Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Martha Buskirk reviews Art to Come

Terry Smith. Art to Come: Histories of Contemporary Art. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2019. 456 pp.

Review by Martha Buskirk

10 February 2021

References to contemporary art abound, employed in the broad way that modern once was used to signal the latest new thing. Two obvious problems immediately arise: whether contemporary has any unity as a category, and the extent to which it is ever possible to gain sufficient perspective to write coherently about the immediate moment.

Terry Smith takes on both of these questions via the essays brought together in Art to Come: Histories of Contemporary Art. Yet tensions in his approach are evident in the relationship between the book’s title and subtitle, with the first part gesturing to the future and the second pointing to Smith’s claim that his approach is distinguished by its “historical perspective on the present” (p. 6). In many respects this is a book about the very feasibility of addressing its subject, with the questions he raises regarding whether it is even possible to assess the flux of the here and now sometimes in tension with his desire to herd it into clearly labeled classifications.

The essays span a number of years, with the earliest originating as a 2001 lecture, followed by reference points that extend through 2017. As such, the chapters read as sedimentary layers, with each appraisal embedded in the contemporary of its moment. Some earlier examples are now lodged deep in the memory hole, including Young British Artists and controversies around the London and New York iterations of the “Sensation” exhibition in 1997 and 1999. Subsequent chapters trace Smith’s ongoing reflections on the complexities of very recent art along with some discussion of architecture for good measure. 

One recurring theme concerns the possibility of identifying a postcontemporary turn. Yet this gambit is impeded by the sprawling use of the term contemporary, which has never approached the coherence (even if elusive on close examination) associated with modernism or its counterpoint in postmodernism. Also, as Smith acknowledges, there is a lot riding on the viability of contemporary art as a designation, including the machinery of a well-developed marketplace and its widespread appearance in academic curricula. Nor is there any obvious understudy if contemporary is tossed aside: current, which has been posited in certain quarters, does not have much of a ring, and Smith’s contender, “art to come,” seems more aspirational than diagnostic.

As part of his attempt to find order in this plentitude, Smith articulates three general tendencies––each nonetheless quite broad, with various subcategories, and often interconnected. The first, emanating from urban art centers, and characterized by ongoing dialog with earlier traditions, includes such categories as remodernism and postcontemporary. The second, rooted in decolonization, encompasses questions of identity and an intertwined focus on global and local issues. The third, often realized via relatively modest or cooperative forms of expression, emphasizes precarity, including climate concerns. Yet it is not always clear what is gained from Smith’s self-appointed task of adjudicating which labels might apply to any given example. He declares Anne Imhof’s performance-based work, for instance, to be a “late modern/contemporary, not a postcontemporary practice,” even as he states that it draws from all three of his designated currents (p. 359).

Regardless of such quibbles, however, Smith’s writing is admirable for his ongoing scrutiny of an ever-changing subject that is dauntingly international in its scope and potentially resistant to categorization in direct proportion to its inclusiveness. While at times he questions how many have succeeded in writing a history of the contemporary (as opposed to topical criticism), his assessments are informed by close attention to the work of other theorists who have pursued similar lines of inquiry. In bringing this collection of essays together, Smith gives readers the opportunity to chart his progress as he repeatedly surveys the contemporary terrain. These field reports from a highly engaged observer provide compelling reading for anyone concerned with art practices of the past three decades.