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Ice Cream is the fourth installment of
Phaidon Press's mega-surveys of contemporary art that began with
Cream in 1998. Cream was followed in 2000 by Fresh Cream, which was
followed in 2003 by Cream 3 . (Until Ice Cream came along this year, I
thought maybe the Phaidon editors were tired of thinking up
“creamy” variations. I am still holding out for “sour” or

Each new installment purports to offer
the “cream” of contemporary art, and they have all followed a
similar format. Ten international curators each chose ten artists.
The 100 chosen artists get a four page spread with illustrations, a
text by their curator, and a short bio. In the introductory portion
of the book, the curators respond to a set of questions usually
provided via e-mail by a Phaidon editor.

Since the books are achingly
contemporary, each has taken on a unique design. Early on these
designs were insults to both readers and retailers. The original
Cream was a 7 ½ by 15 inch landscape format so thick that its
paperback binding began to give way with the first look through. To
make things worse, the binding opened into a 30 inch long, unreadable
column, with tiny print that constantly reversed out from black to
white as it ran over the illustrations. As a physical object it was
a worthless piece of crap, and I don't mean that in a nice way.

Fresh Cream was a 12 x 6 inch,
vertical, hardbound book with fairly readable type except for the
parts that were pink on pink (Imagine the design meeting where that
decision was OK'd. "Pink on Pink! I love it!") The book came packed
in an inflatable plastic bubble that was a bane to retailers not
prepared to buy them in bulk and so receive the free wire bin Phaidon
provided for large orders. Cream 3, in keeping with its
hat-in-the-ring title, was totally ordinary as a book, and Ice Cream
is actually quite nice with an iridescent silver laminated cover.

The Cream series fits in with other
encyclopedic Phaidon projects that survey particular media –
Vitamin D (drawing), Vitamin P (painting), Vitamin Ph (photography),
and several volumes on fashion and design. When I read these – or
rather “read at them”– I usually try to do three or four artists
a day while making the morning coffee. I find I get very little out
of it, since the artists for the most part are involved in projects
so conceptual that the illustrations cannot do them justice and the
short written statements have little impact.

So what is the real purpose of these
books? They are presented as curated projects, but their presentation
works in every way possible to defeat what curatorial effort
individuals put into them. Each curator works independently so there
is no effort at overall consensus, and the once their choices are
made, Phaidon organizes them alphabetically so whatever vision an
individual curator might have is absorbed into the arbitrary flow of
the the book. (You could I suppose read each curator's statements and
then leaf through the book to find their chosen artists and see if
any consistent vision becomes apparent, but you're not going to do
that and neither am I.)

Phaidon publicity promotes Cream as a
exhibition in a book, but what it most resembles is a very high-end
Sears Roebuck catalog. The governing metaphor here is shopping, and
this holds even more true in the variations on the “vitamin”
theme. These books have more in common with art fairs than curated
exhibitions. As such they serve some purpose, and they can be fun to
look through, if only they weren't so godawful pretentious.

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