Art books round-up: Cosy conversations with Jeff Koons, and how to be green

 

What are artists, critics and curators talking about these days?

This autumn, we can eavesdrop on two very different styles of conversation, in Jeff Koons: Conversations with Norman Rosenthal (Thames & Hudson, £19.95) and Rendezvous with Art by Martin Gayford and Philippe de Montebello (Thames & Hudson, £19.95). The first is an excitable affair packed to the gills with glossy pictures of Koons' works; the second, an extended and often interrupted conversation between an art critic and the former director of the Met in New York, is relatively sober and cerebral. Rosenthal and Koons talk through Koons' career and preoccupations. Koons comes over as a boyishly madcap evangelical for art, and how it can ground us in our lives. This is a book of Koons' near-hero worship – you lose count of the times Rosenthal uses the adjectives wonderful and beautiful.

Gayford and de Montebello are forever on the move, standing in front of masterpieces in Spain, Italy, London, talking in depth about the nature of seeing, the qualities that cause us to define a work as great or not, the nature and history of museums. It's a fine book, but it lacks the spice of contention. These men are too polite to each other. Rosenthal, on the other hand, adores what Koons has achieved, and is forever talking him up.

Ossian Ward has set himself a very difficult task in Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art (Laurence King, £9.95). How do you get to grips with the multi-tentacled monster that the art of our day has become? There is nothing complicated about the answer – forget about all the art-historical baggage, then come to it new, accept it for what it is, and give it time. He then takes us on a tour of many things, wild and wacky, under such headings as "Art as event, performance and confrontation". The difficulty of this book is that we often don't really know how much Ward himself believes in a lot of this stuff.

In spite of the fact that the man himself died bankrupt, there has never been a lack of belief in the importance of Rembrandt, and, in anticipation of the autumn's upcoming National Gallery show devoted to Dutch master's late works, Penguin have re-published a paperback edition of Simon Schama's magnificent critical biography, Rembrandt's Eyes (Penguin, £25). In spite of Schama's maddening fits of verbosity, he can zoom in on a masterpiece – in fact, almost any of those many masterpieces – with an extraordinary acuity.

Art books are often hopelessly unbalanced – too much description of pictures that we cannot see. Michel Pastoureau gets the balance just about right in Green: The History of a Color (Princeton, £24.95). This ceaselessly fascinating and erudite book considers the history of the colour green in relation to European civilisation – religion, art, social change – from the Greeks on, the relationship between what we see and the word's that we use. Did Homer see green? No, apparently not. The only fault is the book's ridiculous cover. The photograph of Jane Fonda, sprawled, smoking in a so-sultry way, makes it look like a book about 1960s fashion.

Sir Joshua Reynolds too often favoured not so much green as sludgy browns – occasionally mixed with bitumen – because he wanted his works to look like the 18th-century equivalents of old master paintings. Mark Hallett's Reynolds: Portraiture in Action (Yale, £50), is the fullest, best and most readable account of Reynolds' development as a portrait artist in decades, and the book is expensive because its many illustrations keep pace with almost everything that Hallett describes in his well-chosen words.

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