Year in Review
To mark the end of the year, the Rail’s Art Books editors, Ben Gottlieb, Maya Harakawa, and Greg Lindquist, each selected three notable books from the past year to share with our readers. Our “Year in Review” is not a list of the best books of the year. Instead, it is an informal survey meant to highlight the diversity of art book publishing now.
Christian Patterson, Bottom of the Lake (Koenig, 2015)
Christian Patterson was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, in 1972; so, too, was his family’s Wisconsin telephone directory, which would eventually become the source material for Bottom of the Lake. Patterson and the phone book have both lived something close to typical lives; just as Patterson has presumably aged according to the general maturation schema that most humans follow, so has the telephone book fulfilled its ontogenetic expectations: For some brief period it was used heavily, during which time it was appended with mindless notes, doodles, and other marginalia; and then it outlasted its usefulness and was thrown away, to be replaced by updated volumes. Now, however, Patterson has resuscitated his family’s telephone book, reprinting each page and all of its handmade annotations; whatever materials he found within it have made it into his new book. But he also inserts some new material of his own: photographs, drawings, cut-and-pasted messages. The result is a uniquely personal portrait of a place, full of messages whose purposes are forgotten or remain obtuse to the viewer, but nonetheless carry the modest weight of a now-unrecoverable meaning. In reviving his phone book from a typical death, he may have done something close to securing his own immortality.
Charles Simonds, Dwelling (Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig, 2015)
In this intimate and engrossing memoir, sculptor Charles Simonds recounts his life’s journey through the 1970s New York art world, interpersonal relationships and romances, and the communities in which he worked and with which he closely identified. Even if you’ve never heard his name, if you visited the Whitney Museum of Art during the Breuer building era, you probably know Simonds’s work. Dwellings (1981), a small, lovingly crafted abode for his fantastical and richly metaphorical “Little People,” inhabited one of the museum’s stairwell landings for over thirty years. Like all of Simonds’s site-specific, often ephemeral installations, Dwellings resembles the Adobe brick structures of the Pueblo Native Americans. Simonds made his Dwellings in collaboration with the communities in which they were placed, from the Lower East Side of New York to immigrant neighborhoods in Paris. The “Dwelling” sculptures are idiosyncratically Simonds’s: they modestly evade the art historical denotations that are often used to describe related work by his friends such as Robert Smithson (who once described one of Simonds’s community projects as a “democratic landscape”) and Gordon Matta-Clark (who Simonds was hesitant to introduce to community groups, fearing he cut up derelict buildings while “slumming for profit”).
Allan Sekula, Facing the Music: Documenting Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Redevelopment of Downtown Los Angeles (East of Borneo, 2015)
When photographer Allan Sekula passed away from cancer in 2013, he left behind many unpublished works, including an essay on Los Angeles’s “undocumentable” urban form. That essay, “Los Angeles: Graveyard of Documentary,” was published this year in Facing the Music: Documenting Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Redevelopment of Downtown Los Angeles, a book version of Sekula’s last major documentary project. Sekula began Facing the Music in the late 1990s, when the concert hall was in its early developmental stages, and the project is in the tradition of his best work. Poignant in its careful attention to the specifics of place, Facing the Music is also profound in its treatment of larger economic and cultural issues, relating the problems of urban development to those of the documentary genre itself. The book reproduces the photographs from the original project, which were exhibited in 2005, along with essays by Sekula’s collaborators and interlocutors, and of course Sekula himself. The book is Angeleno through and through: Facing the Music is published by East of Borneo, an online magazine of California and its art history. East of Borneo questions the future of alternative publishing while advancing alternative art historical models, looking forward and backward simultaneously. Their project is provocative and promising: they are definitely a publisher to watch. Thomas Lawson, the editor-in-chief of East of Borneo, is Dean of the School of Art at California Institute for the Arts, where Sekula taught for decades before his death. The project was supported by the Getty Foundation, and the book was designed by the venerable Los Angeles based Green Dragon Office. Facing the Music is not just a critical project: it is a product of the city that it documents.
Dan Nadel, ed., The Collected Hairy Who Publications: 1966 – 1969 (Matthew Marks, 2015)
Leslie Buchbinder, dir., Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists (Pentimenti Productions, 2015)
“It is not a secret,” said curator A. James Speyer, trying to explain how the Hairy Who could have emerged amid the otherwise rigid artistic and social boundaries of 1960s Chicago. “It is a mystery.” This interview is included in Leslie Buchbinder’s wonderful film Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists, which seems to be a part of a recent, concerted rehabilitation effort for the artist group. (A lovely limited edition of the film was released this year; designed by the art studio Sonnenzimmer, it includes two Hairy Who-inspired flipbooks and an essay by Robert Storr). This year, Pentimenti Productions published The Collected Hairy Who Publications: 1966 – 1969, a new monograph that reproduces the “comic book” catalogues of the sextet’s four joint exhibitions in Chicago and further abroad between 1966 and 1969. The book’s editor, Dan Nadel, has touted the artists’ brilliance and influence since the early aughts, and this catalogue seems to be his most profound contribution to this effort yet. He positions these works as groundbreaking mid-century exemplars of the artists’ book, whose influence is as significant as it has been overlooked. The Hairy Who, and the wider circle of associated artists known as the Chicago Imagists, are frequently referred to as something of a Midwestern answer to the Pop Art of the coasts—sincere where Pop is glib, warm where Pop is aloof, thriving on personal expression where Pop posits cultural critiques. But it seems to me that Speyer’s classification might lend itself to a clearer distinction: Pop Art operates on secrets, the Hairy Who on mysteries.
Joan Simon, ed., In the Shadow of a Shadow: The Work of Joan Jonas (Gregory M. Miller & Co., 2015)
This fall, Gregory M. Miller & Co. published In the Shadow of a Shadow, the first career-spanning monograph of the multimedia artist Joan Jonas. Calling the book substantial would be putting it mildly. Even at over 500 pages, its weight should not be measured in pounds alone. It is a monumental art historical achievement. Art writer Joan Simon worked closely with Jonas to reconstruct the entire arc of her career: richly illustrated, the book proceeds chronologically, starting in 1968 with the performance Oad Lau and ending with They Come to Us without a Word, Jonas’s performance and installation at this year’s Venice Biennale. It is ridiculous that it has taken so long for Jonas to get this treatment, an omission that is probably due to the formal indeterminacy of her practice (her work is not strictly video, performance, or installation) and her gender. But it is possible that Jonas’s ability to elude traditional forms of knowledge production (like the monograph) is part of the power of her work. Jonas’s art tests the limits of traditional art historical categories, like medium and form, and often relies on the power of fiction and the personal, two aspects that make it difficult to situate historically or even describe. On the one hand, this book is a respectful tribute, and a deserved one at that. On the other, it left me wondering if any book could (or even should) represent Jonas’s challenging and wonderfully elusive career.
John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of an Elemental Media (University of Chicago Press, 2015)
Recent philosophies of object-oriented ontology that reimagine our hierarchical relationships with seemingly inanimate objects are not only indispensable for thinking about the ethics of ecological and social relationships, but also vital for artists in considering the objects we make. Extending theories of historic and contemporary media into our natural and cultural environs, media theorist John Durham Peters’s arrangements of thoughts are emblematic of a social-media driven, internet-conscious age of networks. Organizing the book into the basic elements of sea, air, earth, and fire, Peters provides a narrative infrastructure for rich and kaleidoscopic investigations into the philosophical, literary, and scientific histories of our environment. Concepts that have material effects like big data and the anthropocene, Peter argues, are basic structures of our world and the media that connect us. The longest and most crucial chapter is a meditation on the sea, which for Peters is a vast container of aquatic beings akin to humans, such as the marine mammal cetaceans (like dolphins), and vessels for media, such as ships, that reveal and conceal nature. While theorists such as Marshall McLuhan, Bruno Latour and Friedrich Kittler influence Peters’ methodology, the book’s propelling force is the expansive intertexuality of these seemingly disparate investigations of human-constructed media technologies and natural elements. As an alternative to such recent object theories as Jane Bennett’s vital materialism, and perhaps in close proximity with Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects, Peters uses the study of media to defy materialism while paying particular attention to the intermingling of ecological nomenclature with cyberspace, such “floods” of information, “web portals” and informational “clouds.”
Felix Krämer, Monet and the Birth of Impressionism (Prestel, 2015)
Accompanying the Städel Museum exhibition of the same name that unfortunately did not travel from Frankfurt, this book reassesses the much sensationalized and sentimentalized Impressionist narrative by recontextualizing its central painter, Claude Monet (as well as Degas, Renoir, and Manet), alongside lesser-known artists such as Frédéric Bazille, Armand Guillaumin, and Stanislas Lépine. Chief curator and publication editor Krämer assembles over a dozen capsule essays that reexamine historical and cultural context and investigate technical aspects of painterly process. He also writes a keystone essay reconsidering the success of the famous first Impressionist exhibition and whether the critic Louis Leroy ought to be credited with derisively coining—or rather simply stigmatizing through his dismissive review—the movement’s title. Other excellent essays with rich reproductions of paintings and primary documents focus on modern shifts in our measuring and understanding of time. Exemplary of these concerns are an examination of Impressionism and the industrialization of time by André Dombrowski in which he traces developments of a globally agreed “universal time” in 1884 and Nerina Santorius’s consideration of the “deceleration of the gaze” in relation to the accelerated experience of speed in train travel via Monet’s depiction of the Saint-Lazare train station and the ephemeral motion of steam.
Paper Rad, PPP — The Zines of Paper Rad (Delema, 2015)
The Paper Rad exhibit was my favorite part of this year’s New York Art Book Fair. I had yet to see the new volume of the collective’s zines, but its promise alone had lured me into Printed Matter’s forbiddingly populous annual affair. Now that I’ve had more than a month with it, the book’s delights are proving unrelenting—its constituent comics, doodles, and ephemera seem at once offhand and exemplary of some wholly unique expressive universe. Paper Rad’s boundaries are porous, both in membership (Jacob Ciocci, Jessica Ciocci, and Ben Jones are the three primary members, but they seem uninterested in defining themselves strictly as such) and in media. Their work transcends its method of delivery; one might easily forget whether an image, line, or even a sensation comes from one of their videos, comics, website, or even one of their songs. Among all of their output, their zines have proved among the most difficult to find, which makes this monograph particularly revelatory: The Paper Rad ethos seems to have emerged fully formed in the collection’s first zine, from 1997, and has only expanded and deepened from there, gobbling up all manner of influences and digesting them into a singularly Paper Radian pâté.
C Spencer Yeh, Solo Voice I –X (Primary Information, 2015)
When I interviewed Miriam Katzeff in the Rail this past March, we discussed Primary Information’s open-ended, trans-historical approach to publishing. Primary Information publishes new work by contemporary artists alongside facsimile editions of historical work, contextualizing contemporary art within an expansive historical framework, and older projects in relation to current work. One thing we didn’t talk about was Primary Information’s history of “publishing” LPs, but I find the thought of doing so fascinating: it is a reminder that publishing artists’ books is an inherently experimental practice, one with mutable boundaries that can encompass multiple forms of media. Primary Information published a new LP by the multidisciplinary artist C Spencer Yeh in April. Yeh has an extensive discography, but Solo Voice I – X is his first work devoted entirely to the voice. Yeh’s project is part of a long classical tradition and his approach is both indebted to and a complete departure from this historical precedent. As in any solo format, the recordings demonstrate the full expressive range of Yeh’s “instrument.” But the results complicate the distinction between music, sound, and noise, and the results are far from classical. Yeh does not sing on this record, and the idea that his voice works alone is something of a misnomer. Instead, he stutters and sputters, producing sounds that are truly indescribable. In Solo Voice I – X, the voice is a dynamic combination of breath, movement, and intonation, and as Yeh de- and reconstructs these elements, the listener realizes that this is what it always is.
MAYA HARAKAWA is a Ph.D. student in art history at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the social media manager of the Brooklyn Rail.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.