The Fifty-Second A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts
Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock
This book (based on a set of lectures Varnedoe gave in 2003) is a great guide to modern, abstract art. Every time I revisit it, it provides a reminder to be open to experiment with new ideas and techniques.
I love this video excerpt (below) because it shows how much thought Varnedoe put into these Mellon Lectures. Just like great art, his writing and way of communicating stories is a treasure that I hope will last for many generations. For the full hour long video, see this link.
Transcript of his introduction to the lectures:
Over the next several weeks, within these capsule slices that I’ve sketched out here of the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties, we’ll see stories of lofts and deserts, hot rods and philosophy seminars, Day-Glo and dirt, rusting steel and shiny brass, that will take us from Patagonia to Paris. And I hope these selective histories, if told freshly and in some engaging way, will already be worth your time, that they’ll offer us the chance to review, look, and think about some of the best and most challenging art of the epoch to which we all belong. And this may be more than enough, more than I or you can handle, in a handful of lectures.
But I also think there’s a point to all these accounts, to this chronology, that is, a general meaning behind the unfolding of their particular facts, perhaps a basic doubt that haunts everything I’ve laid out. Thus in addition to describing all these “how” stories, about the way all this happened over several decades, I feel obliged to ask some “why” questions, including ultimately the big one I deferred at the outset: “Why abstraction?” “Why abstract art?”
Of course, I believe in the premise of abstract art, and I like a lot of it, or I wouldn’t be up here railing about it. But modern art historians such as me are “lifers,” professional in-groupers. We’re bound to be concerned about this kind of work. And obviously part of what I hope to do is make you like it more, too. But whether I succeed or not, beyond my liking it or your liking it or even all of DC liking it, and even beyond the commitments of the artists who make it and the collectors and institutions that support it, what is abstract art good for? What’s the use—for us as individuals, or for any society—of pictures of nothing? Paintings or sculptures or prints or drawings that don’t seem to show anything except themselves: holes in the ground, and big pieces of steel. I take this topic ultimately because this seems one of the most legitimate and most poorly addressed questions in modern art.