A.S. Byatt; David Bowie Writers on Artists

ISBN 13: 9780789480354

Writers on Artists

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9780789480354: Writers on Artists

Featuring 50 of the century's greatest artists, Writers on Artist brings together the best and brightest of the art and literary worlds. Covering the gamut of modern art the collection includes essays by David Bowie on Tracey Emin, A.S. Byatt on Patrick Heron, David Hockney on Picasso, Sister Wendy Beckett on Salvador Dali, and Julian Barnes on Edgar Degas. This stimulating anthology features rare interviews and over 350 stunning full-color reproductions of many rarely seen works.

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Review:

From the pages of the British art magazine Modern Painter comes Writers on Artists, an immensely readable collection of works written on a wide selection of artists. Included visual artists range from legends like Matisse and Brancusi to contemporary firebrands like Damien Hirst and filmmaker Harmony Korine. The writers are other artists, art critics, fiction writers, and poets, all deeply moved by and invested in the artwork they've written about. Author Nick Hornby of High Fidelity fame finds inspiration in Richard Bellingham's tragic but unsentimental photographic portraits of his alcoholic father and overweight mother. In dramatic contrast, op artist Bridget Riley traces the artistic development of Piet Mondrian while praising his vivid use of color. Not surprisingly, each writer approaches art and writing very differently. British poet laureate Andrew Motion writes a poem about the work of hyperrealist American sculptor Duane Hanson, while art lover and musician David Bowie records an interview and spends a day with bad-girl British sensation Tracey Emin. Each section includes brief bios on both artist and writer. With topnotch artwork and great writers, this book is a joy for any art aficionado. --J.P. Cohen

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Richard Billingham By Nick Hornby However enthusiastic you felt about Charles Saatchi s traveling exhibition "Sensation," much of it was unlikely to detain you for long. I don't mean that in any pejorative sense, or at least, I don't think I do: presumably there are critics who would argue that any successful work of art should provoke at least a break in a gallery visitor's stride, and that therefore works such as Sarah Lucas's Au naturel (the one with the dirty mattress, and his'n'hers melons, bucket, banana, and oranges) are comprehensive failures. You see it coming, as it were, from the other side of the room; you snort -- with existential and aesthetic despair, if you are Brian Sewell, or with amusement, if you are a normal person -- and you move on. I don't have a problem with that. For a few seconds I loved Au naturel, which means that I loved it more than I have loved other works that demanded much more of me and turned out not to repay the effort. Even if they do nothing else -- although actually they do plenty else -- the photographs of Richard Billingham do detain you. You might not want to be detained; you might think, when you see his pictures of his battered, bewildered, distressed, and alcoholic father Raymond, and of Elizabeth, his enormous, tattooed mother, that you'd rather wander off and look at something funnier, or more beautiful, or less real (and despite the proliferation of blood and pudenda and intestines elsewhere in "Sensation," nobody could describe the show as sober). But you can't. Wandering off is simply not an option, not if you have any curiosity at all: there is too much to think about, too much going on, too much narrative. The first thing to think about is the rights and wrongs of these pictures, because anyone who has ever had parents of any kind, let alone parents like Billingham's, would wonder whether it were possible to justify snapping their moments of distress and plastering them all over the walls of the Royal Academy. You could argue that Billingham is unfortunate that he is a photographer: the immediacy of his medium seems to expose people in a way that writing never can. Tobias Woolf, Mary Karr, Blake Morrison, Tim Lott, and Katherine Harrison, among many others, have all displayed and analyzed their parents' crises and failings in recent years, but prose mediates and transforms, creates a distance even while trying to tell you things about a character's innermost soul. It's only writing, in other words, whereas photography is real life. But of course that is one of the tricks Billingham plays on you, because part of his art is to strip distances away, to convince you that this is life unmediated -- an artistic device in itself. Spend enough time with these pictures and eventually you realize that their complexity and empathy answers any of the questions you might ask of them and their creator: there's nothing exploitative going on here. Empathy is not to be confused with sentimentality, however: whatever else it is, Billingham's work is not sentimental. One of the most striking photographs in the "Sensation" exhibition shows Raymond sitting on the floor by the lavatory, his eyes cast down so that he seems to be in a state of philosophical and weary self-acceptance. His fly is undone, the soles of his sneakers are facing the lens; the toilet seat is broken, and some indistinct bodily waste -- puke? blood? -- is trickling down the outside of the bowl. It was never going to be a pretty picture, but Billingham's pitiless, neutral gaze doesn't overweight it, and consequently it is allowed to take its place in the ongoing narrative of his parents' life together. It takes some talent, and some nerve, to be able to do this, and it is Billingham's impeccable judgement that impresses one first of all. It would have been easy for the artist to let these pictures become self-pitying- what sort of childhood and young adulthood is possible in this domestic climate? -- but they are not: there is too much tolerance. Nor are they angry, hectoring, or loud. Even the pictures depicting violence, a violence born, presumably, out of alcohol and despair, don't succeed in turning the collection into a campaign about this or a plea to the government for that. It is hard to be definitive about how Billingham pulls this off, but his insistence on giving Raymond and Elizabeth, his two leads, equal attention is certainly wise, because then these pictures become the portrait of a marriage as much as an analysis of social despair or urban alienation, and the artist is at pains to show that this marriage has its moments of calm domesticity and evidently peaceable companionship, as well as all the other stuff. Elizabeth sitting over a jigsaw (a brilliantly realized shot, this, with the jigsaw pieces, Elizabeth's floral print dress, and her tattoos coming together in an orchestrated riot of synthetic color); Raymond and Elizabeth sitting watching TV on the sofa, a roast dinner on their laps, gravy down their fronts, the family pets in between them; even the spectacular shot of Ray hurling the cat violently through the air is a strangely matter-of-fact, life-goes-on moment. Given their context, these photos are rich and strange. But there is blood on the walls in this household, and Billingham shows it to us -- quite literally, in the case of one photograph, which depicts a thin claret trickle apparently emerging from one of those cutesy mass-produced portraits of a mannequin that you used to be able to buy in Boots. There is more action here than one might expect to find in a seiection of family snapshots three of the pictures in Billingham's "Sensation" selection deal with violence or its immediate aftermath, and the changes of clothes alert you to the fact that this is not a sequence, but simply part of an ongoing domestic pattern. That Billingham was able to take the pictures at all is a clear indication that physical abuse is an organic part of the day; Raymond and Elizabeth would, presumably, have preferred their spats to take place away from their son's lens, but in the end were unable to stop themselves. There is an inherent and perverse fascination, of course, in seeing grown people knock lumps off each other, and the fascination in this case is intensified by Elizabeth's obviously immense physical power. In one picture the couple are resting after what must have been a particularly vehement disagreement. Elizabeth has a bloody nose. Ray's scars are around his eye, and there is a sense that this match has ended in a score draw -- Elizabeth even appears to be offering Raymond a paper hankie in a gesture of concern and reconciliation. In the rest, however, there is no doubt who the victor has been or will be. Perhaps the saddest photo of the lot is of an angry Elizabeth, fist raised, threatening her utterly defeated and understandably trepidatious partner: it is the closest Billingham comes to direct articulation of despair, if only because Raymond's expression has, for once, not been neutralized by the blank mask of drink, and we can see him clearly. Even when he is out of his head and toppling head first towards the floor, there is no indication of feeling, and maybe, you can't help reflecting, it's better that way. "This book is about my close family," Billingham writes on the dustjacket of his book Rays a Laugh. "My father Raymond is a chronic alcoholic... My mother Elizabeth hardly drinks but she does smoke a lot. She likes pets and things that are decorative. My younger brother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now back with Ray and Liz again." There is a tone to these words that could be mistaken for blankness just as the photographs cold seem blank if one couldn't be bothered to look at them hard enough, but actually this collection is much, much warmer than that: it is clearly about love. Richard Billingham, one would hazard, loves his parents, but they are not loveable, not in the most straightforward sense of the term. Hence the careful neutrality of tone, the refusal to allow his lens to become clouded with pity or anger or disgust: he knows that enough of his audience will feel those things anyway, and that actually the truth is a lot more complicated. The last picture in the "Sensation" exhibition shows Raymond and Elizabeth cuddling on the bed, and it's a kind of optimistic ending to an unsettling, extraordinary show -- until you see Raymond's eyes, focusing somewhere in the middle distance, and you wonder what he has seen. Left Side Bar: Richard Billingham Born in 1970 and brought up in the public housing projects of Birmingham, England, Billingham began to use a cheap camera to gather material for his undergraduate paintings. His family and the banality of everyday existence were the subjects of this work. Michael Collins, the photo editor of London's Sunday Telegraph, discovered these powerful photographs and instigated the publishing of Billingham's celebrated book, Ray's a Laugh. In this dark family album, nothing is concealed -- not the violence, hopelessness, or the mess. Almost every rule of photography is broken in the photographs. Images are blurred, overexposed, and grainy; the human subjects are marred by a red-eyed glare. He takes some shots lying on the floor. There's a bizarre humor to it all. Never intending to be a photographer, Billingham states, "I had a very elitist viewpoint when I was young. I though that painting and sculpture were the best." But the power of this series of photographs, many of which were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1997, is obvious. Right Sight Bar: Nick Hornby Capturing the voice of a generation, Hornby is a writer who deals with the theme of obsession. He was born in England in 1957, and became a teacher and a journalist before turning to literary writing. His 1992 childhood memoir, Fever Pitch, a study of obsession, families, identity, and class, revolves around soccer. Some critics compare his first work of fiction, High Fidelity, to the work of J.D. Salinger; the novel was made into a movie in 2001. Among other works is the 1999 novel About a Boy, and his latest release How To Be Good. Hornby also writes for British journals -- The Sunday Ti...

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