Publication date: 2010
Published by: Other Criteria
248 x 190 mm
Hardback 160 pp
76 B&W illustrations
Section I • Out of the Void • Out with the Old In with the New • Christian Boltanski • Helen Chadwick • Prunella Clough • Edwina Leapman • Sean Scully • Rachel Howard • Tony Bevan
Section II • Ed Ruscha • Cindy Sherman • Paula Rego • Jock McFadyen • Francesco Clemente • Lucian Freud • Rebecca Horn • Jean Michel Basquist • Cathy De Monchaux • Panamarenko • Richard Billingham • Tacita Dean • Déserts • Boris Mikhailov • Gillian Ayres • Keith Tyson • Marc Quinn • Barnett Newman • Andres Serrano • Wolfgang Tillmans • Ian Hamilton Finlay • George Shaw • Boyle Family • Hiroshi Sugimoto • Hughie O'Donoghue • Raoul De Keyser • Jason Martin • Gabriel Orozco • David Nash • Thomas Joshua Cooper • Susan Hiller • Tracey Emin • Richard Serra • Howard Hodgkin • Dark Matter • Melik Ohanian • Gilbert and George • Andy Goldsworthy • Anthony Gormley • Francis Bacon • Juan Mañoz • Maria Lassnig • Shirazeh Houshiary • Cy Twombly • Mat Collishaw • Mark Rothko • Anselm Kiefer • Anthony Caro • Sam Taylor Wood • June and Loiuse Wilson • Annette Messager • Alice Neel • Diane Arbus • Richard Long • Sophie Calle/John Baldasseri • Turner Prize/Anish Kapoor • Eva Hesse • Miroslaw Balka • Philip Guston • Basil Beattie
'It's beautifully written and you'll find quotes and references that illuminate rather than weigh down her prose… her descriptive powers are peerless as she brings these works to life: the chapters on Rothko and Howard Hodgkin are particularly impressive.'
Metro June 2010
When poets take up prose, the results can be masterpieces of minimalism. One wonders how so many ideas got squeezed into so few words. Following in the footsteps of other poets who have turned their pens on the art world (Schjeldahl, Baudelaire, and O'Hara, to name a few) Sue Hubbard creates concise word portraits of art world figures that can say more in two pages than most writers on the subject can say in whole tomes. Her new book, Adventures in Art, collects 20 years of writing. Although many of the pieces, commissioned for British publications, are 10 years old or more, nothing about this book feels dated. Her observations stand the test of time.
This book is incredibly readable. Hubbard can use an expression like "not worth a hill of beans" in one paragraph, then have you racing to the dictionary the next. Because it is the nature of this book to collect snapshots in time rather than laying out a history of modern art, the sum of these essays is greater than their well-constructed parts. As she states in the introduction: "The process of looking involved in writing a poem, the long maturation, the editing, the elimination and constant reappraisal, is not so different from the techniques employed in making art." This book is deliciously engaging proof of that.
Skot Armstrong, Artillery Magazine, June 2010
This is a really insightful book! Sue Hubbard has been looking at contemporary and modern art for twenty years: her keen poet's eye leads her to perceive things not always evident to the rest of us. Most gratifyingly, she writes a pleasing, lucid prose which makes complex ideas accessible and leaves us enriched by the clarity of her values.
These essays tackle a swathe of all that has been happening in painting and sculpture over recent decades. Their range is truly impressive: from Christian Boltanski to Helen Chadwick, from Anselm Kiefer to Jane and Louise Wilson. Along the way, Hubbard's own taste and judgement has evolved, giving us a vivid sense of what these turbulent creative times have been like. Their cumulative effect is to indicate the direction modern art is taking, and help us grapple with its meaning.
Sue Hubbard's Adventures in Art fluently archives her very impressive twenty-year trajectory of critical writing within the art world, transporting us into a multiplicity of artists' lives and methodologies, and forming a portrait of contemporary art today. Nothing is left untouched or unconsidered.
These selected writings narrate her discovery of the meaning of art and provide a useful tool of understanding for readers.
Hans Ulrich Obrist
Her pages about Rothko are the best I've read about that extraordinary painter. She honours Sam Beckett as few others are able to do. We follow Sue Hubbard because she has the precision, the respect for words and pain, of a poet. We follow her because (as she writes in one of her poems) "What if… if one night swimming in the freezing water, you look down to find the bottom littered with stars".
Adventures in Art draws together 70 of Sue Hubbard's essays on contemporary and modern art and spans the last 20 years of her career. An award-winning poet, short story writer and novelist, as well as an experienced critic, Hubbard's collected essays are part biographical, part lyrical reviews of today's programme of modern art in Britain and provide an honest account of the diversities, originalities, and disappointments found there.
Thick with anecdotes and quotes from historians, artists and commentators, Hubbard's writing guides us through specific exhibitions as well as the creative lives of her subjects, and places the reader within a context replete with description and art historical value. Her knowledge is incisive and reflective and, in many retrospective cases, the essays read like modern obituaries. Without ever being didactic her writing explores the lives and contributions of artistic figures from Lucien Freud and Sam Taylor Wood, to Marc Quinn and Cy Twombly.
We cannot believe in art if we do not believe in some kind of unchanging attitude toward, or timeless standards of, what is beautiful, what is important and what is essential to life.
Sol le Witt
Art was born of a need to create magical-religious symbols and signs that allowed sense to be made of a threatening, fearsome world. In western art this evolved into a way of telling stories about the systems put in place to control and comfort those without the means of understanding and questioning those systems. For moderns, mindful of God's slow death, the point and purpose of art switched from glorification and didacticism to doubt and self-questioning, from technique and skill into the realm of dreams and self-expression. God was no longer in his heaven and all was, after two world wars, obviously not right with the world. As a result the point and purpose of art became more pluralistic and complex. Where once great religious paintings had been used as the focus of prayer or examples of splendour and wealth, art began to respond, at the beginning of the twentieth century, to those things that characterised modern society - industrialisation and technological change. With the proliferation of huge impersonal cities the individual felt lost and alienated. Speed, scientific innovation and doubt filled the now God-shaped void. By the middle of the last century art had turned inward. Uncomfortable with claiming any moral high ground in an increasingly uncertain and unstable world, it became emptied of ideology and talked largely of itself. As Susan Sontag wrote in 1965: "The most interesting and creative art of our time is not open to the generally educated; it demands special effort, it speaks a specialized language… The most interesting works of contemporary art are full of references to the history of the medium; so far as they comment on past art, they demand a knowledge of at least the recent past." The American critic Harold Rosenberg pointed out that contemporary paintings are as much acts of criticism as they are acts of creation. While art gurus such as Clement Greenberg demanded that art be stripped of any narrative potential, of any language or reference that strayed outside the boundaries of art. As there was no longer any consensus as to which story should be told, the only safe ground was that of formalism. With the final collapse of that last great utopian enterprise, Marxism, along with the failed protests of the French students in May 1968 and the ensuing death throes of socialism overseen by Thatcher, Regan and Blair, what was there left to believe in?
The poet Ezra Pound's credo to 'make it new' had been the battle cry of modernism. Newness was also to become the mantra of its younger sibling postmodernism. Notions of what could constitute art were drawn as much from popular culture and mass production as from 'high' art. Yet with this apparent process of democratisation, where old hierarchies were broken down, the culture of capitalism began to reduce art suggests John Berger, "to market commodities and to an advertisement for other commodities". "By becoming kitsch", Jean-François Lyotard wrote, "art panders to the confusion which reigns in the 'taste' of the patrons. Artists, gallery owners, critics and public wallow together in the 'anything goes', and the epoch is one of slackening. But this realism of the 'anything goes' is in fact that of money". No other artist exemplified this shift better than Andy Warhol with his appreciation of the market and the effects of cursory and, at times, transient fame. Art began to leave the confines of the museum and the gallery and take to the streets in the form of performance and happenings. Ever since the display of Duchamp's infamous urinal in 1917, the boundaries of art have been stretched to include anything an artist chooses to call art. While Duchamp's daring led to a vital re-evaluation, ultimately we have arrived at a position whereby if art can be anything and everything does it, any longer, amount to a hill of beans? In his lecture On the Nature of Abstraction given at the Rice University in Texas in 2000, Robert Irwin suggested that 'art' "has come to mean so many things that it doesn't mean anything any more". In the 1980s Baudrillard wrote: "Behind the whole convulsive movement of modern art lies a kind of inertia, something that can no longer transcend itself and has therefore turned in upon itself, merely repeating itself at a faster and faster rate."
The populist question But is it art? proffered by many when confronted with what Harold Rosenberg termed an 'anxious object' - such as Tracy Emin's My Bed or the Cuban artist Felix Gonzales-Torres installation at the Serpentine in 2000, where visitors were encouraged to help themselves to toffees strewn across the gallery floor - gets us nowhere. The only worthwhile question is whether a work is challenging, whether it reveals something that has not previously been understood, and whether it extends perceptual, sensual, intellectual and emotional understanding of what it means to be human. Judgements about contemporary art are never fixed but evolving and fluid. In Against Interpretation Susan Sontag wrote: "Real art has the capacity to make us nervous". Referring to Freud's phrase that all observable phenomena is manifest content, she argues that manifest content must be probed and pushed aside to find the latent content . The implication is that the true meaning of an art work is not instantly accessible but lurks beneath the surface to be excavated in the way an archaeologist might excavate the meaning of a found object. Acting as an aesthetic archaeologist has been central to my art writing career.
Yet the market's insatiable appetite for 'newness', for an artist to create hallmark 'brands' has meant that novelty and its cousin irony have become the dominant tropes of contemporary art overriding all other responses such as compassion, empathy and wonder. But novelty and outrage all too quickly revert to an à la mode form of academicism. Yesterday's shock becomes today's conservatism as in the scatological works of Gilbert and George or the penile faced dolls of Jake and Dinos Chapman. Like children thumbing their noses at restrictive and boring parents their main concern is épater le bourgeois. While the work of Goya (from whom the Chapman brothers often appropriate their imagery), Soutine or Bacon may be considered to be shocking by some, it is also raw, authentic and expresses something of the poignancy and the pity of what it means to live in a troubled Godless world. The existential nihilism of Giacometti or Beckett was bleak, but never cynical. It spoke of the impossibility of hope, whilst understanding that hope was a human imperative. In the last sentences of The Unnameable Beckett reveals this paradox at the centre of modernity with the words: "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on". This Sisyphusian circularity of the seemingly fruitless search for self, and the impotence felt at finding an appropriate language or a means of expression, is central to any meaningful contemporary artistic enterprise. The fragile choice must always be "to go on." Postmodern irony all too often leads us into a cul-de-sac, leaving no place to go other than staring solipsistically at our own endlessly repeated reflection in a hall of mirrors.
Making the decision about what to include and what to leave out of this book was extremely hard. In the end I chose work by artists who have been alive during the last fifty years, which reluctantly meant abandoning pieces on the likes of Munch and Freda Kahlo, Manet and Titian. Deciding on an order was equally difficult, as groupings such as 'painters' and 'installation artists', when so many work across a number of media, created strange bedfellows. Finally I divided the book's contents it into two sections. The first short section is made up of essays written largely for magazines and catalogues. These are not sequenced in order of first publication but organised to exemplify my main themes and concerns. Essentially these are to describe art that goes beyond the easy clichés of postmodernism and reaches towards meaning in an attempt to understand what it is we do not yet know.
The second section is mostly reviews which are arranged chronologically. Although I may not always completely agree with my younger self, what I have written reveals my growing sensibility to aesthetic issues. Shifts have occurred in my perception of art over twenty years though, basically, I still search for the same things. For if art is to have any purpose beyond entertainment or investment within our contemporary consumerist society it has to enhance our awareness of ourselves and the world we inhabit.
So what is the point of contemporary art? Well not necessarily to be beautiful (though it might be), for as Keats noted beauty and truth are synonymous. Rather, its role is to seek out, illuminate and grapple with what is authentic, what is difficult and real. As Albert Einstein said, "the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all fine art and science". Through an experience of art we can, if we choose, become in these anguished times, the best of ourselves: perceptive, aware, compassionate, but above all endlessly questioning.
Co. Kerry, August, 2009
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010
Images maybe subject to copyright