How do we understand contemporary art today? Where do we even start? Where do we end up? Art historian Matthew Israel responds to these questions by exploring ten of today’s most exciting contemporary artworks created by ten artists over a span of fifteen extraordinary years. With a clear eye for the captivating detail and a deep appreciation for the panoramic view, Israel reveals the fascinating stories behind each of the artworks, connecting them to larger social and artistic contexts, while stirring the sensibilities of art novices and art lovers alike. Drawn from the fields of photography, painting, performance, sculpture, installation, video, film, and public art, the works selected range from Andreas Gursky’s stunning, large-scale color photograph Rhine II to Ai Weiwei’s powerful Remembering, an installation of children’s backpacks following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, to Kara Walker’s acclaimed installation, A Subtlety, in Brooklyn’s former Domino Sugar Refinery. Accessible and insightful, The Big Picture presents an indelible portrait of the multifaceted, confounding, often mercurial world of contemporary art in the twenty-first century―a place of wonder and delight that reflects our rapidly shifting global reality.

"This illuminating read uses a fascinating list of recent works of contemporary art as the point of departure for a host of issues and concerns vital to our moment. Written with clarity and descriptive panache, Israel’s voice speaks to a mass audience, something not always the hallmark of art writing. If you already love art and artists, this book will remind you why, as the discussion of a singular work branches out from the immediate view of aesthetics to the wide-view of how artists grapple with the inexplicable in our world. If you are not already a devotee then this book should set you on your way."

―Franklin Sirmans, Director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami

"The Big Picture is a pleasure to read. Israel accomplishes something rare in synthesizing so many aspects of the international contemporary art world while privileging the artworks that serve as its justification, and more importantly, afford its meaning."

―Suzanne Hudson, Associate Professor of Art History and Fine Arts at the University of Southern California and author of Robert Ryman: Used Paint and Painting Now

"Matthew Israel’s extraordinary book gets a score of ten out of ten. Mapping contemporary art in ten very focused chapters is a brilliant and audacious way of both showing its widest range and giving us the big picture as we read avidly from one subject to the next."

―John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, New York


The Vietnam War (1964–1975) divided American society like no other war of the twentieth century, and some of the most memorable American art and art-related activism of the last fifty years protested U.S. involvement. At a time when Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art dominated the American art world, individual artists and art collectives played a significant role in antiwar protest and inspired subsequent generations of artists. This significant story of engagement, which has never been covered in a book-length survey before, is the subject of Kill for Peace.

Writing for both general and academic audiences, Matthew Israel recounts the major moments in the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement and describes artists’ individual and collective responses to them. He discusses major artists such as Leon Golub, Edward Kienholz, Martha Rosler, Peter Saul, Nancy Spero, and Robert Morris; artists’ groups including the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) and the Artists Protest Committee (APC); and iconic works of collective protest art such as AWC’s Q. And Babies? A. And Babies and APC’s The Artists Tower of Protest. Israel also formulates a typology of antiwar engagement, identifying and naming artists’ approaches to protest. These approaches range from extra-aesthetic actions—advertisements, strikes, walk-outs, and petitions without a visual aspect—to advance memorials, which were war memorials purposefully created before the war’s end that criticized both the war and the form and content of traditional war memorials.

"Speaking from the position of a scholar who came of age during another round of such misadventures - the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - Matthew Israel closely examines the legacy of Vietnam War era art with keen and fair-minded attention to its ideals, achievements and failures. His is an indispensable book about a grim, much ignored chapter in the history of American art in the second half of the 20th century, a book about how "then" contains lessons for "now" - and for the future."

-Robert Storr, Artist, Critic, Dean of the Yale School of Art

"Israel's significant contribution lies in his extensive research and the way he contextualizes the art as it parallels the history of the Vietnam War. This is a smart way of analyzing the timeliness and effectiveness of antiwar art and has not been done at this length and depth. . . . There is no other book that covers this territory anywhere as thoroughly. It will be very useful for teaching."

-Lucy R. Lippard, writer, activist, and author of A Different War