Lives of the artists by Calvin Tomkins (book review)

Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins. New York: Henry Holt, 2008.

Art history students and others who have read Giorgio Vasari’s classic 16th century Lives of the Artists will be amused by this modern version which delves into the wide-ranging personalities of ten contemporary artists.

The list includes some of the brightest luminaries in the field: Damien Hirst; Cindy Sherman; Julian Schnabel; Richard Serra; James Turrell; Matthew Barney; Maurizio Cattelan; Jasper Johns; Jeff Koons; and John Currin. They run the gamut from installation artists to painters and everything in between. Within this eclectic group it is apparent just how many styles and personalities can be encompassed within the title of “artist.”

Tomkins has been writing in-depth articles on art and artists since 1961. He’s a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and has written a number of highly-acclaimed books on individual artists. What comes across most clearly in his essays is how deeply he has delved into these lives. He is not just a biographer or a journalist spending a few hours with each artist. In many cases these relationships have developed over a course of many years (John Currin’s parents even invited Tomkins and his wife over for Thanksgiving dinner).

Each chapter describes the author’s impression of meeting and spending time with these artists on their own turf and among family and entourage. He then goes into background information about childhood, influences, and education, as well as compelling stories about the artists’ home lives and personality quirks. The chapters are peppered with interesting personal details, and Tomkins’ interviewing style obviously allows his subjects to open up to an unusual degree. He got a close friend of Cindy Sherman to divulge that “Cindy is such a girl. When we talk, it’s usually about something like finding the right lipstick at Kmart.” Such tidbits give this book a sparkle not often present in biographies.

Such personal involvement also leads to a certain amount of inherent subjectivity. Tomkins does not conceal his disdain for the cults of personality surrounding megalomaniac artists such as Damien Hirst (“He wasn’t being coherent, but this didn’t interfere with the carnival of affection that surrounded him the minute he arrived”) and Jeff Koons (described as either “amazingly naϊve or slyly performative”). This adds a dimension of compelling description to the book that draws the reader in, but it also calls into question how much of his view is shaped by relationships rather than observation.

Available via libraries and bookstores

Heather Kline is a librarian, art historian, writer, and book reviewer..

An archive of Heather's articles is located here.

> all book reviews