Cover image for Why a painting is like a pizza : a guide to understanding and enjoying modern art
Why a painting is like a pizza : a guide to understanding and enjoying modern art
Heller, Nancy.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
192 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm
Electronic Access:
Publisher description

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
N6490 .H42 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The first time she made a pizza from scratch, art historian Nancy Heller made the observation that led her to write this entertaining guide to contemporary art. Comparing modern art not only to pizzas but also to traditional and children's art, Heller shows us how we can refine analytical tools we already possess to understand and enjoy even the most unfamiliar paintings and sculptures.

How is a painting like a pizza? Both depend on visual balance for much of their overall appeal and, though both can be judged by a set of established standards, pizzas and paintings must ultimately be evaluated in terms of individual taste. By using such commonsense examples and making unexpected connections, this book helps even the most skeptical viewers feel comfortable around contemporary art and see aspects of it they would otherwise miss. Heller discusses how nontraditional works of art are made--and thus how to talk about their composition and formal elements. She also considers why such art is made and what it "means."

At the same time, Heller reassures those of us who have felt uncomfortable around avant-garde art that we don't have to like all--or even any--of it. Yet, if we can relax, we can use the aesthetic awareness developed in everyday life to analyze almost any painting, sculpture, or installation. Heller also gives concise answers to the eight questions she is most frequently asked about contemporary art--from how to tell when an abstract painting is right side up to which works of art belong in a museum.

This book is for anyone who agrees with art critic Clement Greenberg that "All profoundly original art looks ugly at first." It's also for anyone who disagrees. It is for anyone who wants to get more out of a museum or gallery visit and would like to be able to say something more than just "yes" or "no" when asked if they like an artist's work.

Author Notes

Nancy G. Heller is Professor of Art History at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. The author of Women Artists: An Illustrated History and Women Artists: Works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts , Heller has received awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian Institution.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

In this evocatively titled book, Heller (art history, Univ. of the Arts, Philadelphia) simplifies the complexities of modern avant-garde art, making it palatable and accessible to an uninformed audience. She demonstrates that all art is made up of similar aesthetic elements and that modern art can be approached in the same way as traditional or representational art-a controversial premise that understates the importance of history, politics, and culture as they have influenced our understanding of art. Heller uses formal elements such as color, balance, and texture to address personal taste and its relation to art, arguing that we can compare the visual balance of a painting to pizzas, polo shirts, and mini-blinds. In her attempt to make the book accessible, she at times writes awkwardly, shifting between a vernacular and an academic voice. But though she oversimplifies, her argument will offer baffled museum and gallery visitors a way to appreciate otherwise difficult work. Recommended for large public libraries.-Krista Ivy, California State Univ., San Bernardino (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Heller (art history, Univ. of the Arts) realizes that a painting is not like a pizza. She also knows, however, that this and the other homely analogies that pepper her introduction to modern art are entirely appropriate for an audience of curious and suspicious neophytes venturing into difficult terrain. Heller focuses on just the "paintings that people love to hate," anticipating and answering philistine queries with disarming straightforwardness. Modernist and postmodernist art discussed includes abstract expressionist paintings by Pollock and Kline; the stripe paintings of Noland, Newman, and Louis; Duchamp's ready-mades and their offspring; and performances, installations, and topical offerings by Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons. The emphasis on difficult and controversial works, which are compared to more traditional works, to each other, and to common things, introduces various ways of interpreting and evaluating art in the context of specific examples. Although the quality of reproductions is not as wonderful as various "big book" art appreciation texts and there is no attempt at comprehensiveness, this short, pithy, and intelligent exercise in art appreciation may be more useful for either a beginning class or an individual reader in need of guidance. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. General readers; lower- and upper-division undergraduates. W. B. Holmes University of Rhode Island

Table of Contents

Prefacep. 6
Introductionp. 9
1 Exactly What Is "Abstract" Acts?p. 13
1 Why is a Painting Like a Pizza?p. 21
3 Making Aethetic Decisions in Art and in Daily Lifep. 35
4 Paintings that People Love to Hatep. 65
5 Bending--and Breaking--the Rulesp. 83
6 New Materials, New Rulesp. 101
7 Art Invades Life, and Vice Versap. 115
8 The Emotional Impact of (Some) Absrtact Artp. 133
9 Commonsense Answers to Some of the Questions Most often Asked about Modern Artp. 149
Notesp. 173
Acknowledgmentsp. 182
Suggestions for Further Readingp. 184
Indexp. 186