The season's page-turners: Lives of the artists, from Michelangelo to Nauman
A bumper crop of recent and forthcoming biographies chronicles all manner of artistic excess, from the terribilità of Michelangelo to the tortured clowns of Bruce Nauman. But a daughter’s memoir of her high-flying curator father is hands-down the most irresistibly readable of the lot.
In the last few years, a couple of biographies have followed the fortunes of the young Michelangelo, but this one tells the story of the rough-spun genius from his youthful days in the garden of the Medici to his death in Rome at the age of 89.
Loosely structured around six of the artist’s greatest triumphs, Unger’s account covers all the touchstones in Michelangelo’s life: the precocious forgery that brought him to Rome, his squabbles with Pope Julius II, and the rivalries with Raphael and Leonardo.
Unger is an astute critic and an able storyteller; his remapping of familiar territory should please both readers new to Michelangelo and those who think they know him inside out.
Ejected from the canon of Modernism and reviled for his slick pictures of peasant girls and saccharine nudes, William Bouguereau receives a full-dress effort at rehabilitation in this handsomely illustrated overview of his life and art.
The authors hope to make the case that Bouguereau should be as highly regarded as Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo, but that defense is undercut by the realities of the painter’s output. Though he was prodigiously gifted and hugely admired in his day, only a handful of Bouguereau’s paintings hold up beside the works his revolutionary peers produced in the last decades of the 19th century. But the book is a sumptuous luxury item and has a wealth of information on the education and training of academic painters in France before the modernists changed the game forever.
Born a mere ten years after Bouguereau, James McNeill Whistler lived a very different kind of life. Tossed out of West Point, he soon headed for the bohemian enclaves on two continents, becoming a fixture of “advanced” art in Paris and London, finding friends in the fledgling Impressionist movement and enemies everywhere, including John Ruskin, Oscar Wilde, and his one-time patron Frances Leyland—so many that he was moved to publish a polemic: The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.
Perpetually broke and on the move, Whistler nonetheless produced some of the most extraordinary portraits of his—or any—day. Sutherland’s admirably researched and memorable biography should find new admirers for this prickly, headstrong artist and provocateur.
Written a few years after her subject’s death, Phoebe Hoban’s compact, lively, and incisive account of Freud’s life pieces together a full-blooded portrait in 192 pages.
The painter spent long and punishing hours in the studio, but managed nonetheless to hobnob with high society (even marrying into minor aristocracy), maintain relationships with numerous lovers (he fathered 14 children by multiple partners), and remain dedicated to a brand of unfashionable realism at a time of rapid revolutions in painting.
For all his carelessness in matters of the heart and his unsparing geographies of the flesh, Freud comes across as a lovable and entertaining rascal.
Gabrielle Selz is the daughter of Peter Selz, the adventurous MoMA curator who helped detonate Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York in the museum’s sculpture garden in 1969 (and thereby lost his job). Her mother, Thalia, was a beauty and novelist who helped found Westbeth, the pioneering artists’ complex in New York’s West Village. Her parents’ hard-partying intimates constitute a who’s who of several decades in American art: Rothko, de Kooning, Motherwell, Frankenthaler, Warhol, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Guston, as well as a sprinkling of literary superstars like Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg. Their love story evolves and then unravels on two coasts, as their daughter must find her own passage through childhood and adolescence. But Selz’s reminiscences of coming of age amidst an explosion of creativity and social change are clear-eyed, sympathetic—and sometimes heartbreaking.
Lee Lozano came of age in the late-1960s New York art scene, a heady time when Pop, Conceptualism, Minimalism, Land Art, and Fluxus converged with the nation’s socio-political upheavals. A talented painter whose “Wave” canvases earned her a show at the Whitney Museum, the artist moved on to create a series of life-related actions, meticulously documented in notebooks. These acts included smoking marijuana for more than a month, then withdrawing from it; performing dialogue pieces with fellow artists; and boycotting other women as a means of improving communications with them (an act that predictably backfired). Her ultimate action was the Dropout Piece of the book’s title, a systematic and sustained extraction from what Lehrer-Graiwer describes as the “egocentric competition and self-promotion” of the art world. Unquestionably troubled, Lozano comes across in this brief but enthralling and sympathetic study as an artist of uncommon rigor and wry humor—a true rebel with a cause.
Bruce Nauman has been alternately praised and derided as one of the most irritating and most influential artists of our times. Plagens, who is both a painter and a critic, offers a detailed and lucid reading of the life and art of this surprisingly shy and reclusive cultural icon, one of the first to use his own body as a starting point for his artistic agenda. You may never like his art (and liking was probably always beside the point), but the author offers ways to understand a body of work that is downright loud, disagreeable, and nerve-racking. An astute observer of the contemporary art scene from his days as Nauman’s neighbor in 1970s Los Angeles, Plagens gives us vivid vignettes of the artists who have shaped the last 40 years. This book will remain the definitive monograph for years to come.