Art Since 1960, by Michael Archer
(Thames and Hudson, 1997)

By Ellen Tepfer

In attempting to develop a much-needed survey of contemporary art of Europe and the U.S. while maintaining a small pocketbook format, Michael Archer takes on what may be an impossible task. His Art Since 1960 is part of a new series of small paperback books put out by the World of Art imprint of Thames and Hudson aimed at providing introductory texts in areas underserved by existing conventional textbooks. In contrast to the more modest aims of earlier titles of this imprint which acknowledge the need for a narrower scope or a more idiosyncratic argument, Archer's study presents itself, in true textbook manner, as neutral and authoritative.

As anyone who has tried to teach this period knows, putting together the diverse art practices of the last forty years in an organized and coherent manner is admittedly a daunting task. Archer's approach is to organize the material according to themes, rather than through a simple chronology or the identification of styles or movements. Unfortunately, this structure in Art Since 1960 tends to oversimplify differences in terms of both formal principles and critical or theoretical positions. Furthermore, in terms of historical formations, it succumbs to the risk of at times conveying a sense of a "movement" or a group activity where there was none, while at other times eliding such self-consciousness where it actually existed.

The first of these themes, the relationship between "the real and its objects" is configured as the link between Pop and Minimalism which are proposed as the two precedents for much of the art that follows. This theme, however, is stretched even thinner to include a number of other practices (included in this chapter, for example, are David Hockney, Victor Vaserely, Morris Louis and Barnett Newman) and neither the links between them, nor the significance of the differences, are sufficiently argued. The category of "the expanded field" more convincingly covers the famously challenging diversity of conceptual and performance art projects of the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, as well as earth art, anti-form or process sculpture, and Arte Povera. With "ideology, identity and difference," Archer more problematically refers both to content and process with the disturbing result that work as unrelated as Hans Haacke and Judy Chicago get linked by content; Christo and Gordon Matta-Clark by process, while these artists' connections to other practices--conceptual art and earth art, for example--are lost.

"Postmodernisms," the final thematic chapter, refreshingly uses the plural form to indicate the unrelatedness of the variety of practices which have been dubbed "postmodern"--from Anselm Kiefer and Julian Schnabel to Keith Haring and Jeff Koons to Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine. The central question this diversity provokes, however--that is, whether such a category has any meaning at all--is never investigated. The final thematic chapter, "Assimilations," indicates the various directions that art has taken in the 1990s.

Archer's apparent intent--to be broad and relatively inclusive and to attend to less canonical developments and to less canonical artists of each style is commendable, but it may be misplaced in this sort of format. In many instances, artists are introduced with less than a sentence, making Art Since 1960 too often read like a running list, rather than an informative essay. As a result, it is unclear what audience this book is intended to serve. As a textbook for introductory students or for other readers with no significant previous knowledge, this structure does not provide enough information. A string of names--or names explained largely by reference to other names--becomes meaningless for a student reader.
Readers, on the other hand, who come with some familiarity with the material and are looking for a way of explaining or organizing the diverse practices of contemporary art are not provided with any really new interpretations or convincing connections. It may find its best niche as a supplement to a modernist textbook which falls short in the contemporary period, or as a supplement providing the connecting thread to a set of readings, lectures, or discussions which provide the needed depth and analysis.