In October, a stenciled, spray-painted “Girl with Red Balloon,” by the bearding British graffiti artisan Banksy, was awash at Sotheby’s London bargain abode for $1.4 million. A moment later, it self-destructed, the basal of the pretentiously adorned anatomy acting as a shredder apparently activated by alien control. The charcoal added in amount to $2 million.
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Fortunately, at the time, I was account Lance Esplund’s wise, admirable new book, “The Art of Looking: How to Read Avant-garde and Abreast Art,” and that helped me appraise Banksy’s feat. I accept no abstraction what Esplund, an art analyzer for the Wall Street Journal as able-bodied as a painter and teacher, thinks of the shredding performance. But that’s the adorableness of his book — I don’t charge to. Esplund gives readers the aplomb to accomplish up our own minds and encourages us to acquisition bookish and affecting joy in accomplishing so.
The art historian Preminda Jacob advised the Banksy adventure “the latest archetype of artists deploying guerrilla access to betrayal their antipathy for the critics, dealers, arcade owners, and building curators whom they depend on for their livelihood.”
Maybe. But I anticipate it was added antic than that. Banksy’s adventuresome and timing fabricated me chuckle. The minimalist, somewhat arid angel shows a babe either accident her heart-shaped balloon, or alms it, to the sky. It’s a cursory moment.
Mwa-ha-hah! chortles the airy Banksy as the angel descends into the blades — added cursory than you knew!
Then there’s the audience’s abashed acknowledgment and the buyer’s consecutive advertisement that she ethics it alike added now that it’s “a allotment of art history.” Like adaptable and achievement art, “Girl with Red Balloon” combines visual, banausic and alternate elements. Maybe it is, as Jacob writes, disdainful, but it’s additionally a amusing admonition to appropriate the day.
My acknowledgment was influenced, I think, by Esplund’s access to the achievement artisan Marina Abramovic’s “Generator,” in which participants don a blinder and sound-suppressing headphones and adventure into a achievement amplitude area they airing or crawl, “bumping into walls, abutment columns and added people.” He went into the acquaintance a skeptic: “It addled me added as a sociological and cerebral agreement than art.” But he emerged a believer: “I was acutely affected. I acquainted absolutely present.”
Esplund divides his book into two parts. The first, “Fundamentals,” discusses the elements of art, its use of metaphor, how to accompany one’s subjectivity and objectivity into cardinal play. The second, “Close Encounters,” comprises Esplund’s readings of baddest paintings, sculptures, videos, installations and achievement art. Those readings go abysmal but are decidedly concise, some alone a few pages long.
Esplund reminds us that all art was abreast back it was created and that to abstracted our era’s works from the accomplished “cuts us off from our histories, distances us from ourselves.” He impressively intersperses discussions of avant-garde art with accordant predecessors, sometimes age-old ones. He compares, for instance, Mondrian’s “Composition with Blue” to the Great Pyramid at Giza — the way both push, cull and addle a eyewitness in a alarming but agitative way.
In a bond of added contempo work, the minimalist sculptor Richard Tuttle brings to Esplund’s apperception Alexander Calder’s adumbration play.
Art is admired as allotment of a advanced artful world, not closed in a vacuum, so Robert Gober’s “Untitled Leg” spurs associations not aloof to Duchamp’s 1917 readymade urinal “Fountain,” Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 “Object” and Duane Hanson’s 1970s Madame Tussaud-like sculptures but additionally to an Alfred Hitchcock cine and Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West.
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In added words, Esplund models the way art admirers are absolutely art interactors, and the added references we accompany to an estimation the added we’re acceptable to get out of it.
He is adventurous but never abhorrent in his opinions, alms insights in the ambience of his acquaintance and advancement us to do the same. I decidedly admired his altercation of Balthus, countering the dirty-old-man burlesque some of the artist’s critics accept afresh promoted. In Balthus’s “The Cat With a Mirror I” (1977-80) Esplund sees a babe bent amid adolescence and adulthood, ascent “like a colossus, as if she were outgrowing her bedroom, a behemothic or cairn straddling a river.” He finds references in the assignment to “Greco-Roman bronze and Byzantine Madonnas, asperous dolls and age-old relics.”
Esplund is appropriately accomplished in allegory video pieces like Jeremy Blake’s “The Winchester Trilogy,” aggressive by a abstruse San Jose abode congenital by the added of the Winchester accoutrements magnate. At the bidding of her husband’s ghost, she broadcast the abode from eight to 160 apartment to appease the alcohol of Winchester gun victims. The video leash becomes a absorption of America, with “Raquel Welch, bedrock ‘n’ roll, gunslingers, and spiritualism” amid its “metaphoric layers. . . as if it’s exploring not alone a house, or the accommodation of Sarah Winchester’s psyche, but a abyssal wreck, a absent city, the base of our aggregate unconscious.”
Life is active and art is demanding, but account Esplund prods us to booty the artful plunge, to accomplish to a James Turrell ablaze carve or a forbiddingly awe-inspiring Richard Serra art amplitude the aforementioned way we do to a Rembrandt, a Berthe Morisot, a Picasso. Lay bottomward your defenses and your antagonisms, Esplund urges, and “be as ambitious of yourself as you are of the art you encounter.” A abstruse affiliation to an artwork, “like lovesickness, is apparent and will affect your chase for new and added relationships.”
Alexander C. Kafka has accounting about books for The Washington Post, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune.
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THE ART OF LOOKING
How to Read Avant-garde and Abreast Art
By Lance Esplund
Basic. 288 pp. $30.
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