33 artists in 3 acts

Sarah Thornton

Book - 2014

"Tells the story of [33 artists]: how they move through the world, command credibility, and create iconic works ... [including] visits with Ai Weiwei before and after his imprisonment and Jeff Koons as he woos new customers in London, Frankfurt, and Abu Dhabi. Thornton meets Yayoi Kusama in her studio around the corner from the Tokyo asylum that she calls home. She snoops in Cindy Sherman's closet, hears about Andrea Fraser's psychotherapist, and spends quality time with Laurie Simmons, Carroll Dunham, and their daughters Lena and Grace"--Amazon.com.

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New York : W.W. Norton & Company 2014.
Main Author
Sarah Thornton (author)
First American edition
Physical Description
xvi, 430 pages : illustrations, map ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 383-389) and index.
  • Introduction
  • Act I. Politics
  • Scenes 1 to 17, featuring (in order of appearance)
  • Act II. Kinship
  • Scenes 1 to 19, featuring Elmgreen & Dragset
  • Act III. Craft
  • Scenes 1 to 16, featuring Damien Hirst
  • Acknowledgments
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Credits
  • Index
Review by New York Times Review

It comes as no surprise that Thornton, the former contemporary art correspondent for The Economist and the author of "Seven Days in the Art World," has endeavored in "33 Artists in 3 Acts" to give us something unique: a rare glimpse into the studios - and the minds - of a group of renowned contemporary artists. Thornton seems to know them all well enough, and with varying degrees of welcoming they have invited her into their private worlds. The action takes place during the four years starting in 2009 when the art market stumbled in the wake of the financial crisis and then started to recover. Thornton says she traveled to 14 countries on four continents and interviewed 130 artists - but she leaves the stories of nearly 100 of them on the cutting-room floor. Despite that high bar, some of her choices will leave you scratching your head. Just because four members of the Dunham family - of Lena Dunham and "Girls" fame - agreed to visit with her and shared some not uninteresting insights, do they really belong in the same class (or book) as Ai Weiwei, Cindy Sherman and Maurizio Cattelan? Thornton is superb when depicting the narcissism of the likes of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. The book's best moment comes when Thornton is in Doha, attending the opening of a Hirst exhibition. She hasn't been made to feel particularly welcome by Hirst and his handlers, since she had previously written something they didn't like. At one point, she sees Hirst and Koons "deep in conversation." When they're done, Hirst "strolls over" to her and says, apparently without joking, "Who was that artist I was talking to?" WILLIAM D. COHAN'S most recent book is "The Price of Silence." He has been a contributor to ARTnews since 2008.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [December 28, 2014]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* The intrepid and inquisitive Thornton once again guides readers on a journey through the often confounding upper echelons of twenty-first-century art. In her best-selling Seven Days in the Art World (2008), this art historian, sociologist, and chief art writer for The Economist ushered us into art's spheres of commerce. In her new, even more revealing and resonant book, artists take center stage. Thornton is curious about how artists address concerns personal, societal, and professional. In the post-Duchampian world of anything-is-art-if-the-artist-says-it-is, many artists find that they cannot concentrate solely on making art because they need to establish a public persona to represent and promote their work. Therefore, Thornton perceives, artists' studios have become private stages for the daily rehearsal of self-belief. The 3 acts of the title refer to how this effort plays out in three realms politics, kinship, and craft. Between 2009 and 2013, Thornton traveled to 14 countries on four continents and visited 130 artists. The 33 who made the cut are all well-established as well as, in most cases, open, articulate, and honest. Curiously, Thornton discovered that the most problematic question she posed was, What is an artist? That's because, in part, the romantic view of the artist as a struggling loner has been eclipsed. Successful artists are now entrepreneurs and ideas people liberated from manual labor as they oversee sizable administrative and production staffs working in state-of-the-art facilities digital versions, Thornton observes, of the bustling ateliers of top Renaissance painters. With her acutely perceptive reportorial eye and keen ear, Thornton not only discerningly profiles each artist; she also contrasts and compares them. In the book's most provocative pairing, Thornton considers the slick, calculating, megarich American Jeff Koons versus the courageous, forthright, besieged Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei, famous for such installations as Sunflower Seeds (2010), in which 100 million handmade, painted porcelain sunflower seeds covered the floor of a vast hall in London's Tate Modern. Thornton meets with cheery Koons in his fancy, high-tech command center and tries to steer him away from his well-rehearsed patter, while she is deeply moved by Ai's candor, determination, and ethical valor when she visits him in his raided and decimated studio after his arrest and grueling detention. Thornton runs into Koons at art events all around the world, while Ai, his passport confiscated, remains under house arrest, unable to attend the installation of his own exhibits in the U.S. and elsewhere. Thornton spends time with Koons' British counterpart, headline-grabbing, big-money Damien Hirst, who is trying to return to painting after years of putting sharks in tanks and covering skulls with jewels. She also illuminates the lives and work of such thoughtful, risk-taking, socially concerned, poetic, and ironic artists as, in Mexico, Gabriel Orozco, in Chile, Eugenio Dittborn. Each encounter is a revelation. In the kinship category, Thornton considers complications and affirmations within a family of artists: plucky and unnerving photographer Laurie Simmons, who has recently created a series of portraits of an eerily realistic Japanese sex doll; painter Carroll Dunham, who creates comically, grotesquely, and earthily explicit figures; and their daughter, writer-director-actor-producer Lena Dunham of HBO's Girls. Kinship takes on a broader definition in Thornton's portrait of photographer and sculptor Rashid Johnson, who is fascinated with the problem of how to be black. Thornton reveals the artist behind the many masks of photographer Cindy Sherman and the disquieting personae of gutsy performance artists Kutlug Ataman, Andrea Fraser, and Marina Abramovic, who tells her, Artists should be the oxygen of society. Collagist Wangechi Mutu, who confesses, I am too obsessed with the emotions that my work exudes to outsource it, answers Thornton's central question, What is an artist?, by defining artists as individuals that speak for the group. . . . We're like a tattletale . . . or an alarm-raiser. Mutu also muses, Art allows you to imbue the truth with a sort of magic, . . . so it can infiltrate the psyches of more people, including those who don't believe the same things as you. Exceptionally knowledgeable, receptive, witty, and crisply expressive, Thornton conveys a phenomenal amount of fresh information and frank and vivid impressions in her eye- and mind-opening forays into the art world's inner sanctums. Taken together, these vibrant portraits constitute an invaluable, incisive, and exciting guide to today's deliriously diverse, sophisticated, scandalous, and profound art world.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2014 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Starred Review. Thornton ( Seven Days in the Art World ) paints a masterful picture of 33 artists, keenly bringing details of their lives to the surface with a skilled hand and without overwhelming the reader. The product of four years of work, the book is divided into its eponymous three acts; each chapter, or scene, focuses on one artist, with artists sometimes appearing in multiple scenes. The activist Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, receives much favorable attention; one notable chapter takes place in the wake of his arrest at the hands of Chinese government authorities. Married American artists Caroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons are surveyed together, then separately, in multiple chapters, with Thornton exploring their artistic relationships and the gender dynamics therein. Thornton builds on such analyses to offer astute, accessible commentary on the gendered dimensions of modern art. With effortless sophistication, Thornton takes readers on a journey across the globe and into the homes and minds of contemporary artists. In the process, she banishes cynicism about modern art, revealing it to be a volatile, healthy enterprise still deeply engaged with the world. 44 illus. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, the Wylie Agency. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved