Artful Volumes

Emmet Gowin, Edith, Danville, Virginia, 1963, gelatin silver print.

Smartly designed by Laura Lindgren, PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR (Metropolitan Museum of Art, $50) evokes nineteenth-century photo albums in which loved ones were preserved like flowers under glass. A fine text by Met photography curator Jeff L. Rosenheim effortlessly weaves strands of photographic, political, military, and social history. The Civil War severely tested the new medium of photography and produced some of nineteenth-century America’s most iconic images. Familiar masters such as Brady, Gardner, O’Sullivan, and company are well represented, but anonymous photographers’ studio portraits, often in elaborate period frames and hand-colored, are the glory of the book.

BILL BRANDT: SHADOW AND LIGHT (Museum of Modern Art, $55) draws on MoMA’s recently acquired cache of vintage photographs by the British prince of darkness. Perfectly set by designer Beverly Joel on pages whose 8 7/8 8 x 10 1/2" trim mimics the characteristic proportions of Brandt’s photos, the reproductions, from superb tritone separations by Martin Senn, are a revelation. Familiar 1930s images yield new depth and detail, and the famous postwar nudes, especially those seen close-up on rocky beaches from the late 1950s, become luminous abstract sculptures.

EMMET GOWIN (Aperture, $65) convinces as a life in pictures. From rural intimacies to a planetary vision encompassing natural and man-made beauty and disaster, this volume tells the tale of the photographer’s expanding visual and moral scope. The cover reproduces the book’s earliest image, of Gowin’s wife and muse, Edith—whose portraits over a span of some fifty years in this book gracefully measure time’s passing. The three-quarter view, in which a pale, high-boned cheek becomes a projection screen for the delicate shadow of a branch and leaves, neatly prefigures what would become Gowin’s lifelong concern with nature and humankind.

Texas museum folk call it “the Menil way”—isolating the experience of looking at an artwork, giving it space to work its magic. CY TWOMBLY GALLERY (Yale University Press, $65) reproduces this effect, surveying a half-century cross section of the opere di Twombly beginning with the early 1950s, as it is presented today in the Menil Collection, the Houston museum by Renzo Piano, which Twombly helped to plan. Layout and image work hand in glove as the book’s designer, Takaaki Matsumoto, is also responsible for most of the impeccable photography of the art and for gallery views that allow one to imagine the permanent installation. Echoing in its square format the artist’s affinity for cube-shaped exhibition spaces, the catalogue’s only misstep is a cover that reproduces a detail of the gallery’s facade, a cool idea except that the result looks like a stylish tombstone.

The dreamy lighting effects under the big top of the Guggenheim this past summer are not found in JAMES TURRELL (Prestel, $75), published as a companion to the three-ring museum tribute to the visionary artist. The book’s designers opt instead for bold physicality, with full-bleed pages on heavy paper stock carrying so much ink and varnish that they feel rubberized. Aside from the design conceit of printing chapter texts against solid-color backgrounds—which someone really should have talked them out of—their approach works: The book is as unabashedly theatrical and absorbing as the mystical illusions conjured by Turrell, our Barnum of the Spectrum.

Ravishing reproductions are the draw in JOHN SINGER SARGENT: WATERCOLORS (MFA Publications/Brooklyn Museum, $60) and PAINTED ON 21ST STREET: HELEN FRANKENTHALER FROM 1950 TO 1959 (Abrams, $100), which suggest an affinity across generations of artists who cannily employed the delicate interaction of pigment and supports, whether of paper or canvas, in their obsessive drive to capture the essence of light. Sargent, painting in middle age, sought relief from a pressured professional life by embracing watercolor, while Frankenthaler is caught here in her high-flying twenties, in the second-generation AbEx era. Her works are not abstract but “depictive,” insists the book’s author, John Elderfield, who sees in them “the imaginative reconstruction of lived experience”—as in the deceptively casual compositions of Sargent’s near abstractions, made in the last century’s first decade, which subordinate description to a masterful play of color, form, and design.

Hovering over GARRY WINOGRAND (Yale University Press, $85), which brings to light many new pictures selected from the vast quantity of images never printed by the photographer, is the ghost of his great champion John Szarkowski. Winogrand’s pictures are typically horizontal, and key moments in them are often tiny, so the reproduction size must be as large as the page permits. The reproductions in Szarkowski’s 1988 landscape-format Winogrand retrospective are a full third larger than the ones in the new, portrait-format book. For many images the difference is critical: The eye of a stalking white wolf, clearly visible only in the larger reproduction, rhymes with the unnerving gaze of a human predator outside the animal’s cage, staring at his blonde prey, in Winogrand’s famous early-’60s Central Park Zoo photo.

The built environment of Los Angeles amounts to no more than “a dish of tripe,” said Frank Lloyd Wright in a 1940 public lecture. Seventy-odd years later, OVERDRIVE: L.A. CONSTRUCTS THE FUTURE, 1940–1990 (Getty, $60) and NEVER BUILT LOS ANGELES (Metropolis Books, $55) combine to produce an incisive critique and an oddly exhilarating reverie by excavating remains—archival photos and ads, engineering drawings, architectural renderings and models—that document LA’s continuing failures in architecture and urban planning. The first book explains how the city came to look as it does today, while the second provides massive stimulation to the “what if” part of the brain, in images of projects visionary, megalomaniacal, and loopy.

The redundant title VARIOUS SMALL BOOKS: REFERENCING VARIOUS SMALL BOOKS BY ED RUSCHA (MIT Press, $40) neatly captures the books-within-a-book concept of this bibliophilic delight, a collection of cover and sample-spread illustrations (with drily witty descriptions by Phil Taylor) assembled from the seemingly endless homages by other artists to Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations and his subsequent, similarly deadpan, photo books (including the classic Every Building on the Sunset Strip). More than ninety examples are presented, from Bruce Nauman’s caustic 1969 Burning Small Fires, whose images document the incineration of a copy of Ruscha’s Various Small Fires and Milk, to more recent examples of books spinning off Ruscha’s seminal series.

FALL FORECAST: Gonzo’s sidekick skewers everything in sight in Ralph Steadman: Proud Too Be Weirrd (Ammo, $400). Matt Mullican: Subject Element Sign Frame World (Skira Rizzoli, $75) captures the ambitious scope of the artist’s work and thought, while Raymond Pettibon (Rizzoli, $150) surveys the splenetic drawings of another disaffected son of Southern California. Reinforce your coffee table for the five-hundred-page, nearly seventeen-inch-tall The History of Florence in Painting (Abbeville Press, $185), and settle in for what looks to be a revealing and engagingly readable monograph, The Houses of Louis Kahn (Yale University Press, $65), by George H. Marcus and William Whitaker.

E-books

The most eagerly awaited art app of the season is the iPad edition of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color (Yale University Press, $10). The pioneering effort raises a host of issues. For example, Albers’s famous color problems were presented to his students in both landscape and portrait orientations, but this iPad app is locked vertically, and though one might rotate the tablet itself, there is no indication of which way a given exercise is to be viewed. On the plus side, the ability to slide color elements to make direct comparisons and to create one’s own color studies demonstrates (addictively) the tablet’s potential for art publishing. Graphite (Indianapolis Museum of Art, $5), a state-of-the-art e-book produced in the iBooks Author format, presents detailed “plates” revealing subtleties of graphite on paper that likely would be lost in print, together with slide shows, artist video interviews, and even vintage film clips, as of Richard Serra’s 1968 Hand Catching Lead.

Christopher Lyon is executive editor of the Monacelli Press and the author of Nancy Spero: The Work (Prestel, 2010).