The art world is a weird and wonderful place with plenty of strange stories hidden in plain sight. Did you know, for example, that Maurizio Cattelan has worked as a mailman, janitor, and morgue assistant? Or that Andy Warhol used to collect takeout menus and cookie jars? Did you know that Salvador Dalí kept a pet ocelot named Babou, or that Annie Leibovitz created an album cover for Cyndi Lauper?
These are just a few of the quirky and compelling tidbits in Artifacts: Fascinating Facts About Art, Artists, and the Art World. The book, which was edited by Sara Bader and Rebecca Morrill and published by Phaidon, is a sort of art fan’s handbook that brings together both practical and unexpected information about hundreds of artists, their materials, museums, galleries, and the art market. Though it’s not a typical reference book, Artifacts is nonetheless thoroughly researched, and filled with illustrations, graphics, and diagrams that condense the book’s data into memorable visualizations.
Even a seasoned art history buff will find new things to discover in this book. We learn, for example, that James Abbott McNeil Whistler, John Singer Sargent, and Augustus John all inhabited the same red-brick house at 33 Tite Street in London at different times, and that Judy Chicago, Francisco Goya, and Auguste Rodin were each rejected from art school. The facts are both personal and professional, detailing artists’ zodiac signs (Yoko Ono is an Aquarius) and favorite pets (Louise Nevelson’s cats were named Cous-Cous and Fat Fat), as well as their notable teachers and historic sales figures.
The book’s visuals are at their most effective when dealing with the realities of inequality in art. In one spread illustrating a 2019 survey of the permanent collections of 18 major museums in the United States, we clearly see the huge disparity between acquisitions of artworks by male artists (87.4%) and female artists (12.6%), as well as the dominance of White artists, who make up 85.4% of collections in the study. Another graph demonstrates the yawning gap between the most expensive 20th-century painters at auction, where the highest-earning piece by a male artist sold for $300 million, while its female counterpart sold for $44 million.
Artifacts mentions hundreds of artists, and an effort has clearly been made to include more than just the biggest name art stars like Picasso and Koons. But the art world — and this book about it — still tends towards mostly Western white male subjects. Artifacts is a fun and breezy book that offers another look at the art world, albeit through a familiar lens.