Best Books 2015 from THE magazine

Santafe.com | THE magazine - December 20, 2015

Each year THE magazine receives books from many publishers for review consideration. Here is a selection of twenty books we thought our readers would enjoy. Reviews by Diane Armitage, Veronica Aronson, Kathyrn M Davis, Jackie M, Michael Motley, Richard Tobin, Lauren Tresp, and Susan Wider.

To dive into Black Dolls (Radius Books, $45) is to experience an intimate connection with the departed—an experience of simultaneous resurrection and loss. The book documents over one hundred African American dolls, created between 1850 and 1930, in the collection of Deborah Neff. Starkly photographed against white and black backgrounds, readers can view each doll in close-up detail. It is evident in each that the unknown makers of these beloved objects were invested in portraying them in the likeness of real characters: they are given facial expressions, unique characteristics, and personalized dress despite their rugged, handmade construction from found and repurposed materials. The photographs capture each doll in a portrait, animated by echoing its past life as a childhood companion and a location of solace. Accompanying these images are reproductions of vintage photographs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of children posed with their own dolls. Faith Ringgold, Margo Jefferson, and Lyle Rexer contributed essays that examine the themes of racial identity, social mobility, and the doll as the inadvertent vessel for bias. This book offers a highly personal and challenging commentary on these topics, which are made accessible through its impressive reverence for these playful, cherished objects. —LT

The sculptor Louise Bourgeois was counted as one of the world’s greatest artists when her long life ended, in 2011, in New York City. Her work was fiercely passionate and ferociously intimate; for Bourgeois, there could be no separation between art and artist. There was no denying Bourgeois: Her physical presence was striking for such a tiny woman. We still picture her as in Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait, merrily clutching a giant phallus and wearing a fur coat like some daft Surrealist transported out of the early nineteenth century. Bourgeois seemed to keep nothing to herself, but she was tidily contained and never a victim. Even into the last year of her life, as captured by her friend the photographer Alex Van Gelder in his Mumbling Beauty Louise Bourgeois (Thames & Hudson, $50), she retained a luscious vitality that belied nearly one hundred years on the planet. Van Gelder captured her sitting, tiny and turbaned or sporting a motorcycle cap; her old eyes faded into blue or lively, dark, and twinkling; her sculptor’s hands gnarled and delicate. At age ninety-nine, she was hardly a glamorous subject, but she was never less than bewitching. —KMD

In January 1971, ArtNews published a major essay by art historian Linda Nochlin titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” which became part of a seminal foundation in the nascent field of feminist studies as they pertained to women artists past and present. Nochlin’s essay proved a necessary wedge into the discipline of art history which up to that point was loath to include women artists in the continuum, especially if they had lived before the twentieth century. However, professional women artists who signed and dated their work had been part of art history since the Renaissance. Nochlin found these artists and brought their careers to light, not only in her groundbreaking essay, but in an exhibition that she curated along with Ann Sutherland Harris. This landmark show, Women Artists: 1550-1950, which took place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, succinctly presented many of the missing pieces of Western art that the world had been too myopic or just plain too uninterested to acknowledge. Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader (Thames & Hudson, $50) not only loops back to her important text from 1971, it picks up from there and proceeds with essays Nochlin has written about women artists from the past and into the twenty-first century. In this book, illustrated in color throughout, Nochlin not only covers artists working in traditional genres like painting and sculpture, she fully engages the postmodern world of conceptual and multidisciplinary work by artists such as Jenny Holzer, Liza Lou, Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, and Sophie Calle. From the “old realism” of the Renaissance to the “new realism” of Contemporary Art, Nochlin casts her arthistorical net with an encyclopedic reach. —DA

Eli Broad, who made his fortune first in home building and then insurance, is now focused on philanthropy and art. The Broad, a $140-million museum of modern and contemporary art, opened in September at the corner of Grand and Second Street in Los Angeles. The privately funded museum has fifty thousand square feet of gallery space—thirty-five thousand on the third floor and fifteen thousand more on the first—in a building totaling one hundred and twenty thousand square feet. The works are primarily painting, sculpture, and photography, with some video and installation pieces. The Broad Collection (DelMonico Books/Prestel, $85) is a very, very large book—four hundred and sixtyfour pages with four hundred beautifully reproduced illustrations—that offers essays by artists, writers, and filmmakers on other artists. Pulitzer Prize–winner Mark Stevens writes on Cy Twombly, filmmaker John Waters on Jeff Koons, curator Francesco Bonami on Damien Hirst, and Lynne Tillman on Cindy Sherman. The book is divided into five sections: Challenging History, Comedy and Tragedy, Society and Selfhood, Making and Breaking Patterns, and Perpetual Games. The Broad is a collection of many of the major players of contemporary art: Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley, Julian Schnabel, Robert Longo, Neo Rauch, Kiki Smith, Sam Francis, John Baldessari, Sherrie Levine, Bruce Nauman, and Ed Ruscha to name but a few. This book is a must-read and a must-have for all with a serious interest in art. —VA

The spirit of the late John Connell is deeply embedded within this elegant overview of his protean life as an artist. All art is a high, wide, and cracked mirror of the artist who created it, and this is especially true of Connell and his prolific output of sculptures, drawings, paintings, and text. Once he found his way into Buddhism as a young artist, everything he made—every animal, flower, Bodhisatva, and man, woman, or child—was really a portrait of himself. The tar he used as paint, the iron oxides, wax, plaster, sunflower seeds, and chicken wire were extensions of his fingertips and his hyperactive imagination. To say that Connell’s vision was unique in contemporary art doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what flowed out of him. It was indeed art, but it was also a vision of the material and the spiritual planes of our existence glued together with his rambunctious sense of humor and a deeply felt compassion tempered with indifference. Life in many of its incarnations was animated by Connell’s distinctive textures and his crude sense of finesse that helped to establish his ideas about the imperfect nature of perfection. John Connell: Works 1965-2009 (Radius Books, $55) is a gorgeous book that does justice to Connell’s amazing grasp of humanity in all its oddness, soulfulness, and deliberately misshapen beauty, and gives the reader much more than they bargained for. This fabulous monograph provides a window into an artist’s life that was redolent of “the pungent, the poignant, and the hilarious,” as Malin WilsonPowell wrote in her bittersweet and perceptive essay. This extraordinary book is like another version of Connell’s Raft Project or his Kwan Yin Pavilion, where Kwan Yin offers everybody a sip from her jar of immortality.—DA

With his saturated aerial vistas of Earth, photographer Bernhard Edmaier makes it clear that we are going to hell in a handbasket. However, Edmaier’s handbasket is so lush, so ripe, and so frankly gorgeous that we hardly mind the destination so long as we get to ride the waves of ridiculous splendor Edmaier exposes us to. In the coffee-table book Water (publisher and price) climate change has never looked so sexy. That is not to say that the artist, with geologist and writer Angelika Jung-Hüttl, has not presented us with the stunning reality of catastrophic geographic changes wrought on the planet by time (with a little help from our species); this book is a sobering consideration of how hostile our environment can be. Even more impactful is the notion of how little we humans have mattered over the course of Earth’s billions of years of existence. The thought that the third planet in the solar system can take or leave us is shattering and splendid. By focusing on the many forms water takes on this planet, we are presented again and again with evidence that nature is the most avant-garde of artists, and we, poor humans, often don’t “get” the art.—KMD

Storyteller: Duane Michals (Prestel, $75) was produced to accompany a retrospective of this self-taught photographer’s work. During the 1960s Michals began adding words and poems to his pictures, creating visual stories by using multiple-image sequences. Author Linda Benedict-Jones, Curator of Photography at Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, offers a comprehensive look at the man and his creativity. Also included are interviews with Michals by William Jenkins and Enrica Viganó, and essays by Allen Ellenzweig, Marah Gubar, and others about Michals’s place in twentiethcentury photography, his images of sensuality and sexuality, his legacy, and the rarely explored childlike aspects of his work. More than seventy-five of Michals’s iconic works are reproduced—including many of his troubling and disturbing photo sequences where grandmothers vanish, the bogeyman wins, and Schrödinger’s cat ponders the viewer—along with facsimiles of Michals’s handwritten notes such as, “A FAILED ATTEMPT TO PHOTOGRAPH REALITY, how foolish of me to believe that it would be that easy.” —SW

Super Indian (DelMonico Books/ Prestel, $45) examines Fritz Scholder’s controversial Indian series from 1967 to 1980—powerful paintings that marked a massive shift in his palette and subject matter. Scholder created a hullabaloo with his portrayal of American Indians by merging Abstract Expressionism, Figurative, and Pop Art an interpretation that defied viewers to look past the generalized conception of the Native American to the unvarnished reality of Indian life at that time. Scholder took on the taboos of alcoholism, poverty, and alienation that were experienced by many Indians. In a newspaper interview he said, “Indians in America are usually poor, sometimes derelicts outside the value system, living in uncomfortable surroundings… viewed as something other than human beings by the larger society. The Indian of reality is a paradox—a monster to himself and a non-person to society.” The reproduction of Scholder’s paintings is top-drawer. Several informed essays by renowned academics discuss and illuminate Scholder’s influences and creative practices. Of particular interest is David Bradley’s essay “Scholder in the Southwest.”—VA

Abstraction was, and remains, one of the seminal forces in the art of the past century. Modernism was born from an art that was liberated from mimesis by color and shapes existing independently beyond rigid academic and political hierarchies. Postmodernism still embraces aspects of abstraction as a powerful means of thought and expression. Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915- 2015 (Prestel, $60) focuses on the history of geometric abstraction from its origins in Russian Constructivism through its global evolution. Non-objective, geometric abstraction differs from the biomorphic genre, whose images are derived from nature and visualizations of psychic elements, or the gestural and existentialist influences of Abstract Expressionism. The pure forms in geometric abstraction are based on mathematically derived systems and are most commonly monochromatic and non-representational. The book traces developments in this formalist style, chronologically identifying four key themes beginning with the utopian vision of a new future for society based on technological progress. With the rise of mass media, geometric abstraction would influence communication, promoting ideas through text and image. Lastly, the book tracks abstraction’s absorption into the everyday vocabulary of material culture and social relations. For each of the periods there were innovators furthering the black square’s influence on European, North and South American, Middle Eastern, and East Asian aesthetics and politics.—JM

John Baeder’s Road Well Taken (Vendome Press, $45), with text by Jay Williams, is a double-edged sword gone dull on one side. Baeder’s paintings are marvelously executed tropes of the classic coast-tocoast road trip, replete with diners, vans, yellow cabs, and more diners—nostalgic renderings of an America as envisioned by Madison Avenue after World War II. As such, the paintings are rather too clichéd to be true standouts amid today’s visual opulence. However, when considered as the manifestations of the photorealist movement that was so popular in the second half of the twentieth century, the paintings in this volume acquire deepened layers of meaning that save them from being mere postcards blown up large. The text by Williams tells a well-researched narrative of the artist’s life and work, and his standing in the “diner culture” that he documented so well. Baeder’s photographs of the ephemera of the road are wisely presented here, and are more forceful than the paintings, which, to our twenty-first-century eyes, veer dangerously close to downright Kincaidisms. Taken by the artist in the 1960s, the black-and-white prints read as outsider art, all hand-drawn counterpoints to the slick graphical world we inhabit today. This is not so much the story of the American road as it is a documentary of how we see ourselves today—because of how we saw ourselves then.—KMD 

Roman Vishniac: Rediscovered (DelMonico Books/Prestel and ICP, $75) is a monolithic compilation of the modernist photographer’s six-decade-long body of work. The volume was published as an accompaniment to a major retrospective of Vishniac’s oeuvre, which was drawn from the archive of his work held by the International Center of Photography and curated by Maya Benton. Vishniac (1897-1990) is arguably the most famous chronicler of a lost world: that of pre-war Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Those iconic images are included in this monograph, and are joined by his lesser-known yet exhaustive images of pre-war Berlin, unseen documentation of post-Holocaust refugee camps, striking coverage of postwar ruins across Europe, and compelling images of Jewish daily life in America in the 1940s and ‘50s. Additionally, images of items from the Roman Vishniac Archive, including vintage prints, personal correspondence, and contact sheets are also included. The comprehensive compendium is a trove of insights into the era as well as the vision of this versatile and innovative photographer. A number of essays—both scholarly and personalar—threaded throughout, covering topics from Vishniac himself to the lives and cultures he captured, from documentary photography during the 1930s and ‘40s to photo microscopy, a field the artist pioneered.—LT

Although it may seem that everything that could be said or done in regard to the popular icon Frida Kahlo has been articulated, from biopics, refrigerator magnets, to museum exhibitions and numerous impersonations of her style, Frida Kahlo—Her Photos (Editorial RM, $65) has much to reveal. Kahlo’s personal collection of over six thousand photographs begins with images of her parents in their youth, her own childhood portraits, friends in her artistic circle, her pets, and Mexican folk objects. Kahlo’s father was a commercial photographer who was particularly attracted to self-portraits. His favorite daughter acquired this self-fascination as well. Friducha, as he called her, helped him in the darkroom, introducing her to the technical aspects of the medium. During her infamous marriage, she and Diego Rivera collected images of friends and made photographs in the pre-photocopy era from the pages of magazines and books of subjects that piqued their interest. Frida freely demonstrated her personal feelings for certain individuals by literally cutting out the faces of those she had disagreements with from a group photo, or by adding color or lipstick kisses to images demonstrating affection. Casa Azul, Frida’s home, studio, and world figures prominently in the collection. Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, a prominent Mexican photographer, editor, and curator chose the four-hundred-and-one works presented in this book, with essays by various contributors. Monasterio comments, “The camera was always familiar to Frida Kahlo. She seems to have felt comfortable in front of it. She even learned to look into the lens to put across what she wanted and managed to reinvent her own image through photography.” —JM

Martin Gusinde, a German missionary, arrived on the island of Tierra del Fuego in 1919. His original task was to convert the Tierra del Fuegan Indians to the Catholic faith, but that did not happen. Instead he became one of the first Westerners to be initiated into the tribe’s sacred rites. For more than five years he studied the Alakaluf, Yamana, and Selk’nam peoples, taking over 1,200 photographs in what appear to be preternatural landscapes. The Lost Tribes of Tierra del Fuego (Thames & Hudson, $90) consists of Gusinde’s compelling photographs of figures wrestling, family groupings, men posing with bows and arrows, and natives wearing headdresses made of bark. Gusinde had to overcome strenuous objections from the tribe about his taking photographs, as they saw him as the mank’acen—the “shadow snatcher.” Looking at these seductive and otherworldly images is akin to entering a time machine. Anne Chapman’s essay “Myths and Initiation Rites” is an eyeopener, as is Christine Barthe’s “With Eyes Wide Open,” and Marisol Palma Behnke’s treatise on Gusinde. This book is an anthropologist’s delight—a unique documentation of a people who were in the process of becoming extinct.—VA

An actual book about an ephemeral print publication from the 1990s may seem irrelevant when no one reads much anymore, except on their phones, but this analog epitaph—COLORS: A Book About a Magazine About the Rest of the World (Damianai, $19.75)—is a reminder of the power of print in the pre-digital era. As Francesco Bonami says in his introduction: “Creating a magazine like COLORS today would likely be an impossible feat.” It certainly would be in an age of Tweets, advertorials, and trigger warnings, but those who remember the world before the Web may also recall the visceral punch that COLORS delivered. Three individuals created COLORS: Oliviero Toscani, the Italian photographer and provocateur; Tibor Kalman, a legendary American graphic designer; and Luciano Benetton, the head of the clothing company who turned them loose and paid the bills. Toscani wanted a magazine that was “eccentrically intelligent,” politically incorrect, intriguing and intimidating, that dealt with race, AIDS, immigration, death, and war, and ran interviews with people no one had ever heard of. It was nothing like the pallid clones we have today full of fashion, style, expensive toys, celebrity non-entities, and insipid art. It definitely wasn’t Interview, which was Kalman’s previous gig, and the words and images in this book still have the power to stop us cold with their audacity, humor, poignancy, and continuing relevance to current events.—MM

Dream Science: Exploring the Forms of Consciousness (Elsevier, $99.95) offers an evidence-based approach to understanding dreams and their role in creativity. Author J. F. Pagel, a leader in the field of dream research, has created a volume that integrates information on so many aspects of dream science that the book can act as a single-source, goto work for those interested in how dreams and human creativity intertwine. “Dreams are at the basis of the major theories of mind, philosophy, and brain function,” writes Pagel. “Dreams may actually be important.” Pagel investigates the dream as inspiration and does so historically, tying the recording of dreams to some of the earliest known writing. He delves into night terrors, lucid dreaming, even shamanism. “From the beginnings of philosophical method,” he writes, “dreams have proven to be an excellent philosophical topic in the discussion of truth.’” Of particular interest to creative artists are the sections dealing with creative insight. “Creative waking is not focused waking. Creative insights occur most often during the periods of nonattention that occur after periods of focused waking.” Although this is a dense, highly researched book, it is surprisingly— and rewardingly—accessible to readers interested in the mind-brain interaction. —SW

Who handwrites letters anymore, let alone takes the time to include sublimely clever illustrations? Writing letters by hand was the norm for how many millennia? And now the millennials may look at a book like this as a relic of a form of not-so-instant messaging justifiably superseded by lines of text where you don’t have to think too much to send or receive them. LOL. That said, what I wouldn’t give to have been the artist Hedda Sterne when a note arrived, some time in 1943, from her friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. His message (written in French) may have been short—“I just arrived—Do you have time for dinner? Call. Thanks. A.”—but the drawing he included was, in that famous Saint-Exupéry style, exquisite. Of course Saint-Exupéry wrote one of the most treasured fables of the twentieth century, The Little Prince, and now, Sterne’s invitation to dine with A. is also a treasure. Another gem is the letter Yves Saint-Laurent wrote to Alexander Liberman, the director of Condé-Nast Publications. Written from Marrakech, SaintLaurent’s note has bold geometric patterns in the background that complement a line drawing of a woman in a burka. And there is a charming pen-and-ink drawing of an old-fashioned girl pulling back a curtain that took up a third of a page in a letter the artist Dorothea Tanning (then the wife of Max Ernst) wrote to fellow artist Joseph Cornell. In Cornell’s diary entry for May 4, 1948, he wrote, “Received beautiful letter from Dorothea in morning mail illustrating story of old Paris with jeune fille of the 1840s. Exquisite surprise.” More Than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95) is comprised of letters that range from the sublime to ridiculously illustrated vignettes and verbal bon mots.—DA

Print is Dead. Long Live Print: The World’s Best Independent Magazines (Prestel, $49.95) presents a survey of independent magazines that are infusing the genre with new directions. Author Ruth Jamieson brings to the project her expertise from writing for The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times, along with her experience as a creative director in the advertising industry. She assembles over fifty profiles of ahead-of-their-genre publications from throughout the world that are innovators and shapers of print journalism’s future. Following Jamieson’s short introduction, the magazines are grouped within categories such as Travel, Life, Food and Drink, Sports, Design, and Current Affairs. Each entry receives four pages of treatment that includes full-color images of covers, interior spreads, newly commissioned photographs, and information on the periodical’s distinguishing characteristics. Also included are publication details like the launch date, the name of the founder, and the home country. There is often a lengthy quotation from an editor, founder, or creative director that highlights the magazine’s rationale and perceived challenges. All that is missing from this volume is Jamieson’s take on THE magazine.—SW

Text-image courses are a staple of creative writing programs, of which there are over eight hundred in the United States (up from seventy-nine in 1982). However, discovery of a symbiosis between image and text predates creative writing workshops. In his Art of Poetry, a work on the craft of poetry and drama addressed to his Roman peers by the Augustan-age lyric poet Horace, the author coined a phrase that would have lasting import for later writers and artists. Ut pictura poesis—literally, “as in painting, so in poetry”—was Horace’s take on a still earlier belief about the link between both art forms, realized in imagistic prose and mimetic painting. Horace’s catchy phrase was a locus for the revival of this conceit in the Renaissance. Fast forward to Sunlight On The River: Poems about Paintings, Paintings about Poems (Prestel, $34.95) edited by Scott Gutterman. With all deference to creative writing faculty, one refreshing fact about the book is that Gutterman is not professor, poet, or painter. His day job is deputy director for Neue Galerie New York. And while he himself chose the paintings and poems, his criteria were poems that referenced paintings, and paintings based on poems. Gutterman brought to these criteria an insight that assures the appeal of the book: “The poem and the painting fused into something greater: a meditation linking thought and feeling, the literary and the visual.”—RT

“Tyger Tyger, burning bright/In the forests of the night.” These timeless lines by poet-painter William Blake still convey a sense of the dread and awe evoked for Blake’s readers by the creature’s “fearful symmetry.” Yet it is as much the “forests of the night” that infuse the toy-like tiger of Blake’s colored print with the menace we feel from the great cat whose fierce visage stares at us from the deep jungle foliage of Henri Rousseau’s Le Rêve. Since the dawn of man the night has played a profound role in both our perception and imagination. It has provided subject, tone, or theme in the visual arts in works as diverse as Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saint Paul, Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, and Picasso’s Night Fishing at Antibes. Yet the Bowdoin College Museum of Art can rightly claim that its exhibition and accompanying publication, Night Vision: Nocturnes in American Art, 1860 to 1960 (DelMonico Books/Prestel and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, $60) is “the first major museum survey dedicated to scenes of the night in American art.” If Night Vision is a tad too ambitious in claiming that the “reduced visual information and altered perception” of night were factors “contributing to the rise of abstraction during the first half of the twentieth century,” the essays and plates provide an engaging look at how various American artists have captured our complex response to the night.—RT

It is commonly assumed that photography is about making pictures with a camera (or other devices), and that a photographer’s practice revolves around this action. In Photographers’ Sketchbooks (Thames and Hudson, $60), authors and fellow photographers Stephen McLaren and Bryan Formhals introduce the reader to the processes employed by forty-nine contemporary photographers in conceptualizing their work. Through thematic essays, the reader enters the realm of each artist’s intimate, creative journey. Personal statements by the artists and numerous examples of the visual research, sketches, drawings, and minutiae that fill their sketchbooks follow these texts. The practice of using a sketchbook to record ideas is de rigueur for most artists. The difference here is that the products of the process will be presented as some form of photographic project, altered significantly from the preparatory materials. These sketchbook entries are fascinating snapshots of how some photographers approach their work. McLaren writes in his introduction, “Each presentation is unique and derives from an intimate and personal body of work that has not been prepared for a commercial client. Individually, they celebrate the personal interests, artistic sensibilities, and aesthetic styles that define each contributor as a photographer. Collectively, they provide an invaluable resource for anyone who has ever wondered how a photographer realizes a personal vision, finding that seed of inspiration and then discovering how to engage with an audience.” —JM