Life stories of artworks reveal plenty about their creators

Monday, December 5, 2016
Life stories of artworks reveal plenty about their creators

Perhaps it is because we do not fully understand art, that writers on the subject have such frequent recourse to accounts of encounters with the artists themselves. It is a genre as old as art history; so when Georgio Vasari chronicled the renaissance it was not painting by painting, but painter by painter.

Life stories of artworks reveal plenty about their creators

Perhaps it is because we do not fully understand art, that writers on the subject have such frequent recourse to accounts of encounters with the artists themselves. It is a genre as old as art history; so when Georgio Vasari chronicled the renaissance it was not painting by painting, but painter by painter. And in recent years one of the best books on art has been an update to Vasari’s Lives of the Artists: an encounter with 10 contemporary artists by Calvin Tomkins. Art is so unsettling, that perhaps we need the reassurance that Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman still live in a world of taxi cabs and paperwork.

My Life as a Work of Art makes a bold attempt to grapple with art itself and to create a Lives of the Artworks. But ultimately, since Tylevich and Eastham spend so much time with the creative forces behind their chosen pieces, meeting them and reflecting on their character, that we find out just as much about the artists as we do about their advertised work.

This is all to the good and makes for another highly engaging read. As a society our appetite for life stories is insatiable; we are obsessed by celeb autobiographies; reality television and video blogs. But as Vasari, Tomkins and Tylevich/Eastham demonstrate, meeting heroes on the page can be as rewarding and thought provoking as coming across their work in a gallery setting. Indeed, what My Life as a Work of Art also demonstrates is that coming across an art project in a well-written essay can be as rewarding as visiting an exhibition.

The works chosen for profile by the very able writers here range from the infamous (Martin Creed’s Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off) to the obscure (Barry McGee and his graffiti covered Sound Wall in San Francisco). In some cases the artists are more famous than the work (see the so called Dream House in rural Japan by performance art superstar Marina Abramović); while in others the artists have created a character whose profile eclipses their own (this refers to cartoon character AnnLee who has been bought from a Manga studio and given virtual life by the French artists Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe, plus a host of amateur fans).

"My life as a work of art", spread

And whether jumping the queue at Chisenhale Gallery in London (Eastham) or driving three hours from New York to North Egremont (Tylevich), the two authors divide the labour, share the number of chapters and give us enough personal detail along with the biography and chronology, to put the reader in their shoes and allow us to come across the work in its natural habitat: a feat that even the best curated show cannot yet manage. The result is studio visit, interview, review and gossip all rolled into a single package. Art may have changed beyond all recognition since the time of Vasari, but a simple formula for criticism remains as effective today as it was in 1550.

On top: "My life as a work of art", cover.

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Luc Tuymans, Flemish Village 1995.  Collection MuHKA, Antwerp

Luc Tuymans, Flemish Village 1995. Collection MuHKA, Antwerp

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