Artful Volumes

The art historian Robert Farris Thompson taught us that African art is an “art of motion.” Kongo: Power and Majesty (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, $65) demonstrates that the most compelling objects of central African art are not static, timeless creations—as they may seem in museum displays—but urgent responses by a community under siege. This exhibition catalogue, spanning the late-fifteenth to the early-twentieth centuries, documents much of what remains of precolonial artworks from the Kongo kingdoms, many being gifts by African royalty to their European counterparts. Ivory horns called oliphants have delicate figures ascending a seemingly unending spiral; raffia textiles, basketry panels, and knotted-fiber prestige caps feature intricately woven lozenge-like designs. All show a highly sophisticated visual sensibility, but it is the imposing mangaaka, or power figures—standing wooden men with sacred elements hidden inside—that testify to the extraordinarily destructive pressures on this society, which culminated in the late-nineteenth century with Belgium’s rapacious rule. Asserting the primacy of local law and tradition, the mangaaka offered a spiritual defense against unwelcome Europeans who, recognizing their power, often confiscated and sent them to collectors and museums. Wherever possible, local people removed the sacred elements before the figures were taken away. Though now empty vessels, they continue to bear witness to a culture’s devastation.

How did Alex Katz achieve his inimitable style? Two publications accompanying concurrent shows this past summer detail its development. Brand-new & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s (Colby Museum of Art/Prestel, $60) wants Katz to be a rebel, swimming against the AbEx tide. Yet much of the early-’50s work seems firmly rooted in art of a prior generation; it is odd that Milton Avery is not mentioned as a model. It is also surprising that the book has little to say about Katz’s watercolor-and-paper collages, which he began to make in the mid-’50s. Their discrete forms, clean edges, and beguiling simplicity foretell the ambitious, studio-produced paintings of the ’60s and beyond. In Alex Katz: This Is Now (High Museum of Art/Yale University Press, $45), a survey of the artist’s landscapes, author Michael Rooks singles out these collages as the “juncture” in Katz’s work “that allowed for the convergence of invention and observation, the objective and the abstract”—or, as Katz’s hero Frank O’Hara called it, “the personal and the general.” The practically abstract “Black Brook” paintings both respond to and counter Jackson Pollock in their mural scale and seemingly rapid, intuitive execution, with extremely spare brushwork. Studies for these and other paintings pad the plate section, where they appear as small reproductions on yawningly wide double-page spreads—space that could have more usefully included details or additional examples of Katz’s late masterworks.

Natural wonders would seem exempt from “visual histories,” that endless subgenre of contemporary art books chronicling things created by man (cities, movies, wars) or God (Jesus, a Visual History). Intended as a celebration of a premier playground of the American West, the imposing Tahoe: A Visual History (Nevada Museum of Art/Skira Rizzoli, $85) is not about the area’s extraordinary landscape and natural resources, however, but instead records the many ways humans have shaped perceptions of—and exploited—them. Native American presence in the area dates back eleven thousand years or more; the book’s outstanding feature is a sumptuously illustrated survey of native fiber works, introduced by Jo Ann Nevers, a member of the Washoe tribe, and culminating in the woven baskets considered by connoisseurs to be among the world’s finest, many by the “queen” of Washoe basket makers, Datsolalee (also known as Louisa Keyser). With the railroad came tourism, abetted by transplanted Hudson River School painters like Albert Bierstadt, who is well represented in this book. Mark Twain said that Bierstadt put “more the atmosphere of Kingdom-Come than of California” in his paintings (you don’t want to know what Twain said about indigenous locals). But what he left out was the nineteenth century’s ferocious industrial assault on the Tahoe Basin, which was stripped of its forests and girdled by railroads built by Chinese labor. A selection of contemporary art concludes the book, with five artists of Chinese ancestry all (except Maya Lin) responding to the largely unrecorded history of Chinese workers in the West. In the social-realist-style paintings of Mian Situ, these laborers hang in baskets from sheer cliffs, packing black powder into hand-drilled holes to blast a tunnel—now abandoned—for the Central Pacific Railroad.

Danny Lyon tried to have the original 1971 edition of Conversations with the Dead: Photographs of Prison Life with the Letters and Drawings of Billy McCune #122054 (Phaidon, $70) printed in the lithography and offset-printing shop of the Walls, one of six Texas prisons in which Lyon was allowed to photograph convicts’ daily lives with no restrictions. (This kind of access would be an inconceivable privilege today.) Eventually, Lyon realized that prison officials would not approve several of the images, and so a trade house published the book instead—it eventually became one of the century’s most influential photography books. This edition is called a facsimile but is really a reconstruction, with duotones remade from the original gelatin-silver prints. The resulting images are so vivid that you can practically smell and hear them. Lyon shot particularly memorable photographs of “the line” of convicts as they marched to the field each day for farm labor. The dramatic contrast of their white prison garb with the dark surroundings makes for the book’s most cinematic images, like scenes from a real-life Cool Hand Luke—but it is the haunting portraits of individuals that are the most affecting.

Thomas Bachand, Three Seconds on the Fourth of July, Emerald Bay (detail), 2003, ink-jet print, 60 × 48". From Tahoe: A Visual History.
Thomas Bachand, Three Seconds on the Fourth of July, Emerald Bay (detail), 2003, ink-jet print, 60 × 48". From Tahoe: A Visual History.

In Harry Gruyaert (Thames & Hudson, $65), a retrospective of the esteemed Belgian’s color photography, people are typically seen in shadow or from behind, with their faces obscured. Any personal interaction is dialed back just enough to allow a seemingly casual—but frequently complex—play of color to come forward. Each picture is like a movie shot composed by Michelangelo Antonioni, whom the photographer greatly admires, or a painting by Neo Rauch, complete with an implied mysterious narrative. After working abroad in fashion and corporate photography in the 1960s, Gruyaert returned to Belgium, initially shooting in black-and-white before turning to color, inspired in part by a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, New York’s 1976 William Eggleston solo show. The Kodachrome pictures taken in Belgium, which he began making around 1980, are strangely melancholic, infused with jarring combinations of soft colors and oblique golden light, beautifully captured by the highly saturated reversal film. After 2000, as Kodachrome became increasingly unavailable, he switched to a digital camera. A spread with two images made in India, from 1989 and 2001—the earlier one a masterpiece of flattened and layered color—demonstrates the persistence of his still-vigorous style but also reveals how digital imaging has impoverished his palette.

Walid Raad, a Lebanese artist based in the US, makes elaborate artistic fictions with a wry and whimsical sense of humor delivered in a deadpan style worthy of Borges. To moma’s credit, most of this catalogue, Walid Raad (MoMA, $55), is given over to excerpts from several Raad projects that amount to illustrated works of postmodern fiction. The first of these concerns an imaginary organization documenting Lebanon’s civil wars (he prefers the plural) called the Atlas Group, of which Raad is the supposed archivist. He presents “evidence,” constructed from found snapshots, clippings, and what look like actual historical records: “fantasies erected from the material of collective memories.” Some are far-fetched (but amusing), others believable and disturbing: a project to investigate the 3,641 car bombs detonated during the country’s sixteen years of civil conflict presents photos of motors, “the only part that remains intact after a car bomb explodes.” A second, ongoing project, Scratching on things I could disavow, begun in 2007, draws a subtle satiric bead on the history of art in the “Arab world,” specifically the profusion of new Western-branded museums, foundations, and fairs and the commercialization of art in the Near East.

The cannily titled Corita Kent and the Language of Pop (Harvard Art Museums/ Yale University Press, $50) does not try to directly induct “Sister Corita,” as she was known in the mid-1960s, into the ranks of Pop artists. Kent, a nun who was head of the art department at Los Angeles’s Immaculate Heart College (she shed her habit in 1967), continued to work until her death in 1986, but this book focuses on screenprints she and her students made from 1964 until 1969, reproduced along with prints by Pop artists such as Robert Indiana and Andy Warhol. In this context, Kent’s originality and art-historical significance are underlined: She clearly emerged with Pop art (her earliest work coincides with Warhol’s first show at LA’s Ferus Gallery), not in response to it, and represents a still largely unacknowledged development of it. We think of the ’60s as a decade of resistance—to authority, war, sexual taboos—but the power of Kent’s work derives from not just a sense of notionally passive acceptance, à la Warhol, but also an active engagement. The Pop artists’ emotionless “cool-art,” as Irving Sandler called it, treated words as visual forms whose meanings are kept at an ironic distance. But Kent embraced advertising phrases in the service of political and social causes, repurposing such language in her prints, often by means of mirroring and reversal, and upending meanings to serve decidedly warm spiritual ends. As the ’60s drew to a close, Kent’s work became more militant. “Words have life,” she said, “and must be cared for. If they are stolen for ugly uses or careless slang or false promotion work, they need to be brought back to their original meaning—back to their roots.”

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