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Book Review
‘Lives of the Artists’ by Calvin Tomkins
To figure out what kind of art you like, you need to discover the art world in its full glory. And this means acquiring knowledge not only about works and lives of artists from India but also getting an insight into the work and thought processes of prominent international artists. To make your job easier, here is a new volume that profiles 10 truly great living artists of our times.

‘Lives of the Artists’ by Calvin Tomkins provides an insight into the life and philosophy of Damien Hirst, Cindy Sherman, Julian Schnabel, Richard Serra, James Turrell, Matthew Barney, Maurizio Cattelan, Jeff Koons, John Currin and Jasper Johns. These are biographical essays that build an interesting tale about these highly regarded contemporary artists.

The selection encompasses various media like painting, photography, sculpture, and performance. These are essays that first appeared in The New Yorker. For over three decades, his incisive profiles in the magazine have given readers the most elaborate views on contemporary art and artists. Their character is amply brought out - Jeff Koons and Damien Hist, the reigning heirs of deliberately provocative art; Cindy Sherman, who disappears into her own work even as she manages multiple transformations; Julian Schnabel, who has succeeded as a film director; and Matthew Barney of the pre-genital obsessions. The author traces their careers to conclude that art making remains among ‘the most demanding and challenging jobs on earth’.

Calvin Tomkins shows why it’s both easier and even more difficult to make art today in his ironic and cool style to map the new paths art is taking during this phase of limitless freedom. Underlining the significance of the book, Ken Johnson writes in the New York Times: “For newcomers to the world of art, this compendium of articles will serve as an informative and entertaining initiation into the mysteries of contemporary art.”

As rigorous training and formal technique continue to fall away, art has now become an approach to living. The author points out: “The lives of contemporary artists are so integral to what they make that the two aspects cannot be considered in isolation.” He approaches the creative processes behind it.

Calvin Tomkins has served as a staff writer for the magazine since 1960. His many profiles include Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Julia Child, Georgia O’Keeffe, Philip Johnson, Frank Stella, Carmel Snow, Leo Castelli, Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Frank Gehry. Tomkins penned the Art World column in the eighties. ‘Lives of the Artists’ (Henry Holt and Company; 272 pages, $26), starting with today’s art star Damien Hirst, sticks to the artists’ life tales, and how they connect with their individual work. These are mostly friendly in tone - for subject and reader – in The New Yorker’s signature style.

With his concise and evocative descriptions, the author gives the readers ample reference material to understand each artist. Hillary Frey, a senior editor at The Observer, notes: “His essays create a longing to see the actual work, which is a big compliment to Calvin Tomkins. He makes you want to go out and look at art. A deft biographer, he balances the specific with the general, present with past, personality with context, and features with flaws with his amazing observational skills.