Art history, like all histories, starts with gossip— more nasty stories about powerful, important people. Matthew Collings, in It Hurts, clearly loves such stories. Unfortunately, repeating a mess of them is all he does. His book fails miserably because at no point does he ever go beyond sex, money, power, and fashion to give the reader any reason to care about his cast of art-world monsters. He never hints that any profound or lasting work was made in our time.
It’s easy to make contemporary art sound stupid— just describe it literally, which is Collings’s favorite tawdry trick. Helen Frankenthaler: “She stained first.” Morris Louis: “He poured.” Collings’s fans love this cropped, and at times quite funny, style, but lacking context or discussion of content, It Hurts gives the reader no clue how any of this art might be taken seriously. Collings, surprisingly, is best when championing out-of-fashion Color Field painters. There’s little to say about the context of a Jules Olitski in 1999, so Collings’s “Olitski’s paintings look fantastic” is pithy enough, but when he asks Olitski how he feels about having been a forgotten painter for 30 years, you have to squirm.
With current art, he spotlights those like Sean Landers and Andres Serrano who, despite their talents, he can play for laughs. Robert Gober and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, universally considered among the most significant ’90s artists, are ignored. Perhaps Collings couldn’t find any punch lines about them, and, rather than working harder, fell back on his preferred mode of glib laziness. Trivial, obvious factual errors abound, which leads one to doubt the veracity of the gossipy stories, making this an absolutely useless tome. The only reader for whom this would be useful is an ambitious grad student who could memorize Ian MacMillan’s abundant, lively photographs so he might better recognize the players upon his arrival in New York. Anyone wanting a critical history of recent art must look elsewhere.