Formalist art critics used to say that the life of an artist was irrelevant to an understanding of his or her work,” Calvin Tomkins writes in the preface to Lives of the Artists, a collection of New Yorker profiles published over the past ten or so years. “In my experience, the lives of contemporary artists are so integral to what they make that the two cannot be considered in isolation.” For critics of a certain generation—me, for instance—educated by art historians more inclined to mapping Lacan’s L Schema than outlining an artist’s formative years, Tomkins’s statement is like a grenade. Biography, we were taught, is an art-historical red herring.
But wait: Tomkins isn’t an art historian; he’s also not what I would consider a practicing art critic. He writes profiles, and while his descriptions of artists’ works are admirably succinct and precise, the real focus is on the artists’ lives—or, more accurately, lifestyles, since the essays gathered here often read like art-world versions of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. It’s fun to get an inside view of Julian Schnabel’s Stanford White house in Montauk, New York, Jasper Johns’s collection of Cézannes and prehistoric Jomon pottery, Elle Macpherson and LL Cool J hanging out at Cindy Sherman’s postopening gala at Mr. Chow, and Thanksgiving dinner at John Currin’s parents’ house in Connecticut. But it’s not art history.
Or is it? When you borrow the title of your book from Vasari, legendary chronicler of the Italian Renaissance, some claims are implicit. Vasari, after all, was candid about his aim to install certain artists in history, and his picks have mostly stood the test of time. Tomkins’s Lives follows a different criterion of canonization. We’re not reading about artists per se but market-approved art stars, the celebrity-culture concept that has all but replaced Vasari’s notion of the divinely appointed genius. (There’s some irony in this, since Tomkins authored a biography of Marcel Duchamp, the ultimate twentieth-century artist’s artist who never made his living from art. Duchamp’s name comes up regularly in Lives, which makes sense since several of the artists discussed are clearly from his lineage.)
So who made the cut? A depressingly narrow, predictable bunch of Americans and Europeans: Currin, Schnabel, Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Maurizio Cattelan. For historical ballast, there’s Johns, James Turrell, and Richard Serra. Only one woman is included: Sherman. Many are the spiritual heirs of Tenth Street—heroic white males—remade for the market/ media age. They tend to be hardworking, enterprising, entrepreneurial, and business savvy; in several cases (Koons, Hirst, and Currin), solid family men. In other words, model citizens.
There’s nothing inherently wrong, of course, with the captains-of-business model. (And it feels appropriate for the essays’ original venue, the New Yorker.) Vasari himself felt that competition among artists was necessary for the progress of art. But where he was emphatic about the audience for his Lives—fellow artists—it’s hard to imagine that an average working artist will actually feel good after reading Tomkins’s volume. I kept thinking of the psychologist I know who won’t put People magazine in her waiting room for fear of discouraging her clients, since its celebrity-obsessed message is that you’re a loser simply because you’re not famous.
Tomkins isn’t overtly driven by schadenfreude. Instead, he functions as an obliging proxy for the reader, providing admittance into realms otherwise inaccessible. Yet the Rolling Stone rock-star-interview quality of these profiles is a potent reminder of how the art world has become another wing of the entertainment industry, with money and celebrity as the markers of success. With a stubborn focus on American and European art stars, the book feels like a decadent Last Days of the Empire. But whatever it is, Tomkins’s Lives is not an attempt, as Vasari described his own book, to “praise and exalt those rare men of genius who create priceless work and who live not merely unrewarded but in circumstances of wretched poverty.”