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|No Pain, No Gain
by Alan Moore
Matthew Collings, It Hurts: New York Art from Warhol to Now, 21 Publishing, London, 1998. $29.95.
London critic Matthew Collings, a former editor of Artscribe who has produced TV shows on art for the BBC, has done the all-but-impossible -- written a fun book about contemporary art. Frankly engaging, full of smart chat and color photos (by Ian MacMillan), the book is a pleasure to read. It Hurts is art history with sunglasses.
Collings starts with Warhol, breezes through Beuys and ends up with Bourgeois. In passing he expresses his love for Schnabel and personally visits both war-horses (Alex Katz, Vito Acconci) and up-and-comers (Rita Ackermann, Elizabeth Peyton). Collings gets down and dirty with the famous and the formerly so, artists, collectors and dealers who make New York's art world.
At the same time, he has produced an earnestly casual work in which any notion of a critical history has been replaced by a quest for the inside dope. His survey of New York art is overtly pointless, off-handedly thin and riddled with errors (Warhol's prices are going down?).
Collings' casual recollection of sources -- "I think I saw," "I got hold of" -- can be irritating. There are no endnotes or bibliography, in the mode of popular "scholarship" made famous by Robert Hughes' tome American Visions. On the other hand, Collings' method is art writing as living recollection, benchmarks for artistic thought and act. It is this glimpse of a meta-scholarly context that makes this book so intriguing.
For those of us constrained to deal with history more conventionally (like me), this is exciting. And the book is certain to interest artists with its pictures of their successful peers in the studio. Collings' approach to critical writing is apparently influenced by his television work, to which he tangentially alludes. It's TV work unlike any done in the United States -- a special on the impact of "theory" in contemporary art, for instance.
Television is about conversations, and It Hurts is a view of contemporary art in the television age, a kind of rattled, scattered model of how art and its history is felt and acted upon. By the way, the book is Collings' second effort in this kind of writing, following a similar look at the British scene, Blimey: From Bohemia to Britpop. Both books come from 21 publishing, which was founded by rock legend David Bowie.
Collings is a master of short descriptions of artists in their environments, like the warehouse of paintings he calls "Olitski World, waiting for elitism to come back." He also has a knack for the epigrammatic. Of the '80s he writes, "the new painting was a huge retching after a tight congestion." This organic metaphor reflects his concern for the body in art, one line of inquiry he takes.
Another of his concerns is the ruins of the modernist establishment, and on this he is insightful. He does Clement Greenberg, but it's Greenberg as old goat, "ice in the whiskey glass clinking, unfiltered Camels blazing, sweat gathering." And he's deep-dyed irreverent, wondering how Frank Stella feels now that no one talks about him any more.
Collings can also be stoned on his own exhaust, succumbing to what could be called "snapshot-itis." Getting the photo of an admittedly photogenic Kiki Smith seems to be the point of his write-up on her. His powers of concision deliver us revealing portraits of Conceptual Art's old masters like Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner and Dan Graham. With others the same method collapses into telegraphic inanity. On Mel Bochner: "Huge name in explosion of Conceptualism. Forgotten now. Arranged pebbles. Wrote articles about Minimalism."
His choices can seem idiosyncratic, definitely a view from London. He acknowledges his hometown booster agenda up front: "Always remember, New Yorkers, young British art now dominates the world... We got all the ideas ... from you." You gotta admit he's right, however much it hurts.
ALAN MOORE is an art historian and critic.
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