Books: The gospel according to St Saatchi

This is Modern Art by Matthew Collings Weidenfeld pounds 20 Young British Art: The Saatchi Decade Booth-Clibborn Books pounds 75
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The Independent Culture
Charles Saatchi and Matthew Collings have much in common: Saatchi buys into contemporary art in a big, personal, subjective way; so does Collings. Both have a craving for it that is all-encompassing. Saatchi lets it show in his Boundary Road Gallery; Matthew Collings in the articles he writes. And both are now attempting to get themselves into the mainstream.

In 1994, Time Out art critic Sarah Kent wrote Shark Infested Waters about the Saatchi Collection of British Art in the 1990s. As a reference book it was a valuable tool, although the text was not without bias. Now the Saatchi collection is again the sole subject of a book, this time over 600 pages long, with a weight to break any coffee table.

Young British Art: The Saatchi Decade, the title of the book, says it all. It documents, according to the cover, the best of recent British art "filtered through the eye of a ground-breaking and innovative collector". All hail Saatchi, it practically screams, saviour of British art, creator of the 1990s and Young British Artists.

Designed by Jonathan Barnbrook (of Damien Hirst tome fame), the pages of the book writhe, jangle and shimmer. This is graphic design at its most extreme; millennium-bug-corrupted fonts and typewriter drawings. It is not user-friendly if you want to read any of the essays, however, but then, apart from the one by Dick Price (the nom de plume of one of the artists in the book), you've probably read all the other stuff before (Sarah Kent and Richard Cork on the "Freeze"-to-"Sensation"-thanks-to- Saatchi phenomenon).

The images of the work look fantastic (and so they should for pounds 75), but I'm not convinced by the chronological order of work, which is filed under year finished rather than the year Saatchi decided they were worth buying. This has the effect of making him look more prescient than he actually is. Including psychedelic spreads of newspaper coverage was a clever ploy. More often than not they pan the work Saatchi bought. But the work that surrounds these pages is world class, and the bite of Sun headlines like "It's an Artrage" becomes soft puppy nips.

In Matthew Collings's This is Modern Art, Collings is the central figure. His last two books, Blimey!, and It Hurts dealt with the London art world and the American art world in two easy chunks. They were subjective, quirky, rude, witty, irreverent, mad and maddeningly readable. He flitted around the subject in an often disconcerting way, but at least you had some idea where he was going and why. It was still art skydiving, exhilarating and fun. But in his latest book, it's more like a kamikaze freefall through art.

This is Modern Art is tied in to his Channel 4 series of the same name. Anyone calling their book by such a definitive title is setting themselves up for a fall. Collings realises this early on, and whips in a disclaimer, in the introduction, that no one really knows what modern art is. After he had destroyed the central premise of the book in this way, I found my interest quickly waning.

I had hoped it would restructure, fill in and expand on the very jumpy and eclectic series. Unfortunately, from the first page of the introduction, when Collings writes about a journey made round "leafy" Hoxton Square in London, where "everybody was an artist", I knew I was in for another helping of Collings's egocentric views. What was fun and refreshing in his earlier books had now become an annoying habit, a tic that danced over every page.

Blimey! was subtitled The London Artworld from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst. It Hurts was New York art: from Warhol to now. This is Modern Art is a fusion of the two, and predominantly deals with male US and UK artists. I can't quite see whom this book is written for. It expects you to have a type of Pattersonesque map of art in your head, so Collings doesn't have to pause for breath when he skips from Picasso to Goya to the Chapmans, from Munch to Emin (and I found it very strange, in a book supposedly about Modern art, that he spent most of Chapter two talking about Goya, who died in 1824). If you do keep up, he then doesn't really give anything new about these artists in terms of their own work or how they connect. Artists are mentioned in a passing breath then dropped, with no text referencing for you to know if he mentions them again, or if that's it. There isn't even an index.

It reads like a walk through his mind: fascinating in a kind of rambling, jumbled way, with the odd pithy line rising into consciousness that makes you laugh: he calls Gilbert and George the Morecambe and Wise of existentialism; he says men, entering Tracey Emin's tent, have to crawl. But there are too few of these, and too much baggy, self-indulgent meandering. His one concession has been to include concise biographic side-panels on the key artists in each section: what a shame that only seven are on women and 56 are on men.

With more underpinning and an editor that didn't let him have his way all the time, it could have been a great book. As it is, when reading it I felt: "Blimey! This is Matthew Collings. It hurts."

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