Let’s face it: to an inexperienced viewer, modern art can seem bizarre and intimidating, if not indecipherable. In the recent western canon, urinals are given as much importance as depictions of world war; abstraction coexists with realism; and experiential works that seem to have been designed for Instagram-sharing are gaining more and more traction.
In Seven Keys to Modern Art, artist and lecturer Simon Morley presents a system that might help us find meaning in this madness. He outlines seven “keys” — various lenses through which he interprets twenty modern artworks, from Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” to Louise Bourgeois’ “Maman.”
First, he presents the “biographical” and “historical” keys, which provide the reader with insight into the artist’s life and historical context. The “aesthetic” key analyzes an artwork’s formal properties, while the “experiential” key highlights the affective and psychological impact a work can have on viewers across time.The “theoretical” key aims to examine how the work of art explores abstract philosophical concepts (such as existence or causality), and how that same artwork operates within its institutional framework. The “skeptical” key helps us identify shortcomings in a work, while the “market” key serves to explore the commercial value and business transactions involving that artwork.
Given this structure, Seven Keys to Modern Art is a helpful and functional text. Even if your last lesson in modern art was back in eighth grade, Morley’s analytical framework might allow you to pose as a convincing connoisseur of the subject (at least in front of fellow amateurs).
Through his analyses of twenty individual artworks, Morley reveals how using these seven keys can provide us with enough biographical and historical context to understand an artist’s significance beyond a singular artwork. For instance, in analyzing Matisse’s “The Red Studio,” Morley touches on the Fauvist movement: he recalls the anecdote in which art critic Louis Vauxcelles identified Matisse as “Donatello parmi les fauves” (“Donatello among the wild animals”), indicating the boldness of the brushwork of Matisse and his fellow Fauvists, which made the Impressionists look tame in comparison. Similarly, his analysis of Rothko’s “Black on Maroon” includes an explanation of the concept of the “sublime” in art, traced all the way back to the late 18th century. Such refreshers are particularly helpful in a book analyzing 20th century art, as it’s hard to keep track of the influences behind so many cultural movements.
The addition of the “skeptical” key is particularly clever: it demolishes the grandeur that artists can acquire thanks to worshipful scholarship and market hype. In the case of Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair,” Morley notes how, because of Frida’s outsized popularity, “[her] paintings either lie hidden beneath explorations of her life in lurid detail or feature as illustrations for a feminist analysis of her work. The context of radical agitation and the role of Kahlo’s art as an aspect of political struggle in Mexico are frequently ignored.” It makes one wonder how Morley would react to Hilma af Klint’s being demoted from abstraction’s unrecognized inventor to Instagram-friendly backdrop.
That being said, Morley uses the same analytical format for all of the 20 artworks he selected, which makes reading more than three or four analyses in one sitting feel a bit like doing homework. The selection of works is certainly well balanced in its representation of different media: it includes “The Red Studio,” a painting by Matisse; “Big Electric Chair,” a screen print by Andy Warhol; “ “Maman,” a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois; and “Spiral Jetty,” a site-specific, lakeside installation by Robert Smithson. However, it leaves out crucial contributions to 20th-century art, such as the work of Salvador Dalí, the German Expressionists, and Italian Futurists. One might argue that, by excluding these artists, Morley was able to dedicate some space to three non-western artists — Yayoi Kusama, Xu Bing and Lee Ufan — thankfully avoiding an all-Western canon.
Seven Keys to Modern Art is recommended reading for any entry-level art historian (such as this writer). Those with more experience in the field, however, won’t need Morley’s help: reading his book might simply trigger memories of frantically cramming for a Modern Art 101 exam.