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The Painted Word

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  5,294 Ratings  ·  227 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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Glenn Russell
Aug 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing

Jack the Dripper, the king of Abstract Expressionism, an art movement author Tom Wolfe didn't hold in high regard

You will be hard-pressed to find a more lively, wittier book on the phenomenon of modern art than Tom Wolfe’s “The Painted Word,” a 100-page romp through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s where the author jabs his sharp satirical needle with signature debunking flare into Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art. And that’s ‘Painted Word’ as in Wolfe’s epiphany
Sep 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Jul 05, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art-related
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
John Orman
Jan 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 16, 2014 rated it did not like it
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
Feb 15, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Kevin Tole
May 09, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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.
Kathe Umlauf
Jul 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A clear and concise easy to read book about why much contemporary art has become the vast wasteland that it is. Why is dumb, empty, meaningless, talentless art esteemed in certain galleries? There is a war of values and wills taking place in a culture that has lost it's philosophical moorings. Contemporary cultural values have been influenced by the Existentialism and relativism of the 1960's and art follows. The now subjective world of art making, selling and buying has become the playground of ...more
Nick Gibson
Jan 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I don't have the education to review this from an art criticism or art history perspective, but Tom Wolfe's argument here meshes with and reinforces similar perspectives from Odd Nerdrum and Roger Scruton. And Wolfe does so in his own lightning prose style.

It's not the main point of the book, but it stood out to me that Wolfe attributes Modern Art - as a culture, as a religion, as a movement - to a kind of bourgeois guilt. That is, the shame of the Western secular elite over their own economic s
Timothy Urges
I could not get into Wolfe's style.
Elizabeth Kadetsky
Jul 16, 2007 rated it liked it
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
Oct 30, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: art
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
Aug 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art, non-fiction
A glorious hatchet job on modernist art. Wolfe's main point is that most schools of modernist art cannot be appreciated unless you first understand the theory behind them, which makes the art itself pretty much irrelevant. It's all about the theory. Wolfe is delightfully vicious and highly entertaining.
May 14, 2013 rated it did not like it
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.
Mark Taylor
Mar 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
Tom Wolfe takes on the art world! Tom Wolfe critiques the leading theories in contemporary art! Tom Wolfe tells you all about the different stages of being an artist, from the Boho Dance to the Consummation which ensures critical success! Tom Wolfe takes on the mysteries of abstract art! You can imagine him, can’t you, in his pristine white suit, squinting close at an abstract canvas up on the wall of some Seventh Avenue gallery uptown, one of those galleries that doesn’t want to look like they’ ...more
Barbara Martyska
Aug 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art, non-fiction
I love this book. When I read the last page, I returned to the beginning of the book and read it again.

I wish I had read this book years ago. It made very clear to me all the things that had always puzzled me about "modern art." Wolfe covers art movements starting with Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, and on through Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Art Installations, Earth Art and Conceptual Art.

There is humor throughout the book, such as this quote from an art critic of the time: "Shards of i
Lee Razer
Nov 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art
Highly enjoyable critique of the origin and content (Flatness!!) of Abstract Expressionism and other Modern Art schools. No more trouble to read than a lengthy essay.
Jan 28, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, art
Tom Wolfe waxes snarky about Modern Art. He hates everything, but he's funny about it.
Brent M.  Jones
Aug 14, 2018 rated it did not like it
Shelves: 2018
If you approach Tom Wolfe’s book, The Painted Word, skeptical as to why an accomplished writer would write a critic of Modern Art, then your likely to still be asking that question when you finish. Wolfe’s premise is that Modern Art or Abstract Expressionism, which became popular after World War 11, is incomprehensible, hard to look at, and produces anxiety. He says the essential principal of this art is flatness and that three-dimensional effects are pre-modern having been around since the Rena ...more
Steve Hersh
Apr 20, 2017 rated it it was ok
Normally I'm a huge Tom Wolfe fan, but this one missed the mark for me. I understand where he's coming from: this idea that modern art is reliant on theory (words) for people to understand it, in comparison I suppose to "old masters" or Renaissance art or even social realist art of the early 20th century, where you could look at a painting and "get it" simply by looking at it. This is, visual art after all. And yeah, who can honestly look at a Jackson Pollack drip work and say, "I understand thi ...more
Jenny Lancaster
Aug 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Oh my! No wonder Jeff loves Wolfe so much. As a starting point on the “read the authors that died last year” journey, I picked up the smallest Wolfe book — a devastating shake down of “modern art” as descending into the literary with adherence to the Word (here defined as flatness). I need to read it again with a dictionary nearby.
Tom Schulte
This was a quick, easy listen-read on Wolfe spectating the burgeoning modern art movement. Very short and in audio without pics, most of it breezes by this Wolfe fan that is not an art aficionado. I can picture Pollack, sure, but not Jasper Johns... It is interesting and relevant the point that the painting world does not have a popular following, like music, film, etc. Also, it is interesting but I can not form an opinion on the accentuating of inherent "flatness" in the post-cubists art moveme ...more
May 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Re-reading some of my favorites by the late Tom Wolfe. This book is still painfully, awesomely funny.
Jan 23, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essay
The Painted Word is a small pocket size book of 106 pages. When one subtracts the blank pages between chapters and the illustrations, the book shrinks to maybe 65 pages.

This is an essay about the art world. According to Wolfe, the public, with their dollars determines the most popular books, music and concerts. They do not choose art. Art is chosen by a small cadre of insiders and the media parrots what they say. “The public is not invited”.

Mr. Wolfe makes his case with wit and detail which I f
Петър Стойков
May 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
Какво, мамка му, стана?

Какво се случи с изобразителното изкуство през последния век? Кога красивите тела на класическите скулптури и ренесансовите художници изчезнаха от картините и бяха заместени първо с изкривени, уродливи чудовища, а после с безсмислени абстракции? Кога "картина", състояща се от една червена линия на син фон придоби цена от $60 млн.?

Ако, като мен, си задавате тия въпроси, Том Улф има отговор на тях, само не знам дали ще ви хареса. С огромна вещина и познаване на дълбините и
Nov 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 11, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
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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
“First you do everything possible to make sure your world is antibourgeois, that it defies bourgeois tastes, that it mystifies the mob, the public, that it outdistances the insensible middle-class multitudes by light-years of subtlety and intellect—and then, having succeeded admirably, you ask with a sense of See-what-I-mean? outrage: look, they don’t even buy our products! (Usually referred to as “quality art.”)” 6 likes
“All of them, artists and theorists, were talking as if their conscious aim was to create a totally immediate art, lucid, stripped of all the dreadful baggage of history, an art fully revealed, honest, as honest as the flat-out integral picture plane.” 1 likes
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