Defining Contemporary Art: 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Artworks

Art has always had an evasive relationship with self-definition. Artists have never liked being pigeonholed into a single art movement or category and, in an attempt to prove the critics wrong, they develop styles and ideas that continually push the boundaries of definition. Never has this been truer than in what we like to call “contemporary art,” a category that itself defies definition through a slippery vagueness of terms. Not only are all styles and media included in this classification, it doesn’t even set a temporal boundary. If we take “contemporary” to mean the present and recent past, as Phaidon did for its latest survey, 25 years seems about right, so since 1986. Taking into account this dilemma of definition and categorization, Defining Contemporary Art presents a history of recent art not in the traditional style of overarching trends but as specific moments in time and the pivotal artworks that resulted.

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Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures

Heroic Africans is the book form of the catalogue for an exhibition of the same title that launched at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and will travel to the Retberg Museum in Zurich later this year. The book is an amazing window on an aspect of African sculpture that is too little recognized, portraiture (in particular, portraits of famous individuals). As such, author LaGamma uses the text to explore both the meaning of the fame or significance of individuals within African cultures and the sculpture itself as an art form.

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Sculpture by the Sea: The First Fifteen Years 1997–2011

Everything looks good by the sea. There’s something about the colors and contours of the waves, the shore, and the sky that provide a fantastic backdrop to any object. Even Cor-ten steel—a material that I have always found unwelcoming—takes on a certain poetic quality when juxtaposed with sky, sea, and sand. This phenomenon has undoubtedly played no small part in the success of Sculpture by the Sea over the past 15 years.

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Sol LeWitt: Structures 1965–2006

This book, based on a posthumous exhibition presented by the Public Art Fund in New York City, surveys the three-dimensional work of Sol LeWitt, better known for Conceptual works and wall paintings. There are essays by the primary contributor, Nicholas Baume, as well as Jonathan Flatley, Rachel Haidu Anna Lovatt, Joe Madura, and Kirsten Swenson, as well as an interview that Baume conducted with the artist in 2000.

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Contemporary Art in Asia: A Critical Reader

I remember first seeing Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune, Stage One at a party just after the opening of the newly remodeled Seattle Art Museum in 2007. I thought the flipped and rolled cars suspended from the museum’s ceiling and radiating flashing neon lights perfectly matched the atmosphere created by the buzz of chatter and the DJ’s continuous beats. At the time, I had no idea who the artist was or that these cars were meant to simulate a car bomb going off, yet I liked the installation for its eye-catching originality.

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Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America

According to Erika Doss, professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, the U.S. has a historical obsession with monumentalizing and memorializing important events and people. Toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, this fixation focused on statues and monuments. Over time, with multiple viewpoints of the same history becoming more and more welcomed in the public eye, these monumental statues morphed into abstract or utilitarian memorials. Yet the cultural obsession with the physical actualization of official memory remains.

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Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution

With 535 pages, Cast in Bronze is not a standard exhibition catalogue. Created in conjunction with an exhibition that toured the Louvre, the Met, and the Getty in 2008–09, the book is the product of “an unprecedented in-depth study of French bronzes” and functions more like an encyclopedia than a catalogue. It is an exhaustive attempt to cull together the lesser-known work of French artists, which are frequently out-shown by bronzes from Italy and Northern Europe. The exhibition relied heavily on the Louvre’s collection, but also offered a chance to see works from private collections and other difficult-to-visit museums such as the Windsor Castle Royal Collection, Versailles, Fontainebleau, and the Dresden State Art Collection.

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