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Pictures of Nothing:
Abstract Art since Pollock
Kirk Varnedoe
Foreword by Earl A. Powell III
Preface by Adam Gopnik

Winner of the 2006 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Arts and Art History, Association of American Publishers

Hardcover | 2006 | $52.50 | £44.95 | ISBN: 9780691126784
320 pp. | 9 x 9 1/2 | 132 color plates. 129 halftones. 3 b&w illus.
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National Gallery of Art, 52nd A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts: "Why Abstract Art?"
Kirk Varnedoe

"What is abstract art good for? What's the use--for us as individuals, or for any society--of pictures of nothing, of paintings and sculptures or prints or drawings that do not seem to show anything except themselves?" In this invigorating account of abstract art since Jackson Pollock, eminent art historian Kirk Varnedoe, the former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, asks these and other questions as he frankly confronts the uncertainties we may have about the nonrepresentational art produced in the last five decades. He makes a compelling argument for its history and value, much as E. H. Gombrich tackled representation fifty years ago in Art and Illusion, another landmark A. W. Mellon Lectures volume. Realizing that these lectures might be his final work, Varnedoe conceived of them as a statement of his faith in modern art and as the culminating example of his lucidly pragmatic and philosophical approach to art history. He delivered the lectures, edited and reproduced here with their illustrations, to overflowing crowds at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in the spring of 2003, just months before his death.

With brilliance, passion, and humor, Varnedoe addresses the skeptical attitudes and misunderstandings that we often bring to our experience of abstract art. Resisting grand generalizations, he makes a deliberate and scholarly case for abstraction--showing us that more than just pure looking is necessary to understand the self-made symbolic language of abstract art. Proceeding decade by decade, he brings alive the history and biography that inform the art while also challenging the received wisdom about distinctions between abstraction and representation, modernism and postmodernism, and minimalism and pop. The result is a fascinating and ultimately moving tour through a half century of abstract art, concluding with an unforgettable description of one of Varnedoe's favorite works.


"With the publication of Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe, we have a welcome reminder of the high esteem that abstract art came to enjoy in its heyday. . . . Pictures of Nothing, based on a series of lectures that Mr. Varnedoe gave at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, is a book that everyone with a serious interest in modern art will want to read, and it has the additional merit of being well-written and excellently illustrated."--Hilton Kramer, Wall Street Journal

"Pictures of Nothing [is] the transcribed text of one-time MoMA chief curator Kurt Varnedoe's final lectures. . . . [T]he talks are not just for Varnedoe completists--they tackle the question 'What is abstract art good for?' and constitute the charismatic scholar's final word on the subject."

"Your favorite realist's eyes might suddenly pop open after reading Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe. . . . The art historian . . . is a clear-eyed, eloquently plain-spoken, unfaltering guide through the thickets of drip painting, minimalism, and more. Why abstraction? Look here for an answer."--Nancy Tousley, Calgary Herald

"The knowledge that this would be Varnedoe's last public appearance brought a plainspoken urgency to the lectures that's carried over to this transcribed and edited text."--Peter Goddard, Toronto Star

"Varnedoe's enthusiastic insights fill the pages. Through his descriptions, bare, arbitrary or seemingly interchangeable works start to bristle with distinctiveness. . . . His vision of America's abstract half-century in Pictures of Nothing is . . . eclectic and embracing."--Edmund Fawcett, RA Magazine

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Table of Contents:

Foreword by Earl A. Powell III vii
Preface by Adam Gopnik ix
Note to the Reader by Judy Metro xvii
Chapter 1: Why Abstract Art? 1
Chapter 2: Survivals and Fresh Starts 47
Chapter 3: Minimalism 91
Chapter 4: After Minimalism 145
Chapter 5: Satire, Irony, and Abstract Art 191
Chapter 6: Abstract Art Now 239
Acknowledgments 275
Index 277
Photography and Copyright Credits 287


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File created: 7/11/2017

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