You can't judge an art book by its title. A recently released book that says Painting Today in big blue letters on its cover actually chronicles artwork made throughout my entire lifetime. In art, and in this book in particular, "Today" can mean the '70s and "Tomorrow" might refer to 1994. "Contemporary" is an umbrella description underneath which many successful art experiments have taken shape, and many of the resulting, remarkable "paintings" are pictured in Painting Today, some of which don't even have any actual paint on them.
Researcher Tony Godfrey compiled this heavy collection, which could be considered an excellent coffee table book, a conversational textbook, or an impressive gift for any art lover who deserves to be spoiled (it retails for $75). Weighing in at over ten pounds, the book is overflowing with gorgeous full-page reproductions of paintings sprinkled with Godfrey's smartly organized commentary. Just scan the text for a corresponding bolded plate number to learn more about the images you like. The book is best enjoyed in calculated doses, which is why it is divided into chapters such as "Ambiguous Abstraction," "Neo-expressionism," "Post-Feminism," and "Painting Tomorrow."
Not surprisingly, Blue chip artists like Damien Hirst, Gerhard Richter, and Anselm Kiefer make repeat appearances in multiple sections. However, the book does a bang-up job of highlighting a diverse range of artists from thirty countries, and a significant portion are women. Several of the artists are from California, have had major exhibitions at Bay Area museums, and/or have work in local public collections.
The most exciting part of the book is how the image placement creates a rowdy dialogue between paintings. If this book could talk, it would roar like a raging party in an echoing art museum. For example, seeing Beatriz Milhazes's and Philip Taaffe's flowery canvases across from one another, I literally imagined them as ladies in fancy dresses chatting across the pages.
Richter's "Annunciation after Titian" (1973) shows four panels of his interpretation of Titian's original "Annunciation" -- each one blurrier than the one before. These and other Richter paintings such as "Ella" prove his undeniable mastery at rendering soft focus blurriness. An abstract Richter painting is spoken of highly by Godfrey, but it made me want the artist to stick to blurry portraits. I appreciated the in-depth look at artists like Richter and was surprised to see lesser-known paintings by Hirst, including a photorealistic image of a mortuary (his dot paintings seem to get more face time in other books), but I would have liked to see more than one image from artists like Mark Bradford, Marilyn Minter, Yoshitomo Nara, and Katharina Grosse, whose installation of huge weather balloons covered in acrylic paint is breathtaking, even in a photograph. Also noticeably missing is most comic-inspired and so-called "low brow" art.
Painting Today took me to places I could only dream of going, with installation shots of the Haunch of Venison Gallery in London and the notorious 1993 Whitney Biennial. These long shots are an important bonus, emphasizing how placement and location are often central to the point of an artwork, hence the section titled "Painting Space" (which is not to be confused with art about the solar system).
I started to think abstract paintings weren't exciting anymore when I got to the "Pure Abstraction" section, but then Bridget Riley's graphic Tetris-like color explosion nearly popped off pages 138 and 139, and Estelle Thompson's vertically striped, eye-crossing oil painting Skimmy induced motion sickness on the next page. That painting must be even crazier in person, possibly even unbearable.
Godfrey reveals trends that the artists themselves might not even recognize. A popular art school lesson asks students to represent one image multiple ways, an activity I thought of many times while looking at Richter's Titian tribute; Alex Katz's "Walk," "Study for Walk," and "The Light II" pictured consecutively in the "Western Traditions" chapter; Zhang Xiogang's "Bloodline: Big Family" and "Big Family No. 1" in the "Photographic" section; and Richard Prince's "Millionaire Nurse" and "Dude Ranch Nurse." Prince's painted-over inkjet prints of books on canvas have been publicly critiqued by actual nurses. Painting Today inspired me to do further research (hence the info on nurses' opinions of Richard Prince), which is a testament to its educational power. Buy it and make someone smarter about painting -- today.