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BOOK REVIEW

'Breaking the Rules: What Is Contemporary Art?' by Susan Goldman Rubin

Intended as an introduction to the Museum of Contemporary Art's collection, the book is a lively, insightful sampling of work by artists.

April 08, 2010|By Sharon Mizota
  • Copies of Susan Goldman Rubin's "Breaking the Rules: What Is Contemporary Art?"
Copies of Susan Goldman Rubin's "Breaking the Rules: What Is… (Nicholas Lowie )

"Stillness is one of the pleasures of painting. It's a surface that doesn't move," says artist Vija Celmins in the Museum of Contemporary Art's new children's book, "Breaking the Rules: What Is Contemporary Art?"

Celmins' comment is striking because it points to the changing landscape of art making and viewing. Long the archetypal art form, painting is now an exception, surrounded by the ubiquitous, never-still surfaces of videos, computer monitors and touch screens. On such a slippery terrain, can the slow, embodied pleasures of older art forms be made accessible and relevant to young people?

The book's answer, of course, is a resounding yes. Geared to 8- to 12-year-olds (although adults will probably learn a thing or two as well), "Breaking the Rules" is intended as an introduction to the museum's collection and a blatant effort to mold future audiences. Although it's hard to overlook these self-serving motives, the book is nevertheless a lively, insightful sampling of work by 25 artists from the last 60 years. More important, it eschews the "I Spy" and cutesy narrative formats of other such publications to focus on artists and ideas.

The book also frames art as an active and evolving phenomenon that is both engaged with everyday life and deserving of special attention and contemplation. Filled with artists' quotes and thought-provoking questions, "Breaking the Rules" brings often complex and "difficult" works of art to appealing and resonant life.

For example, the text that accompanies Charles Ray's "No" -- a photograph of a mannequin the artist made in his own likeness -- describes how Ray was inspired to create the doppelgänger by a feud he had with his boss, and that in doing so he followed the Sears standard manual for mannequin design. The account concludes with a concise statement of intent: "As an artist he wants to puzzle viewers and challenge their perceptions of what is real."

Written by award-winning children's author Susan Goldman Rubin, the straightforward text on Ray reveals that art can spring from everyday experience; that it may adopt industrial processes and encourage viewers to see the world from a different perspective. Not bad for four paragraphs.

Other featured artists are both familiar (Barbara Kruger, Chris Burden, Jean-Michel Basquiat) and unexpected (early feminist Atsuko Tanaka, Mexican conceptualist Damian Ortega and German photographer Thomas Demand). Refreshingly, there is not a Warhol or Lichtenstein in sight. To the book's credit, the selected pieces seem to have been chosen not for their art historical importance but for their ability to appeal to a young audience and connect with real-life issues.

The works are presented one at a time, which encourages focused looking, but are also skillfully arranged in subtle, unmarked thematic sequences. Claes Oldenburg's consumer items are followed by Andreas Gursky's photo mural of a 99-cent store, which leads to a Felix Gonzalez-Torres candy spill and Ed Ruscha's "Chocolate Room," a chamber lined in chocolate-dipped paper. The sequence not only allows attentive readers to make connections between disparate works, it forms a mini-treatise on consumerism, generosity and indulgence.

These connections are reinforced by James Allen's inviting graphic design. The book's pages resemble a series of colored gels, so that each work appears on a two-page spread in a bright solid that overlaps at the edges with different colors from the previous and following pages. The overall effect is of a rainbow, a nice metaphor for the amorphous field of contemporary art.

My only quibble is that the book claims contemporary art can be "anything artists imagine," yet its examples are drawn chiefly from painting, photography, drawing and sculpture. Forms that more closely resemble our ever-morphing reality, such as video or performance, are given short shrift.

But it is a thoughtful, well-researched and kid-friendly introduction to the often baffling complexity of contemporary art.

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