Following up on its 1994 publication The Art Book, Phaidon Press has now released The Twenty-First Century Art Book, offering an A-to-Z guide of more than 280 contemporary artists. While it may be a bit premature to offer a conclusive summary of a century that's been in progress for only fourteen years, Phaidon draws our attention to the names and artworks that have been defining the art world since the year 2000.
Including artists who work in all media, whether sculpture, painting, photography or performance, the book highlights each artist in the context of one notable piece of work. In the case of photographer Thomas Ruff, for example, the image 'jpeg bd01' (2007) is shown, from his well-known body of work called JPEGS. The text offers some context of the contemporary artists that Ruff's work is in dialogue with (e.g. Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth), a short description of other major works he's known for, and a succinct statement about the work we're looking at: “Ruff reduced digital images to very low-resolution JPEG files, then printed them at large scale so that their pixellation obscures the subject." Limited to this abbreviated level of detail – an image and a short text description covering mainly a single artwork – it's not possible to engage in any depth with the work or an artist. Instead, the intention is more akin to a glossary; it's a cursory list that serves as a starting point for further investigation. Other major photographers in Phaidon's guide include Rineke Dijkstra, Catherine Opie, JR, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall and Thomas Demand.
Serving as an overview of the highly dynamic landscape of art culture is a bold ambition, bound to be riddled with complaint for all the works left out – but, it's also impossible and unhelpful to be encyclopaedic, and this is where Phaidon's editors prove their strength: in focusing our attention. Further to that, they also spread the word about works of art that, due to their ephemeral or experiential nature, cannot travel themselves. While visual artworks can be viewed widely and quickly via the internet, many modern works of art require an editor's ekphrastic description to be 'viewed'. Take for example Marina Abramović's work The Artist is Present, an exhibition whereby the artist herself sat silently in a chair at MoMA, seven hours a day, six days a week, with the invitation for museum visitors to sit in a chair opposite her. While this same level of unique experience isn't shared by most photographic viewing experiences, there are echoes of it described in JR's large-scale photography installations that are location-specific, and even Yoko Ono's public display of images of a woman's breast and crotch throughout the UK city of Liverpool – including a large breast printed to a vinyl banner that hung above a church entry. The short descriptions and small photos cannot possibly convey the sensation of viewing or experiencing these artworks in person, but rather, they serve to inform of current conversations happening between artists and artworks. With artists from more than 50 countries included, it's a wide conversation indeed.
The Twenty-First Century Art Book is available from Phaidon.