Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Staff Review by Jack Edson:
During my own lifetime, I have seen a steady parade of art movements come and go, with one style supplanting another. Abstract Expressionism was pushed aside by Pop Art. Minimalism, Earthworks, Outsider Art all had their day in the sun. During my college years, bright and inexpensive posters popped up everywhere, landing on bedroom walls, and we really did not know this was art.
Recently, art museums have displayed dead sharks in tanks of formaldehyde, walls of colored dots, diamond-encrusted skulls, rows of bricks on the ground, and even ceramic Michael Jacksons. Go outside the museum, and you can see that Banksy, Swoon and the other graffiti artists have plastered their images onto most anything that stands still.
I have often wondered, how does all of this happen? And is someone behind all of it?
Fortunately, Richard Polsky has written The Art Prophets; the Artists, Dealers, and Tastemakers who shook the Art World to explain all of this mystery.
This lively and entertaining book considers Pop Art, Comic Book Art, Psychedelic Posters, Outsider Art, Native American Art, Earthworks, Ceramic Sculpture, Photography, Photorealism and Street Art; explaining how it happened, who decided it was good and how these pioneers paved the way for the art which followed later.
My favorite chapter is about Earthworks in the decade of the 1970s and it honors the illusive figure of Virginia Dwan. Dwan unwaveringly supported great geniuses such as Walter De Maria and Robert Smithson who used the Earth itself as their art medium. The Earthwork pieces "Lightning Field" by De Maria and "Spiral Jetty" are certainly legendary, even though few people have actually seen them. One is in a very remote location in Texas and the other is in the Great Salt Lake of Utah. "Lightning Field" has hundreds of stainless steel poles set in the earth and when a lightning storm strikes the vicinity, the electricity is known to jump from one pole to another in a dazzling display. "Spiral Jetty" is a large spiral shape of stones and gravel that extends from the shore and goes into the Great Salt Lake. The shape is evocative of the Golden Mean and the many spirals that occur in nature. These Earthworks are not your average pieces of art and Virginia Dwan was not your average sort of art dealer. For years, "Spiral Jetty" was underwater after the level of the Great Salt Lake rose, although it is now visible. Robert Smithson's life ended abruptly when he was thirty-five years old in a plane crash when he was working on another piece, "Amarillo Ramp." For years, most people just did not "get it" either. And if you were an art dealer, how would you ever sell any of that kind of thing, anyway?
Virginia Dwan was the "Art Prophet" of Earthworks, as she recognized and promoted the value of the work of these artists at a time when the most of the world did not understand this medium. Her importance as a "visionary patron" was immense. She herself said, "There are only a few people who are ready when the moment arrives and the work is there. They can see; they are able to see at that moment, and to trust their seeing, too."
Nowadays, Earthworks are understandable for most art lovers. In Western New York, we have seen important artists such as Charles Simmons, working with the earth at Artpark and it is possible to see important, smaller pieces, such as "Atlantis" by Robert Smithson if you travel to the Beacon, New York and visit DIA Beacon. These pioneers have paved the way for other contemporary "nature" artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, who has almost become a household name. Well, a household name in the households of art fanatics, anyway.
*Editor side note: Andy Goldsworthy has been commissioned by the Albright-Knox to create one of his installations here in Buffalo. Goldsworthy has been scoping out different sites in the city and is still looking for the optimal location.
This book is full of interesting back-stories about the different Art Prophets. I had completely forgotten that Tony Shafrazi was the guy who spray painted the Picasso painting, "Guernica" in the Museum of Modern Art in 1974. For most people, that type of act would be a certain career-killer, but not for Shafrazi who went on to handle the work of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Author Richard Polsky also wrote I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon) and he is generous with tantalizing stories about the changes in monetary value for many early pieces of art. For example, the iconic "Three Flags" by Jasper Johns sold for about $950 in 1958, but rose to $1 million in 1980. Nowadays, $1 million is not a terribly impressive price for major works of art, but when it sold, Jasper Johns said, "A million dollars is a lot of money, especially to someone born during the Depression. But it has nothing to do with art."
Many of the eleven Art Prophets in this book have done quite well for themselves in their role of promoting and dealing in the work of their favorite artists. But give them credit -- they were there at the birth of these art movements. The movements might not have caught on if it was not for the faith their prophets showed in the art.
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