100 works of art that will define our age, by Kelly Grovier

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Ed. Thames and Hudson, 2013. Hard cover. Size 28 x 23,5 cm. Includes more than 100 reproductions in color and black and white. State: Used, excellent. 320 pages

By Helly Grovier

On 19 September 1889, Vincent Van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother Theo in which he reflected on a group of some nine paintings he had recently completed. ‘In all this batch’, Van Gogh wrote, ‘I think nothing at all good save the field of wheat, the mountain, the orchard, the olives with the blue hills and the portrait and the entrance to the quarry’. ‘The rest’, he confessed, ‘says nothing to me, because it lacks individual intention and feeling in the lines’. Among the works that the painter was convinced were failures was a swirling study of the evening sky that would come to be known as The Starry Night.

It is difficult now from our contemporary vantage to concur with ajudgment that could dismiss such an emotionally intense visual statement as lacking ‘individual intention’, let alone ‘feeling in the lines’. For many critics and casual admirers alike, The Starry Night is the work that captures most stirringly not only Van gogh’s volatile imagination but also the creative volatility of his age. Addled by depression, the artist was incapable of comprehending the scale of his achievement. Nor was this a momentary lapse of aesthetic judgment or passing flash of artistic modesty. Two months after writing to Theo, he was still berating his work in a letter to the painter Emile Bernard, haranguing himself fof ‘be(ing) led astray into reaching for stars that are too big -another failure- and I have had my fill of that’.

Every age is defined by the art it inspires. It is as impossible to think of the aspirations of the High Renaissance and not conjure the contrapuntal pose of Michelangelo’s David (1501-4), as it is to reflect on the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War without calling to mind the brutal distortions of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) or to muse on the tempestuous temperament of the late nineteenth century without summoning the turbulence of The Starry Night. For in every era, an elite group of works succeeds in transcending the tethers of history, the ephemeral intrigues of politics and the intimate entanglements of the artist’s personal life, while at the same time capturing the essence of the generation that generated it. It is that elusive ability to look forwards and backwards in time that arguably defines ‘masterpiece’.

So what of our own era? What are the works of art whose voices will still be discernible over the clamour of cultural expression years, decades and even centuries from now? Drawing attention to the vision, skill and passion of a wide range of artists from every corner of the world, the present book dares to nominate one hundred works of contemporary art -whether paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, tapestries, installations, performances, multimedia pieces or video- that have earned the nod of history and have the creative propulsion to endure.

If undertaken even fifty years ago, a volume with similar ambitions would have found itself negotiating a morass of emerging and declining movements. The challenge then would have been to select the most telling exemplars of distinct schools, from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism, Op Art to Pop Art. Though a number of new schools have gained prominence in the past twenty-five years, designations such as Internet Art or Virtual Art tend to indicate a preference for one medium over another rather than demonstrate allegiance to any agreed principles. Equally, none utterly supersedes another in the way we of ten oversimplify the
domino of movements in the unfolding of art history: Mannerism toppling into Baroque, Romanticism into Realism, Expressionism into Abstract Expressionism…This apparent lawlessness of aesthetic purpose led one critic, the venerable intellectual Arthur Danto, to declare in the mid 1980s that we were in fact approaching ‘the end of art’ – by which he meant not the end of remarkable artistic expression or the creation of great works, but the end of dominance by any one school, geographic centre or ideology. Successive eras of ‘imitation’ and ‘ideology’ had finally given way, he wrote, to a ‘post-historical’ age -a beginning after the end- a free-for-all of substance and style in which ‘anything goes’. The art of the now constituted ‘the final moment in the master narrative…the end of the story’. Political philosopher Francis Fukuyama corroborated Danto’s conclusion several years later with his own provocative assertion that mankind had reached ‘the end of history’ – that the acceleration of democracy around the
globe, following the collapse of Soviet communism, marked the final chapter in the teleology of ideological struggle.

Whether or not these post-Hegelian prognostications will be proven right down the unfit corridors of the future is anyone’s guess. It is, however, against these assessments that this book seeks to identify the artistic achievements that have managed so far to remain afloat amid the remarkable storms of our unsettled era: from the fall of the Berlin Wall and unrest in Tiananmen Square to the traumas of September 11, 2001, and the blossoming of the Arab Spring; from the surging markets of the 1990s to the economic calamities of the global financial crash in 2008 and the teetering of Europe’s single currency in a climate of stringent austerity and alarming social turmoil. The individual works selected here have been chosen for their ability to resonate as metaphors of our time and for their durability in crystallizing reflections on where the story of art has thus far reached and where it may lead
from here.

The intention behind the discussions accompanying each work is to explore its wider possibilities, emotionally and poetically, rather than to offer a purely objective gloss on how the work in question was conceived and constructed or how it fits into the career or vision of the artist who created it. The aim is not merely to learn about the works but from them -to explore them for what they can reveal to us about ourselves, our age and the meaning of art today. Not every work is equally admired. In certain instances a piece may be found wanting on aesthetic or even moral grounds but is nevertheless recognized for its capacity to articulate something fundamental about the era and its artistic sensibilities. Taken together, these one hundred artworks expose an astonishing range of contemporary preoccupation. Those that may seem flippant or glib on their surface, such as Jeff Koons’s enormous topiary sculpture, Puppy (1992), or Monica Bonvicini’s mischievously mirrored public toilet, Don’t Miss a Sec (2003), confess surprising allegiances to forgotten political pasts when closely interrogated.

Every work included here is discovered to have an unexpected secret life that informs its effect from well below its surface. For many of the pieces this secret life expresses itself in dialogue with works from earlier eras. It is not, of course, unusual to discuss how a particular artist may have been influenced by an earlier imagination, or to demonstrate in what ways a given painting or sculpture echoes the works that came before it. But this is a book about the power of individual creations to communicate with one another across time, not about the creative intentions of notable craftsmen. Identifying allusions to past masters can only take us so far in our appreciation of a work’s enduring achievement. Our task is at once broader and bolder: to anticipate the resonance of a work forward in time, into the unknown of history’s unfolding, while also looking backwards to an ‘ideal order’ of definitive works that have transcended the vicissitudes of the ages that provoked them. ‘What happens when a new work of art is
created’, T. S. Eliot wrote in 1919,

“is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal
order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them…the
whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work
of art toward the whole are readjusted…”

The works that define an era are not, that is to say, merely those thought likely to influence the as yet inconceivable art of the future, but those that have the power to alter, ‘if ever so slightly’, works of the past – and, therefore, our understanding of them. ‘What we call the beginning’, Eliot later says in his poem ‘Little bidding’ (1942), ‘is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning / The end is where we staff from’. The end from which we make our start is forever shifting forward. As Rembrandt’s dusky chiaroscuro of the seventeenth century altered cultural appreciation of Da Vinci’s spiritualizing sfumato of two centuries earlier, so Rothko’s etherealizing veils of the twentieth century cast the visions of both Old Masters in a new light.

To measure this elastic relationship between works, take the following example from our selection. While commentators on the canvases of British portraitist Jenny Saville frequently emphasize her awareness of, and indebtedness to, the Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens, and in particular his choreography of the female form, influence is not a river that flows in only one direction. Saville’s nude self portrait Propped (1992) similarly induces nascent meaning in another work (though perhaps unexpectedly in a predecessor, not successor): the fifteenth-century Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434). In Seville’s canvas, Van Eyck’s pioneering distortions of perspective. as experimented with in the convex shapes reflecting back from the bulbous mirror bolted to the back wall of his interior, have swelled, centuries later, into overwhelming prominence. In a ricochet of mounting significance, the later work reflects tellingly back on the earlier one, complicating Van Eyck’s vision. Propped introduces into the otherwise static art historical debate over the physical condition of the woman at the forefront of The Arnolfini Portrait -whether or not she is pregnant- layers of psychological anxiety about the shape of the female body and society’s perception of it. Saville’s canvas thus contemporizes Van Eyck’s, synchronizing the two to an eternal present.

‘Nor is it properly said’, Augustine explains in Confessions, outlining an understanding of time that accommodates the
order proposed here, ‘there be three times: past, present and to come’; yet perchance it might be properly said ‘there be three times: a present of things past. a present of things present, and a present of things to come’. Great art never finishes. It forever participates in the ceaseless becoming of human expression in ways that far exceed the creative intentions of the artist who made it. Van Eyck’s work, one could say, ultimately relies on Saville’s for its ever evolving significance just as the first word of a sentence relies on the last.

Thus the grammar of art is cumulative, building syllable by syllable, work by work, and the sentence never ends. In the mystical space of Eliot’s ‘ideal order’, like an endlessly erased and rewritten enunciation, the meanings of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Portrait of Dr Cachet (1890) are likewise modified, as we will see, by Anselm Kiefer’s Die berühmten Orden der Nacht (The Renowned Orders of the Night, 1997) and Mark Alexander’s The Blacker Gachet series (2005-6). No less compellingly, Gabriel Orozco’s stencilled skull, Black Kites (1997), alters the significance of Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassacrors (1533), while Grayson Perry’s tapestry #Lamentation from The Vanity of Small Differences (2012) unweaves the values of Rogier van der Weyden’s celebrated The Lamentation of Christ (c. 1460-64). In each case, the earlier work is transformed in the light of the new work, thereby revealing how great art defines its age most
by providing greater, though never complete, definition to the entire sweep of cultural history. In the context of truly
remarkable art (‘the really new’, as Eliot says), the most static of art is never static at all but respires with an intensity that
invigorates the works that came before it and those that will come after it.

Nor is this synergy of old and new one that exists merely between works of visual art. In order to demonstrate the resonance of a given work in social imagination, frequent reference is made in the entries that follow not only to the vivid creative expressions of Old Masters, but also to salient works by philosophers, poets, novelists, eccentric travellers, forgotten inventors, film directors, composers and the coiners of words. Just as John Currin’s double portrait The Pink Tree (1999) is shown to repaint Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Venus (1532), Sean Scully’s Doric series (2008-) re-sculpts the language of the third-century dualist Plotinus, and Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds (2010) recomposes the granular complexities of the ancient conundrum the Sorites Paradox.

The secret lives of the works selected here articulate themselves through an astounding array of visual accents involving a range of media and technique without obvious parallel in the history of creative expression. While the traditional genres of painting, drawing, textile and sculpture continue to inspire innovative practitioners (notwithstanding the mournful cry one occasionally hears, lamenting that the first of these has yet again died a death) and are well represented in the ensuing pages of this volume, it is the sensational rise to at least equal prominence of installation, performance, environmental, urban, digital and video art that is especially thrilling to record.

Thrilling too is the sheer scale to which the contemporary artistic imagination has become accustomed to working. Nearly one third of the works featured here either exceeds the dimensions of a traditional gallery or consumes such spaces completely. Whatever else the art of the now is, it’s big and getting bigger. Unsurprisingly, few venues can adequately accommodate this growing gigantism of expression, while institutions that can, such as Tate Modern with its titanic Turbine Hall (over five storeys in height and 152 metres long) and the sprawling pavilions of the Venice Biennale, inevitably nominate themselves as chief incubators of overpowering
installations. If there is something slightly disproportionate about the number of works included here that are connected with these venues, such disproportion mirrors the role these institutions have come to serve in showcasing physically oversized works. In several instances, pieces commissioned as contributions to Tate Modern’s celebrated Unilever Series, which dominated the cubic acreage of the Turbine Hall for thirteen years between 2000 and 2012, dramatically rose to the occasion, both physically as well as critically. To have excluded Louise Bourgeois’s Maman (1999), Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (2003) or Miroslaw Balka’s How it is (2009) in order to avoid including too many works associated with a single exhibition space would have been to introduce an arbitrary criterion of selection. These are works that define our age irrespective of where they once stood.

Collectively, the works represented reflect remarkable shifts both ih the materials from which art is made (and in the scale to which art has grown), as well as in who is making it. This book takes 1989 as its starting point – the end point of Robert Hughes’s celebrated survey of modern art, The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change, published in 1991. That landmark overview featured some 269 illustrations of works, but only eight by female artists (or less than three per cent). In contrast, approximately one third of the present study is devoted to works created by women. The leap in proportion is neither a rebuke to Hughes’s criteria nor an exercise in politically correct tokenism, but in accord with the true state of creative achievement today, despite the fact that such achievement is not always adequately reflected in the share of recognition, blockbuster shows or major awards.

That Van Gogh was unable to appreciate or predict the enduring awe that The Starry Night would arouse tells us more than how difficult it is to speculate about the probable survival in social consciousness of any given painting or sculpture,
installation or film. His masterpiece is also a metaphor for the improbable resonance of any work of art, whose fragile wavelengths of emotional vibrancy jostle for regard amid the galactic output of innumerable nameless creators. Yet, this book begins with the conviction that some works burn brighter and exert a greater pull on the fabric of artistic expression that flows towards and stretches away from them.