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Reviewed by Shannon Trenton

I always enjoy a trip to the art museum. I can pick out Monet and Picasso without walking up to the little information card next to each piece; beyond that, I can tell you how a piece makes me feel but not who painted it, or why. I understand color, subject, and perspective on only the most basic levels.

Will Gompertz wrote What Are You Looking At? for people like me.

Rather than a dusty art history textbook or an even drier lecture on Kandinsky’s “Blue Rider” period (which I only knew about before from watching Double Jeopardy), Gompertz showcases the world of modern art as a narrative spanning the 150 years since Monet, Manet, Pissarro and their fellow Impressionists first challenged the status quo of the French art scene. He reintroduces each progressive school of artists and highlights their personal and artistic struggles to gain recognition, the pieces that established and legitimized movements, and the rules that future artists broke to begin the cycle anew.

Of even greater interest to the reader who wants to understand different artistic techniques in relation to their effects on the final product, Gompertz deconstructs some of the world’s most widely recognized and cherished works to explain the influences behind them (and in some cases, at least for me, finally reveals what they’re supposed to be). He explains, for example, how Van Gogh would use a knife to shape his three-dimensional coats of paint to add texture, thereby making the paint a part of the picture rather than simply the medium used to portray it.

Gompertz also reveals that the practice of collage stemmed from Cubist co-founders Picasso and Georges Braque, who pioneered the use of everyday items in their artwork. Their work also inspired future iconic works such as Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans series and Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture The Fountain (a re-purposed urinal he purchased from an iron works in New York City). His descriptions are accompanied by black-and-white reproductions of pieces in the text, as well as several pages of full-color plates toward the last third of the book.

Most importantly, What Are You Looking At? connects the development of visual art to music and literature as well as political movements – both inspiring and inspired by art – illustrating the complex position that modern art and its creators have held in our changing society. He closes with a discussion of art’s dynamic and as-yet-untitled present period, and muses on whether the great artist of this century has already emerged.

This is a great primer for the novice art fan, however, it is not perfect. Gompertz makes consistent use of unnecessary sentence fragments, so the reading experience is one of fits and starts. Whether this is a stylistic decision meant to emphasize certain points or merely the result of lazy editing, it is jarring enough to warrant mention. If you can overlook these punctuated bumps in the road, however, then you will find this an educational and entertaining read (and find out what painting has Fry captivated in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off!)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Shannon lives in Cleveland, Ohio with her husband, son, and two cats. When she isn’t reading, getting paid to play on social media, or running her own business she enjoys playing with her baby and cooking.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Dutton Adult. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.