Artful Volumes

The seductive cover of JEFF KOONS: A RETROSPECTIVE (Whitney Museum/Yale, $65) is a printing tour de force: no title, just an embossed rendition of the 1991 polychromed wood sculpture Large Vase of Flowers. Open petals reveal what appear to be the tops of enticing (yet unsavory) muffins, simultaneously erotic and excremental. Koons himself describes the flowers as “very sexual and fertile,” adding, “at the same time they are 140 assholes.” The work is like a dirty joke on Georgia O’Keeffe. Demonstrating Koons’s deft employment of technically demanding, impersonal manufacturing processes, the cover was printed on a cast, coated sheet, using a multilevel die handmade in the Midwest by a company that does Hallmark cards. The book’s impeccable color reproduction and two-column layout in Futura type recall the classic white-cover Abrams monographs of the ’60s, but the content is like a sales (or auction) catalogue—imagine Hammacher Schlemmer without ad copy—organized by product line: “Inflatables,” “Equilibrium,” “Banality,” “Made in Heaven,” and so on. Here, many of the showcased items undergo a kind of reverse alchemy, from gold back into lead, as reproduced photos of soaringly expensive sculptures render them indistinguishable from the squeaky-new products and banal tchotchkes that inspired them.

Jeff Koons, Large Vase of Flowers, 1991, polychromed wood, 52 × 43 × 43".
Jeff Koons, Large Vase of Flowers, 1991, polychromed wood, 52 × 43 × 43".

The seriousness with which Swedes regard childhood is suggested by a mid-1930s photograph in SWEDISH WOODEN TOYS (Bard Graduate Center/Yale, $65), showing toy doctors and nurses diligently tending to doll injuries at a “clinic” in a famous Stockholm department store. If IKEA produced an art-history book, it might look like this: welcoming flexi-cover, pretty yellow headbands, wood-grain-printed endpapers, clean sans-serif type. Illustrations include some delightful homemade toys, but the focus is on the rise of commercial toy manufacturing, with a chapter on the BRIO products so familiar to American children. (Keep this book away from Jeff Koons—no telling what he might do with a BRIO stacking toy.)

How many books devoted to Francesca Woodman do we need FRANCESCA WOODMAN: WORKS FROM THE SAMMLUNG VERBUND (Sammlung Verbund/Artbook DAP, $65) closely follows the organization by periods and places employed by the 2012 Museum of Modern Art (San Francisco) exhibition catalogue, and its plate section repeats much of that book, with the addition of some pictures by the artist as a teenager. One nude self-portrait shows Woodman entwined with the roots of a tree, eerily evoking Ana Mendieta crossed with Ophelia. But a decision to print the reproductions in four-color black and white, instead of the finer-resolution black and white of the earlier book, leaves the images here less crisp, and lacking the spooky dark glamour captured by SF MoMA’s catalogue. Because the new volume reproduces mostly posthumous prints, we don’t get to see the idiosyncratic and revealing captions Woodman wrote on some of her photos, like the scrawled title appearing under a cockeyed print of the iconic On being an angel #1, 1977. And since she became an angel, and has subsequently become a saint, it makes a difference whether she touched these relics.

In comparison with earlier publications of them, some images in MINOR WHITE: MANIFESTATIONS OF THE SPIRIT (Getty, $40) appear excessively contrasty and dark, obscuring details. Elevating drama over description, these reproductions mirror the book’s emphasis on White’s mystically romantic side at the expense of his brilliant technique. Persistent rumblings of critical impatience with White’s transcendental tendencies seem to have not impressed acolytes of the Minor orders, among them curator Paul Martineau, whose sensitive essay embraces White’s spiritual yearnings while adhering to the biographical emphasis of Peter Bunnell’s fine exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (New York) twenty-five years ago, White’s last retrospective. But Martineau goes a step too far by reproducing an entire thirty-two-image sequence, The Temptation of St. Anthony Is Mirrors, 1948, with White’s student Tom Murphy as his moist-eyed model. Despite several deservedly famous pictures, the sequence as a whole fails to rise above the level of artistic cheesecake. White said he saw his pictures as mirrors of himself and of the viewer—a claim, John Szarkowski dryly noted, that “is impossible to refute, and in fact not easy to understand.” Yet they retain their ability to evoke Alfred Stieglitz’s “equivalents,” offering visual metaphors transcending the conflicts that so tortured their maker.

Andrew Wyeth’s art of the late ’40s, following his father’s tragic death in 1945, is suffused by a yearning for home that is expressed poignantly in a small tempera painting, Wind from the Sea, completed in 1947 and donated to the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC) soon after Wyeth’s death in 2009. ANDREW WYETH: LOOKING OUT, LOOKING IN, by Nancy Anderson and Charles Brock (National Gallery/Artbook DAP, $55), assembles sixty splendidly reproduced Wyeth paintings and watercolors that employ windows as motifs. Favoring stripped-down winter landscapes and nearly empty interiors, Wyeth savored windows’ ability to isolate nearly abstract forms outdoors, or to transform an interior with a play of shadows—in fact, he declared himself an “abstract painter.” But he employs light like a poet (Robert Frost was a great admirer of Wind from the Sea), particularly in the book’s opening series of spreads, an overture of full-bleed details with metaphoric resonance, which announce Wyeth’s visual themes: reflection, illumination, luminosity, shadows, and patterns. Like his most famous work, Christina’s World, Wind from the Sea melds the poetic with the intensely observed. Sound, smell, and touch are evoked by a brown, wintery landscape and a sliver of sea viewed through a window, whose tattered, thin curtains billow inward. Embroidered in the curtains’ design are barn swallows, with their deeply forked tails, which appear to swoop over the dormant field like ghosts of summer.

The astonishing detail of the photos in CARLETON WATKINS: THE STANFORD ALBUMS (Stanford, $40) is explained by the mammoth glass plates that Watkins used to capture his pioneering views of natural wonders in California and the Pacific Northwest—and man’s transformation of them by mining and industry. Even the fine full-page reproductions in this large landscape-format volume are only a third of the size of Watkins’s immense albumen prints. The originals have so many subtle colors (mostly in the shadows) that four-color printing was chosen, with an emphasis on a full range of blacks, to maintain those tones as well as possible. That approach infuses the images, printed on matte-coated stock, with a poetic dimension more in keeping with the photographer’s intentions, which might not be conveyed as successfully by fine-grained reproductions on glossy paper. The three albums are devoted, respectively, to photographs of the Pacific coast, including San Francisco, the Columbia River and Oregon, and the Yosemite Valley—photos that helped persuade Abraham Lincoln and Congress to pass the Yosemite Valley Grant Act of 1864, laying the groundwork for the national park system.

If Watkins, or, better, Timothy O’Sullivan, were to descend with a glass-plate apparatus from photographic heaven and find himself in the bleak Andean Desert, he might produce ultra-detailed albumen prints, with elevated horizon lines and milk-white skies, resembling the images in Edward Ranney’s THE LINES (Yale University Art Gallery, $45). Over thirty years, Ranney photographed landscapes containing the mysterious lines, called geoglyphs, produced between about 500 BC and 650 AD by the Nazca culture. Shooting from vantage points on the ground and in nearby foothills, Ranney is not out to explain the lines, but to show how the maplike markings transform the harsh environment into a comprehensible, “even intimate,” as he says, cultural space. Artists who emerged in the 1960s, including Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, and Richard Long, were inspired by the Nazca glyphs, as Lucy Lippard explains in her illuminating essay, to create artworks directly in the landscape. These artists helped us to see the glyphs not as archaeological curiosities (or billboards for visitors from space) but as expressions of artistic thought—though the communal and spiritual values and reverence for nature that informed the lines’ makers remain alien to us.

In 2011 and 2012, the conceptual artist and activist Mel Chin took apart a mid-’50s set of the Funk & Wagnalls Universal Standard Encyclopedia, cutting out all of the images and creating 524 collages, which he elaborately installed at Houston’s Station Museum. THE FUNK & WAG FROM A TO Z (Menil Collection/Yale, $85), an immense landscape-format portfolio, presents these collages, organized in twenty-five chapters representing the encyclopedia’s volumes , with texts by poets including John Yau (dryly funny), C. D. Wright (a nice riff on E’s: “Ecstasy comes before education . . .”), and Mary Jo Bang (who cleverly sails the C’s). The conceptual constraints of the project (e.g., choices of collage elements were restricted to material from a particular volume) are partially overcome by Chin’s tireless (sometimes tiresome) visual punning and his painstaking technique, playful allusions to art history, and occasional pointed political commentary (an Arab family in the crosshairs as an array of aerial weaponry descends). But the twin goals of documenting the exhibition and creating an independent reading experience may be incompatible. Despite the book’s dimensions, Chin can’t reproduce collage elements at actual size, and much of the imagery is not easy to make out. On his website, a handful of knockout collages represent the project; a more convincing book might have been made with selected images reproduced at actual size, and without the dramatic black backgrounds seen in the installation, which, in a book, seem a waste of ink.

Vacationers who frequent the Outer Cape may not recognize the (intentionally) hidden or, in several cases, derelict remains of a remarkable, little-known chapter in American architecture, revealed in CAPE COD MODERN: MIDCENTURY ARCHITECTURE AND COMMUNITY ON THE OUTER CAPE (Metropolis Books/Artbook DAP, $45), by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani. One hopes the glamour shot of Hayden Walling’s Halprin House given full-bleed reproduction on the cover—de rigueur decor for the familiar sort of promotional architecture books that feature Architectural Digest–style homes—will entice the unwary to buy this thoughtful examination of vacation homes built by modernist masters (both well- and undeservedly lesser-known) in Wellfleet and Truro between the late ’30s and 1977. Most fascinating are the pocket bios of the black sheep Boston Brahmins and other talented amateurs, like Walling, who pioneered modern architecture on the Cape, and the Bauhaus refugees and other European émigrés, including Serge Chermayeff and Marcel Breuer, who made the woods of Wellfleet a laboratory for modernism from the ’40s through the ’60s. A final chapter traces the efforts, more complex but less impressive, of the following generation.

Christopher Lyon is an art-book publisher and writer based in Brooklyn.