What do you know about modern art? The answer is probably more than you think, not as much as you’d like, or some combination of the two, and to help you get started on the topic, or just smooth off the edges of your existing knowledge, is the Phaidon Focus series of monographs – picking out half a dozen important figures from modern art and putting them under the scholarly microscope. Each volume is packed with examples of the artists’ work of course, but also features a Focus section written by an art world expert, looking at career defining periods, events and innovations that make these six worth singling out.
We’ll start off with an artist who needs no introduction, not once you’ve seen the bright pink and black-red lips of Marilyn Monroe pouting out from the cover. Actually a lot of what the younger generations (and that’s most of us now) think they know about Andy Warhol the man comes from film fiction, so it’s worth sitting down with a good volume and stripping away the myth to get at the core of one of last century’s most influential and most interesting artists.
At the other end of the scale, perhaps, are David Smith, an American who pioneered abstract sculpture using metalwork as his primary medium, bringing the industrial process of welding into the art sphere, and Brice Martin, whose painting style ranges from expressionist self portraits to loopy abstraction. Somewhere in the middle sit volumes on Francis Bacon, Robert Rauschenberg, and Anselm Kiefer. There’s bound to be at least one artist that’s up your street, but if you can find the scratch to buy the series (they’re £14.95 each), they look great as a little set thanks to the subtle design by Julia Hasting, picking out a detail with a spotlight on the otherwise faded covers. Getting the lot also makes you look cleverer to boot.