Artists on works that changed their lives

Every one of us comes across a work of art that changes everything. Something about it, in its use of colours, the story or feeling it expresses, the technical mastery and style in which it was executed all crashes into us like a wave, a baptism of unknowable magnificence reconciling our funny hearts.
A new book entitled In My View explores how this intimate encounter with a magnetic work of art has specifically transformed the lives of leading artists through the written word, offering them an open platform to discuss at length this decisive occurrence.
The breadth of the collection of essays is astounding, with 78 contemporary artists, including John Baldessari, Chuck Close, Michael Craig-Martin, Tacita Dean, Marlene Dumas, Antony Gormley, Susan Hiller, Thomas Hirschhorn, Candida Höfer, Vik Muniz, Jorge Pardo, Raymond Pettibon and Ed Ruscha participating in the project.
The brilliance of the tome, which has been expertly conceived and assembled by the writer and art historian Simon Grant, is in the surprising choices made by some of the artists.
For example, it is an absolute revelation to find that Chuck Close, who has flipped between photorealist and conceptual approaches to art, has been loyal to the great seventeenth century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer ever since he was a student.
His description of Milkmaid (165-58) is endearing, fluent and judicious. He comments how for most people, what is observed immediately is the self-explanatory subject matter. For Close, however, it is more spiritual. Vermeer’s painting exceeds its physical reality and “becomes an apparition worthy of creation by the gods”.
“So much information and compressed energy is packed into such a small painting,” he says. “Inch for inch, The Milkmaid is one of the most remarkable achievements in art.”
Or what of Rachel Whiteread, one of Britain’s leading contemporary sculptors? She has been transfixed by Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ (1450) for over 35 years.
Whiteread is famous for winning the Turner Prize in 1993 for House, a life-size replica of a soon-to-be demolished terraced house from London’s East End. Francesca was an Italian renaissance master of colour and geometry, grounded in perspective. They may be polar opposites, but it is amazing what common ground can be found between the two artists.
“When I look at The Baptism of Christ I see a quiet symmetry in it, which is one of the things that makes it feel like a silent painting,” she writes.
“By symmetry, I mean the way that Piero has constructed four ‘pillars’ across the canvas. There are the angels on the left, the tree, the figure of Jesus, and then the partially clothed figure in the background. Together they give the painting a sculptural and vertical strength. It is almost like a building.”
Meanwhile, the intriguing and politicised Mark Wallinger, best described as an abstract installation artist, cites the genius Spaniard Diego Velazquez as the “greatest of all painters”. He declares The Triumph of Bacchus as a vivid construction of sophistication and modernity.
One of Wallinger’s latest works is 10000000000000000 (2012). Made up of 65,536 stones placed on a black and white checkerboard, it is mathematic in concept, a systematic catalogue of banality. It’s an odd work, though strangely thought-provoking.
Held in the same breath as Velazquez, it is hard to see themes. However, dig a little deeper and the almost infinitesimal threads connect both men. Velazquez, we discover, was not as literal in his work as might be assumed.
Bacchus is quite enigmatic, courtesy of a number of complex focal points. The consequence of this is a cacophony of happenings, all unfolding within one single static space, subplots to the overall narrative.
In My View is a very personal, eloquent and fascinating insight into the way artists think about art. In their touching recollections of the excitement felt when first coming into the company of greats, the reader is gifted with a historical vantage unlike any other.
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