It goes without saying that giving a book the title “100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age” is a hostage to fortune. We lack the necessary perspective when it comes to judging what it is about our time that is most important or representative culture-wise, for which reason the work of drawing up grand lists — the creation of a canon of the moment — is best left to those who come after.
The art world moves so fast these days that such a volume will doubtless seem out of date even before it makes it to paperback (the earliest piece included is Marc Quinn’s “Self,” from 1991; the most recent is Ai Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds” from 2010).
Still, I enjoyed looking through Kelly Grovier’s lavishly produced survey. For one thing, it stirred memories. I hadn’t, for instance, thought about Carsten Holler’s “Test Site” — the enormous tubular slide he installed in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern — since I saw it in 2006 (though this in itself tells you something: we live in an age of noisy projects that often fail to reverberate).
For another, this is a book that gives you permission to feel indignant.
Can Grovier really believe that Paul McCarthy’s “Blockhead” (2003), a vast inflatable which looks a bit like a tank and a lot like Barbamama, will stand the test of time? I looked at it, and hated its bulbous posturing all over again.
So, let’s first nitpick a little. Even as an admirer of Sean Scully, I find it hard to see in what sense his abstract oil painting “Doric” (2008) “defines our age.” Hasn’t painting been out of fashion these past two decades? And why this particular work rather than another? (Scully is nothing if not consistent.) Grovier has also included David Hockney’s huge “Bigger Trees Near Warter or/ou Peinture sur le Motif pour le Nouvel Age Post-Photographique” (2007), which tells us a lot about Hockney but nothing about the world in which he’s now working, save for the fact that digital technology makes grand-scale painting a good deal easier than it was in Titian’s day.
Marlene Dumas’ simplistic “Against the Wall” (2009), which has as its subject the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the security wall that separates Palestine from Israel, is the worst of both worlds: if it says little about 21st-century art, it tells us nothing about Arab-Israeli politics.
On the plus side, Grovier is right to have included several examples of Chinese art (“Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest” by Yang Fudong, and “Bloodlines: Big Family” by Zhang Xiaogang); China is one of the great stories of our day.
Ditto Shirin Neshat’s “Rebellious Silence” (1994), a self-portrait from the Iranian artist’s Women of Allah series (it seems more prescient with every day that passes). Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” (1998) is a fine example of the installations that now fill up our galleries — they are the collages of the early 21st century — and Jenny Saville’s “Propped” (1992) has powerful things to say about bodies in the age of obesity (also, she is about the greatest figurative painter we have right now).
Olafur Eliasson’s “The Weather Project” (2003) speaks to the trend for art as experience, to our need to find places other than churches to worship.
What did Grovier leave out? Very little, I think, for the truth is that a 20-year period is unlikely, in the end, to provide as many as 100 defining works. And why should it?
Art is about beauty as much as it is about provocation or context. Our children’s children are unlikely to look at Hockney’s vast Yorkshire trees and feel that they bring us back. But they might regard them as lovely, just as we do — and that will probably be enough.