Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Book review: Tell Them I Said No, Martin Herbert (2016)

A kind of history of post-war art practice, the book chronicles the practices of artists who for one reason or another eschewed the bright lights and fanfare of the art world, and dropped out. For various reasons usually related to notions of authenticity they quit the scene and went AWOL. It’s a serious discussion to have because art remains a place where truth is spoken without fear or favour. What does it mean if an artist stops pandering to the needs of patrons and flattering them, and so refuses to be involved in the market for their work? How does it change their work if they refuse to go to the gallery openings to shake hands over glasses of chardonnay?

Herbert gives it his best shot but he goes a bit fast for the uninitiated. You sense there are debates going on behind the field of focus of his immediate regard, and these require a bit more elucidation than they get if he is to give the named artists and their work the fulsome elucidation they appear to be due by dint of their place in history. But Herbert is an art-world native, so he reverts to short-hand. There could have been a useful book here about the contemporary art world, and instead there is a fragmentary guide to a few notable players in it.

As the post-punk generation really kicks into gear in the second half of the book, the reasons for giving up the glitz and the glamour become more self-referential. Making art is for such artists as often “about” making art as it is about anything else. What fun.

Since the art world became overwhelmed by the values of capital it has undergone soul-searching and a sort of rebirth, and this book chronicles parts of that self-referential process. It’s often not pretty. When the serious money got into the workings of the system, in the 1970s, some priorities needed to be realigned. Martin starts out with the right attitude but the introduction at the start of the book should have been shifted to the end, in the form of a conclusion, so that he could give us a savvy reappraisal of what had come before, and really nailed down the issues at stake. There needed to be more teasing out of major themes and patterns, but we get a disjointed set of standalone portraits.  A better book would have stretched his talents and served the reader more completely.

In the earlier pieces, facts fall rarely, like raindrops, just merely wetting the ground, while interpretation is supplied in lavish quantities. Any farmer will tell you that rain is money because without it nothing will grow. In the second half of his book, facts come crashing down, flooding the scene, and there is a paucity of interpretation to channel it to useful purposes. We get two incomplete halves of a potentially good book, each of which lacks what the other provides in excess. It’s as though Herbert were quite sure in himself of the artistic value of work produced in the 70s but that for art produced in later years he still relies on the bumph produced by interested parties.

I enjoyed particularly reading about the lives of Agnes Martin, an American Abstract Expressionist painter who died in 2004, American figurative painter Albert York who died in 2009, Charlotte Posenenske, a German sculptor who died in 1986, Stanley Brouwn, a Dutch conceptual artist who died in 2017, and David Hammons, an American conceptual artist.

When Herbert wrote about Lutz Bacher, Christopher D’Arcangelo, Laurie Parsons, Cady Noland and Trisha Donnelly, however I found myself rushing to the end of the chapters, eager to move onto the next thing.

The author aspires to be useful and enthusiastically and authentically embraces the culture of criticism that modern art embodies, but his use of facts often falls prey to a habit of repeating the rote theorising of art-world pundits. You feel a need for someone to cut through the spin that normally gets served up for ulterior purposes in glossy brochures at gallery openings.

I was like an outsider with a porthole-like glimpse into the workings of a larger machine, and often felt a need for someone to stand by my elbow to point out the real workings of the ungainly beast as it laboured away in a space just beyond the reaches of my ken.

It’s an ambitious book but it ultimately fails to draw in the lay reader, merely offering up a few hints that needed to be joined up with already-existing facts in the reader’s mind in order to make sense of them. Those who already have some familiarity with post-war art in the West can profitably read this book. For the rest, other authors will have to do the work to fill in the gaps. I’m not sure where they can be found.

The book is not available in electronic format and you have to buy it online direct from the publisher, Sternberg Press in Berlin.

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