Art History after the New Art History
Contemporary Artists series. London: Phaidon Press, 1995-present. 31 volumes to date. Each 160 pp., richly illustrated in color and b/w. $35 paper.
Themes and Movements series.
London: Phaidon Press, 1998-present. 5 volumes to date. Each 304 pp., richly illustrated in color and b/w. $69.95 cloth.
All inventorying consciousness of the artistic past is false.
-Theodor Adorno, 1970
The uninitiated reader and the scholar alike need look no further to understand the prevailing art tendencies of our time.
-Phaidon Sales Catalogue, 2000
Let's begin and end by considering format-- not the inspired art represented, not the thoughtful scholarly examination, not the learned editorial selection and composition, not even the bold graphic design with its signature predilection for the close-up or the rich quantity of large, high-quality reproductions-just the distinctively strong, consistent, and innovative formatting of Phaidon's Contemporary Artists and Themes and Movements series.1 Both rely heavily on the fundamentals of art history publishing: comprehensive surveys, key documents, and good reproductions; both also work to provide resources for the specialist by commissioning new interviews and studies of individual works, by including artists' writings and "the artist's choice of a text from literature, philosophy or science which has influenced him or her," and by reproducing 11 rarely published installation shots and preliminary drawings,"2 In these ways and more, the volumes produced for both lists are overall substantial, and there are many we might esteem as art history without the slightest pause for the ways in which they contribute significantly to our understanding: James Meyer's volume on Minimalism, for example, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev's on Arte Povera, or the monographs on Mary Kelly, Jenny Holzer, Lawrence Weiner, Jimmie Durham, Cildo Mereiles, and Yayoi Kusama among others. In fact, every book in the two series adds to our knowledge in a host of ways, and this in some significant part is due to the format innovations being considered here. In this regard we might well agree with the lavish praise from Artforum that Phaidon understandably touts: "The boldest, best-executed and most far-reaching publishing project devoted to contemporary art. These books will revolutionize the way contemporary art is presented and written about."3
That said, some doubts do linger, and they stem specifically from the revolution Artforum describes. We would not want to let such concerns sink to a vulgar criticality or cause us ungraciously to look such a substantial professional gift horse in the mouth. But isn't it a bit worrisome to those of us who are art historians in particular, that these books work so hard at being thoughtful, scholarly, and historically minded on the one hand, and, on the other, aspire so forcefully and effectively to the coffee table? The aim is to be the best of both worlds-broadly accessible and scholarly-or at least a workable compromise (an admirable ambition for a publisher, and one that art historians might well share), but is there not also some apprehension that this new type of art-history book is routing the business and concerns of theory and analysis, of historicization and interpretation, to a new role? For example, is there not concern that our good labor for this increasingly substantial publishing institution-one that sometimes seems as though it will soon have employed nearly every art historian actively working on contemporary art-now serves in greater measure than before to buttress the ivory-- tower? (And an additional worry: Buttressing what, exactly? Phaidon? The artists? The audience? The industry at large? Ourselves?) Whether we resort to any such disquiet, at a minimum we may fairly ask: What is the role of intellectual work here? And further: To what degree and in what regard is Artforum right? …