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March 16, 2015

Book Notes - Roger White "The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st-Century Art World"

The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st-Century Art World

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Roger White's book The Contemporaries is an insightful and engaging exploration of both today's visual artists and the state of the art world.

Luc Sante wrote of the book:

"For those of us who are interested in art but far removed from its business, the art world can seem like an alien civilization, with incomprehensible mores, dictates that shift every week, and shibboleths apparently transmitted by telepathy. Into this murky situation rides Roger White, not to 'expose' anything, but to make sense of art's winding social and intellectual path, using clear language and concrete examples. This book may not make you embrace the art world, but at least you'll understand."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Roger White's Book Notes music playlist for his book The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st-Century Art World:

Visual artists, at least the studio-bound variety, spend many hours alone performing mindless, repetitive tasks; it's no wonder so many of them are hardcore music nerds. Eight hours of stretching canvas or cutting plywood provides a good opportunity for serious back catalogue delving: why not cue up all the Steely Dan albums? It's just you, after all. The eminent abstract painter John Walker recently admonished young painters to work in silence, accompanied only by the sound of the brush ("I'm sure Rembrandt did"), but I've never met an artist who didn't crank up the tunes as soon as she set foot in the studio.

One perk of writing The Contemporaries was picking up music tips from the artists I spent time with; here's a short sampling. I heard some of these songs in studios, or in performances, and others were recommended to me. I heard some in my head when I thought about different works of art. As a playlist, it's all over the place—and so is contemporary art.

"The Modern Dance" (1978)
Pere Ubu

The Brooklyn painter Dana Schutz told me that she went through a heavy Pere Ubu phase a few years ago, during an equally heavy painting phase. Heavy is apt: David Thomas, front man for the doomy, long-running Cleveland band, is one of alternative rock's legendary big guys. Pere Ubu is a staple of the American art school rock canon—a tradition of jarring, deskilled music arguably inaugurated by the Velvet Underground and passed down from student to student via paint-spattered mix tapes (and now, I assume, Dropbox folders). As with most good art, the first experience can be off-putting—but it's amazing how much the stuff sticks in your head.

"Leh Jani" (2007)
Omar Souleyman

In the video for this song, the permanently sunglassed Syrian vocalist stalks through a handful of live performances (at weddings, I think) delivering high-speed chants in Arabic over an aggressive techno beat and a warbling keyboard line. He is accompanied by a gray-suited man who sometimes whispers in his ear: this is Mahmoud Harbi, Souleyman's poet-in-waiting, a chain-smoking Cyrano who feeds the singer his lines. Taken with the relationship between the two men, the performance artist Mary Walling Blackburn had a friend play the role of Harbi at one of her artists' talks; he walked around the auditorium during the lecture whispering sweet nothings to members of the audience.

"Sonne statt Reagan" (1982)
Joseph Beuys

Beuys was a towering figure in postwar German art, who left an enduring mark on performance, sculpture, art education, and politics; his talents did not extend to bandleading. "Sonne statt Reagan" features a wan reggae beat, listlessly undulating German backup singers, and Beuys's enthusiastic, toneless shouting. This song stands as a cautionary tale that greatness in one field doesn't necessarily translate to another. Or as YouTube commenter Brian L. put it, "I'm astounded by the depth, breadth, and personal impact of [Beuys's] work, but, sweet Christ, this bites bag."

"Auto-Nest~TracerBath" (2012)

MSHR is a collaboration between two Portland, Oregon-based multimedia artists, Brenna Murphy and Birch Cooper. They make their own synthesizers, and their abrasively textured noise music is available for download on their website. The album Inward Conch Upward Spiral is also the soundtrack to a spooky video game (made by Murphy) of the same name—play it if you dare. I heard about this one from American Fantasy Classics, an independent art production company based in Milwaukee who turned one of Murphy's net-art CGI landscapes into a cool sculpture made out of sand, rocks, and gourds.

"Control" (2011)
Spoek Mathambo

Another Walling Blackburn pick. The young South African musician pares down an already minimal Joy Division song to its barest essentials. In the elegant video, he prowls a graveyard and a squatted boarding house with a bullhorn and an immaculate white suit; later on he is whipped by the members of a children's dance troupe. He has the look and the sound. Why is Spoek Mathambo not more famous than he already is?

"A Rainbow in Curved Air" (1969)
Terry Riley

The last chapter of The Contemporaries concerns Stephen Kaltenbach, a mercurial artist who left the conceptual art scene in late-1960s New York for a life of deliberate obscurity in Northern California. When he did so, his dry and cerebral art became lush, decorative, and often psychedelic. The work of minimalist composer Terry Riley exhibited a similar transformation, wherein the astringent sound of the downtown New York City scene blossomed into an exuberant maximalism—from tape loops and suits to bongos and kaftans. "A Rainbow in Curved Air" marks this historical moment of radical loosening up.

Roger White and The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st-Century Art World links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

ARTnews review
Kirkus review
Shelf Awareness review

Brooklyn Daily interview with the author
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
New York Times T Magazine profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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