One of the first artists featured in Sarah Thornton’s fascinating 33 Artists in 3 Acts is American Jeff Koons, who tells her that he never wants people to feel small when they view his art. Clearly Thornton ascribes to a similar principle. In this witty, smart follow-up to her 2008 bestseller, Seven Days in the Art World, Thornton generously cracks the sometimes perplexing code of modern art.
She cleverly divides her artist profiles into three sections. First, Thornton explores artists’ attitudes toward politics and power in their work. She then probes the network of relationships an artist needs to succeed, before finally looking at the artistry itself.
Let’s face it: Artists are, by and large, a weird bunch. (Laurie Simmons, the mother of “Girls” creator Lena Dunham, spends part of the book toting a silicone Japanese sex doll between her Tribeca loft and her home in Connecticut as she “gets to know” her before creating a series of photographs.) While the strangeness of artists is entertaining, Thornton goes beyond the quirks by asking each to articulate their own definition of an artist.
For the most part, she presents their answers without judgment. But Thornton is no pushover. When she sits down with Koons—who is a millionaire many times over for his art—she gently reminds him that she is “familiar with his famous adages and anecdotes so it would be great if he could resist his penchant for reiterating them and answer my questions as directly as possible.” She gets points for trying to draw more than pat answers from a man who, by virtue of his wild success, no longer needs to answer for anything.