Book Reviews / Look Around: Reviews / Look Back: Art History

Review of “What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye” by Will Gompertz

When it comes to modern art, it can be easy to feel that someone’s having a laugh at your expense. Whether it’s the works themselves or opaque explanations given in gallery labels, art of the last 150 years seems to be the ever-shrinking domain of only the most extensively trained and deeply initiated.

Wait do you seriously not get this? It’s two colours of black.

Will Gompertz is here to reassure you that this is – at least partly – untrue. In his recent book What Are You Looking At, Gompertz sets out to show his readers that, even though modern art might be having a bit of a laugh, you too can get in on the joke.

His 395-page book, published earlier this year, is anecdotal and chatty. Gompertz, formerly on the staff of the Tate Modern and current art editor at the BBC, doesn’t let his own deep knowledge of art stand in the way of explaining it. Instead, he is cheerfully anxious that his readers, no matter how little educated they are in art to begin with, really gain a basic grasp on what’s been going on since it all kicked off with the Impressionists.


Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain at Tate Modern by David Shankbone, London;

The book opens in 1917 with a look at Marcel Duchamp and his creation of The Fountain. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you – it really is just a urinal with some paint. This isn’t even Duchamp’s original urinal – that one was simply lost along the way and Duchamp created several more.

What’s important for The Fountain is the same concept that’s key to modern art’s development: it’s the thought that counts.

In what follows, the author carefully highlights the most important of those thoughts.

After his opening chapter on Duchamp, Gompertz scoots back in time to 1820 and takes a look at the gradual development away from “academic” art. Everything really gets going in 1870 with the coming of the Impressionists and their interest in recording light and modern life

From there it continues, each page loaded with information on the wacky world of Dada, solid Russian Constructivism, the colourful world of Pop art, brooding Abstract Expressionism, quirky Postmodernism, right up through 2012.

Roy Lichtenstein, 1964, Private Collection

Roy Lichtenstein, 1964, Private Collection

Daringly, Gompertz even offers some key terms for the art of the past 20 years. And while he insists that he is not suggesting a new “ism” or movement name, he summarizes and elucidates just what’s been going on lately with ease and confidence.

Gompertz’s clear style moves the book along nicely, and makes the sheer volume of knowledge he presents easier to digest. He seems genuinely interested in getting his audience to know and enjoy modern art whatever their background. And he’s human about it. Scattered throughout the book are mentions of his family and career, his own opinions on art and the art world, and connections between art and more mainstream popular culture, particularly films and music.

Though the book manages to reach even beginning readers through the writing style, the book does suffer somewhat from a dearth of images. While this is understandable for reasons of length and copyright, it means that it’s not a commuter read. It demands a commitment beyond a few minutes of reading time here and there — and should be enjoyed with Google Images close at hand.

Nevertheless, the point comes across.

Banksy, 2012

The real strengths of the What Are You Looking At lies in the author’s ability to criticize, even while clearly adoring his field. There are times when those of us involved in the arts talk and write pretentious nonsense. It’s a fact of life: rock stars trash hotels, sportsmen and women get inured, arts folk talk bollocks, he writes (187).

How true.

So next time you feel the art world is laughing at you, laugh right back at it. You have written permission.


6 thoughts on “Review of “What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye” by Will Gompertz

  1. Fantastic entry. Makes me want to read the book too. It is funny that although I am not a fan of the fountain (which was made ironically, therefore surely undermining what it stands for), I really like the Barnett Newman painting. Although it is just black on black there is something I really like about it. Why>>>>? I guess I need to do some more reading to find out.

  2. I quite agree, his ability to poke fun at his own peers helps this book a lot. He loves it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t merit some humor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s