The Pursuit of Art: Travels, Encounters and Revelations by Martin Gayford

Review by Liz Dexter, 26 September 2019

The pursuit of art is a journey that never stops: the more you see, the more you want to see.

First of all much kudos to the publishers for the absolute loveliness of the physicality of this book. The cover is one that calls to Shiny readers, isn’t it, and inside the end-papers we have a very sweet but random-seeming turtle … which indeed features in one of the essays. The paper stock is of a quality that supports very nice colour photographs mixed in with the text – usually when images are on the text pages, not colour plates, they come out horribly, but not here. Although I obviously care about the content more than the packaging, this is a very nice object to have, and would make an ideal gift for the travel OR art lover in your life.

The idea of this book is around the journeys that Gayford took in order to produce the interviews and art criticism that are his main line. Sometimes that’s a press junket, sometimes it’s a journey with an art critic friend, sometimes it’s a special trip with his wife, and sometimes it’s a side trip on a holiday. He mentions near the beginning that he doesn’t want to gloss over the troubles of travel, and that makes for an honest and appealing read that brings a smile of recognition or empathy.

So the premise of the book is that you can understand art works only really by standing in front of them in their context. In terms of paintings, this is because you see them from the position the artist saw them when standing in front of them painting (this had somehow never struck me before). In terms of works from other times or places, he says,

I began to understand prehistoric art much better after I actually stepped into the caves of southwestern France. Classical Chinese landscape meant more after I looked at some original paintings in the Shanghai Museum, then stood in the swirling mist on the peaks of the Yellow Mountain range.

And more stunningly still, seeing collections of works of large conceptual art in landscapes in the southwest of America made them make far more sense to him than seeing a single piece in an exhibition or looking at a photograph – “That vast terrain – it occurred to me as I stood there – is the reason for the scale of American art”. The other main premise is the idea of ‘slow looking’, that time contemplating a work is very well worth it, although in fact he does comment that someone attuned to an artist can tell instantly if a work is theirs and/or any good.

We meet in this book art that I certainly have not encountered or even heard about – Brancusi’s Endless Column standing in the remotest part of Romania, anyone? But such is the finesse of Gayford’s writing that he can get across the effect of viewing this piece, having made the journey to see it, the whole point being the viewpoint and experience you get when standing right next to it. He has the same experience with the cave art of southwestern France, like me, wondering how you know that the absolutely exactly detailed fiberglass reproduction is not the real thing, but then (unlike me) experiencing the real thing elsewhere and understanding the experience of his forebears.

Gayford admits when he doesn’t ‘get’ something, such as Marina Abramovic’s visceral performance art, and then shows the process of coming to terms with it as he interacts with the artist. It takes a dollop of humility to do this, and it also helps the reader understand what it’s all about, led gently by the author. And the chapter on great misunderstandings which have led to greater art is marvellous, real read-out-loud stuff, as we discover how a chance remark by a fellow artist led sculptor Carl Andre to change his work in a profound way, only to realise decades later that he’d misinterpreted what his friend said! Misinterpretations can also be made of art works by critics and viewers, with Gayford learning the lesson from Robert Rauschenberg, annoyed that everyone just sees sexual connotations in his work, that “how artists see their work may be diametrically different from how it is understood by critics and historians”.

I love his trip through China with Gilbert and George, who were pretty unknown to him at the time, as was China, and really liked the fact that he got on so well with them there that they ended up being friends in London and went out boozing with them (I also love that he included this story, rather than just doing clanging name-drops). And also in the East section, his trip to see works by Yayoi Kusama and others was the product of an increasing inability to cope with being in Japan – “Our first Japanese lunch turned out, contrary to our expectations, to consist entirely of bean curd sweets,” and who frankly hasn’t done that (I refer here to the Great Three Dishes Composed Entirely Of Potatoes Meal, Mallorca, 2003) – and rushes off to Naoshima to look at Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin, among other works, saving the trip.

As well as the very nice illustrations, there’s a good index and the whole, as I’ve said, is extremely well produced.

Gayford is a great travelling companion. Where art criticism can be pompous, wordy and jargon-filled, here he’s warm, honest, confiding, intelligent, yes, but never talking down to his reader. He gives his honest reactions to works and explains mistakes he makes in both viewing objects and interviewing subjects.  I heartily recommend this book, whether you like art, travel or just good writing about an interesting topic.

Liz Dexter doesn’t recall having travelled far to see art, although she’s seen the fake caves at Lascaux. She blogs about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Martin Gayford, The Pursuit of Art: Travels, Encounters and Revelations (Thames & Hudson, 2019). 9780500094112, 192 pp., col. Ill., hardback.

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