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Cover for My Avant-Garde Education

My Avant-Garde Education

A Memoir

Bernard Cooper


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A wry and beautifully observed memoir about coming of age in the era of conceptual art.

Growing up in the suburbs—confused about his sexuality, about his consumer-oriented world, about the death of his older brother—Bernard Cooper falls in love with Pop art and sets off for the California Institute of the Arts, the center of the burgeoning field of conceptual art, in this beguiling memoir. The most famous, and infamous, artists of the time drift through the place, including Allan Kaprow and John Baldessari, not to mention the student who phones the Identi-Kit division of the Los Angeles Police Department and has them make a composite drawing of the Mona Lisa.

My Avant-Garde Education is at once an artist's coming-of-age story and a personal chronicle of the era of conceptual art, from a writer "of uncommon subtlety and nuance" (David Ulin, Los Angeles Times). It is a record of the wonders and follies of a certain era in art history, always aware that awakening to art is, for a young person, inseparable from awakening to the ever-shifting nature of the self.

Praise For My Avant-Garde Education: A Memoir

Moving…capture[s] the era…poetically.
— Peter Plagens - Wall Street Journal

We could all use an avant-garde education. If it's too late for you, please read My Avant-Garde Education. Bernard Cooper is one of the funniest writers I know, and like all the best humor, his work is tinged with the darker streams of life.

— Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers

[Cooper] put[s] together words in a combination of funny scenes, astute observations and moments of quiet poetry… The book is filled with moments…that practically require the reader to stop and savor the sentence again.
— Carolina A. Miranda - Los Angeles Times

A smart and funny coming-into-consciousness narrative of an extraordinary writer, a precise and evocative art-history lesson, and (above all) a persuasive reclamation of the everyday. A beautiful book.
— David Shields, author of Reality Hunger

[O]ne of L.A.’s great cultural critics and memoirists.
— Ed Leibowitz - Los Angeles Magazine

In My Avant-Garde Education, Bernard Cooper delivers a kind of magic. He works in a mode that is so subtle, so ingenious, so deeply rooted in the visceral that it almost defies verbal description.…This book employs the best practices of the best memoirs…By asking, "what is art?" Cooper is really asking, "what is life?" And though he gives us no easy answers, he explores these questions with such insight, humor, and generosity of spirit that we come away not only educated but genuinely enlightened.

— Meghan Daum, author of The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion

Alternately funny and touching… Readers interested in conceptualism will especially value these personal reflections during such a critical moment in the recent history of art.
— Publishers Weekly

Bernard Cooper is among my most favorite writers for his fearlessness, his honesty, his grace. He has written eloquently about subjects, many of us can find few words for and now he’s turned his eye onto his own coming of age the world of Cal Arts—an epicenter for art, creativity and a kind of highly intellectual absurdity. Cooper brilliantly captures what it is to awaken to ones creative self and the need to find what is ones own in terms of intellectual and personal identity while making sense of the world that surrounds.
— A.M. Homes, author of May We Be Forgiven

Bernard Cooper has created another elegantly simple testament to the power of the personal story. This is a riveting, soulful, whimsical, mournful, and triumphantly moving story about that weirdly mysterious process of transferring meaning from life to art, and then back again into life.
— John D’Agata, author of About a Mountain

The paradox of making something from nothing, of threading the maze of reality, is finely illuminated in this honest, articulate, and moving memoir. Through his search for the avant-garde, Bernard Cooper found something rarer, a wisdom grounded in humility before unanswerable questions. In doing so, he has achieved a combination of 'beauty plus pity,' Nabokov's definition of art.
— Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait Inside My Head

W. W. Norton & Company, 9780393240719, 256pp.

Publication Date: February 16, 2015

About the Author

The winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, Bernard Cooper has worked as an art critic and has taught writing at UCLA, Bennington College, and the University of Iowa. He lives in Los Angeles