Artful Volumes

To call Jules Feiffer an artist, or, worse yet, a cartoonist, diminishes his restless talent: He was a playwright, a screenwriter, an acerbic social commentator, and the illustrator of a beloved children’s book, The Phantom Tollbooth. OUT OF LINE: THE ART OF JULES FEIFFER (Abrams, $40) walks us through the career of this child of the Bronx, an apprentice to the legendary Will Eisner (the creator of The Spirit series, on which Feiffer worked) and the man whose Village Voice cartoons were for decades a reason to put up with the paper. This book was so long in the making that it comes with an affectionate foreword from beyond the grave by Feiffer’s friend and collaborator the late Mike Nichols, who reiterates the frequent observation that Feiffer is, at heart, a playwright. It’s easy to imagine his satiric Voice strips, for example, with their sharply observed characters—but usually rudimentary settings—as moments in a scene onstage.

Sunset Boulevard, even more than its parallel neighbor Hollywood Boulevard, is the defining artery of Los Angeles. Through the eyes of an all-star gathering that includes Catherine Opie, Robert Adams, Larry Sultan, Susan Meiselas, and Dennis Hopper, BOTH SIDES OF SUNSET: PHOTOGRAPHING LOS ANGELES (Metropolis Books, $75) documents the demographics of the boulevard: a path from poor to privileged (East LA to Bel Air, and beyond), and a dividing line between the wealthy northern hills and the vast working-class flatlands to the south. Affinities emerge: Josef Hoflehner’s startling 2010 shot of a plane seemingly parked in the sky above an In-N-Out Burger closely follows Zoe Crosher’s series of distant passenger jets photographed through dismal motel-room windows. You can see celebrities on Sunset, and this book has its share, too, though in unexpected settings (e.g., a barefoot Julie Christie transfixed by a display of hot dogs at the Malibu Market in 1968). Only some of the artier contributions disappoint—excepting those of Ed Ruscha, who supplies the foreword—because creative intervention adds little to images of a city so inherently surreal and fascinatingly ugly.

Louise Bourgeois’s art developed in a recursive, spiraling fashion that lends itself to a thematically structured survey like LOUISE BOURGEOIS: I HAVE BEEN TO HELL AND BACK (Hatje Cantz/ARTBOOK DAP, $60), made for a show in Stockholm. One challenge faced by the book’s editor, Iris Müller-Westermann, is how to take us inside Bourgeois’s thought while resisting the temptation to mine her biography for too-broad themes. Here, her trademark “femme maison” works, which couple houses with female bodies, are grouped under the heading “The Runaway Girl,” a reference to the late 1930s painting about leaving her family in France. Yet the stark juxtaposition of woman and house is a richer metaphorical field than the autobiographical runaway girl. Other headings, like “Loneliness,” and a selection of illustrations that emphasize individuality and isolation, offer a static view of the artist, but her most characteristic themes imply dynamic relationships, expressed in the doubling of forms and quasi-theatrical tableaux, culminating in her late-career series “Cells.” A catalogue for another essential show that will, unfortunately, not be seen in the US, LOUISE BOURGEOIS: STRUCTURES OF EXISTENCE: THE CELLS (Prestel, $65) documents the comprehensive survey, unlikely ever to be repeated, of this series of installation works. In the mid-’80s, Bourgeois began to make walk-in environments: stagelike settings that suggest the interior of the artist’s mind. The book documents sixty-two works in all, though the inclusion of four commissioned ones—the three monumental Tate Modern towers of 2000 and a posthumous installation in Norway—is questionable. Of the text contributions, Griselda Pollock’s essay on the only paired set, Red Room (Child) and Red Room (Parents), both 1994, is especially thoughtful.

In a late interview, Cy Twombly confessed to being less interested in color than in form—“I mean, in creating intuitive or emotional form,” he explained. CY TWOMBLY: LATE PAINTINGS 2003–2011 (Thames & Hudson, $65) presents each of Twombly’s final series, from “Untitled (A Gathering of Time),” 2003, to “The Last Paintings,” 2011. Reprising themes that span his entire sixty-year career, the nicely printed illustrations demonstrate his undiminished vigor and commitment to a singular combination of outsize painting and intimate rumination. A text by a young Czech scholar, Nela Pavlouskova, provides modest critical insight but much information about the paintings’ sources and the circumstances of their creation. The works stoutly resist analysis but seduce with scrawled painted titles and spidery pencil notations that evoke classical culture, European poetry, and Mediterranean settings, filling the mind with meanings the eye can’t quite discern.

NIKI DE SAINT PHALLE (La Fábrica/Guggenheim Bilbao/ARTBOOK DAP, $65) offers the first thorough survey of the artist, who had a substantial role in the brief (yet critical) reemergence of French contemporary art around 1960—along with artists like Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely (whom she eventually married). De Saint Phalle was best known for her “Nanas,” those running, dancing, pirouetting sculptures with gigantic bodies and tiny heads that are like Botero figures seen on mescaline. Tucked into this career is a decade or more in which she mounted a savvy, determined assault on the avant-garde as the only female member of the French Nouveaux Réalistes, with intermittent aid from a coterie of American artists and poets of the late ’50s and early ’60s including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Her most startling works are the “Tirs” (“shooting paintings”), assemblages with bags of paint attached, which she (or invited friends) would “execute” with a rifle, splattering colors. These, and her sculptures incorporating weapons (1962’s O.A.S. Altar pays bitter homage to the paramilitary thugs who sought to block Algeria’s independence from France), are counterparts of the self-destroying sculptures produced by Tinguely. As his works now bring to mind acts of terrorism, hers anticipate our era’s intimate relationship to victims of violence—and our perverse fascination with its perpetrators.

Dustin Yellin, Psychogeography 32 (detail), 2013, glass, collage, acrylic, 72 × 27 × 15".
Dustin Yellin, Psychogeography 32 (detail), 2013, glass, collage, acrylic, 72 × 27 × 15″.

DAVID SMITH IN TWO DIMENSIONS: PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE MATTER OF SCULPTURE (University of California Press, $50), by Sarah Hamill, does more than reveal the important role photography played in Smith’s art; it fundamentally alters how we see the works he photographed—an unusual feat for an academic volume. It questions the assumptions we make when looking at photographic reproductions of art, especially sculpture. Smith employed photography for a variety of purposes, from conceptualizing artworks to documenting his process and publicizing it in periodicals. Rosalind E. Krauss relied on Smith’s photographs when writing her 1969 Harvard dissertation, which became Terminal Iron Works: The Sculpture of David Smith (1971). Hamill shows how Krauss’s readings of Smith’s work were guided by his photographs—an issue Krauss doesn’t acknowledge in her study. Photography was integrated into Smith’s creative process to an unusual degree. The photographs taken at Bolton Landing in winter show his pieces against a snowy landscape, lending them an iconic, timeless presence, which he enhanced by shooting from a low viewpoint and cropping the sculptures’ bases. The book reproduces only a modest number of Smith’s color photographs of his painted sculptures (one wants to see many more!), images that should settle the controversy about whether he intended color to be a primary element of his art.

In early 2012, the photographer Arne Svenson, who had inherited a telephoto lens from a birder friend, began shooting from his darkened apartment across Greenwich Street and through the floor-to-ceiling, Mondrian-ish windows of the Zinc Building. He captured covert, painterly pictures—softened and distorted by dirt and rain on the windows—of individuals in expensively appointed domestic settings. Shades of Rear Window: Svenson’s THE NEIGHBORS (Julie Saul Gallery, $40) could’ve been called Front Window, in revealing how residents of a “trophy” building are, in effect, actors on their chosen stage. While the works convey a measure of social criticism, they are also highly formal and self-referential—and quite beautiful. They are about framing: Each includes mullions and transoms that structure the images, cropping and sometimes dividing figures. Inside, we glimpse furniture and art and obscured, fragmented bodies. One of the most gorgeous of Svenson’s pictures is not included here, because it’s been suppressed in response to a lawsuit (in which the photographer recently prevailed): A child with golden curls, seemingly suspended in mid-flight like a Caravaggesque angel, apparently being held by an adult, is a reminder of how ordinary moments can be transfigured by light—and a long lens.

DUSTIN YELLIN: HEAVY WATER (Rizzoli, $60) does a good job of reproducing basically unreproducible art. Yellin’s signature works are extremely complex collages on layers of glass, sandwiched together to create a dimensional effect. One of his “psychogeographies” stood sentinel recently at Pioneer Works, the exhibition space Yellin founded in flood-prone Red Hook, Brooklyn. Like the detritus left behind when Hurricane Sandy turned nearby Van Brunt Street into a canal, the fantastic profusion of incongruous elements fixed between glass defies description. Yet Yellin’s approach is consistent: In a series of chunky glass squares, like specimen slides for a giant’s microscope, he examines mysterious fragments of contemporary culture. More fun are the elaborate railway-themed pieces, including several imaginary train interiors with unsavory passengers—Going Straight to Hell, 2011, shows a passenger cabin containing Franco, Hitler, and George W. Bush in the rear. An engaging biographical collage (what else?) concludes what is practically an artist’s book in trade-book guise.

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