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

4.28  ·  Rating details ·  5,791 ratings  ·  437 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, expla
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
Katia N
Sep 13, 2020 rated it liked it
I wanted to remind myself about the main visual art movements in the 20th century. And that fit the bill. It is very accessible and full of anecdotes, so easy to read. But it is more a survey and do not attempt more than that. I wanted to find out a bit more about philosophy of conceptual art. This is not the book for that. But it does touch upon the democratisation of art in the 20th century and a bit on Duchamp.
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 mea
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
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
Aug 21, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, art
Will Gompertz, arts editor of the BBC, takes us on a trip through modern art, and leaves us with both knowledge and a smile. No pompous artsy-fartsy fellow is Gompertz. No, instead he takes a light approach that is inviting, especially for those of us who came to the book without a lot of information about modern art.

What movements does Gompertz share with us? Impressionism. Primitivism. Cubism. Dadaism. Surrealism. Pop Art. For me, this book was my first introduction to Futurism, Suprematism,
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? ...more
Sep 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you are curious about Modern Art, and seek an entertaining, amusing, and succinct introduction to the developments of the last 150 years then you should read What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in a Nutshell.

Will Gompertz is the perfect guide. Playful and humorous whilst also wearing his considerable knowledge lightly.

What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in a Nutshell reads more like a novel than a non fiction work.

I learnt a lot whilst being entertained.

What more c
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 extin ...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!
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
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.
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, t
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. ...more
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 be
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 (w
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, sculpt ...more
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 se ...more
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 adventu
Maksym Popovych
May 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
I should really write a longer review at some point because some things from the book really stood out for me.

In short, I feel like it is an insightful book for someone who doesn't know much about history of art (like me). I really liked the parts on how this or that movement in art further influenced advertisement, industrial and home design, and more broadly our perception of a visually appealing thing.

First half of the book (roughly until WWII) is somehow better organized, to my taste. The
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: non-fiction, museums, art, 2014
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 s
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 strug
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 reall
Apr 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Easily the most eye-opening book I’ve read since school. Plus, it’s actually entertaining and the writing is easy to digest. Modern art has always fascinated me, now that I better understand it, I love it even more.
Feb 06, 2014 rated it liked it
I'm really glad I read this book. It is slow at times, but it is fulfilling. ...more
Dec 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art
Wonderful guide to modern art. Up there with Gombrich's classic in expertise, clarity and accessibility. ...more
Emma Wright (A Cup Of Books)
I have a review video dedicated to this book on my YT channel - ...more
Yuan Guo
Feb 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art
It's impossible to understand the full art history of human in under 400 pages, especially the recent 150 years of chaotic explorations, statements, rebellious ideas, expressed through art, how the form of traditional art was being questioned, idea boundaries being pushed and critical problems of the society addressed. Going through the book is like a rollercoaster faster and crazier the closer it it coming to the present time.

I didn't love the style of writing because of a lot of unnecessaril
Dec 13, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art

But is it art?

I read this book with the intent of gaining some basic familiarity with the major players and movements of art in the last century, and it certainly succeeded in that respect. I can now trace the line of artistic innovations that led from the Cubism of Picasso and Braque to the Minimalism of Judd and Andre, and am no longer completely perplexed by Damien Hirst's pickled animals (see his work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living above) or Takashi Mur
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 difficul ...more
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