Wednesday, December 20, 2006

How to Learn to Stop Guessing and Love Contemporary Art

One of the most daunting challenges to collecting contemporary art is learning enough art history to distinguish between an important development and something derivative. There are literally hundreds of thousands of contemporary artists worldwide, and like it or not, those who get attention first for some fresh body of work, are the ones who get to stake claim to that development (even if they weren't the first to do it), so it's often not even simply a matter of spotting an important development in an artist's work, it's knowing whether someone else is already getting credit for it. But let's start with spotting one.

We could discuss ad nauseum all that's wrong with the "lust for the new," but today, prompted by a suggestion by the gallery's "guardian angel" I wanted instead to share a few ideas and open up the thread to others for how new collectors can best come up to speed on contemporary art history with particular emphasis on what the major important developments have been (if you can't see how doing so might benefit your own career as an artist, give it a few more moments...ahh...yes...OK, so now, chip in).

To start things off, I'd like to recommend three steps for grounding oneself in the basics of contemporary art and what got us here (and if you have suggestions, try to categorize them within one of these steps):

One: Get an overview of all of art history the fun and easy way: "Art History at a Glance"
Two: Spot a development: What exactly is a "development" in art and how do these play themselves out in the art market?
Three: Learn more at a doable pace: OK, so you've got the basics under your belt, how do you add depth without drowning?

    1. Of course if you only begin with contemporary art, you're gonna miss what's simply (as the Propellerheads termed it) "history repeating." So an overview of art history in general is your best starting place. Fortunately The Metropolitan Museum of Art has put a wonderfully accessible timeline on their website. With worldwide coverage, cultural and political contexts, and "Key Events" lists, it's a treasure trove of bite-sized information with really great images. Even if you know your art history well, you'll find this site fun and easy to navigate. [Thanks to SP for the reminder about this site!]
    2. But knowing art history isn't exactly the same as recognizing what developments are noteworthy in the art market. For a truly insightful look at how epiphanies in the studio have changed what's exhibited in the galleries (at least in the US during the 20th century), and therefore what can make for an exciting and historically important collection, I'd highly recommend the series of interviews with some of the nation's most influential art dealers: The Art Dealers, Revised & Expanded: The Powers Behind the Scene Tell How the Art World Really Works by Laura de Coppet. I've read this collection 5 times and recommend it to each beginning gallerist I meet. There's no reason collectors shouldn't also know "how the art world really works" as well.
    3. Finally, once you're well grounded and want some more indepth information, but aren't able to return to college for a degree in art history, I'd recommend another excellent collection, this time of essays: Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to Postmodernism. As with the Art Dealers book, the value of this collection is the overlapping of stories and players, permitting you to see the all-important transistions more clearly than if you studied invidividual movements on their own. Stopping at "Postmodernism," it won't highlight the important developments happening as we speak, but you'll see patterns that you can look for...telltale signs you can recognize today that the art world is restless and major changes are about to occur again.
    Other suggestions for resources for learning art history with an eye toward both limited time and becoming a better collector of contemporary art?


    Blogger Zeke's, the Montreal Art Gallery said...


    Umm, I might be stating the obvious, but go out and look at art. Reading is all fine and dandy, but it can't hold a candle to seeing art live.

    12/20/2006 12:36:00 PM  
    Blogger Edward_ said...

    totally, Zeke...there's no substitute for understanding art.

    But, what I might not have emphasized clearly is the desire for suggestions that understand how limited many collector's time is to come up to speed on art history, not to necessarily help them train their eye, per se, which is what getting out there and looking at art is most efficient at doing.

    12/20/2006 01:01:00 PM  
    Anonymous Henry said...

    Absolutely, reference materials can help contextualize art and let the person socialize with grander ideas. Not everyone has artist, gallerist or art-historian friends, and not everyone is exactly sure why something worth seeing, especially in a postmodern age where you're never quite sure what you're looking at in the first place. It took me a long, long, long time to understand and appreciate Jeff Koons.

    He's not my favorite artist, but I mention him because I appreciate what he's doing only after a lot of examination. I've only seen a small handful of Koons works in person, and that was only because I've been lucky enough to visit exhibitions in Dallas, Houston, Miami Beach, New York, Philly, London and Boston during the last decade. It's not like there's a Koons around every corner when you don't live in NYC or LA. It would have been impossible for me to establish a deeper knowledge about his type of contemporary art without availing myself of something beyond museum walls and airplane cabins.

    I could say the same thing about Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose work I've only seen in person twice. (And I have the candy to prove it! :-)

    12/20/2006 01:33:00 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Collectors should go to Artist-tube and browse the videos. Artists should orate and submit their videos in a manner which clearly idenitifies their current and/or historical importance... Finally, a good art-related use for video!

    12/20/2006 01:45:00 PM  
    Anonymous bnon said...

    I'd strongly suggest adhering to Ed's bibliography, but I'd advise anyone trying to get some perspective to be sure and hear a topflight (and articulate) artist talk about their work in person. It almost doesn't matter who it is as long as they're good! Understanding that the most complex artworks emerge from actual persons with actual personalities who devote their lives to making art can be intoxicating.

    12/20/2006 02:30:00 PM  
    Blogger Bill Gusky said...

    An understanding of art history is essential, particularly when collecting art that emerged from the art historical era.

    In our current post-art-historical era, are developments still really taking place -- developments in the sense of a continuity of progress of some sort?

    It appears more to me that trends emerge and recede but no true movements in the art historical sense seem to be rising into prominence. It's quite exciting -- makes you wonder how this will be viewed in fifty years.

    If that observation (which I've also heard from others) is correct, then the question I'd ask is what valuation would we substitute for the one that used the position of a piece within a progressive art historical continuity?

    Maybe that's one of those 'time will tell' questions.

    12/20/2006 02:47:00 PM  
    Anonymous pipin said...

    Helping collectors catch up on art history -- Firstly in a contemporary environment there is no history effectively / directly to follow. That's the point of this now contemporary scene it's a turn the page 'empty or full' in any direction. There are a myraid of trends that are local, and bigger that cross the international.
    Start local: Do as many studio visits as possible and talk to the artists there. Hang out with artists time to time. Schedule coffee at least once a week, a public low key place, a casual meeting place, anyone can turn up... ask artists who they would buy, ask them why they think so. Make sure your artist community has a mix of very different concerns. Get a spokesperson from each group to email links or jpegs of work they think is hot, galleries to see.

    That's how a collector I know learnt. He seems to be doing OK -- being now quite an authority and gets loads of respect.

    If a collector is relying on fairs then the safest way is to stick to reputable galleries. Supposedly they wouldn't be pushing derivative work, right Ed! That's the safest way.

    12/20/2006 06:18:00 PM  
    Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

    Err...I see no reasons to want to force a collector get to know his stuff. Be there or be square.

    Or invite me, let's go take a coffee and talk about art.

    I think it is better to address art at first and let history and knowledge spoil the experience little by little, as you get more and more information about what artists are doing.

    Basically, I think one can build their own sense of art history by going exhibit from exhibit and try to make sure they understand what the artists are doing right there.
    Read the PR, look in a dictionary (or wiki) when you miss a point.

    You'll be making stupid assumptions at first (and actually, we always make mistakes), but if you have a good memory or write down notes, you will sort of fill up the puzzle sooner or later.

    Also, visit a couple big museums, and get a sense of why some art is placed in the same room and what artists from a certain era did that was different from another.

    If you can manage to get a sense of what was going on during a certain historic era in other domains, I do believe that extra-aesthetic context can be helpful.
    For example, I find architecture has always had a strong influence on the types of visual arts that were attached to its evolution.

    But today art is so moving in every places that it is ahistorical. Any artist of any type can become big tomorrow, but that won't influence history ever as much as simply whining on blogs about art fairs. So just trust you nose and go for who you like. Even if you are boringly conventional, you'll find people on Artnet sitting at your side of the table. There's definitely place for everyone now methink.


    Cedric Caspesyan

    (PS: and the next important artist might not necessarely be an artist who cares about being collected so, expecting to find them in art fairs can be a vain experience, you're only seeing part of what's going on. Please be "aware".)

    12/20/2006 06:48:00 PM  
    Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

    By the way reading current art magazines can be very helpful.

    Authors love to show how much they know, and articles about new art often feature lengthy historical introductions.

    If you can find magazines that speak about art that you actually saw, that can be a great complement to the PR. You need to be reminded that PR and Statements (Press Release is curator's text, Statement is artist's text) exists to be critiqued. They are the "selling cards" of an artist, not the holy truth.

    If you ever read "important artist of his generation", be aware that this is merely convention. They are myriads of that.


    Cedric Caspesyan

    12/20/2006 07:02:00 PM  
    Blogger Marc Snyder said...

    It was really only the modernist true believers that emphasized the idea of progress in art, which could lead you to believe that a close inspection of what was going on around you could somehow allow you to deduce what the next big thing would be.

    Several folks have mentioned that in our "postmodern" age, where "anything" is possible, that a sense of history is no longer as useful a gauge to assess the new artwork you are studying.

    My guess is that in a century or two, certain trends common to art of this era will be very evident, and Art 101 students will memorize traits of postmodern 21st century art just as they memorize key features of baroque or early greek. . .

    Whether or not artists are buying in to a sense of progress in art that was tied to a lot of pretty strange modern thinking about the way art works, I do believe it's extremely useful to be as familiar as possible with art history, as it really is the language in which new art speaks. You can't know how unique someone's voice is until you have heard a lot of what has been said before.

    12/20/2006 09:19:00 PM  
    Anonymous pipin said...

    Of course I agree with you Mark. The fact is though how history ties it's next knot nobody knows. The most highest study of art and its developing history will conflict at every crossroad. Pollock is a safe bet, but not perhaps for Ed. who says he really doesn't think that Pollock warrants the position he holds currently in the vaults of history. That's a simple debate that has no answer until something shifts.
    I like pollock so I would do my best to oppose the Ed's repositioning of Pollock, for example. This is all theoretic, emotional, and really doesn't get you anywhere if what you really want to know--is the splash and spill stuff that's coming out of the hood real or fake, depending on Ed's view or my view or a group of artists' view--which would you take? All of them is the right answer. And this for someone new to the field is called information overload. Isn't it easier to go directly to the source and listen in on their takes. You'll get a living working driving feel, which is kind of a little more exciting, if you are serious about collecting and being a part of this whole art deal.

    History still gets written in by old men. Art for the new collector is usually about , youth, up-and-coming, and emerging, artists of many who don't really listen to the old men, and some who are working towards proving the old men wrong in the hope of a better feel and sense of history--I'm saying.

    Reading the books are fine as long as you know when you put that book down you are reading into the 'futures'. And as currents they move, pop, and reemerge, at lightning speed.

    Geez, I couldn't think of anything more invigorating than getting out there, learning, getting some return, punting, being part of a living history, instead of performing robotic to it.

    12/20/2006 10:02:00 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I found I am more interested and caught up in art history over art itself. When viewing a work I think of all the criticisms and theories I can conjure in my head relevant to the piece. It's ultimately the critic/writer/historian that re-creates the created art. One can't do without the other.

    12/20/2006 10:05:00 PM  
    Anonymous Elfte Stunde said...

    there is no abstract expressionism in the twenty-first century, but there are certainly conventions. and there are a lot of conventions. and because there's so much happening right now, we are forced to build our own versions of history because we can't possibly absorb and understand it all. it seems wasteful to focus our efforts on "catching up" instead of on developing a more sophisticated understanding of our own interests.

    the most efficient way to cultivate your own philosophy is by reading. know what is going on out there, a site like this is a tremendous resource. so is the ny times, artforum, the village voice, and the brooklyn rail, but don't waste your time learning everything about the new york correspondence school because you saw the ray johnson show. focus on work that is meaningful to you- you will learn faster if the content connects with you on a gut level. think of learning as a life-long pursuit, the material you gather today will begin steering you through the information of tomorrow.

    12/20/2006 11:09:00 PM  
    Anonymous pipin said...

    there is no abstract expressionism in the twenty-first century certainly fleet not in the rendition of your the 21-century, but with another name, a different process, a different more interesting take on the nature/abstract idea, mixing in some science--you don't know. Though what you do know is that you have declared something doesn't exist simply by locking art into a historical label. The fact is it does exist and is happening right now under your nose, which points to the merit of being out their and exploring a number of different communities instead of asphyxiating yourself on a road of books a mile high, regurgitating it back at the art booths.
    That's just one example: I could give another not too many are going to believe that is actually happening under your feet as we chat. But we'll save. We keep lofty:)

    What the 21 century has taught us is that art indeed can exist without theory, prices rise without theory, diversity exists without theory. this also points very clearly to a simple deduction that theory can not exist without itself. So who's on whose back?

    But generally Fleet I agree with you: your life, your pocket, your little bit of prosperity, better learn to navigate it--and make it work.

    12/21/2006 12:12:00 AM  
    Anonymous Captain said...

    I feel like I learn the most by attending a visiting lecture series that are put together by local museums and universities. They are generally a good introduction to a particular group within a historical context, and most speakers are glad to answer questions.

    I also have a bunch of general art history books for reference like Gombrich's The Story of Art which you can pick up used from nearly any bookstore.

    Now if only I had the money to buy what I really love...

    12/21/2006 12:20:00 AM  
    Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

    At the risk of sounding low-brow, I think it's possible for someone to learn a lot even if he/she doesn't have time for Serious Study. For example, you probably know the lyrics to every single Beatles song, not because you sat down and memorized them, but because they're in the environment, so you pick them up almost by osmosis. The same is possible with art.

    If you can't get to galleries or take classes, subscribe to a bunch of art magazines (or buy stacks of old ones at yard sales). Tear out pictures and put them on a bulletin board or the fridge, where you'll see them every day. Take art books out of the library and look at the pictures, even if you don't have time to read the texts. Carry a paperback art book in your bag for train rides and waiting in line -- or keep it next to the bathtup. It all adds up.

    I worked at the Museum of Natural History for several years, and though my main interest there was in tribal art, I learned a lot of science with no particular effort, just by being surrounded by it. How else would I know that the okapi is more closely related to the giraffe than the zebra?

    12/21/2006 01:54:00 AM  
    Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

    I don't think art history ended with pomo, I think it's a new century thing. I think now you can be a Vermeer and be popular, and no one will be surprised if you're put next to a Kapoor in a museum.

    As we spoke here before it's a horizontal thing now, not vertical.
    You ambulate in the world and stop at things you like while respecting the fact that other people enjoy the art that you don't. They are trends but they last only 5 years and they don't obnubilate on what's being done elsewhere.

    You could argue that we are now more open to contemp art from Orient but that also started pre-21st.

    People who do high-concept art nowadays usually re-hash stuff that was already done.

    If you insist on history go look at where technology is leading. You might be 200 years in advance.
    But to give technological art any preponderance in the artworld of today would be a big theoretical misunderstanding, if you don't at least assess the ongoing stories of arte povera or trad craft. Things in art of today exist to reply to each others and through an ongoing dialogue art has become much more about free expression than elevating one specific standard.

    When you see a piece of art these days you don't think as much of the piece that comes right after it
    (that "progresses" from it) more than you think about the piece that "cancels" it out. That provides its contrary proposition.

    That's the richness of living in 2006 that we're able to do that more and more easily. It just makes it harder for artists to stay focus on what they really want to do.


    Cedric Caspesyan

    12/21/2006 06:39:00 AM  
    Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

    Basically I'm saying that it took 40 years of pomo, and a couple important art trends in art (conceptual, installation, etc..)
    before we come to "really" accept that a contemporary Vermeer be put next to a Kapoor in a museum.

    I think people best expressed it here before, we are in the era of the casual - awesome !


    Cedric Caspesyan

    12/21/2006 06:48:00 AM  
    Blogger Bill Gusky said...

    Cedric said:

    I think it is better to address art at first and let history and knowledge spoil the experience little by little, as you get more and more information about what artists are doing.

    And I laughed because that's a funny way of saying something I believe as well.

    Art criticism in the 20th century got into the hands of philosophers who were responding from their own esoteric set of needs. Did this help bring the end of art's relevance to the culture at large? (ending relevance is something philosophers are skilled at). Maybe it was even a factor in ending art history.

    Ironically, it may well have ended the relevance of philosopher's art criticism, at least as applied to contemporary art. Art writers now seem to speak to contemporary work as it relates to historical work and historical philosophy, but I haven't read art criticism that seeks a new way to apply philosophy to what's happening in art.

    Kuspit's writing re: contemporary art from a couple years ago almost breathes the tang of resentment that this was the result -- almost advocates a return to an art historical era.

    12/21/2006 07:24:00 AM  
    Anonymous Bob said...

    I think the era we're in is'nt comprehensively understood. At least it seems that way when you read alot of art criticism. Which makes it hard for collectors. I think they can only hope to be in someones circle who has their finger on the pulse. Even a make shift knowledge of post 60s art and its social implications would help them. Just to give them a sense that they're not just investing in a commodity but preserving important social history.

    12/21/2006 07:39:00 AM  
    Anonymous pipin said...

    That's right Bill and Cedric, there is no outstanding armchair at the moment. Archiving a sentiment for a particular art history became an armchair affair post Greenberg because those on the front didn't last long enough. Dia-D is a vestige dammed sure that minimal and post-minimal will be remembered as a provocatively American intervention--despite all the cold war propaganda that surrounded the era. There is a gal working hard on this.
    Not many flow with Kuspit's armchair history, nor should they. He got his heyday wrong often enough, for those who witnessed or have a Library!
    Bob mentions social history. Art has always been a variant of the social not the prescriptive.
    Read Danto to really miss the eight ball--and bask in post-war negativity Christmas cake.

    Good luck--talk to your local artists--they are happy to talk to you.
    Make it a resolution! Make it a call!
    Loose those pounds, walk, climb the stairs, and enjoy life--Osmosis and okapi.
    Thanks Edward and Bambino for allowing me to encroach upon your space. I'm done!

    12/21/2006 08:37:00 AM  
    Blogger highlowbetween said...

    Ed- great suggestions. The other book that I know a lot of collectors are currently reading is "Collecting Contemporary" by Adam Lindeman. Haven't read it but it apparently addresses many of the concerns and "how to's" facing a new collector in this very aggressive buying climate.

    12/21/2006 11:57:00 AM  
    Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

    I just got Collecting Contemporary for Hannukah, and it's fabulous.

    12/21/2006 05:09:00 PM  
    Blogger highlowbetween said...

    I have to get that and YOUR book still !

    12/21/2006 05:19:00 PM  
    Anonymous Luke said...


    myartspace>Student Blog & Forums”

    12/23/2006 04:22:00 PM  

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