Artful Volumes

VIVIAN MAIER: A PHOTOGRAPHER FOUND (Harper Design, $80) shifts the focus from the faux-romantic idea of Maier as an eccentric recluse (à la Henry Darger) who hoarded never-displayed photographs until she died a pauper’s death and was granted sudden and improbable posthumous stardom. Instead, we see a surprisingly savvy street photographer, who, like Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander, honed her vision in 1950s New York. From the late ’50s on, in the guise of a socially invisible Chicagoland nanny, she created thousands of remarkable photographs, devoting her skills to unsentimental images of children and “women of a certain age”—subjects her New York counterparts rendered with comic irony when they paid attention at all. This may be the last Vivian Maier book for some time—John Maloof, the volume’s author and the owner of the bulk of her negatives, is facing possible lawsuits from a distant relative of Maier in France who has been encouraged to claim the copyright to her work. So we should be happy that the book represents her so well, not only with excellent reproductions, but also with an eloquent essay by Marvin Heiferman that sensitively interprets her photographs, placing Maier in the context of her time and our image-driven world.

Designed by Graphic Thought Facility, PICASSO & THE CAMERA (Gagosian Gallery/Rizzoli, $100)—which documents an ambitious exhibition curated by Picasso biographer John Richardson—evokes an old-fashioned black-paper photo album: It features fold-over black pages with die-cut windows that wrap around and frame photographs of Picasso at crucial stages of his career. This format effectively presents the book’s miscellany of texts and images, which traces the ways Picasso used photography in his art and in the shaping of his myth. Here, “the camera” stands for a vast array of photographic functions and media, encompassing everything from snapshots to formal portraits to photocollages; images that document Picasso’s studios, homes, and artworks; ones used as source material (most importantly, in the invention of Cubism); and collaborative creations (most impressively, the cliché-verre prints made in 1936 and 1937 with Dora Maar). In the postwar period, Picasso deployed photography to shape his persona—branding himself “the most famous artist in the world”—to the extent that his carefully tended image threatened to swamp his art in the public’s mind.

Picasso and photography specialist Anne Baldassari edited the 556-page, slipcased PICASSO’S MASTERPIECES: THE MUSÉE PICASSO PARIS COLLECTION (Flammarion/Rizzoli, $200). Her hand in it may explain the odd lead-in to the book, a dozen pages of photographs by and of Picasso that are preceded by an undated quotation attributed to him by his mistress Fernande Olivier: “I discovered photography. I can kill myself. I have nothing more to learn.” It may also account for why the book’s illustrations are treated more as photographs than as reproductions, with no indication in the accompanying captions of the artworks’ medium or dimensions. (A “List of Works” with complete captions is buried in the middle of the book.) Particularly egregious are illegibly dark, silhouetted reproductions of bronze sculpture, which sit on the page like featureless shadows, deprived of context or a sense of scale. The layout juxtaposes works in pairs according to broad visual or thematic similarities, without regard to medium or even, in many cases, the relative sizes of the paired works. The French edition of the book is simply titled Musée Picasso Paris—no chefs d’oeuvre. The word Masterpieces has been added to the English-language edition on the perfectly reasonable assumption that buyers won’t pay $200 for a souvenir collection catalogue.

GOYA: ORDER & DISORDER (Museum of Fine Arts: Boston, $65) automatically invites comparisons with Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment, a volume produced a quarter century ago, when MFA Boston last presented a major Goya exhibition. The new book’s title suggests a historical approach to its subject—like the earlier volume’s—reflecting the massive changes in Spain and Europe during Goya’s lifetime. Instead, it delivers a thematic, historically untethered account of Goya’s achievement, making it hard to grasp how a young, savvy striver—many of whose commissioned works of the 1770s and early 1780s are underwhelming—evolved into the artist who created the bitingly satirical Caprichos in the late 1790s, who responded to Spain’s brutal guerrilla war against French invaders with some of the most indelible images in Western art, and whose late work foreshadows, in the words of Fred Licht, the “modern temper in art.” Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment presents Goya’s oeuvre in three chronological segments that segregate prints and drawings, which are uniquely important in Goya’s oeuvre. The effect is to show the artist’s transformation from a creature of the Age of Reason into a harbinger of our darker time. But the present book, organized thematically, scrambles the chronology of Goya’s career, so that works with quite different audiences and aims (noble portrait versus piercing social critique) appear cheek by jowl. Gathered under the theme “Hunting” are anodyne early tapestry cartoons; an unintentionally comic print copying a royal portrait by Velázquez, whose subject poses as a hunter; and, from Los Caprichos, the print All Will Fall, in which bird men, lured by a beautiful harpy, are ensnared and tortured by women with evident relish, an image that crosses the line between moralizing allegory and penetrating psychology.

Fernand Léger, Composition (The Typographer), 1918–19, oil on canvas, 98 1/4 × 72 1/4".
Fernand Léger, Composition (The Typographer), 1918–19, oil on canvas, 98 1/4 × 72 1/4".

The dusty word provenance fails to capture the glow of noble lineage emanating from CUBISM: THE LEONARD A. LAUDER COLLECTION (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale, $65), which joins the small number of basic books on the origins of the movement. The eighty works, just donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), are, in effect, a distilled history of Cubism’s early years. As if filtered through successive sieves, works originally amassed by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, dealer for Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Léger (the movement’s Four Horsemen) were bought up in the wake of World War I by Douglas Cooper, a wealthy British art historian whose landmark 1983 exhibition, The Essential Cubism, 1907–1920, inspired Leonard Lauder. Having acquired a part of Cooper’s collection after his death, Lauder fleshed out his holdings with the goal of making a museum-worthy gathering of key works. A starry array of contributors, including Jack Flam, Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, Pepe Karmel, and neuroscientist Eric Kandel, provide brief, focused lectures on these still-confounding works, giving the sense of being walked through the collection by exceptionally well-informed guides.

STORYTELLER: THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF DUANE MICHALS (Carnegie Museum of Art/Prestel, $75) includes only half, or less, of the Michals story. Renowned for his dreamlike visual narratives, Michals is both a nonpareil portraitist, whose images of artists and performers—among them Joseph Cornell, René Magritte, Meryl Streep, and Sting—are given passing attention here, and a painter, who in recent years has altered antique monochromatic tintypes with a kind of colorful homemade Cubism. Storyteller concentrates on the black-and-white photo-narratives, but an eccentric design waffles between presenting them as individual photographs or as captioned visual sequences—the hybrid form Michals invented. Some images are unnecessarily large, including a double-page bleed of one frame from The Fallen Angel (1968), while reproduced images in other sequences are too small to clearly show what’s going on (for example, the frames of the witty Things Are Queer from 1973). For those of us who cherish our beat-up copies of Michals’s Real Dreams: Photostories (1976), it is disappointing that so many of that book’s extraordinary works are absent, and unsettling that Michals’s hand-lettering and numbering don’t appear. The essence of Michals’s activity has been violating implicit rules and crossing boundaries—between fiction and nonfiction, and between editorial and art photography. Sentimental, unironic, pansexual, playfully philosophical, and often hilarious, his art contains much that we may secretly wish contemporary art had more of.

The title character of JOYCE PENSATO: I KILLED KENNY (Santa Monica Museum of Art, $40) is Kenny McCormick of South Park, who dies in practically every episode of the show’s first five seasons only to mysteriously reappear. The book’s ink-black varnished cover imitates the enamel surfaces that Pensato favors. Contemporary art has a long history of appropriating cartoon characters; one thinks of Andy Warhol, who painted Dick Tracy and Batman, or Peter Saul’s scatological Supermans from the generation before Pensato’s. But it is hard to think of an artist who approaches these characters without apparent irony. Pensato elicits powerful emotional responses with seemingly minimal means, using pared-down visages of Mickey, Daffy, Cartman, Bart, and Kenny—not to mention the masked eyes of Batman, her main squeeze, represented in this book by ten paintings reproduced in an extravagant gatefold.

The term light in architecture has meant different things to successive generations. For pioneering modernists, Glasarchitektur stood for a transparent, rationalist approach that would further hygienic and economic aims. In architecture of the past several decades, the use of exotic perforated, semitransparent, and multilayered materials shifted attention to the appearance of “lightness,” as in the projects, many by heavyweight architects, in Terence Riley’s 1995 Museum of Modern Art (New York) exhibition “Light Construction.” SUPERLIGHT: RETHINKING HOW OUR HOMES IMPACT THE EARTH (Metropolis Books/ARTBOOK DAP, $35) shifts the focus to physical lightness, environmental impact, and affordability. Evenly distributed across the globe, and accompanied by careful descriptions of site, concept, and physical aspect by author Phyllis Richardson, the up-to-date selection of forty-one projects, mostly residences, is divided into categories: “Floating,” “Low Energy,” “Urban Light,” “Escape,” and “Extreme.” A dream-and-drool book for the environmentally minded, it offers intriguing housing solutions for developing countries—such as a clever, airy, elevated metal grid with ground-floor patio, created in 2013 in Thuân An, Vietnam.

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