The journalist's new book documents her interactions with Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Cady Noland
“When I finished Seven Days in the Art World, there were two things I felt like I wanted to understand more,” the British journalist Sarah Thornton tells me by phone from San Francisco, referring to her eminently readable 2008 sociological study of the art world. “One was artists, and the other was the art market.” Thornton spent the next few years writing about both for the Economist, but then in 2012 she dropped a bomb of an article on the latter topic: “Top 10 Reasons Not to Write About the Art Market” (“5. Oligarchs and dictators are not cool”). Everyone gasped. Was she quitting the game?
“I really did not mean for it to be proscriptive,” she says, laughing about the art world’s reaction. “It was a very personal thing.” She was simply moving on to her next project, she explains. “It was just sort of blowing off steam and almost kind of saying, ‘I’m going to force myself not to do any journalism so I can write this bloody book!’ ” That book is about artists, and it arrives in bookstores this month under the title 33 Artists in 3 Acts (W. W. Norton).
“I’m a slightly obsessive researcher so I got it in my head that I had to interview 100 artists before I could actually decide what the book was about,” she says, admitting that she ended up talking with about 130 of them. The book’s three acts are headlined “Politics,” “Kinship,” and “Craft,” and she has populated each with an intricately related series of scenes from the international art circuit over the past five years. (Seven Days was translated into 16 languages, so the author had plenty of reasons to travel.) “I’m very interested in the performativity of being an artist,” she says, explaining the book’s title.
There’s a juicy insider feel to 33 Artists. We watch Thornton in Qatar as she tries to finagle an interview with Damien Hirst (he was hesitant, she suspects, because of a story she wrote about his market’s tumble) and as she lobbies Jeff Koons before an exhibition opening in Frankfurt, trying to get him to break character (“I have tussling matches with him in interview situations,” she tells me). We visit Zeng Fanzhi’s Bordeaux-stocked Beijing studio and attend a preview of the notorious “Pop Life” show at Tate Modern just as Maurizio Cattelan is obnoxiously teasing Koons about his pornographic works: “People can’t stay in your room for too long because they get horny.”
Art stars predominate, but Thornton also scored interviews with lesser-known, and even cult, figures, like Andrea Fraser, Eugenio Dittborn, Tammy Rae Carland, and, perhaps most surprising of all, Cady Noland, who quit showing her art 15 years ago and has been known to actively oppose some shows of her work. “I just wrote her a letter,” Thornton says. “I included a copy of Seven Days in the Art World, and told her all about the book. I also said that I was happy to discuss what I knew about her market with her because I had done a lot of background research when I was investigating the auctions.” That scene is marked with a disclaimer, “Ms. Noland would like it to be known that she has not approved this chapter,” but it states that Noland once threatened to shoot Larry Gagosian if he did a solo exhibition of her art. “Artists go to Gagosian to die,” Noland says.
Thornton says she’s learned a thing or two from watching so many artists operate in their studios and in public. “I really need to kind of develop my writer brand,” she says. “I can see artists doing it all the time.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 36 under the title “Sarah Thornton’s Next Act.”