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…isms: A Throwback Little Publication

We still talk about Impressionism and Cubism, Modernism and Expressionism, but it has been a long while since we had a new ism.

51Rh-W18QDL._SY300_That’s may be a good thing, saying that art is so disparate and inventive today that it can’t be categorized into one school, or a bad thing, signifying that art today is a mess. Or it may mean that isms are truly only discernable after the fact. Whichever place you fall on those alternatives, they are use shorthand for communicating about art. I don’t have to explain any of those -isms listed above. You know what I’m talking about.

Such thoughts were provoked by a new little book that land in my hand called …isms: Understanding Modern Art and published by Universe Publications, a division of Rizzoli. It’s billed as “the perfect resource to explore the major and minor movements of modern art from the nineteenth century until today.” It’s by Sam Phillips, a British art critic whose introduction says that it’s not exhaustive and also that he coined two -isms: Installationism and Sensationalism. Not every category is an -ism, either. One of the last movements here is “Street Art,” to cite one example.

So I wonder, if I referred to the Chapmans, Chris Ofili or Tracey Emin as Sensationalists, would that pass muster with editors and readers?

How are Turrell and Beuys categorized? They are Installationists.

The book is handy: each entry gets a name, a short introduction, followed by key artists, key words, the main definition, key works, other works, a “see also” and a “don’t see” (for contradictions). There’s a glossary, a chronology, a list of museums to visit.

I can see how I would find this book useful, and how it would even more useful to people who’ve never studied art.

There’s one thing I should note, though: though the publicist sent this to me as a new book, published this month, a little research shows that it’s not. It’s a revised version of a 2004 book of the same name with a different author. She should have told me that…




  1. Jim VanKirk says:

    “It’s a revised version of a 2004 book of the same name with a different author. ” What’s up with this? Indeed whose book is it that they can shop around for a new author? Publishers shop books they think will sell to various
    author types but the copyright remains theirs? Sounds like the drug industry to me.
    Jim VanKirk

    • I’m not sure how it works. Could be that the first author didn’t want to revise and update. But here it is:…isms+understanding+art

    • david breuer says:

      A brief correction: This is not a revised or updated version of a previous book but a completely new one. It complements the title published in 2004 which covers the history of art from the renaissance to the end of the 20th century. This focuses on the many movements and strands of art from the late nineteenth century to now and, as well as entirely new and different text and choice of works to illustrate and discuss, it enables a more in-depth treatment of many of the approaches to art that are not included in the first, more overarching, title. The two books together form a concise and complementary overview of the history of art

      • The confusion results from the title, and from the fact that the press materials and the book itself made no mention of this is a companion to the first. Perhaps you should have named it …isms2.0.

        • david breuer says:

          The book is the latest in a series of cultural reference guides for the generally interested. The series title is ‘Isms…’ and titles have covered Art, Modern Art, Architecture, Religion, Fashion and Film. I create them and can assure you that there is no textual or visual overlap between the two art titles: they are intended to complement and clarify a complex subject for the interested reader.

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