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The Painted Word

3.83 of 5 stars 3.83  ·  rating details  ·  2,791 ratings  ·  134 reviews

"America's nerviest journalist" (Newsweek) trains his satirical eye on Modern Art in this "masterpiece" (The Washington Post)

Wolfe's style has never been more dazzling, his wit never more keen. He addresses the scope of Modern Art, from its founding days as Abstract Expressionism through its transformations to Pop, Op, Minimal, and Conceptual. This is Tom Wolfe "at his m

Paperback, 112 pages
Published October 5th 1999 by Bantam (first published 1975)
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Community Reviews

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Wolfe’s basic premise here is that Art critics/theorists single-handedly devolved modern art and made a gorilla like Jackson Pollack’s paintings worth millions. Ugh!! You see, unlike say a book or movie, art doesn’t need the common man’s approval in order to be “good”, “worthy”, or popular.

When I lived in New York, I liked to take dates (including the future Mrs. Jeff) to the Modern Museum of Art. I would bone up on modern art with this book, so I could dazzle my dates with shallow insight, and...more
Wonderful little witty book about a specific moment in art history. I'm normally not a great Tom Wolfe fan, but the book does ring true, even though it does simplify things greatly.

If one likes the art that Wolfe takes apart, you might find yourself inclined to dislike the book without giving what he's saying enough consideration. He makes some absolutely valid points and more importantly, he hints at a broader trend - the rift between the public viewer and the insular art world. Here, I think...more
I'll need to hear other perspectives before I can decide whether I'm wholly convinced by Wolfe's argument. His main argument is that Modern Art sucks because it is fueled more by Art Theory than by the spirit of Art itself. He directs most of his satirical ammunition at the time period from Abstract Expressionism onward, arguing that during this epoch the Artists unwittingly became adjuncts of the Art Theorists, rather than the other way around (the way it should be).

Wolfe also tries to better d...more
David Gross
Liked it lots, but I always feel a little gypped when a publisher puffs up what amounts to a magazine feature’s worth of words with a big font, generous line-spacing and margins, and some illustrations, to make it just big enough to put legible text on the spine so they can sell it as a book.
John Orman
I am writing a much longer and more detailed review than usual because I plan to attend a local book club's upcoming meeting to discuss this nonfiction book.

Tom Wolfe's small but potent book charts the course of Modern Art. The stylistic writing is as witty and provocative as Wolfe's earlier book "Radical Chic."

The genesis of the book's title stems from a revelation that Wolfe obtained from an art exhibit's 1974 review in the New York Times. The critic had basically stated that to view art witho...more
Wolfe does have a zounds-slap-lightning way with phrases! I liked these: "the Uptown Museum-Gallery Complex," and, referring to deKooning and Pollack: "furious swipes of brush on canvas, ... splatters of unchained id."
You have to appreciate Wolfe for his bluster and charming if irritating and irascible ability to simplify everything to the level of the five-year-old, which is about the age of his persona as an essay writer, esp. circa 1974, when he wrote this. Nevertheless I was inspired to rea...more
Kevin Tole
Tom Wolfe rips the pish out of art critics using their own chosen weapon - the word.
This was probably about round 6 of a 12 rounder between painting and theory. Up to this pont Theory had been winning every round and it looked like painting was going to have to throw in the towel and abandon the title. Wolfe stepped into Painting's corner and this round was a decisive winner.
Nobody seems to know what the final outcome of the Championship bout was..... but Painting is still alive and going from...more
This was a very interesting read - Tom Wolfe talks about how modern art moved away from being a visual experience and started to be a reaction of what the critics were saying and it all culminated with conceptual art (I happen to like conceptual art, but I agree that it is less "artistic" in the classic sense of the word). Among the many artists he grills, Wolfe practically skewers Jackson Pollock and says that his art was a mere creation at the request of what the galleries wanted and that lead...more
Nov 10, 2009 Forrest rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: artists
Damn! Goodreads ate my review.... crapola.

This is a cynical and insightful description of some of the forces behind 'success' in art, mostly centered in mid-last-century. It was recommended to me by two friends who are both professional artists. One is a sculptor and my mentor, and the other a painter. In my subjective view, they should both be rich and famous, or at least a lot richer and a lot more famous. How is it that folks with mastery of their media never attain the absurd success of Jack...more
The Painted Word is primarily a book about the rise of modern art—and art theory. (It also feels as if it’s a little bit about Tom Wolfe, too, but then, what book of his doesn’t feel that way?) Still, it’s an engaging read, filled with Wolfe’s studied observations and dripping with a detached bemusement toward the twisted subculture of art. Fortunately, The Painted Word is also filled with fascinating character sketches of the artists themselves. One of the most compelling—and oft repeated—argum...more
A highly entertaining critique of the modern art world. It reads casual --like a conversation you'd have with an old, cranky (yet rather wise) New Yorker on a Sunday stroll through the villages, through Union Square and up Fifth avenue all the way to the Met. Lots of belly-laugh material along the way...but, it's ultimately quite sad and disturbing that art standards went off-the-radar in such an absurd manner and to such a great degree-- that such a book as this could written (and true to reali...more
I haven't read Tom Wolfe in quite awhile, and I forgot how razor sharp his prose could be. This particular book takes on the modern art world. Mr. Wolfe is not a fan of that world, but he describes how art theory started driving art creation in the twentieth century.

He did get me thinking, and feeling somewhat relieved. I've been to MoMA several times for specific exhibits, but sometimes left just shaking my head and thinking it was me. As usual, Mr. Wolfe attacks pretentiousness will full front...more
Feb 11, 2008 James rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in art or writing
Recommended to James by: random find in bookstore
If your interest is writing or art, you’ll enjoy The Painted Word by Tom Wolf. If you like both, then this irreverent, little book will make you laugh, nod in agreement, or cry out in protest. You definitely won’t be bored. This is Wolf at the top of his game and you’ll find yourself constantly reading passages aloud to anyone within earshot.

First published in 1975, Wolf decomposes modern art movements in a way that is both enlightening and entertaining. His clever style provides the reader wit...more
Even at 99 quick reading pages, this one felt a little over-boiled to me. It's for serious modern art/art theory aficionados to judge whether it's the brilliant satire that many professional reviewers say it is. Found it mildly amusing myself. But then, I'm a total Neanderthal...
Wolfe's argument in this short, entertaining, and completely wrong-headed polemic is based on the idea that the non-representational art of the last 100 or so years is a hoax because it can only be appreciated by those who have learned and agree with various abstract theories.

Wolfe is much more supportive of various flavors of representational art of the same period and the preceding centuries because he thinks this art can be appreciated without depending on theories.

The basic fallacy of this...more
A slender little book (really more of an extended essay) that looks at the modern art of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s and proclaims "the emperor has no clothes!" Tom Wolfe argues that art in the 20th century has undergone a steady process of reduction and rejection - first getting rid of realism, then representational objects, then all sense of depth - focusing instead on abstract flatness (think Jackson Pollock, or Mark Rothko). Finally, with Minimalist and Conceptual Art, we see the abandonment of...more
Procyon Lotor
Arguta spiegazione, nel consueto stile wolfiano, una sontuosa ripassatina depilatoria al rasoio, di come all'Arte (figurativa) si siano sostituiti i discorsi sulla medesima, di chi � stato - soprattutto americani, anzi newyorkesi, di chi ci ha fatturato sopra, del come il pubblico sia stato brutalmente scisso in fruitori (paganti, nonch� scopanti ragazzi e ragazze dell'entourage) e amateurs (al massimo comprano le riviste o i quotidiani, e anche drogandosi non li scopano mai) e di qualche modest...more
Tom Wolfe has mastered the art of being shocked and horrified at the mundane and obvious. This book has the character of a child that has discovered some new situation and, misconstruing it, lets forth a torrent of outrage without insight. His assault on 'theory' only demonstrates the necessity of substance to fill out style.
Shane Saxon
I picked up “The Painted Word” on the recommendation of Eric Metaxes because he said it was just a “ridiculous” (and, he meant that in a good way) treatise on modern art. But, overall I was disappointed by this little book.
Tom Wolfe sets out to expose the hypocrisy and ludicrous nature of the modern art movement. Starting with what he calls the “apache dance,” the process young, rebellious artists much embrace in order to weasel their way to the top of the art world, and ending with the minimal...more
This book was recommended to me by a friend after I saw Robert Ryman's work "Twin" at MoMA last fall. If you haven't yet had the pleasure of seeing this work of "art" - look it up. It is profoundly moving. Not to give anything away, but the artist basically reduced his painting style to white squares. At some point, all of his work, was JUST WHITE F*CKING SQUARES. And one of these is proudly hanging in MoMA. Technically, this work is labeled a "minimalist" work of art. I call it an "Emperor has...more
its a short read and hands down the best words ever written about art.
Gwen Burrow
Satire at its yummiest.
An exceedingly funny satire of modern art.

The Painted Word coins the spirit of the whole enterprise.

Hype. The inside scoop displayed with canny wit. Blah.

Years later the spectacle of modern art is reaching absurd proportions.

A red square that passes for a profound conceptual scheme. A toilet signed by yours truly.

The illusion is in the concept bolstered by the eager plentitude of slavish art critics who yearn for the inner circle of opinion. Blah. Blah. Blah.

Words upon words upon words to keep...more
Wolfe charts and satirizes the great American myth of modern art from the Fifties to the Seventies, yes. Le beau monde, Cultureburg, ie. Art is New York, ala Paris, viva la liberte! In keeping with an illustration of art critics' theories, Wolfe paints a naive albeit poignant portrait of art in America in its heyday, before the fall and the psycho corporate media agenda. Had I knew then what I know now, I might have seen through glazes and read the true colour of this work. We have no idea the s...more
I'm never sure what to think about "The Painted Word"...or about Wolfe. Is it hilarious? Absolutely. Does he make some wonderfully cynical points as a social satirist? Yes. He always does. But just as with "Bauhaus To Our House", I just find that in the end, there's less than meets the eye. Had "Painted Word" been a novel...things would be different. There's wonderful material here for a comic novel about the art world and art criticism. But as a quasi-history...hmmm. No. Wolfe manages to attack...more
A small gem of a book that serves up a provocative survey of the New York Modern Art scene, focusing on the post-War period when New York began its dominance of the art world. It's a fascinating work in terms of the social history of art given that Wolfe is a writer who takes no prisoners as he calls attention to the absurdities of the changing fashions in art and art theory.

Written in 1975, he makes the point that it was the powerful art critics, the three he dubbed the kings of "Cultureburg":...more
Tom Wolfe, who taught us all how to write "The New Journalism" in the 1970s, has proven its worth with this book, written in that style nearly 40 years ago. New Journalism was a factual story written with novelistic style. The Painted Word -- what a great title! -- is still readable -- a short, smooth (some might say facile, but not me) history of the first 75 years of 20th century art, with special skewering for Abstract Expressionism.

The cognoscenti already know most of this. But then, Wolfe...more
Fun to read. Wolfe pops pretentiousness with great skill, but then goes on to make a rather weak case against non-representational art. Sorry, but there really doesn't have to be a answer to the question "what's it meant to be?" for a picture to be beautiful. By the same token, if there is an answer, that doesn't mean the picture is any the less for that.
Paul Mullen
This is kind of a curio shop of words and their origins. It was fun to meander through the origins of some common place treasures and to be introduced to a few I didn't know. It's like the strange joy of reading the dictionary on a rainy Saturday morning.
Michael Connolly
Tom Wolfe has written a short and funny book about the role of art theory, art critics and art buyers in the New York scene after World War II. Marketing this art appeared to be more about being popular with the community of people writing about art than it did with any intrinsic merit of the work itself. When an ordinary person looked at a work from this period, they saw it with naive eyes. They lacked the theoretical context of flatness, perceptual abstraction, action painting, etc., in which...more
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Wolfe was educated at Washington and Lee Universities and also at Yale, where he received a PhD in American studies.

Tom Wolfe spent his early days as a Washington Post beat reporter, where his free-association, onomatopoetic style would later become the trademark of New Journalism. In books such as The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, and The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe delves into...more
More about Tom Wolfe...
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test The Bonfire of the Vanities The Right Stuff I am Charlotte Simmons A Man in Full

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