In the hope that I might need free time for holiday cheer of some kind, Looking Around is shutting down for the next five days. Back Monday. But on the way out the door I wanted to take note of two more books that I enjoyed in recent months.
Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton (W.W. Norton; 268 pages)
Thornton has degrees in both art history and sociology. What she does in this very entertaining book is embark on a kind of anthropological inspection tour of seven departments of the global artworld that she scrutinized between 2004 and 2007 — a big auction at Christie’s in New York, the awarding of the Turner Prize in London, the offices of Artforum, the Venice Biennale, Art Basel, a visit to the studio/factory of Takashi Murakami outside Tokyo and a “crit” session among students at CalArts near L.A. She completed the book before the art market, and the world in general, went bust. I read it in London during the week of the Damien Hirst auction at Sotheby’s, which took place during the same days last October that Lehman Brothers was collapsing. Already much of it seemed like a snapshot of a world that was going, going, gone. (That Christie’s auction!) But it’s full of good stuff and some of the things she observed, like the angst of artists waiting to see who won the Turner Prize, are not all that susceptible to changing market conditions.
Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures by Cynthia Saltzman (Viking; 324 pages)
Another snapshot of a bygone world. Before there were Russian plutocrats and Hong Kong billionaires on shopping sprees at art fairs and auction houses there were — the Americans, funneling great art from European collections into their newly established and understuffed museums. Saltzman opens her book in the 1880s with the banker and railway millionaire Henry Gurdon Marquand scouring Europe on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, sniffing out masterpieces that could be pried from the collections of cash poor English noblemen. She has chapters on Bernard Berenson’s self-serving dealings with Isabella Stewart Gardner, the always entertaining machinations of Berenson’s confederate Lord Duveen, J. Pierpont Morgan’s titanically free spending, and the Havemeyers having their tastes formed on trips to Paris with their friend Mary Cassatt. Saltzman ends in the early 1930s with Andrew Mellon persuading the Soviet government to secretly sell him about 20 masterworks from The Hermitage, many of which, like Raphael’s Alba Madonna, now hang at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Talk about de-accessioning.