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What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in a Nutshell

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  3,494 ratings  ·  354 reviews
In the tradition of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, art history with a sense of humor

Every year, millions of museum and gallery visitors ponder the modern art on display and secretly ask themselves, "Is this art?" A former director at London's Tate Gallery and now the BBC arts editor, Will Gompertz made it his mission to bring modern art's exciting history alive for everyone,
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published September 6th 2012 by Viking
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Feb 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
The Dutch title of the book is very different and had actually drawn me more towards the book then the English version: Dat kan mijn kleine zusje ook - Waarom moderne kunst kunst is hinting to the common view that much of modern, especially conceptual, art is a scam, something anyone could make or perform. Since I have had great trouble seeing the art in monocolored canvasses, pointless performances of dancing anorexics flinging about with dead animals, poo sculptures and many of the abstract ...more
Viviane Crystal
Oct 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Here is a comprehensive, readable book for those ranging from art lovers who those looking at modern art and thinking, "I don't have a clue to what this is!"

Beginning with a short overview of how art as investment increases for both living and dead artists, the author begins with the story of how Marcel Duchamp rocked the art world with his "Fountain," a urinal turned upside down with some drilled holes. The point? What do you see? The artist would say to keep looking and then the layers of
Dec 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A book that explains in an entertaining and at the same time sufficiently exhaustive way the "mystery" of modern art. What more could you want?
Nov 18, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author, Will Gompertz, is the BBC Arts editor and former director of London’s Tate Gallery. He takes us on a tour of modern art that is chronologically arranged, but focused on the question of what constitutes “art” and how that idea has unfolded over time.

He includes a lot of fascinating gossip and background about the artists of the “modern” period, and very informative vignettes about how they influenced one another. The competitive Picasso, in particular, responded to the achievements of
Mesia Loriana
Aug 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
5 for the information, but 3 for trying to be funny
Petruccio Hambasket IV
Basically a "Modern Art For Dummies" (like me). Entirely unpretentious in tone and form; I learned very much from this easy reading book. On the back cover it says that Gompertz is the world's first self proclaimed "art-history stand-up comedian". After reading that I thought that maybe this book would be too digressive, structurally disjointed, and perhaps even unlearned: which all seemed unappealing to me at the time, since I was looking to find a more comprehensive survey. My fears were ...more
Leo Robertson
Feb 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
Great light introduction to modern art. Compact and delivered with humour.

A bit like a hundred or so pamphlets that you'd pick up at a museum, all weaved together. Given this ambition, don't expect too much depth: it's clearly aimed at laymen like myself who want to give their jaw the capacity to drop a few mm more during their next art gallery visit.

On a different note: tell me these aren't art!
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
I really enjoy modern art and I enjoyed this book. It makes sense of the many movements and styles developed it the arts since the mid nineteenth century. I like that the author wrote in an easy style that was free of pretension that can characterize some art history. This book makes modern art more easily understood and appreciated. I have more to say about each movement in my status updates but in general I really liked this book.
Sarthak Pranit
Oct 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, societal
I am an art novice. And, trust me, even that is an overstatement.

Being educated since birth in the sciences as an Indian kid you often lose touch with that side of yours which could possibly be beyond equations. And the slowly murdering bitch that time is, I just let go a desire to even appreciate or bother myself with the question 'Is this art?'.

After moving to Amsterdam, my inquisitiveness about art remained superficial despite having all of Europe's art at disposal to look at, contemplate,
Anna Mezhova
Jan 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Loved it! Reads easily but it's actually very comprehensive and insightful. Can't say I'm converted, but I do understand contemporary art better after reading this.
Rupert Denton
Dec 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is the book I've been waiting for. I have spent the last few years trying to self-educate on art and art history, secreted away in art-gallery bookstores poring over coffee table books, artists' biographies and compendiums on modern and contemporary art. I've been three valiant attempts at Gombrich's momentous work, The Story of Art, but Gompertz' book has been my breakthrough.

He commands an extraordinary scope and breadth of knowledge beginning with the Impressionists and ending c. 2008
270615: well it is not necessarily five, this fits it on favoritenonfiction, but as general, intelligent, not hermetic, not specialist, introduction to art history of the modern era. so the appreciation is on the same level as intro philosophical texts: this makes you want to read on, want to see the works. and of course, there are the limitations of the media. two-dimensional visual art mostly, in small plates, small images, some art more recent being conceptual, performance, multimedia, ...more
May 15, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
So many pieces of artwork are referenced in this book that I need to read it with Google to look them up. It would have been great if copies of them were included in the book.
Anton Iokov
Jan 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: physical-books
The book has done its job brilliantly: it has spun my interest in modern art and encouraged me to dig deeper.

Previously I felt utterly lost at modern art galleries, especially when choosing an exposition. Thanks to coherent and fun descriptions of art movements, I've discovered a few artists and genres to explore.

I've already spent a few insightful hours at Lenbachhaus and New Tretyakov gallery and purchased a couple of books on the non-objective Russian avant-garde. This should be a fun
Jun 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I have visited wonderful museums of modern art. And if I was asked what I would change in my life if I could, I would definetely choose reading this book BEFORE going to MoMA and Stedelijk.
Feb 09, 2014 added it
Shelves: art, 2014, non-fiction, museums
Atrt is quite possibly one of the most subjective topics there is. It affects, inspired, and disgusts equally and differently for everyone involved. But until the mid-1800's there were some generally accepted rules that artists followed - but since then that idea has been shot down utterly and completely by modern and contemporary art but not before completely offending and confusing the entire world.

The trouble started for the Impressionists when they fell foul of Paris's all-powerful and
Mar 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Before reading this book, I’ve been to multiple art museums. Knowing almost nothing about religious stories makes me unable to appreciate those masterpieces in Louvre. Lack of systemic knowledge of art often confuses me when I’m staring at those seemingly strange or childish or, in my eyes, ugly, kind of art pieces. Most of the time I just wandered around and let myself expose to those paintings and devices. Sometimes I was overwhelmed but couldn’t tell why. But now I finally get to make more ...more
Jan 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
i cannot really express how much i enjoyed, and valued, this book. although i expect i was a leg up having been an art major i don't think he was anticipating my knowledge, the author describes almost every work and pictures are provided for many so it never felt like i ought-to-know a work.

in addition even as someone with an arts background i felt this book did a good job of showing you the flow from one period to another, and best of all when they overlapped which was always something i
Dec 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
ah hell, i wrote up a very nice synop and gr ate it. but a fine fine look at modern art as gompertz is funny, can write clearly and tie things together well, things being friendships, money, critics, movements, philosophies, styles, . if you need one book of art history of last 150 years, this would be a great addition.
btw some people really really hate gompertz and dis him like he's the worst boogie man ever to have had an opinion about art. not sure why some hate his guts so much, but i
Feb 06, 2014 rated it liked it
I'm really glad I read this book. It is slow at times, but it is fulfilling.
Apr 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
I've never been an "art person". Few paintings move me to tears, though I do enjoy them. And I've never really understood modern art. I don't know if Gompertz' book has changed either of those facts.

But it has given me a new appreciation for modern art. I may never see the fuss in Pollack's paintings as stand-alone objects. But I understand their importance to art history and the development of art. And that brought me a new appreciation for them.

Gompertz' writing style is approachable, fun,
Dec 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art
A funny, witty, anecdotal, but at the same time fantastic introduction to modern art. The best thing about it is that it lets readers appreciate art works based on the originality and ingenuity of the works in reaction to 'what came before'. A metro-like map is added to see how different art forms are influenced and how they flow into the next. This is essential and rewarding, in that - for me - it spills over to other cultural forms and beyond. For example, in 2018, many people find it ...more
Jan 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
A really good review of all the isms since Impressionism. I liked it a lot and learned a lot. I thought it a bit uneven (but that could've been me, my particular interests, etc.). I especially liked the section on Picasso and anytime Marcel Duchamp made an appearance, I was all smiles. I "read"* the audio version and felt that I missed details, names, etc.. I liked it enough, though, to order a used paper copy so that I can review it, check names and references, etc.

*I'm going to stop using
Mar 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Hugely entertaining! Structured as encyclopedic entries on the various isms of modern art, it presents art as a dialogue between generations and groups of artists who sought to add something new, in their own unique voice, to the conversation.

I found the chapters on post-impressionists, Cubism and Dadaism particularly fascinating as they very effectively convey a sense of the enormous influence that Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso and Duchamp had on subsequent artists. The journey from abandonment of
Andrey Pogorelov
Jun 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019
I fell in love with this book and with modern art through it. After “What Are You Looking At?” fully delivers to its promise - it explains every art school and every trend in modern art in a witty and entertaining way.

Gompertz made me want to run straight to a modern art gallery to see and feel it all! And I am starting tomorrow!

The only downside for me is the need to have a mobile device and Internet nigh at hand in order to look at the described paintings, which made the book far less readable
Alice Malahova
May 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you do not know nothing about the art except names and some pictures of Van Gogh and Picasso, this book will give you a lot of simple, interesting and structured information about the art, its’ creators, and its’ meaning. Strongly recommend this book to everyone + it’s good present for any person.
Nov 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This was so enjoyable and educational, who knew art history could be so accessible and understandable? It’s probably best read with google close by so you can instantly look at all the art mentioned. It was especially pleasing to me that art produced over 100 years ago still looks so modern and surprising,
Jan 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An excellent introduction for the fan of modern art who doesn’t know enough about it to understand why.
Nov 09, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: art, non-fiction
The author is an art-world version of Alton Brown: very knowledgeable but incredibly irritating. I certainly have a better understanding of the progression of art through the twentieth century and today, but I cringed a lot to get here. I came out of this with more respect for Duchamp, who is the only one after the Picasso era who seems to have had truly original ideas. Plus he sounds like the the only one of these artists I'd want to hang out with.
Feb 14, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: art
As far as I'm concerned, this started out much better than it ended. That goes for this book and for art movements of the last 100 years.

I found it interesting his explanation of how Degas differed from the other impressionists. He did not work rapidly, he preferred the studio to plein air, and while the others were focused on ever-changing light, his focus was on the illusion of movement. He also was an outstanding draftsman, which the others were not.

I knew that about this time, art dealers
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