends to raise one’s enthusiasm for the subject, nor one’s respect for the artists concerned, nor for the curators and institutions who promote this vision of what the art world should currently be doing. Secondly, the information it offers is radically skewed, but skewed in an interesting way.

The implicit claim here is that Britain, London in particular, is now the unchallenged centre of the contemporary art world. Bold of Thames & Hudson to publish an ambitious book that says this, as their important American market is not going to like it. Yet the fact that over 30% of the artists included in the book are British or British resident is enough to certify that this is the direction it takes. Accumulating evidence shows that the claim may possibly be true. London has the great museums, the major public spaces for contemporary art, art dealers of all kinds, trusts that supply studio spaces. It also has an enormous number of gifted younger artists, some born here, some foreign. Nevertheless, trying to certify Britain’s new status by a celebration of the fast fading YBAs doesn’t help to make the case. In fact, it tends to undermine it.

Further, the official museum-supported avant-garde that Kelly Grovier seems keen to celebrate is bizarrely akin, certainly in organizational terms, to the world of the great official Salons, dominant during the closing years of the 19th century. Did Bouguereau and Alma-Tadema define the art of their time? Yes, in a way that’s just what they did.


Reviewed by Edward Lucie-Smith

The Jackdaw, October 2013