Kicking off 2023 with three books
19 January 2023
by Jasmina Trifoni
What can be defined as art? It’s an easy little question, to start this 2023 in an ambitious way, through three fundamental books. The first tells of a brilliant photographer, before whom (and just fifty years have passed) anyone who dared to associate color photography with art was looked down upon. In the second, a revered artist who became universally famous with his oil on canvas, creates art using the iPad. While in the third the world superstar of art criticism reveals vices and virtues – and diamonds and hoaxes – of the eccentric and fascinating planet (and relative market) of creativity. Enjoy the reading.
“They are mere observations floating in the sea of his consciousness… For me, they draw an empty space”. This was one of the comments – and not even the most ferocious – on William Eggleston‘s photographs contained in the letter written by Ansel Adams to John Szarkowski, the curator who had the audacity (or, with hindsight, the brilliant intuition) to to present, for the first time in the world and in the history of a prestigious museum institution, the personal exhibition of a photographer who used colour. While Walker Evans, another great master, albeit with the kindness of not quoting Eggleston directly, had gone even harder: “Colour tends to corrupt photography, and absolute color corrupts it in an absolute way”.
It was 1976, and that of William Eggleston’s revolutionary work at the MoMa in New York had won the record for the most hated exhibition of the year. But if until then color was relegated to the ghetto of commercial photography, Eggleston – born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee, from a wealthy family of cotton planters and trained as an autodidact studying on the books of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Evans himself – had marked a milestone: color photography had been recognized as an art form. And he would become the sacred monster who would have a decisive influence on subsequent generations, not only of his colleagues – two of all, Martin Parr and Nan Goldin – but also of directors of the caliber of David Lynch and Wim Wenders.
It is no coincidence – and it should be said – that under the sky of Berlin, at the beginning of 2023, Mystery of the Ordinary was published by Steidl Verlag, the definitive volume that recounts the fifty years of Eggleston’s formidable career by collecting both images that have become iconic (such as his Los Alamos series, and in general, the production in “his” suburbs of the South of the United States) and the less known or even unpublished shots of the series shot between 1981 and 1988 in the German capital. What brings them all together is his stylistic and conceptual code, where a penetrating and vivid color palette makes the apparent banality of everyday life poetic and extremely original, whether it is the shiny bonnet of a car, a half-finished breakfast, a a jam-packed freezer in desperate need of defrosting. Or again, in the fascinating mystery of the everyday life of men and women on the street, deliberately captured as they look away. Leaving the author (and the viewer) the curiosity to imagine their lives, at the very moment they happen.
A major exhibition at the C/O Berlin Gallery is also dedicated to William Eggleston, which can be visited until 28 May.
David Hockney is considered the greatest living British artist. In 2018, at a New York auction, his painting Forset of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) fetched a record $90.3 million, although it was “only” one of his many works that have for protagonists swimming pools and villas – such as the iconic A Bigger Splash (1967) – which are already in art history books and in the collective imagination as the symbol of the Californian way of life. In fact, at the ripe old age of 85, Hockney can afford to show up at a very formal lunch at Buckingham Palace with an impeccable Savile Row suit and a pair of yellow Crocs on his feet. And he still and always manages to create excitement in the art world (and lust among collectors) with his gimmicks. The latter is now within everyone’s reach, with the release of My Window (Taschen), the sensational and highly glossy volume in XL format that contains 120 paintings of the world that, day by day, is revealed from his bedroom window in his native Bridlington, in the English county of Yorkshire. Do they represent a reflection, still fresh and optimistic, on the inexorable passage of time? Or a lazy and old-fashioned form of painting, since he admits to creating them between the sheets, and moreover using only his thumb? Certainly there is also this, and they are forgiven, because they were made on the iPad, a far from obvious support for those of his generation.
After all, Hockney was one of the first artists to enthusiastically welcome new technologies, which he considers inescapable for an artist’s career, without feeling himself a prisoner of a single expressive technique. He had experimented with ‘camera painting’, creating collages of Polaroids and even using the Xerox copier, but it was the 2009 launch of that new Cupertino virtual palette that unleashed a creative furor in him. “I had bought the iPad in California, when it was not yet available on the European market,” says Hockney. ‘No one had ever seen one then, at least in Yorkshire.’ He is convinced that new technologies are able to give a new impetus to creativity, and that an artist’s mission is to show how to humanize them, using the thousand possibilities offered by digital. Even if he warns that technology is not enough: «The world is extraordinarily beautiful if you start to observe it, even from the perspective of a window. But most people don’t watch enough. Everyone looks in front of them, to know where they put their feet, but they don’t really observe what’s around, with intensity. I do it”.
That art (especially contemporary art) is a very snobbish magic circle for initiates and multimillionaires is a matter that – often and rightly – many complain. Even among professionals. But even among the latter there are very few who really want you to welcome a wider audience. Among them, and his is the fantastic exception that proves the rule, is Jerry Saltz.
Awarded the Pulitzer in 2018 for his critical texts (he is columinist of the New York Times), he is to the world of art criticism what Beyoncé is to pop music. If they happen to meet him at a vernissage or at a fair, anywhere in the world, everyone nudges each other, and tries to approach him with groupie trepidation. Saltz is also a social media star and on his very popular Instagram profile he posts intelligent selfies (although the statement may seem like an oxymoron) as well as pearls of his wisdom on every topic that crosses his mind: a few days ago he called Avatar the most ugly and racist of the century and Takashi Murakami an artist good at creating screensavers. For him, democratizing art and the way it is spoken and written about is a noble and just battle. He staunchly argues that art, all art, is a wonderful thing, but that it shouldn’t take two degrees to decipher it just “because its exquisite essence is hidden by an avalanche of… bullshit”.
Often shareable, sometimes disturbing but always “lateral” and highly enjoyable, Saltz-thought has been packaged in a formidable and fundamental book released at the end of 2022 for Penguin Books. It has a non-replicatable title, Art is Life, and a witty subtitle, Icons & Iconoclasts, Visinarie & Vigilantes, & Flashes of Hope in the Night. Collects articles, essays and interviews that the superstar critic has published in the last twenty years and offers acrobatic lessons in art history, from the age of prehistoric petroglyphs to Jeff Koons, passing through the marble statues of the classical age and Rodin , as well as for the great Renaissance masters, for Picasso and the photographs of Andreas Gursky. And Saltz would have betrayed Saltz, then, if he hadn’t placed arrows here and there towards museum institutions, auction houses, gallery owners, speculators and wannabes who populate his battlefield, all to compose what is a joyful and irreverent declaration of love towards all forms of art.