November 01, 2012


What Are You Looking At? The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art. By Will Gompertz. Dutton. $28.95.

Noah Webster & His Words. By Jeri Chase Ferris. Illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

      You know that Will Gompertz’ book is going to be unlike any other study of modern art even before you get to the first page. The inside front cover and its facing page display a map of London’s Underground subway system, with the station names replaced by those of artists (from Seurat, Gauguin and van Gogh on the far left to Al Weiwei and Banksy on the far right), and the names of larger stations and junctions bear those of movements within modern art (Primitivism, Suprematism, Conceptualism, Fluxism, Postmodernism and so on). This is more than a funny and clever design: it really is a road map to the ways in which Gompertz sees art and artists connecting over the past century and a half. And the genesis of this book is highly unusual: yes, Gompertz has appropriate art credentials, having served as a director of London’s Tate Gallery for seven years and currently holding the position of BBC Arts Editor. But much of the book reads like an extended bit of standup comedy, because that is how he created it – by taking a course in standup comedy and applying its lessons to art instruction. This is about as far from the standard, hyper-pompous approach to art as it is possible to get (thank goodness). 

      Make no mistake: Gompertz gets the art information right from start to finish. For example, discussing the colors that Impressionists used, he comments, “Today they look unremarkable, almost muted, in our high-definition world of television and cinema, but back in the nineteenth century they were as startling as a hot summer in England.”  (Notice the slight comedic turn at the end there – typical of Gompertz’ writing.)  Certainly there is erudition aplenty here, as when Gompertz discusses one’s first encounter with an actual painting by van Gogh: “It’s like the first time you hear the Berlin Philharmonic play or visit Rio during the Carnival: another dimension is added by being in the presence of a great life force. Such entities can only be truly experienced unmediated: you have to be there. With the Berlin Philharmonic, it’s the depth of the sound that hits you, while Rio’s energy is its irreproducible factor; and with van Gogh it is the object. Because many of van Gogh’s great paintings are not simply pictures, they’re more like sculptures.” Gompertz takes his considerable knowledge and perception all the way through the 20th century and into the 21st. “There’s something of the satellite orbiting the earth in the way the incongruous Corner Counter-Reliefs [by Vladimir Tatlin] hang in the air,” he writes. And: “Buying Full Fathom Five [by Jackson Pollock] would have been like investing in Google when it was still in start-up mode. One hundred and fifty bucks for a Pollock original drip painting? They now fetch north of $140 million. How did that happen?” Actually, Gompertz tries to show how that, and many other changes in art and in perception and valuation of art, happened, up to and including its current extreme commercialization.  He tries to be as fair in evaluating today’s shock-oriented artists as in discussing those of the 19th century. For example, “A lot of people knock Tracey Emin [who, among other things, stitched the names of all her past lovers on a tent and called it art], say she is a fraud. History will judge the quality of her art, but she is not a fraud. …[S]he unquestionably deserves to be judged as a bone fide artist and not a con artist.”  Gompertz’ own judgments, especially on modern and highly controversial artists and art works, may well be at odds with those of many readers – in fact, some Tate Gallery exhibitions in recent years have been met with as much scorn as appreciation – but there is no doubt that Gompertz knows his stuff and has found a highly entertaining, exceptionally accessible way to transmit that knowledge to anyone interested in receiving it. So, What Are You Looking At? In the case of this book, if not always the case of the art it discusses, you are looking at something highly involving and thoroughly fascinating.

      Noah Webster & His Words, aimed at young readers rather than adults, is about the famous American dictionary creator and of course is about writing rather than painting or sculpture. And it is, in its own way, quite marvelous. Jeri Chase Ferris interweaves the story of Webster with that of the early days of the United States as an independent country, showing how Webster was instrumental in carrying newfound American culture throughout the new nation. Ferris deliberately sprinkles “dictionary words” throughout the text, then promptly defines them: “This would U-NITE [verb: make one] the new United States.”  And she manages to show some ways in which nascent American publishing was not all that different from today’s, as when she mentions that after Webster’s third book was published in 1785, “The printers were getting rich. Noah was not.” Vincent X. Kirsch’s illustrations ensure that Noah Webster & His Words never becomes dry or academic: his people are caricatures (Webster with his huge head and pencil neck, a group of seven readers with eyes popping out and big smiles as they examine a single copy of a Webster book); and some of his ink, watercolor and graphite illustrations are really inspired, such as one showing a ship bearing Noah and his son William to Europe as afloat on a sea of words. Webster’s basic desire is clearly explained: “Noah’s dictionary would be 100 percent American – the first American dictionary!” The dictionary was not published until Webster was 70 years old, in 1828, but its influence – as Ferris writes and Kirsch shows – was enormous, and remains so: “Noah’s dictionary is the second most popular book ever printed in English, after the Bible.”  A loving and beautifully presented book, Noah Webster & His Words is a wonderful introduction to writing and to the notion of words as uniters of people – a tribute that both informs and delights.

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