The Art of Looking

How to Read Modern and Contemporary Art


By Lance Esplund

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A veteran art critic helps us make sense of modern and contemporary art

The landscape of contemporary art has changed dramatically during the last hundred years: from Malevich’s 1915 painting of a single black square and Duchamp’s 1917 signed porcelain urinal to Jackson Pollock’s midcentury “drip” paintings; Chris Burden’s “Shoot” (1971), in which the artist was voluntarily shot in the arm with a rifle; Urs Fischer’s “You” (2007), a giant hole dug in the floor of a New York gallery; and the conceptual and performance art of today’s Ai Weiwei and Marina Abramovic. The shifts have left the art-viewing public (understandably) perplexed.

In The Art of Looking, renowned art critic Lance Esplund demonstrates that works of modern and contemporary art are not as indecipherable as they might seem. With patience, insight, and wit, Esplund guides us through the last century of art and empowers us to approach and appreciate it with new eyes. Eager to democratize genres that can feel inaccessible, Esplund encourages viewers to trust their own taste, guts, and common sense. The Art of Looking will open the eyes of viewers who think that recent art is obtuse, nonsensical, and irrelevant, as well as the eyes of those who believe that the art of the past has nothing to say to our present.



THE LANDSCAPE OF ART HAS CHANGED DRAMATICALLY during the past one hundred years. We’ve seen Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), an abstract painting comprising a single black square within a white ground, and Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Fountain (1917) (fig. 10)—a hand-signed porcelain urinal. Midcentury brought us the Abstract Expressionist “drip” paintings of Jackson Pollock, as well as Pop art, which featured Andy Warhol’s pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s soup cans, and Chairman Mao. With the rise of neo-Dada and Conceptualism, we saw Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit (1961), a series of ninety sealed tin cans, each purportedly containing 1.1 ounces of Manzoni’s own excrement. In 1971, Chris Burden, in his performance artwork Shoot, was voluntarily shot in the arm with a .22 caliber rifle. In 2007, Urs Fischer, for his installation You, took a jackhammer to Gavin Brown’s enterprise gallery, in New York City, to create a giant crater in the cement floor. And uptown, in 2016, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the artist Maurizio Cattelan replaced a porcelain toilet in one of the public restrooms with the interactive sculpture America—a fully functional replica of a toilet, cast in 18-karat gold.

Is it any wonder that the art-viewing public is bewildered, even intimidated? What are they to make of the range of possibilities offered in galleries and museums? Are Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Pollock old hat? Is the art of the past century meant primarily to baffle, shock, and provoke us? Are Modern and contemporary artists speaking only to an elitist art-world few or creating inside jokes? Or is the joke, perhaps, on us? And if viewers don’t bother to queue up to use Cattelan’s America, or to see a Jeff Koons, Kara Walker, or Gerhard Richter retrospective, are they missing out? Or is something else afoot? Today’s viewers might rightly wonder: Has the public always felt uneasy about and out of step with the art of their time? Or is all the confusion and apprehension a sign of something new and very recent—something exclusive to the experience of today’s contemporary art?

The answers to these questions—just like the art under discussion—are complex and manifold. People have had to grapple with the revolutionary art of their contemporaries throughout history: the jarring, naturalistic sense of space introduced during the Renaissance in the early fourteenth century was just as unsettling and revolutionary as the jarring, antinaturalistic sense of space of Cubism, which upended the Renaissance’s approach in the early twentieth century, or the jarring objectlessness of Conceptual art in the late twentieth century. It’s important to understand that art, despite its relationship to its time, is a language unto itself—a language that exists beyond its particular era. That language continually evolves and reinvents itself—even often quotes itself. But there are also qualities specific to Modern and contemporary art that are unique.

Definitions of the word “art”—as well as of many of the different terms used to classify art’s periods, movements, and “isms”—are now fluid and open to discussion. Whether any given movement is truly “modern”—as in recent—is therefore often up for debate. One could argue, for example, that the twentieth-century movement Surrealism, fueled in part by the workings of the artist’s unconscious, reached its zenith in the fantastical religious narratives created by the Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516); or that the Modern movements Expressionism and Cubism were in ascendance already in the angular elongations and fractured spaces of the Spanish painter El Greco (1541–1614); or that some of the most inventive abstract art was created by medieval nuns and monks, or by the ancient Egyptians. In this book, I’ll shed some light on these issues, and perhaps make these movements more approachable, by illuminating the similarities between recent and past art.

It’s useful to discuss terminology, because there is such a wide range of work being done—and such a wide range of opinions, philosophies, agendas, and approaches around art. By “Modern,” I’m referring primarily here to artworks made since 1863, when Édouard Manet exhibited his scandalous painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) (fig. 1) in the Salon des Refusés, after it had been rejected by the academy of the official Paris Salon. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, a painting in which a nude woman, looking at the viewer, picnics with a couple of dandies, was among the first artworks that provocatively and self-consciously questioned and poked fun at the hallowed traditions and conventions of painting. In this case, it was through, among other things, its subject, which transformed the classical nude from goddess and muse into floozy, if not prostitute, and its willfully slapdash paint-handling. But we could start earlier, with the gritty Realist paintings of Gustave Courbet, or later, with Picasso’s and Georges Braque’s Cubism. Modern art incorporates not only Manet’s Impressionism, but also those groundbreaking movements Realism and Cubism, as well as Symbolism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Dadaism, and abstraction, among many others. To be a Modern artist means not so much belonging to a particular era or movement as taking a particular philosophy and stance in relationship to art and art-making.

Modernism in its early days represented liberation and independence. Modernists created radical new modes of artistic expression. They embraced new materials, technologies, artistic innovations, and subject matter—including photography, the assembly line, the machine aesthetic, kinetics, plastics, abstraction, Expressionism, refuse, reinforced concrete, and steel—the same material that was allowing for the creation of the vertical skyscraper and the modern city. They were inspired by the art of other cultures—such as the flat space, active patterns, and everyday subject matter of Japanese prints, and the spare, rectilinear organization of Japanese architecture; the pared-down forms of so-called primitive masks and totems; and the exoticism of other non-Western societies. Modernists, free to focus on whatever they wished, also looked inward, embracing not just the nightclub, the brothel, and the racetrack, but themselves, their culture—both lowbrow and highbrow—and art itself: how they felt about being in an increasingly unfamiliar world that was changing and speeding up at an exponential rate, that was becoming increasingly global, and being flooded with new art, new cultures, new technologies and inventions, and new ideas, leaving behind the old and the familiar.

Modernists rejected a lot of what they saw as outmoded and academic. They no longer believed that art needed to be about mythology and religion, or kings and queens. They no longer believed that art needed to mirror the world, or that perspective needed to be the organizing principle of a picture (why not organize, instead, in accordance with the artist’s feelings, or why not let the artwork be the subject of itself?). Modern artists didn’t believe, necessarily, that a sculpture must be separated and elevated on a pedestal, or that a sculpture must be conceived and built out of an accumulation of masses (why not incorporate the pedestal, as in a primitive totem, so that it is integral to the work, equal to and inseparable from it—as in the Modernist sculptures of Constantin Brâncuşi and Alberto Giacometti?).

Modernists sought to liberate pedestal, sculpture, mass, and even the stationary artwork itself: space—void—was transformed, by the Cubists, into volume; and the stationary object could be freed to move and interact among the viewers—as in the mobiles of the American Modernist sculptor Alexander Calder. But Modernist artists, acknowledging and honoring newfound technologies and modes of thinking and feeling as well as the primacy of individuality, didn’t reject the past out-of-hand. They willingly and excitedly embraced the new—alongside tradition—in order to speak in the present by reinventing the past, and thereby further the tradition of art. The radical French Realist painter Gustave Courbet, a pioneering figure of Modernism in the 1800s, said, “I have simply wanted to draw from a thorough knowledge of tradition the reasoned and free sense of my own individuality. To know in order to do: such has been my thought. To be able to translate the customs, ideas, and appearance of my time as I see them—in a word, to create a living art—this has been my aim.”

Courbet’s stance continues to be that of many artists working today. It’s essential to keep in mind that Modern artists were not merely reacting to the modern world and embracing every new material and technology that came their way. They were and are individualists who honor what they think and feel and the path their art naturally takes. It matters little that Modern artists embraced new materials and technologies and subjects. What matters is what those artists did and continue to do with those newfound things. Although, for instance, the relativity of space and location experienced in Picasso’s and Braque’s Cubism has been aligned with the relativity of Albert Einstein, Cubism was not illustrating an idea about physics or about the nature of the universe; it was born out of the formal interests and inner needs of its creators—their independence and individuality. The fact that Modern art and modern science sometimes took similar trajectories, though intriguing, really is beside the point.

Art and artists make their own paths. Artists, despite their alignments, can be movements unto themselves. Modern art is wide ranging and omnivorous—a movement encompassing the provocative representational paintings of Manet, the abstract weavings of Anni Albers, the Surrealist and figurative art of Giacometti, the fluorescent light installations of Dan Flavin, and the Minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd, as well as the land art of Robert Smithson and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Despite the popular belief that Modernism is over and dead, there are plenty of contemporary artists who consider themselves Modern artists.

It’s necessary to keep in mind that art history is fickle. Artists go in and out of fashion. Some of the past artists we celebrate today were virtually unheard of for decades, and even centuries. And it is usually artists who resurrect artists. We are still in the throes of the Modernist era. We have yet to get enough distance to see Modernism objectively, let alone many of today’s fashionable contemporary artists, some of whom art history will consign to the rubbish heap. And there are also many underappreciated contemporary artists who are virtually unknown and who will be celebrated by future generations.

WHAT ISCONTEMPORARY art,” anyway? Although it may seem like it would be a simple matter to state a basic definition, for many artists, art historians, curators, and art critics, that is not the case. I once participated on a panel titled “What Makes Contemporary Art Contemporary?” Among the definitions and requirements bandied about were these ideas: that contemporary art, to be designated “contemporary”—“relevant”—must address contemporary political and social issues; that it must be engaged with the latest technology and with globalization; that it must be multimedia, must be revolutionary, and must question, appropriate, and depose the art and artists of the past—especially the “Modernists.” Some panelists argued that contemporary art began with Pop art or Conceptualism or Postmodernism; or circa 1945, or 1970; or that it could only include art made since 1990, or 2000. One person suggested that a contemporary artist was anyone born since 1950. Another said that a work of contemporary art, by definition, must have been completed “today,” or maybe “yesterday”—and by someone under the age of thirty. Even more recently, I encountered the idea that today’s most important contemporary artists don’t necessarily make art objects at all; rather, they are closer to first-responders and activists, resorting, when and if necessary, to guerrilla tactics in order to address emergency crises, assist victims of natural disasters, counter social injustice, or instigate change. Following in their footsteps, some contemporary curators have shifted their role from organizing exhibitions to organizing curatorial activism.

I do not believe that art today has to be one thing or another, or that a contemporary artist must have an agenda. I do believe that the best artists have a position—something to say, and the creative means to say it well. This might be a feeling about the qualities of light in a sunset, the weight and color of an eggplant on a table, the sense of loss in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, or contemporary politics. I’d much rather see an inventive still-life painting or landscape than a derivative and uninteresting work of politically driven performance art. Likewise, I’d rather spend time with an engaging multimedia installation than a banal, uninspired landscape, video, or abstraction. I define “contemporary art” as any art being created by living or recently deceased artists—generally speaking, any artist, young or old, who is working currently, whatever the mode and materials and subjects.

The term “Postmodern” in art is often used interchangeably with “contemporary” or “Modern,” but Postmodernism is actually a subset of movements in contemporary art. Like Modernism, Postmodernism is extremely eclectic and embraces diverse and contradictory positions. It has affected all of contemporary culture, from architecture, literature, music, theater, and dance to philosophy and criticism. Like Modernism, Postmodernism is about liberation—albeit liberation from what are seen as the shackles and ideals of Modernism.

Although Postmodernism has its roots in the nineteenth century, most scholars see it as flourishing after the mid-twentieth, as a reproach to the individualism and bravado of artworks by Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and Pollock, and to the then dominant less-is-more postwar aesthetic of the International Style in architecture, which had produced impersonal, minimalist boxes of concrete, glass, and steel—machines for living. But many others believe Postmodernism began around 1915, with the birth of Duchamp’s “Readymades”—store-bought or mass-produced objects exhibited as works of art—because Postmodernism, like Modernism, is defined less by a time period than by an artist’s philosophy.

Practitioners of Postmodernism operate as if Modernism were over, or were dying embers needing once and for all to be extinguished. Others see the Postmodernism movement as Modernism’s death rattle, or last hurrah. Postmodern art, for our purposes, refers to any art made as a rebuke to Modernism. Postmodernism, which sees Modernism, and especially formalism, as bankrupt (I’ll address the fallacy of this belief in later chapters), embraces irony, humor, theory, and pluralism. Self-conscious and self-referential, it is art that willfully critiques, if not makes fun of, other “Art”—art with a capital “A.” Postmodernism takes an anti-aesthetic, nihilistic stance, one that denies that there is any discernible or hierarchical value in anything, that believes there are no such aesthetic distinctions as “good” and “bad,” “less than” and “greater than.” The Postmodernists assert that all art is subjective, that there are no truths—only interpretations—and that the Modernists’ so-called values and qualitative judgments are insignificant and unmeasurable. They maintain that meanings and rankings are elitist inventions—holdovers from the old regime—and that discussing and valuing the formal properties in a work of art, and believing that a Rembrandt or a Picasso or a Pollock might be better than some random scribble, is a load of hooey.

Adherents to the Postmodernist philosophy believe in the importance of leveling the playing field and value inclusivity—they embrace everything, high and low, equally with open arms, especially chance, ugliness, disharmony, and kitsch. They choose the freedom and messiness of irrationality over what they see as the restrictive, puritanical rationality of Modernism. The Postmodernists seemingly imagine Modernism to be much purer and less messy and omnivorous than it actually is. And they want to mess it all up, if not tear it down.

Many Postmodernists believe that the participatory viewer is as important as, if not sometimes more important than, the artist, and that the intention of the artist is meaningless. This anti-formalist, anti-aesthetic position has led to movements such as Process art, which values impermanence and perishability—and in which an object, such as a hay bale, might just be left outside to weather the elements—and Conceptual art, in which the idea or concept is prized above the finished artwork, and in which, occasionally, the art object never materializes. At times in Conceptual art, the viewers themselves must create, or merely imagine—conjure in the mind’s eye—the unrealized “artwork” or artistic “act.”

Like Modernist artists, however, Postmodern practitioners represent a broad range of approaches and artists. Postmodernists embrace irony, Conceptualism, and deconstructionism. They also resort to appropriation—in which artists borrow, if not steal, and reuse the work of other artists. Appropriation artists include Richard Prince, who, in photographing and altering vintage cigarette advertisements, repurposed the Marlboro Man; Christian Marclay collaged together thousands of film and television clips for his twenty-four-hour-long looped video montage The Clock, from 2010. Postmodernists also embrace nostalgia for the academic art against which the Modernists originally rebelled. In Postmodernism, what was once considered “bad” or tasteless is now considered “good”—if only for the reason that it goes against Modernism’s notions of “good” and “bad.” And it is worth noting that Postmodernism, which displaced Modernism in the 1980s and 1990s, is the current reigning ideology in galleries, museums, art history programs, and art schools.

Postmodernism—as well as a lot of contemporary art and artists—prizes rebellion. Oftentimes, in fact, we are told that one of the main functions of contemporary art is to challenge and prod us and to be revolutionary. The art of the past two centuries has often been groundbreaking, challenging, and provocative, and the birth of Modernism coincided with the birth of the Industrial Revolution and violent revolutions in the United States and France. Modern artistic innovations were often jarring, intentionally or not. When you are familiar only with figurative sculptures of bronze and marble, a kinetic abstract mobile by Calder can positively provoke you. And sometimes, in order to be heard, artists who were ignored by the establishment have had to embrace revolutionary tactics. Too often, though, the notions of innovation and revolution have been misunderstood to be the rallying cry of Modern and contemporary art, their raison d’être. Because some of the greatest Modern art, completely new, was shocking and revolutionary, it is now believed that art’s job is to upset the status quo.

If we approach art with the belief that it must be this and not that, then we risk missing out on a lot of worthwhile Modern and contemporary art. We also limit our understanding of what art is. And if we believe that our contemporary art is more important and relevant to us than the art made a decade ago, or a century or a millennium ago, we take a position of false superiority, a stance that, as it increasingly cuts us off from our histories, distances us from ourselves. When we consistently focus on the new, we embrace the next thing out of habit, not necessity. And when provocation is expected in art, provocation becomes rote—no longer provocative—and art and artists assume the role of bully. Bucking the status quo becomes the status quo, with last year’s “revolutionary” model always being rotated out to make room for this year’s “revolutionary” model. If we blindly accept that the latest art is better and more relevant than earlier art, each time we embrace the next fashionable thing we leave something of what came before, and once mattered to us, behind.

THE ART OF LOOKING acknowledges the interconnectedness between the art of the past and the art of the present. It recognizes that Modern and contemporary artists are in dialogue with, recycle, and reinvent the art of the past. Although my focus will be on how to navigate Modern and contemporary art, I want to encourage you to engage with all art—not just the art of the past century or decade—at the deepest level, and to see that the art of the recent past and of the present can open us up to the art of the past. I also want to encourage you to develop your aesthetic judgment—your critical mind and eye—and to begin to trust yourself and to see art the way artists see art.

Though there are differences among philosophies and emphasis, the art of the present and the art of the past share many of the same elements and much of the same language. With that in mind, I’ve interspersed art from many periods and cultures throughout the book in order to underscore the continuum of art’s language. I’ve used paintings for the majority of my examples because painting is among the oldest and most consistent and prevailing forms of visual art; it also contains the majority of art’s universal elements: color, line, movement, form, shape, rhythm, space, tension, and metaphor. These same elements can also be found in contemporary assemblages, works of performance art, and sometimes even Conceptual art. When you encounter an artwork that is new and different, it is worthwhile to look for its similarities with more familiar works, rather than focusing only on what is unique or seemingly revolutionary. By grounding yourself in the larger language of art, you may find that those things that initially seemed strange might not be as unfamiliar as you at first thought.

I’ve organized The Art of Looking into two sections. The first section is “Fundamentals.” In its five chapters I relate my own experience of first coming to art, and I explore the elements and language of art, the use of metaphor in art, and the value of marshaling your powers of both subjectivity and objectivity when engaging with works of art. In Chapter 5, after we’ve explored how to approach the art of all eras, I discuss the nature of Modern and contemporary art and touch on how Postmodernism came into being.

The second section of the book, “Close Encounters,” is devoted to close readings of a variety of individual works of Modern and contemporary art: painting, sculpture, video, installation, and performance art. These eclectic works show the range of deep and surprising experiences viewers can have when engaging with art. My close readings in these ten chapters are in-depth analyses of how I have looked at, thought about, and experienced art.

I’m well aware that in doing close readings of artworks, we are in danger of injuring the delicacy and intricacy—the mystery—of an artwork’s inner life, and of introducing the proverbial rock on which so many of those who interpret artworks are commonly wrecked. But please bear with me and follow along in these chapters, as it is precisely in the navigating and interpreting of an artwork’s intricacies—and in identifying, reading, and attempting to glean what, exactly, its forms and pathways are doing, where they’re taking us, and why—that an artwork unfolds and reveals its inner life.

We are seeking questions and possibilities, not answers. Art is less concerned with answers than with inspiring you to expand and deepen your experience—to feel and think. In sharing my experience of artworks, I’m not suggesting that they are definitive. I present one set of possibilities and responses. As you follow along with me, check in with yourself, just as I have done and continue to do, to get closer to the truth of the work and to the truth of your own responses. Start with your eyes and your gut feelings. Then pose questions: to the artwork, to me, and to yourself. Ask yourself if your responses and experiences jibe with mine. Ask yourself what you think: where the artwork takes you and what thoughts it inspires, because it is great to have feelings about something, to have likes and dislikes, but it is even better to know why—to think in accompaniment to feeling—to reach a place, in your experience of an artwork, where feelings and ideas support, inspire, and further one another, where they fuse.

The concluding chapter, “Looking Further,” addresses the changing nature of art museums, the pitfalls of the use and intrusion of technology to interact with art, and the role and importance of the artist. I also make some suggestions about how to keep your bearings while navigating art’s evolving landscape.

The Art of Looking is by no means exhaustive, encyclopedic, or even absolute (there are no absolutes). What I have written here is what I know to be true for me, and what I have gleaned and believe from a lifetime of looking at art. The book is more of an impassioned primer on the subject—some ideas that you can try on, take, and run with—than a comprehensive text on Modern and contemporary art. No book of this size and scope can hope to be all-encompassing. (Much more—in terms of artists, movements, philosophies, genres, and “isms”—has been left out than included.) My focus here is on grounding you in art’s fundamentals and on empowering you to look and think for yourself—to help you to discover your own passions. Once you’ve gotten enough of your own footing with art, you’ll begin to trust yourself and your experience. My goal has been to help you learn to have faith in your own eyes and heart and gut, and to feel confident reading works of art on your own—that is, to help you begin to think like an artist. This is not a book of art history, or about the art market. It is not a collection of greatest hits. Nor is it a rundown of the most important, groundbreaking, expensive, revolutionary, or shocking artworks of the past century or decade. Although I expend a great deal of time and energy here telling you what I personally think and feel about works of art, I do not aim to convince you that my way of seeing is the only way of seeing, or that the art I love is the art you should love—that the art I’ve assembled on my personal altar is the art that should grace your altar. Rather, my aim is to familiarize you with the language of art, to help you open up to art that might be unfamiliar, to engage further with the art that interests you already—whether it is Modern, contemporary, or ancient—to begin to assemble your own personal altar.

My goal is to give you some tools so that you can get out and go to work. Think of The Art of Looking as a guide to help you to hone your skills of perception and to home in on the truth of your experience. You do not have to agree with or share my tastes in art, or even see what I see. It is more important that you begin to see and to feel for yourself in front of works of art. I cannot give you my experience or love of art. You must come to and love art on your own. And it is essential that you get out and see artworks in the flesh, because there is absolutely no substitute for the face-to-face encounter with art.


  • "[A] wise, wonderful new book...Life is busy and art is demanding, but reading Esplund prods us to take the aesthetic plunge, to commit to a James Turrell light sculpture or a forbiddingly monumental Richard Serra art space the same way we do to a Rembrandt, a Berthe Morisot, a Picasso."—Washington Post
  • "Encouraging, intelligent, and thought-provoking."—New York Journal of Books
  • "Everybody who cares about the art of our time will want to own this brilliant book. Lance Esplund brings ease, elegance, and incisiveness to his passionate encounters with creative spirits old and new. His essential belief, presented in prose by turns tough-minded and tenderhearted, is that contemporary practice must be grounded in timeless, universal values. The Art of Looking shines a strong and steady light. We need it."—Jed Perl, author of Calder: The Conquest of Time and New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century
  • "Esplund's conversational new book aims to coach its readers through the slow process and at-times-difficult experience of seeing...[He] is at his best when he is able to reach to the past, and to the timeless traditions and values that all successful art shares in."—New Criterion
  • "This important, unconventional book begins as a terrific first-aid manual, highly accessible and full of great common sense, for those for whom modern or contemporary art is puzzling or off-putting. It evolves into a dazzling, jargon-free display of the exercise of slow, close, curious looking at all kinds of art. Those seeking relief from the plague of art-speak will find it in this insightful, unashamedly personal volume."— John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture, the Museum of Modern Art
  • "In a friendly and conversational tone, Esplund shares his insights honed during a long career...Inviting and informative."—Kirkus
  • Presenting itself as an introductory volume to help orient beginners, The Art of Looking opens with a brisk, illuminating historical sweep before zooming in on specific works by ten dissimilar artists spanning nearly a century. An intensive exercise in meticulous observation and close reading, the book offers a personal overview that should interest art-world sophisticates as well as newcomers to the field. —Elizabeth C. Baker, editor-at-large, Art in America
  • "The Art of Looking is a wonderful book, filled with remarkable insights about experiencing whatever it is that we mean by the word 'art.' Whether it is Balthus and the Me Too Movement or walking through Richard Serra's enormous curving rust colored sculptures -- there is always something new and exciting to be discovered."—Robert Benton
  • "If you've never understood contemporary art, or fear you've understood it all too well, then this book is ready to be your secret friend. In lucid prose that has the loft of poetry, Lance Esplund lifts the burden of 'art appreciation' to reveal that the subject of all great art is how it appreciates you for the way you look at it. His own encounters with exemplary work-by Joan Mitchell, James Turrell, and Marina Abramovic among others-are related in terms so complete, courageous, and physically convincing they make you want to see art as he has seen it, a giant step toward seeing it for oneself."—Douglas Crase, author of The Revisionist
  • "Despite dramatic shifts in art over the last century, [Lance Esplund] empowers and enables us to appreciate it with 'new eyes.' Rather than perceiving new art as inaccessible or irrelevant, Esplund gently encourages us to trust our own tastes, feelings and opinions."—Detroit Free Press
  • "[Esplund] guides us through art made in the last century and how we can approach it in a way that's accessible and rewarding."—My Modern Met
  • "Avoiding the exclusionary vocabularies that abound in the art world, Esplund's new book conversationally guides the interested newcomer towards confidence in approaching western contemporary art...Esplund believes art should actively stir, not passively amuse."—Aesthetica

On Sale
Nov 27, 2018
Page Count
288 pages
Basic Books

Lance Esplund

About the Author

Lance Esplund writes about art for the Wall Street Journal. Previously, he was US art critic for Bloomberg News and chief art critic for the New York Sun. He has taught studio art and art history at the Parsons School of Design and Rider University, and has served as visiting MFA critic at the New York Studio School. His essays have appeared in Art in America, Harper’s, Modern Painters, and the New Republic among others. Esplund lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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