Artful Volumes

That the arch-villain of the moment is a New York real-estate mogul does not surprise the city’s residents. Two new entries in the evergreen picture-book category of lost (or about-to-be-lost) New York evoke worlds, large and small, obliterated by avaricious Trump-style development. Adam Gopnik provides the suavely nostalgic introduction to PENN STATION, NEW YORK (Thames & Hudson, $50), a collection of densely dark, dreamlike black-and-white photos by Louis Stettner. Shot in 1958, five years before the old Penn Station was torn down, the series was inspired by an image Stettner made in 1957: It shows a little girl in a party dress near the top of the frame, with bright squares of sunlight across the station floor to her right and fainter moons of light in her path. She is seen from behind, as she steps carefully from one little light circle into another. The rest of the collection lacks that moment’s magic, but still convincingly evokes an era of decorous travel. While the book’s large format might seem extravagant, it suits Stettner’s penchant for framing quotidian scenes in inky shadow, like glimpses of other lives in the windows of a departing train.

Seven years after the publication of James and Karla Murray’s first Store Front book, a collection ofphotographs documenting New York’s small businesses, two-thirds of the shops pictured have closed. The sequel, STORE FRONT II—A HISTORY PRESERVED: THE DISAPPEARING FACE OF NEW YORK (Gingko Press, $65), lacks the extended panoramic “storescapes” featured in the earlier book, in part because the remaining mom-and-pops have become, in many areas, islands in a sea of corporate franchises and upmarket boutiques. The Murrays’ photography relies on what most photographers avoid: seemingly transparent, utterly consistent composition and lighting. This gives their images a quiet authority, and a documentary feel, though the shots actually are digitally edited to eliminate perspectival distortion as well as cars and trucks, pedestrians, parking meters, and other distractions. Many of the shops represented here have already disappeared as well; the preservation movement launched by Penn Station’s destruction has not saved much of New York.

To understand the art of Joaquín Torres-García, the restless Uruguayan modernist whose work is the subject of JOAQUÍN TORRES-GARCÍA: THE ARCADIAN MODERN (MoMA, $60), it helps to know that he spent more than a decade trying to succeed as a maker of wooden toys. He had a gift for miniaturizing and simplifying the world and its objects, which he coupled with a cosmic, totalizing vision. This indispensable book follows the peripatetic artist through his variegated career, beginning in Barcelona at the turn of the twentieth century, and then moving on to Paris, New York, Madrid, and many points between. But the fun really starts in 1934, when he returned to his birthplace, Montevideo, more than forty years after he had emigrated. There, Torres-García proposed an “Escuela del Sur” (School of the South), whose emblem was an inverted map of South America, with North America someplace off the bottom of the page. He established a studio to propagate his Constructive art, taking as its model pre-Spanish “Indo-American” art, which, to him, represented a way to establish an independent Latin American culture. By going as far away as he could from the centers of modernism, Torres-García finally appeared on the map of the modern, being among the earliest Latin American artists whose work the Museum of Modern Art (New York) acquired. But he never really fit in.

Physical books cannot include video clips, and installation photographs of video works are cool but have almost no informational value. DIANA THATER: THE SYMPATHETIC IMAGINATION (LACMA/Prestel, $65), surveying works by an artist known for projecting her video pieces onto architectural surfaces, must somehow come to terms with these obstacles. Designers Lorraine Wild and Xiaoqing Wang ineffectually bleed images and wrap them around pages, from one spread to the next, trying to suggest an expansive experience. (In the same vein, a short video of the exhibition has been made available online to supplement the text.) More intriguing is the book’s attempt to evoke Thater’s artistic process by way of an unusual “backward” editorial structure. It begins with an index (actually the artist’s biography organized alphabetically), which points to Thater’s emphasis on the idea of connecting people and other living creatures with their places in the world. Her principal aim is to bridge the chasm between the natural world and human beings—an aim that links her projects with recent work by Ann Hamilton, like her exhibition “the common S E N S E” (at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery), about people’s interaction with animals. Thater’s subject is impressionistically evoked in brief quotations (Gilles Deleuze, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip K. Dick), which punctuate the photo-documentation, and in longer texts by Franz Kafka (“Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”) and Angela Carter (“The Company of Wolves”).


The cover of FRANK STELLA: A RETROSPECTIVE (Yale University Press, $65), handsomely designed by Kobi Benezri, features a wraparound illustration of the 1966 painting Conway I, with die-cut excisions, that mimics that painting’s shaped canvas. This means the book must be kept in a slipcase to prevent damage to the exposed text block—an example of how simple visual ideas can generate unexpected complications. They also have a way of reverberating: Stella’s early works point in directions that would later be taken by artists as different as Sol LeWitt and Sean Scully. The book’s excellent reproductions fail to convey one striking aspect of the exhibition, which is the extent to which the seemingly pared-down early works evoke illusory space. This precarious balance between materiality and depth, mentioned by author Michael Auping, is one Stella realized in ever more literal waysas his career progressed.

With more than five hundred illustrations, THE ART OF TYPEWRITING (Thames & Hudson, $70) offers a sample of the quarter-million items in the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry in Miami—said to be the largest extant repository of such material—preceded by brief, illuminating histories of typewriter art and ornamentation, and of Concrete and Visual poetry. Creating art with a typewriter—a seemingly limited machine—was both an exercise in mind-boggling ingenuity and an acceptance of restrictions that seem out of joint with our era of Koonsian scale and Abramovićian ego. Unfortunately, this volume also restricts the art it presents: Works are divided into thirty-seven categories, and almost all the examples appear to be reduced in scale (even though the book’s trim would allow for 8.5 x 11–inch paper to be reproduced at actual size). Entirely missing are really unruly examples of typed art, like Nancy Spero’s “Codex Artaud” or Torture of Women, both of which command space with extensive and inventively laid-out texts, composed in oversize type produced by using bulletin typewriters.

The design inspiration for HIPPIE MODERNISM: THE STRUGGLE FOR UTOPIA (Walker Art Center, $55) is early editions of the Whole Earth Catalog. Instead of the lovely view of Earth from space on the cover of that book’s famous 1968 first edition, however, this book’s alarmingly yellow paper cover is filled by an aerial photograph of Buckminster Fuller’s steel dome, originally the US Pavilion for the 1967 World’s Fair, as it erupted in flame and a tower of smoke in 1976. Assembled by Andrew Blauvelt, this survey of art, architecture, design, film, and video made between 1964 and 1974 employs an array of papers of different colors and finishes, full-page reproductions of pages and ads from the period, and even a bound-in facsimile issue of Progressive Architecture, on the theme “Advertisements for a Counter Culture,” to evoke the feel of that far-off era. The book’s effort to “art-historicize” artifacts of those years swims against the fundamental sense of the work, which was to render official culture irrelevant. Much attention is given to art and design that look “psychedelic,” but the true legacy of this work was in altering consciousness, not objects.

At 636 pages and with well over a thousand illustrations, THE SOVIET PHOTOBOOK 1920–1941 (Steidl/ARTBOOK DAP, $150) is a massive undertaking. It surveys 160 publications and yet offers only a sampling of the extraordinary range of the USSR’s propaganda-book production in the years preceding World War II. It evokes an era when illustrated books were not part of a precarious business, as they are today, but rather a primary communications medium of a young empire. The most advanced artists, writers, photographers, and designers were given access to advanced manufacturing processes. Working only with black-and-white negatives until the late 1930s, designers nevertheless printed photographs in an array of colors on colored papers; in photobooks with inserts, pop-ups, foldouts, and maps; and bound in covers made out of materials including embossed leather, cloth, Plexiglas, and even metal. But more impressive than the production values are the ingenious designs. Some of the finest creative minds of the early twentieth century abandoned traditional media to embrace an industrial art for the people, inventing “photomontage,” a new language of graphic design that encompassed not just an innovative layout of photos but also dynamic typography and integrated texts. The book’s thematically organized chapters proceed in a loosely chronological fashion, offering a history of the Soviet Union’s first two decades as reflected in a kind of fun-house-mirror of ideology.

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