Artful Volumes

Art Spiegelman’s CO-MIX: A RETROSPECTIVE OF COMICS, GRAPHICS, AND SCRAPS (Drawn & Quarterly, $40) reveals the busy creative mind behind Maus, Spiegelman’s masterstroke, completed in 1991, in which he used the despised, adolescent, “Jewish” entertainment of the comic strip to explore his relationship with his parents and their experience of the Holocaust. Co-Mix echoes that strategy, performing the jujitsu flip of mimicking a high-art exhibition catalogue in the quintessential low-art medium of comics. Compulsively self-reflexive, the book convincingly makes the case for comics as the ultimate postmodern art form. With a smart introduction by J. Hoberman, the book spans Spiegelman’s career so far: early underground comix, subversive products for the Topps bubble-gum company (think Garbage Pail Kids), sassy New Yorker covers, and his more recent editorial works. A tipped-in comic-book insert (“Two-Fisted Painters”) and several handsome gatefolds complete the faux exhibition catalogue, with board covers and a paper spine, so that it lies flat with pages splayed open—the better to seduce unwary youth.

In a 1966 photo by Henri Huet, a dead paratrooper is seen suspended beneath a hovering evacuation helicopter, both in silhouette; jungle tendrils curl around the soldier as if to draw him up into a great dark womb. VIETNAM: THE REAL WAR: A PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY BY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS (Abrams, $40) presents images of the conflict, from the French debacle of the 1950s until the final hours in 1975, by AP stalwarts Huet, Horst Faas, Eddie Adams, Nick Ut, and others. The photographs frequently transcend the particulars of that story to become moving statements—horrifying, bizarre, lyrical, and tragic—about war itself. Pete Hamill’s eloquent tribute introducing the book leads with Goya’s famous inscription from his Disasters of War: “Yo lo vi”(I saw this). Few people today know about the Peninsular War that Goya’s etchings record; now, as the Vietnam War recedes from view, the vintage prints and contact sheets reproduced here (shown recently at Steven Kasher Gallery) no longer convey “news” but become affecting relics. The images they preserve, raised up from the mud and clinging vines of Vietnam, have entered the heaven of indelibility.

Our hunger for exotic places and people might seem sated by the unending stream of imagery that now assaults us, including from the Middle East. But SHE WHO TELLS A STORY: WOMEN PHOTOGRAPHERS FROM IRAN AND THE ARAB WORLD (MFA Publications, $40), accompanying a show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, suggests that we haven’t seen the half of it. Though Shirin Neshat is well represented and an obvious inspiration for the other eleven younger artists featured, much of this work could be called post-Neshat, because it favors a less fussy approach, and is more narrative driven (the book’s title is a translation of rawiya, the Arabic word for a female storyteller). Violence and ruin are implied, but framed by an unnerving ordinariness in photographs that include young girls in Beirut bedrooms that seem to reveal their dreams (Rania Matar), a tailgate party on a beach in Gaza (Tanya Habjouqa), and .30-caliber bullets poking up out of an open purse like lipstick (Shadi Ghadirian).

Famous for contributing to the invention of cinema, Auguste and Louis Lumière are far less recognized today for developing the autochrome, the primary medium used by commercial color photography between 1907, when it was introduced, and the early 1930s. As the title suggests, THE LUMIÈRE AUTOCHROME: HISTORY, TECHNOLOGY, AND PRESERVATION (Getty Conservation Institute, $70) is a kind of Swiss Army knife of a book, covering not only the Lumière family’s pioneering photographic inventions, dating to the mid-1880s, but also the history of color photography and technical details of processes and preservation. More than seventy thousand of these unique images are kept by the Albert Kahn Museum, established by Jean-Paul Gandolfo (one of this book’s authors) and named after the banker who funded the remarkable Archives of the Planet, which, between 1909 and 1931, sent photographers to some fifty countries to record the habitats and cultures of their people. A brief but beautiful portfolio of images concludes each chapter of this book, which will be an essential resource for students and collectors of photography.

Art Spiegelman, Head, 1982, pastel, 11 3/4 x 18 1/8".
Art Spiegelman, Head, 1982, pastel, 11 3/4 x 18 1/8".

HISTORY OF DESIGN: DECORATIVE ARTS AND MATERIAL CULTURE, 1400–2000 (Bard Graduate Center/Yale, $80) aspires to be the Janson’s of the vast part of visual culture that doesn’t call itself fine art. Designed by Rita Jules and Miko McGinty, this survey is smartly organized in geographic chapters within chronological sections, and features a color-coded tab on the margin of each page so that the history of a given region can be read in sequence. Unfortunately, the texts, by twenty-eight contributors, are generally too long and frequently unfocused, while the illustrations are too few and too small. For example, a column of one page contains mentions of millefiori and two other types of decorative glass as well as pietra dura, major decorative-arts mediums, none of which are illustrated. Also missing is a staking out of boundaries: Where do decorative arts and “material culture” give way to fine arts, architecture, and design? When an impressively lifelike Ife brass head illustrated here was found in 1910 in Nigeria, it was assumed to be Greek; but there are no Greek heads in this book. Are we to think that if it’s African, it’s “material culture,” but if it’s European it’s art? Griping aside, this book fills a great need, and, attacked with a red pen and equipped with a bigger illustration budget, it will hopefully grow into an indispensable visual reference work.

The temptation to select previously published images when illustrating an art book is often hard to resist. Reasons for recycling include availability; the fact that only specialists, or the artist, are likely to be aware of what hasn’t been seen; and sometimes just plain laziness. As Jeffrey Weiss points out in his penetrating essay in ROBERT MORRIS: OBJECT SCULPTURE, 1960–1965 (Yale/Castelli Gallery, $65), the same dozen or so works by Morris from this period have been addressed repeatedly, but in those years Morris made more than one hundred “object sculptures” or, as he called them, “process type objects,” which, seen all together, fill a lacuna in postwar art history. It is as though Morris’s sculptures are a collection of delicate fossils that have preserved extinct forms of art, from Duchamp-inspired object making à la Johns, to Pop, performance, and process-informed Conceptualism, which converged at that pivotal moment. It’s unusual for a catalogue raisonné—being expensive, time consuming, and usually of limited interest to nonspecialists—to appear as a trade book. But this one, written with Clare Davies, handsomely designed and with excellent reproductions (even of no-longer-extant works), is a revelation.

MARCEL BROODTHAERS (Artbook DAP, $75), assembled by the artist-provocateur’s daughter, Marie-Puck Broodthaers, would have impressed that connoisseur of cultural containers, whose parallel world of mislabeled objects, faux exhibitions, and even an imagined museum revealed the art world’s flimsy foundations. Insightful essays by Wilfried Dickhoff and Bernard Marcadé introduce a livre d’images whose five-hundred-odd images track Broodthaers’s career, from the run-up to his ironic 1964 debut as an artist (volumes of his own poetry embedded in plaster and thus unreadable) to his early death twelve years later. This book generates a presumably unintended visual irony, as many of the objects illustrated are reproduced with added drop shadows that are applied inconsistently, undermining the illusion of depth that the shadows are meant to convey (Broodthaers would have smiled). He embraced, with gleeful literalness, the era’s semiotic conceits and the verbal paradoxes of predecessors, including his fellow Belgian Magritte, and left behind the world of art objects to “conquer” cultural space by creating fictional situations. His series of mid-1970s installations, masquerading as exhibitions and collectively titled “Décor,” anticipated the many artists who have since usurped the function of curators, staging the sort of interventions in museums and galleries that today signal “seriousness”—that is to say, Broodthaers without humor.

Jim Hodges, his career born in the age of AIDS, is given the luxe treatment in the sumptuous exhibition publication JIM HODGES: GIVE MORE THAN YOU TAKE (Dallas Museum of Art/Walker Art Center, $65), whose stamped cover reproduces a work by the artist made from 23.5- and 24-karat gold (can one see a difference?) on gessoed linen. The book mimics a livre d’artiste, with many pages of bleeding illustrations on heavy, matte-coated paper that beautifully captures delicate details. An opening essay by Jeffrey Grove substitutes gushing for critical evaluation (“Many of Hodges’s drawings seem to vibrate with an ineffable music of the universe”), but his cocurator Olga Viso, in an introduction to her interview with the artist, nails the origins of the work in feminist practice and zeroes in on the eclectic oeuvre’s erotic core, literary affinities, and humanist outlook, while Helen Molesworth’s essay locates the social heart still beating beneath the seductive surfaces.

Christopher Lyon is executive editor of the Monacelli Press.