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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Not if but when: Culture Beyond Oil

This week, an unconventional book review. Culture Beyond Oil is really more like a compilation of short essays and manifestos, all addressing the fact that unethical oil companies should not be allowed to sponsor cultural institutions, with BP’s ongoing sponsorship of the Tate as the point of departure. The publication is a call to arms for artists and arts administrators to remove themselves from the grasp of Big Oil.

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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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Starting Your Career as an Artist

In Starting Your Career as an Artist: A Guide for Painters, Sculptors, Photographers, and Other Visual Artists, Parsons The New School for Design’s Angie Wojak and Stacy Miller provide advice for almost every conceivable subsection of the art world. From tips for finding good studio space to dealing with inevitable legal issues, Wojak and Miller combine their own advice with that of other professionals in the field—curators, art lawyers, gallery owners, and artists—many of them well-known and respected.

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Erwin Wurm: Wear Me Out

It is a rare trait for an artwork to create an atmosphere of both whimsy and profound contemplation. Yet Austrian artist Erwin Wurm’s work does just that, moving beyond generally accepted notions of “sculpture” and into what he calls “explorations of the potential of sculpture.” For instance, the One Minute Sculptures, Wurm’s best-known works, consist of people posing in odd or unusual positions (or just generally looking strange and awkward) and holding those poses for a minute, before returning to their normal routines. Some of the most famous of these mini-performance works involve sticking office supplies in a person’s nose, mouth, and ears, sitting perched atop a pole in the corner of an art gallery, and laying on top of someone on a sidewalk.

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Maya Lin: A Biography

Aimed generally at a high school audience, Greenwood Biographies cover a wide variety of famous figures, including Mother Theresa, Prince William, Stephen Hawking, Yo-Yo Ma, Osama bin Laden, and Paris Hilton. Needless to say, some subjects are more deserving of biographical recognition than others. Of the more than 100 published biographies, four are of visual artists: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Maya Lin.

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The Toaster Project or A Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch

As I type on this keyboard, I am both amazed and dumbfounded by its inner mechanism. I use it every day yet have no idea how it works. Even if I were to take it apart, it still would not make any sense to me. We’ve reached the point where technology has exceeded the comprehension of probably about 99 percent of users. And it’s not just computers. Even the simplest of electrical appliances—say, a toaster—is apparently so difficult to fathom that it took British artist Thomas Thwaites nine months, 1,900 miles of travel, and £1,187.54 to make one “from scratch.”

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