The Ten Best Art Books of 2014
New York School Painters & Poets: Neon in Daylight
By Jenni Quilter, with Bill Berkson, Larry Fagin, Allison Power,
Rizzoli New York, $75.00
This vivid, grand book documents a time and place that to many New Yorkers today, looks and sounds like Eden. A nexus of invention, collaboration, and cheap rent, New York School Painters & Poets collages primary material (poems, photographs, letters, home movie stills, sketchbooks) alongside Quilter’s winding narrative of life in lower Manhattan from 1935 – 75, decades when as Edwin Denby wrote “everybody drank coffee and nobody had shows.” These years encapsulated fierce personalities and partnerships that recalibrated the course of American art: “Bill” de Kooning, Frank O’Hara, Rudy Burkhardt, Jane Freilicher, Ted Berrigan, George Schneeman, and Anne Waldman, just to list a few luminaries.
It’s hard to pour through these pages without feeling nostalgic for an increasing mirage—a New York community born in the streets and sustained through collective, contradictory dreams. As an aggregate memoir, this book properly celebrates this prodigiously influential moment. But also, by its existence as a tome, Quilter memorializes the decline of this very phenomenon.
Words Not Spent Today
Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow
By David Levi Strauss
David Levi Strauss’s newest book of essays on photography and politics is even more commanding than his previous collections: the writing is fierce and incisive, the images discussed often carry the weight of life and death. The title is pulled from a 1962 poem in which the photographer Frederick Sommer writes, “every word fights for an image / the most irrepressible state of an idea.” This tension pervades Strauss’s writing, from the social implications of Susan Meiselas’s work, to his lucid condemnation of the Obama administration’s decision to withhold images of torture. This contentious ebb and flow between word and image, so Strauss argues, could be used to chart the history of human freedom.
To those mired in the debate of documentary photography as an “aestheticization of suffering,” Strauss’s words gather a call to arms for the opposition. “The formation of attitudes through the propagation of words and images is a large part of life in a functioning democracy,” Strauss writes, “and we devalue it at our peril.” In a collaboration with Alfredo Jaar in 2009, the author proposed a New York Times op-ed that would have printed explicitly banal captions describing atrocities committed by American soldiers under opaque, black boxes roughly the size of a front page photo. (The proposal was ultimately turned down by the Times.) Few others write so poignantly on images of violence, probably because it is, for lack of a better word, so impossibly hard.
By Carter Ratcliff, Robert Storr, Iwona Blazwick, Barry Schwabsky
This Alex Katz compendium provides an intimate portrait of the artist, from his competitive relationship with Abstract Expressionists, to his desire to rival film and critique historical painters such as Rembrandt (“they tell you too much about the person, rather than showing you the person”) to his envisioning of himself as a “social fugitive” during his illegal loft living in Manhattan. In a 2004 interview, Robert Storr nudges at the social subtext of his work, to which Katz coolly replies that he is uninterested in having “the subject matter on top.” His formal distillations of the figure, filtered through a heroic scale and often an all-over structure (such as his fantastic paintings of fall leaves), can be attributed to what Barry Schwabsky deftly explains as a “cool attitude […] a way to prevent it from becoming corny.” This volume also allows us the uncommon privilege of hearing, through many interviews, the otherwise laconic Katz in his own words, elucidated by a kaleidoscopic collection of text and images. My favorite discovery is his 1977 Times Square Mural, in which he painted a continuous band of 23 portraits measuring 60 by 250 feet, a chic, painterly Mount Rushmore of sorts.
Nature and Art are Physical:
Writings on Art, 1967 – 2008
By Rackstraw Downes
In his excellent introduction to this prismatic self-portrait of Rackstraw Downes, John Elderfield assumes and elucidates the formal, historical, and poetic lenses through which Downes both writes about and paints the landscape, the history of painting and literature. Taking winding paths through passages of Downes’s writing, Elderfield elaborates on unexpected connections with Downes’s “principles that are open to discussion, not theories that can only be accepted or dismissed.” While it’s revelatory for the unfamiliar reader to read essays previously published in other collections, the initiated reader will take delight in the newer ones, particularly in the fourth section about landscape. In “Is technology a New Form?” Downes characterizes technology as a tool by which artists become beholden to corporate structures and whose communication becomes controlled. One might also take note of the influence of Downes’s experience with the seriality of Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field on paintings that followed, such as “Beehive Yard at the Rim of a Canyon on the Rio Grande, Presidio, TX” (2005), or paintings describing the foreign forms of water stations in Texas. In “The Lightning Field,” Downes notes that monotony, “like that of minimal art, is full of slight variety, when you examine it.” It is this careful, slowly accumulating and steadily expanding vision that we see unfold in Downes’s sensitive prose, chronicled in this indispensible volume.
Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography
By Peter Barberie with Amanda N. Bock
Yale University Press, $75
Exhibition at Philadelphia Museum of Art through January 4, 2015
Accompanying the eponymous exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through January 4, this 372-page opus reframes Paul Strand’s role in American modernist photography. Central is an excellent essay by Amanda N. Bock that focuses on his political work of the 1930s through ’50s. Bock argues that this work—from multimedia documentary and polemical films to books pairing photographs and text—fulfills Strand’s declaration of “the artist who is also a citizen,” who raises awareness, builds community, and creates collaborative art. This thesis is best exemplified in Strand’s travels throughout Mexico, culminating in Redes (1936), an allegorical film about Veracruz fishermen organizing for wages and control of production against corrupt overseers (“human beings can be caught fish, too,” Strand remarked), and Native Land, the documentary that challenged corporate interests, the Ku Klux Klan, and big business.
The History of the Devil
By Vilém Flusser, Translated by Rodrigo Maltez Novaes
University of Minnesota Press/Univocal, $24.95
More than half a dozen books by the Czech-Brazilian media philosopher Vilém Flusser (1920 – 91) have been translated into English and published since the millennium. Although best known in the U.S. for Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983), many of these recently translated texts predate Flusser’s so-called “technical image” writings, but provide a rich background for understanding his thinking around images and apparatuses. I would highly recommend Post-History, On Doubt, and Natural:Mind—and particularly this last one, which poetically deconstructs the nature-culture dialectic—all of which were released by the small press Univocal within the last 18 months. The most recent, however, is The History of the Devil, which came out in September. Originally written in German and translated by Flusser into Portuguese and published in 1965, it references Goethe’s Faust and borrows the structure of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and sets the stage for Flusser’s later writings, considering God and the Devil (another dialectic), as well as art and science, phenomenology and painting. More profoundly, for Flusser, a Jewish refuge in Brazil who had lost his whole family in the Holocaust, it considers a reality in which, he writes: “The world is here, in front of us, because we ordered it to emerge from the abyss of nothingness. We only have to turn our backs to it, we only have to lose our interest in it, and it shall disappear into the same abyss.”
Masterpieces in Detail:
Early Netherlandish Art from van Eyck to Bosch
By Till-Holger Borchert
The dictum that the “devil is in the details,” Borchert provides a 200-year survey of Netherlandish painting, some with 15 by 22 inch spreads of extreme detail. Witness in Jan van Eyck’s “Ghent Altarpiece” the distinct strands of Adam’s pubic hair and the exquisite description of God’s clasp, the cascading tears on Mary’s pale face in Van der Weyden’s “Descent from the Cross,” and the loose, quick impasto brushwork of a tigress suckling her young cubs, in Rubens’s “The Four Rivers of Paradise.” Mixed with lesser-known masterpieces, these riveting observations allow opportunities for what art history surveys typically ignore: details that activate inquiry, curiosity, and enthusiasm, presenting not the image but glimpses into fully formed and scaled objects, with the imperfections of brushstrokes and weathered cracks of time.
By Stephan Keppel
Composed of photographs taken around the suburbs of Paris and the city’s ring road, the Boulevard Périphérique, Stephan Keppel’s Entre Entree is a fractured and disorienting portrait of Paris’s peripheral urban landscapes. Equally interested in photography and its subsequent reproduction, Keppel utilizes various paper stock, over-printed images, and rephotographed printouts to explore the city’s compact surface. Designed by Hans Gremmen, the book layers Keppel’s black-and-white images into repeating patterns of concrete, foliage, and black ink. Taken individually, the images seem incidental, but together they both capture the urban landscape’s shifting surfaces and playfully comment on photography’s promiscuous duplication. Inseparable from their presence on the page, the often overlapping images and reproduced reproductions form a dense whole that constantly shifts our attention back and forth between the three-dimensional subject matter and the flat surface of the page. Reflected and refracted across the printed page, the suburbs of Paris become a hall of mirrors—a maze of cacophonous ink and concrete forms.
An early participant in both the Pop and Fluxus movements, Ray Johnson created a distinct body of collage work mined from popular print media. This large volume compiles hundreds of Johnson’s never-before-seen collages—as well as drawings and interventions—that functioned as compositions for the artist’s early “motico” works. Johnson often combined celebrity with art historical allusions, deploying clever puns through the use of pop culture figures such as Mickey Mouse, Elvis Presley, James Dean, Michael Jackson, and Calvin Klein models. Decades after they were made, the artworks in this book are an increasingly accurate representation of contemporary society and include some of the most recognizable imagery from the 20th and 21st centuries. The publication includes 296 color images of collages, drawings, interventions, and other ephemera courtesy of Johnson’s estate.
Moyra Davey: Burn the Diaries
Texts by Moyra Davey, Alison Strayer
Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna; ICA, Philadelphia; Dancing Foxes Press, Brooklyn, $27
Moyra Davey’s penchant for introspective discussion on process is a unifying factor throughout her work, and Burn the Diaries operates as a kind of culminating capstone to these pursuits, in two acts. The first is a clear, open window onto the connective tissue of the artist’s own mind, deftly compressing memory and experience through layers and layers of literary and self-analysis, led by Jean Genet’s writings. The second is an essay by Alison Strayer, an equally contemplative literary obsessive, analyzing Davey’s document within the context of her own personal narrative. Published in conjunction with her film My Saints, Burn the Diaries is composed of documents that reflect on the complex acts of reading, writing, absorbing, and recording information visually, verbally, and intellectually, maintaining a dog-eared and finger-printed aesthetic in its method of presentation. It comprises writing on writing, photographs about photography, thoughts on thinking, and delicately probes the sticky conundrum of defining oneself through one’s influences. At the heart of Burn is the dual sense of security provided by documentation and the terrifying prospect that these delicate relics could serve to define the nuanced complexity of experience.
—Samantha Dylan Mitchell
Samantha Dylan Mitchell
SAMANTHA DYLAN MITCHELL is an artist, teacher, and writer based in Philadelphia.Sara Christoph
Sara Christoph is the Managing Director of the Brooklyn Rail.Adam Bell
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer.Greg Lindquist
GREG LINDQUIST is an artist and writer, and the editor of the Art Books in Review section of The Brooklyn Rail. He has also taught at MoMA, Parsons, Pratt Institute, Ramapo, RISD and SUNY Purchase. His latest series of ecologically responsive paintings will be shown in an installation at the North Carolina Museum of Art in spring of 2016. He was recently a resident of the Marie Walsh Sharpe Space Program, and received the Pollock Krasner Grant in 2009. He is currently developing several collaborative projects that focus on the Newtown Creek, the polluted three-and-a-half mile estuary that forms the border between Brooklyn and Queens.Elizabeth Karp-Evans