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Editor's Choice

Lives of the Artists by Calvin Tomkins (Henry Holt, 255 pages, $26). In the great predatory swoop of Higher Gobbledygook onto the syntax of critical prose around the world, art critics, for more than two decades, were among those most decisively clutched in its beak and talons and spirited away to impenetrable oblivion.

Which is why some of the greatest heroes among critics in the English language over the past half century were those art critics who stubbornly retained clarity in their work: among them the great Australian maverick Robert Hughes, British Marxist John Berger, American philosopher Arthur C. Danto and the New Yorker Magazine's incomparable profile writer Calvin Tomkins.

Now 82, Tomkins has collected in this remarkable -- perhaps indispensable -- book, his New Yorker artist profiles from the past decade. Here, he says, are the artists who made art when it could be "whatever artists decided it was and there were no restrictions on the new methods and materials."

His 10 subjects here are: British art star Damien Hirst; photographer/role player/Hallwalls co-founder Cindy Sherman; controversial painter and acclaimed filmmaker Julian Schnabel; monumental sculptor Richard Serra; earth artist James Turrell "whose medium is light,"; multimedia master Matthew Barney; installation "jokester, sensationalist, troublemaker, conceptual artist" Maurizio Cattelan; pop art patriarch Jasper Johns; kitschmeister and provocateur Jeff Koons and outrageous figure painter John Currin.

Assume no irony from his Vasari-like title. These profiles are completely personal, conversationally clear to the point of sparkle and as engagingly companionable as any excursion into contemporary art anywhere.

-- Jeff Simon

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