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February 21-27, 2007

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'The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War'

The Artist's Body
(By Amelia Jones, preface by Tracey Warr; Phaidon; 304 pages; $39.95 paper)

For most of art history, the hand—holding a brush or a chisel—has been the main conduit from the artist to the work. But starting in the 1960s, Conceptual artists voted for the mind without the necessity of a product, while the so-called body artists went way beyond the hand into a sometimes gruesome physicality. As Amelia Jones outlines in this well-illustrated monograph, Yves Klein created a sensation when he used paint-covered nude models to writhe on canvases. Other artists, inspired by the importance of the painter's gesture as pioneered by Jackson Pollock, looked for ever more shocking ways to project pigments: Shozo Shimanoto threw paint pots at unstretched canvases; Niki de Saint-Phallle stuck bags of paint on canvas and shot at them with a gun. Women, for whom body image in modern society is so fraught with anxiety, started using their own skin as 3-D canvases, smearing themselves with paint, blood, viscera and feces in happenings and performance-art pieces. Eventually, body art turned into a kind of Grand Guignol that approached the pathological. Australian performance artist Stelarc hung himself from gallery ceilings with meat hooks. Gina Pane "climbs up and down a metal grid whose footholds are lined with razor-sharp protrusions." Luckily for the squeamish, Jones points out that one such provocation—Rudolf Schwarzkogler's 1969 "historic castration performance"—was actually faked. That's a relief. Not all the examples cited are so masochistic. Pero Manzoni, in 1961, "produced 91 tins of his own shit" and sold them to collectors by weight at the price of gold, a gesture that says it all about the modern-art market. The range of artists covered is impressive; unfortunately Jones' art-speak can be numbing: "This pancapitalist regime consists of a globalized economy ... which forces individuals to submit themselves for remapping, for repositioning within the pancapitalist matrix of commodity exchange."

Review by Michael S. Gant


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