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Frances Guerin: The Truth Is Always Grey

So much of how we see artists as interacting with each other—and their work as interacting with each other—comes from the art historian as opposed to from the work itself.
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Frances Guerin discusses her book The Truth is Always Grey: A History of Modernist Painting with Chris Richardson. Guerin is an academic and a writer. She teaches Film and Art History at the University of Kent in Paris and Canterbury. Her academic work focuses on the relationship between visual culture and the historical world of its production, exhibition, and reception. Her work asks questions such as: How and where do images represent the world? How do people engage with various art forms and how can we describe this aesthetic experience? How do these images negotiate their social reality? What is the value of modernist art both for academics and ordinary people today? Her most recent book, The Truth is Always Grey: A History of Modernist Painting argues that grey is a dynamic and complex color in the world and on the canvas. The book was funded by a Leverhulme Fellowship (2013-2014). It was awarded a Millard Miess publication prize (2016) by the College Art Association.

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“This book was written as a textbook for Albers’ students, among them, some of the leading postwar American artists (Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Richard Serra, Susan Weil). He offers evidence derived from his classroom activities to argue that color is mutable because it is dependent on the unreliability of our perception. Not only did the book have a formative impact on a generation of American painters, but it demonstrates how color is at the core of our understanding of what and how we see in the world.”

 

“Much of my thinking about art and other images has been influenced by Gerhard Richter’s paintings. I love reading what artists say about their work, and these interviews, letters, notes, and addresses give us enormous insight into Richter’s mind at work. It’s also fun to identify his thinking on the canvas. However, perhaps most importantly, the texts are convincing evidence for not relying on an artist’s claims about his process and his finished artworks. Richter has a habit of asserting an opinion or belief on one page, and then ten pages later, making a diametrically opposed and totally incompatible conviction. Richter’s ambiguous and inconsistent thinking is another impetus to go back to the art work and look.”

 

“Clark’s work has been very influential for me. Not only for its ideas, but his approach to history, to art, and to the relationship between them. His ability to read history, ideology, and revolution in a few brushstrokes of a painting, and make it utterly convincing, is admirable. I also appreciate his challenges to conventional readings and understandings of modernist art (through its relationship to a changing modernity) in an attempt to identify the political effects of art. Even if it’s not successful, the far-reaching nature of Clark’s thinking is impressive. Clark’s writing is also a delight to read.”

 

“I first read this book as an undergraduate in the 1980s and had no idea what it was saying. Returning to it repeatedly over the years, I now appreciate how it changed the way we think about the world, and particularly, the epistemological structures that enable (and disable) our thinking and actions. Foucault also taught us about the relationship between the way we see and know the world and how that seeing is produced. For students of visual culture—no matter the media—a return to Foucault is indispensable if we are to see, and subsequently, analyze, consciously.”*

*Editor’s note: Foucault is also an inspiration for this podcast. It just so happens he has a book called This is not a pipe.

 

“The most outstanding interpretations of images all begin with a description of sensuous detail. As some of the most exciting exponents of 19th century realism, Zola’s novels are outstanding for their rich detail. He uses detail to articulate character, morality, political and ideological beliefs. As visual historians and critics, we all have much to learn from Zola’s mastery over sumptuous description to more than simply draw a picture. This particular novel is not as well-known as the others, but it’s a favorite of mine because it is set in my neighborhood in Paris.”