Good Minds Suggest—Hans Ulrich Obrist's Favorite Books About Artists

November, 2014
Hans Ulrich Obrist

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When we asked art world power player Hans Ulrich Obrist to assign a title to his list of book recommendations, the curator, interviewer, and author came up with: "TO CURATE / TO BUILD BRIDGES / TO MAKE JUNCTIONS / TO GO BEYOND FEARS OF POOLING KNOWLEDGE." It's decidedly Obristian for the codirector of the Serpentine Galleries in London to turn his to-read list into a commentary on the flow of information today. After all, his literary output, including his latest, Ways of Curating, exhibit how the stringing together of thoughts or objects can push our collective minds toward a new place and create major impact. The multitalented man recommends five books about "artists."

Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty by Vikram Chandra (Goodreads Author)
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"Computer programmers and novelists have something in common: They write lines. But few programmers have literary ambitions and few novelists can program, and Vikram Chandra is the exception. In this book Chandra explores the possible connections between art and technology, coding and literature, and raises questions about the intrinsic values and capabilities of programming. In his historicizing analysis Chandra imports text selections from his native culture, using it as a tool to discuss and display the formulation and possible self-conscious meaning of computational language, which seems to play a large role in the education and culture of the 21st century. Geek Sublime captivates and enlightens, and argues for the social and cultural influence of computer code and its surpassing of literature in the modern day."


Sitt Marie Rose by Etel Adnan, Georgina Kleege (Translator)
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"Etel Adnan was born in 1925 in Beirut. In the late 1950s, after her studies at the Sorbonne and Harvard, she taught philosophy at the University of California and started to paint. As Adnan told me, she was interested in the immediate beauty of color. Her Sitt Marie Rose is a masterpiece and the great novel of the Lebanese Civil War. As a keystone part of her larger oeuvre, Sitt is an example of the unique multidimensionality of Adnan's writing. Reading Adnan is addictive. As the legendary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once said, she has never written a bad line. Adnan is also one of the greatest artists of our time, one of the wisest I have ever met, and a great inspiration to many people. Although she is now in her late eighties, I am always struck by the amazing energy and intensity of her recent practice, which is still among the best work being created in the world today. Her obsession with the landscape of Mount Tamalpais, which she discovered in the 1970s, led to many paintings and more than a decade of intense contemplation toward the seminal book Journey to Mount Tamalpais (1986), which explores links between nature and art."


Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo
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"It was the Swedish biologist Svante Pääbo who was the first scientist to successfully clone the DNA of a mummy. That was 30 years ago. Since then, he has concerned himself with things even further back in the past and is now searching for the genetic material of our human ancestors, in particular of the Neanderthal, which people dismissed in the chain of human evolution until Pääbo discovered that its genetic code differed from ours by not more than 30,000 letters in a total of 3 billion. In the manner of a thriller, Pääbo leads us through the questions posed by this discovery, describing why it was that humans made it through evolution while our close relatives fell by the wayside. This book—and Pääbo's engagement alongside John Brockman and quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger in Munich at the Digital Life Design Conference—reminds us what enormous knowledge and developmental leaps humans can make when they just ask the right questions."


Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918 by Harry Kessler, Laird Easton (Editor and Translator)
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"Harry Kessler was a traveler all his life and, wherever he stopped, also a stranger. Fortunately with his diaries he left us a piece of world literature. Since the translation of the Diaries, people in Britain and elsewhere have been astonished by this great European: the soldier, editor, diplomat, curator; the biographer of the turn of the century, the First World War, and the Weimar Republic; the friend and acquaintance of many contemporary famous personalities such as Auguste Rodin, Albert Einstein, and Richard Strauss; the man who reinvented the theater and designed a model of the United Nations. Kessler was always two steps ahead. As a leading light in the arts world, he took over the Museum for Arts and Crafts in Weimar in 1908. As a curator, Kessler did not simply develop exhibitions that brought artworks into dialogue with one another, but he involved theater, music, literature, and, above all, people. Given all this, there seems to be a reason today, when once again nationalism is thriving and economic crises and conflict threaten the European project, to remember the bridge-building cosmopolitan."


The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari
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"First published in 1550, Vasari's book presents the lives and works of some of the most significant artists of his time. It is a founding work of art history and one of the greatest works of world literature. Twenty-five years after I first read it, I noticed how modern it is and how much one can learn from it. The title itself is noteworthy. Today we are used to seeing painting, sculpture, and architecture, indeed all forms of art, separately. Vasari didn't do that—on the one hand because the artists he was writing about, from Cimabue in the 13th century to Michelangelo in the 16th century, were rarely confined to one profession. Interestingly they are similar in that way to many young, contemporary artists who are also musicians, writers, directors, and web designers. On the other hand, Vasari himself was not just a writer but at the same time an in-demand artist and architect. Not many people know that it was he who built the world-famous Uffizi in Florence."





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message 1: by Louis (new)

Louis Giordano Very good list. I will be reading more than one of these books. Thank you for reminding about just how good Etel Adnan.


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