Interviewers often ask “what books have influenced you?” I was interviewed once and was never asked this question, but it seems to be a good way to introduce oneself. Before I continue, however, I should mention that while working on acquiring the skills I felt I needed, I paid near zero attention to any art made before 1900. I did this because of lack of understanding and also a need to focus on the task of learning draftsmanship, anatomy and painting. I get sidetracked easily. Later on, when the struggle was less dire, I relaxed and began reading more widely.
So here is the super-short list:
1. “The Banquet Years” by Roger Shattuck. As an introduction to the modern era I can think of none better. People find fault with this book on grounds I cannot remember, but never mind it is riveting and rousing. This book expanded my attention past 1899.
2. “A Life of Picasso,” John Richardson. Because I didn’t understand him I never much liked Picasso until I read these books. The first volume of this series turned out, for me, to be a gateway drug. Since reading it I have read every credible biography I can find. Richardson’s is the best. However, of particular value to me are books which contain his words. Brassi, Dore Ashton and Gilot provide a heaping dose of Picassian wisdom and strangeness. Key for me was Gilot telling that Picasso recommended she use the same size brush for her entire painting to give the work an overall harmony. That is in direct contradiction to everything I’d been taught, heard and read about painting practice, but it made sense and I’d already been fiddling with this approach since abandoning my “figurative realist” phase. I’ve been following this advice pretty closely ever since. This is seldom a problem for me because I usually choose subjects which require tiny brushes. It takes forever get things accomplished.
3. “Bright Earth” Philip Ball. This book is about the history of pigment and it really lit a fire under me. For years I studied how to mix colors, which is a recommended and admirable thing to learn but along with that came a suspicion of unmixed modern colors because they are garish and lead one away from ‘realism.’ Ball relates how over the centuries following the renaissance enterprising chemists vastly expanded the range of pigments available to artists. He ties these developments to painting and discusses the predictably hostile reaction that ensued at every stage. It implicitly drives home the point that nothing happens in a vacuum and to fail to acknowledge and incorporate what is available in your time is to fail on some level.
That’s a pretty short list. I have also read numerous biographies of artists of the 20th Century as well as many books on the “Art World.” Many of them were inspiring and taught me to respect the accomplishments of those artists who worked against the current no matter if I liked what they did nor not. But the above are the books that led me into my own time and encouraged me to fully engage with it (to the best of my ability) rather than remain mired in a vanished era.