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Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock

by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik Princeton University Press
Pub Date:
Hbk 320 pages
AU$129.00 NZ$135.65
Product Status: Out of stock. Not available to order.
The Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division (PSP) of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) has awarded its 2006 PSP Awards for Excellence in the Arts and Art History category to Kirk Varnedoe for ''Pictures of Nothing''.

'What is abstract art good for? What's the use-for us as individuals, or for any society-of pictures of nothing, of paintings and sculptures or prints or drawings that do not seem to show anything except themselves?'

In this invigorating account of abstract art since Jackson Pollock, eminent art historian Kirk Varnedoe, the former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, asks these and other questions as he frankly confronts the uncertainties we may have about the nonrepresentational art produced in the last five decades.

He makes a compelling argument for its history and value, much as E. H. Gombrich tackled representation fifty years ago in Art and Illusion, another landmark A. W. Mellon Lectures volume. Realizing that these lectures might be his final work, Varnedoe conceived of them as a statement of his faith in modern art and the culminating example of his lucidly pragmatic and philosophical approach to art history. He delivered the lectures, edited and reproduced here with their illustrations, to overflowing crowds at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in the spring of 2003, just months before his death.

With brilliance, passion, and humor, Varnedoe addresses the skeptical attitudes and misunderstandings that we often bring to our experience of abstract art. Resisting grand generalizations, he makes a deliberate and scholarly case for abstraction-showing us that more than just pure looking is necessary to understand the self-made symbolic language of abstract art. Proceeding decade by decade, he brings alive the history and biography that inform the art while also challenging the received wisdom about distinctions between abstraction and representation, modernism and postmodernism, and minimalism and pop. The result is a fascinating and ultimately moving tour of a half century of abstract art, concluding with an unforgettable description of one of Varnedoe's favorite works. Includes 132 colour plates. 129 halftones. 3 b&w illustrations.

Foreword by Earl A. Powell III vii

Preface by Adam Gopnik ix

Note to the Reader by Judy Metro xvii

Chapter 1: Why Abstract Art? 1

Chapter 2: Survivals and Fresh Starts 47

Chapter 3: Minimalism 91

Chapter 4: After Minimalism 145

Chapter 5: Satire, Irony, and Abstract Art 191

Chapter 6: Abstract Art Now 239

Acknowledgments 275

Index 277

Photography and Copyright Credits 287

Varnedoe was an especially distinguished and influential curator and interpreter of modern art, and this book, in effect, is his last testament. It is in the analysis of specific works of art or bodies of work by a specific artist that Varnedoe shines, reflecting his long career of intimate study of art objects. He is commenting on some of the most challenging of artists, the likes of Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, and other innovators in abstraction of various kinds. There are some truly refreshing moments where Varnedoe has the courage of his convictions and explains why one artist of merit should receive more of our attention than another artist of merit-in effect, distinguishing between greater and lesser merit, rather than just good or bad. Richard Shiff, University of Texas With the publication of Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe, we have a welcome reminder of the high esteem that abstract art came to enjoy in its heyday. . . . Pictures of Nothing, based on a series of lectures that Mr. Varnedoe gave at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, is a book that everyone with a serious interest in modern art will want to read, and it has the additional merit of being well-written and excellently illustrated. Hilton Kramer Wall Street Journal Pictures of Nothing the transcribed text of one-time MoMA chief curator Kurt Varnedoe's final lectures. . . . he talks are not just for Varnedoe completists--they tackle the question 'What is abstract art good for?' and constitute the charismatic scholar's final word on the subject. Your favorite realist's eyes might suddenly pop open after reading Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe. . . . The art historian . . . is a clear-eyed, eloquently plain-spoken, unfaltering guide through the thickets of drip painting, minimalism, and more. Why abstraction? Look here for an answer. Nancy Tousley Calgary Herald The knowledge that this would be Varnedoe's last public appearance brought a plainspoken urgency to the lectures that's carried over to this transcribed and edited text. Peter Goddard Toronto Star Varnedoe's enthusiastic insights fill the pages. Through his descriptions, bare, arbitrary or seemingly interchangeable works start to bristle with distinctiveness. . . . His vision of America's abstract half-century in Pictures of Nothing is . . . eclectic and embracing. Edmund Fawcett RA Magazine lectures are remarkably fresh and conversational--not only because Varnedoe did not have a chance to edit and revise them, but also because he gave these lectures, as he did every other lecture, entirely from memory. . . . Varnedoe's lectures reveal the positive role of abstract art in modern cultural life. . . . Varnedoe insists; abstract art is difficult, it takes practice to understand, and if it is governed by rules that appear arbitrary, that only makes it like every other cultural practice. Daniel A. Siedell Christian Today Kirk Varnedoe's book . . . confronts the central question of modernism: How are people supposed to understand pictures that appear to be self-referential? Philadelphia Inquirer Readable and elucidated by well-chosen examples that help illustrate changing trends in a fast-paced time. Globe and Mail Kirk Varneode begins by pointing out that the development of abstract art coincided with the cataclysm of World War I, which jarred artists into revolutionary forms. . . . extraordinary series of lectures. Sheila Farr Seattle Times Elegiac, in the truest sense of the term: It is the pensive summation of a career undertaken by a man in the last stages of a devastating illness, and it is, too, the posthumous reckoning of his words by his closest friends. . . . his book is a remarkable trace of its author. . . . He wanted to insist that any art worth looking at had, at least, many stories to tell. Aruna D'Souza Bookforum Pictures of Nothing examines how, while names like Pollock, Mondrian and de Kooning are immediately recognized for their significance in modern culture, the importance of depicting squares or splattered paint is not as widely understood. With humor and candor, Varnedoe illuminates the meaning behind nonrepresentational works of the past 50 years--the contradictory intentions of Josef Albers's and Carl Andre's shared geometry or the minute artistic details of Robert Smithson's massive Spiral Jetty. Museum News An eminently readable, deeply insightful book. Christopher Knight Los Angeles Times Varnedoe is a pragmatist. To those who would say that abstract art is a classic case of the emperor's new clothes, he simply says that it has been around for more than a century and that is proof enough of its efficacy. What he wants is not to validate what artists have been doing all this time but, rather, to find cogent ways of talking about it and, hence, a deeper understanding. . . . What this wonderful book shows is that although the original motivations behind abstract art were puritanical, crypto-religious or collectivist, it has flourished as a series of secular, diverse, individualistic, private visions. Society thrives, Varnedoe bravely suggests, when it gives free play to these visions, even those that initially seem absurd, banal or hermetic. Sebastian Smee The Australian A provocative defense of modern abstraction. . . . Varnedoe's analysis of abstraction, using specific works, helps make sense of various approaches to non-representational art. Edward J. Sozanski Journal Sentinel Online Expressed in vivid, accessible, and often passionate language. Varnedoe . . . speaks as a teacher. Arthur C. Danto ArtNews This is an important time capsule of cultural history, grappling with 60-plus-years' history of abstract art's legacies. . . . his book captures the cadence, energy, and verve characteristic of Varnedoe's immensely effective lectures. . . . Erudite in all the best ways, this book is also deeply human, born of love for the experience of art. . . . Highly recommended. Choice
Kirk Varnedoe (1946-2003) was Professor of Art History at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton from 2001 until his death. From 1989 to 2001 he was chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For many years he taught at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. His many books and exhibition catalogues include A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern and, with Adam Gopnik, High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture.