Defining Contemporary Art: 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Artworks takes an innovative approach to surveying the art of the last quarter century, which is notoriously difficult to periodize or define. Eschewing grand narratives, Phaidon asked for individual artwork selections from eight of today’s most influential curators: Daniel Birnbaum, Connie Butler, Suzanne Cotter, Bice Curiger, Okwui Enwezor, Massimiliano Gioni, Bob Nickas, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. The resulting volume not only addresses the obstacle of pinning down the nebulous term “contemporary art,” but also manges to pull off a legible presentation of it in a single book.
The project never aspired to be a comprehensive or canonical text, and in fact, its self-imposed limitations make it particularly effective. The strict parameters read almost like the playful rules of a game: each curator picks twenty-five works made between 1985 and 2010; no artist can be featured twice in the entire volume (though there were two exceptions); and each curator must select one of the years to write about at length. Craig Garrett, the editor and coordinator of the project, wanted the curators to think anecdotally by picking works they would look at now and say, “After this, everything has changed.” Ultimately, Defining Contemporary Art functions as both a demonstration of contemporary curation and a poly-contextualized historical review.
Phaidon recently hosted a panel discussion at MoMA that gathered all eight of the curators together for the first time. Each presented one work from the book, and the pieces ranged from the prominent to the obscure, together creating an informative cross-section of the tone and themes of the book.
Peter Fischli and David Weiss, The Way Things Go, 1987
In this experimental film, Fischli and Weiss document the kinetic physics of everyday objects as a study of the absurd and the structured.
“Fischl and Weiss demonstrate that irony and sincerity cannot exist without one another. Indeed, there is no sincerity like irony.” —Hans Ulrich Obrist
Alighiero Boetti, Map series, 1989
Alighiero Boetti’s iconic explorations of map-making informed these quilts, which anonymous Afghan women embroidered with maps of the world during a pivotal year in global history.
“What I think is particularly beautiful about the work of Boetti is that the very manufacturing of the world anticipates the transition towards a much more relativistic universe that would emerge in the ’90s.” —Massimiliano Gioni
Hans Haacke, GERMANIA, 1993
Hans Haacke’s provocative pavilion for the 44th Venice Biennale made headlines with its monumentalized use of German imagery from World War II.
“Haacke’s project was really the first time an artist had taken the national pavilion as the subject of inquiry, rather than as just a space into which things are placed—it became a space that was contested.” —Okwui Enwezor
Dieter Roth, Solo Scenes, 1997-8
Dieter Roth’s last and perhaps most majestic work presents a multitude of quotidian scenes from the artist’s solitary final days.
“For an artist that is as prolific and as expansive in his conception of art—in terms of its possible forms, its materials, its types of productions, and auto-productions—Solo Scenes is an especially moving portrait not only of the artist, but the figure of the artist, and the idea of the artist.” —Suzanne Cotter
Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kamin Lertchaiprasert, The Land Foundation, 1998-Present
Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kamin Lertchaiprasert co-founded this inhabitable economic experiment in self-sustainability, which takes place on a plot of land in Thailand.
“It’s a way to introduce contemporary art in Thailand that maybe is not so visible otherwise […] and it’s been very useful in a way, in linking to western traditions and enriching them, contextualizing them in new ways.” —Daniel Birnbaum
Lily van der Stokker, Extremely Experimental Art by Older People, 2000
This fantastically abstract and participatory installation is part of Van der Stokker’s humorous interpretations of social themes.
“[She] chose to express something through the invention of a persona, or a ghost. A persona on whom you can then project a mental state. […] You could, as a public, take place in it and be part of the artwork.” —Bice Curiger
Marina Abramović, Seven Easy Pieces, 2005
In a legendary, marathon performance series, Marina Abramović reenacted six iconic performances by Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Valie Export, Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys, in addition to an original work.
“Abramović spectacularly introduced the notion of re-performance to the art world. […] The inclusion of Seven Easy Pieces in this book is provocative in the way it allows us to consider an artwork, or a series of artworks in this case, that physically embodies an idea and opens up a discussion on the nature of a genre.” —Bob Nickas
Falke Pisano, The I and the You (version III), 2009
Falke Pisano’s modular installation borrows themes, motifs, and its title from one of Lygia Clark’s works, but renders them in different dimensions and materials.
“I was struck when I first saw it by both how visually compelling it is, and how obdurate and tough it is in terms of its intellectual and conceptual framing. [… It’s an example of those] works that stay in the mind and that continue to addle us and draw us further in, in terms of curatorial inquiry.” —Connie Butler