Lives of the Artists Portraits of Ten Artists Whose Work and Lifestyles Embody the Future of Contemporary Art

Calvin Tomkins

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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For more than three decades Calvin Tomkins's incisive profiles in The New Yorker have given readers the most satisfying reports on contemporary art and artists available in any language. In Lives of the Artists ten major artists are captured in Tomkins's cool and ironic style to record the new directions art is taking during these days of limitless freedom. As formal technique and rigorous training continue to fall away, art has become an approach to living. As the author says, "the lives of contemporary artists are today so integral to what they make that the two cannot be considered in isolation."

Among the artists profiled are Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, the reigning heirs of deliberately outrageous art that feeds off the allegedly corrupting influences of capitalist glut and entertainment; Matthew Barney of the pregenital obsessions; Cindy Sherman, who manages multiple transformations as she disappears into her own work; and Julian Schnabel, who has forged a second career as award-winning film director. Whatever the choice, Tomkins shows that the making of art remains among the most demanding jobs on earth.


Praise for Lives of the Artists

"Tomkins approaches art writing as a raconteur rather than a formalist: artists' lives, Tomkins says, are 'integral to what they make' . . . Tomkins is a creature of our anything-goes cultural era. Though not a strictly nonjudgmental postmodernist, Tomkins is cheerfully ecumenical, defying both the squabbling sectarians of the art world and critics who believe art is becoming increasingly frivolous. These 10 profiles, which originally appeared from 1999 to 2008, helped ratify the contemporary canon in all its eclecticism, from the market-savvy provocations of Damien Hirst to the austere if gigantic minimalism of Richard Serra to the enigmatic theatricality of Cindy Sherman . . . [Tomkins'] consummate mastery of the magazine profile form and enthusiasm for his subjects are winning."—Mick Sussman, The New York Times Book Review

"To match Tomkins in keeness of wit and sharpness of observation, one must go back to Lytton Strachey."—Louis Auchincloss

"This is art history live."—Massimiliano Gioni, Director of Special Exhibitions, The New Museum of Contemporary Art

"In Lives of the Artists, a collection of Calvin Tomkins's brilliantly illuminating profiles for The New Yorker, this latter-day Vasari puts his dry wit and keen eye to work in fashioning enduring portraits of ten contemporary-art stars, tracing the fruits of creative genius back to their strange roots."—Vogue

"One of the pleasures of this book is that there are no illustrations; the reader has to operate on memory and be guided by Tomkins's first-rate, plainspoken descriptive powers to make judgments undeterred by the art itself . . . His recent sketch of the painter Walton Ford in The New Yorker suggests that he is, again, a little ahead of the curve."—William Corbett, Art New England

"Calvin Tomkins's essays on artists, collected in this new book, would at first seem to be for those who don't keep up with the New Yorker, where they've all appeared over the past ten years. There is also the question of whether there is an audience out there curious to know even more about Cindy Sherman, Richard Serra, Matthew Barney, John Currin, Julian Schabel, Damien Hirst, Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, and other artists whose careers and personal lives have bee chronicled to the nth degree . . . While I'd enjoyed these profiles profiles when I read them in the New Yorker, I was reluctant to read them a second time. I shouldn't have been. It is useful and illuminating to have Tomkins's pieces compiled in one book and to be able to savor them over a few days. He is such a generous, down-to-earth writer, and so good at eliciting private thoughts from his subjects, that the book is hard to put down—even if you'd read these profiles before. Memories of too-quickly-skimmed magazine articles are often short and distorted, and the proximity of these pieces helps define Tomkins's style as guest, interviewer, and writer. And what is that style, exactly? Tomkins is genuinely interested in artists' lives—the title is not simply borrowed form Giorgio Vasari's 16th-century tome—and that makes him a genial interrogator. You sense, reading his profiles, that he personally wants to know what makes artists tick—in particular, what kind of early history propelled them into art making . . . Of all of Tomkins recent subjects, Johns is the most reluctant and also the most tantalizing to the author. With the paltry few insights into his oeuvre that the artist provides—even over visits by Tomkins to Johns's houses and studios in Connecticut and on the island of Saint Martin (where the slightly chilly Johns comes off as a thoughtful host)—Tomkins constructs a haunting portrait of a man whose transitory childhood clearly shaped the enigmatic character of his art."—Edith Newhall, ARTnews

"In the great predatory swoop of Higher Gobbledygook onto the syntax of critical prose around the world, art critics, for more than two decades, were among those most decisively clutched in its beak and talons and spirited away to impenetrable oblivion. Which is why some of the greatest heroes among critics in the English language over the past half century were those art critics who stubbornly retained clarity in their work: among them the great Australian maverick Robert Hughes, British Marxist John Berger, American philosopher Arthur C. Danto and the New Yorker magazine's incomparable profile writer Calvin Tomkins. Now 82, Tomkins has collected in this remarkable—perhaps indispensable—book, his New Yorker artist profiles from the past decade. Here, he says, are the artists who made art when it could be 'whatever artists decided it was and there were no restrictions on the new methods and materials.' His 10 subjects here are: British art star Damien Hirst; photographer/role player/Hallwalls co-founder Cindy Sherman; controversial painter and acclaimed filmmaker Julian Schnabel; monumental sculptor Richard Serra; earth artist James Turrell 'whose medium is light'; multimedia master Matthew Barney; installation 'jokester, sensationalist, troublemaker, conceptual artist' Maurizio Cattelan; pop art patriarch Jasper Johns; kitschmeister and provocateur Jeff Koons and outrageous figure painter John Currin. Assume no irony from his Vasari-like title. These profiles are completely personal, conversationally clear to the point of sparkle and as engagingly companionable as any excursion into contemporary art anywhere."—Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News

"Tomkins, author of an outstanding biography of Duchamp, assembles a guide to the age of anything-is-art out of 10 of his incandescent New Yorker profiles. Reveling in the long tradition of parsing artists' lives launched in 1550 with Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Eminient Artists, Painters, and Sculptors of Italy, Tomkins has chosen his 'eminent' artists wisely. The earliest essay is his 1999 piece on the perpetually controversial Damien Hirst, which is undiminished by the intervening years and briskly updated, as are each of the other equally memorable portraits, including the 2008 piece on John Currin and his evocative uniting of Old Master techniques and twenty-first-century oddities. Tomkins is equally intrigued with the many faces of Cindy Sherman, painter Julian Schnabels metamorphosis into a Cannes-anointed film director, Richard Serra's flintiness, the confounding contrast between Matthew Barney's oh-goshness and die baroque bizarreness of his films, and James Turrell's austere and ambitious desert quest. With inquiries into Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, and Maurizio Cattelan rounding out this smart book, Tomkins covers the art spectrum with panache."—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"Tomkins's access is astonishing . . . A deft biographer, he gives a lesson in his craft: how to balance present with past, the specific with the general, personality with context, features with flaws—all in the space of 20 pages. Tomkins is a ruthless observer . . . He is also a generous critic of the cult of artistic personality . . . Books [from] The New Yorker have become a small industry, but not all are as intimate as this one."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Calvin Tomkins

  • Calvin Tomkins, winner of the Clark Prize for art writing, has written more than a dozen books, including The Bride and the Bachelors, the bestseller Living Well Is the Best Revenge, and the critically acclaimed biography Duchamp. He lives in New York City with his wife, Dodie Kazanjian.