Six years after The New York Times and London's Sunday Times named Seven Days in the Art World one of the best art books of 2008, Sarah Thornton returns with 33 Artists in 3 Acts. The new volume, written in Thornton's trademark breezy sociological style, spans four years and features a series of profiles on mostly marquee names like Cindy Sherman, Gabriel Orozco and Marina Abramović, rounded out with a few lesser lights and a handful of supporting characters including spouses, relatives and curators.
33 Artists, due out in November from W.W. Norton, is directed at a mainstream audience, so for specialists, some of the observations can be painfully obvious (e.g.: "A solo retrospective at a major museum is not just an endorsement, but a blast of exposure"). But there's enough insidery content to satisfy culture vultures, most notably a glimpse of what the famously reclusive Cady Noland has been up to since she left the art world in the 1990s (spoiler alert: obsessively tracking down her old works to make sure they're maintained well and installed properly).
Thornton divides the book into three sections, or "acts"—politics, kinship and craft—each composed of "scenes" that are supposed to interrelate. Some scenes explicitly contrast the artists, but in others Thornton simply poses a question to an artist about a previously profiled subject to create a link. If nothing else, this literary device reveals how surprisingly indulgent artists are when it comes to Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.
"Act I: Politics" is the book's most powerful section, pitting the emphatically apolitical Koons, currently the world's most expensive living artist at auction and subject of a recent museum-wide retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum, against Ai Weiwei, who refuses to draw a line between being an artist and being a political activist. Thornton follows both artists at public talks and exhibitions, as well as observing them in their studios. She quotes a television interview in which, asked whether he cares about politics in art, Koons responds, "I try to do things that are not harmful to my work." Meanwhile, Ai Weiwei disappears, having been abducted by Chinese authorities, seemingly in connection to his efforts to hold the government accountable for the deaths of thousands of students in shoddily constructed schools in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake. (He reappears later in the book, unrepentant and as vocal as ever.)
"Act II: Kinship" centers on the family of painter Carroll Dunham, photographer Laurie Simmons, their wildly successful daughter, director/writer/actress Lena Dunham, and her sister Grace, the only non-artist of the bunch. Thornton provides a peek into Dunham and Simmons's feelings toward their daughter as her fame explodes following the success of her 2010 movie Tiny Furniture (in which Simmons plays a prominent role) to the zeitgeist-defining TV show Girls, which premiered on HBO in 2012. The Dunham-Simmons biological family is compared with Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan and his art world family, curators Francesco Bonami and Massimiliano Gioni, at the time the artistic director of the 55th Venice Biennale.
"Act III: Craft" centers on "artists' skills and all aspects of making artworks from conception through execution to market strategies." The main protagonists here are Hirst, the most expensive living artist at auction until he was dethroned by Koons, and performance artist Andrea Fraser, whose focus on institutional critique is presented as being as much emotional as it is political.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of 33 Artists in 3 Acts is Thornton's ostensibly non-judgmental style. Aside from contrasting artists, she avoids editorializing. "I include suspicious statements for contrast and comic relief," she explains in the introduction. It is up to the reader to decide where she stands, for example, when the famously grandiose Marina Abramović says, "If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity." Or when Carroll Dunham, amid the explosion of the art market, claims that "You'll never find a more small-business, family-values kind of place than the New York art scene."