Artful Volumes

THE WORLD OF CHARLES AND RAY EAMES (Barbican Art Gallery/Rizzoli, $75), with a dust jacket that folds out into a colorful poster in the image-grid style the design duo popularized, may seem like an Eames lounger: Something you can settle into and use to travel back in time to, say, 1956. But don’t get too comfortable. This catalogue is not about midcentury modern furniture and decor, but instead shows how the Eameses communicated their rationalist vision of design: a way to provide “the best for the most for the least,” as they often put it. Even their famous Pacific Palisades home, known as Case Study House #8 and built for a program sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine, was meant to communicate an attainable ideal. To illustrate the house and other projects, The World of Charles and Ray Eames relies too heavily on drab period documentation, but it also delivers some archival treats. Assessments of the Eameses by their contemporaries include one by the future filmmaker Paul Schrader, who, at the end of an article about Charles Eames’s films, asks a question that seems to speak not only for Schrader but for the generations that followed Eames: What would happen if you encountered puzzles that had no solution?

Despite modest origins, the painter Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun attained the peak of professional success—but the support of her most famous patron, Marie Antoinette, almost cost the painter her life. Vigée Le Brun, forced to flee France, turned her exile into an opportunity, becoming Europe’s most sought-after—and well-compensated—portraitist. VIGÉE LE BRUN (Metropolitan Museum of Art, $50) surveys ninety works, offering an intimate and sometimes moving glimpse of late-eighteenth-century France’s 1 percent, avant le déluge, and early-nineteenth-century high society. Yet France did not have a comprehensive exhibition of these extraordinary paintings until last year, maybe because Vigée Le Brun—comfortable with the aristocracy, and naturally talented—represents a patrician ease that republican France professes to detest. The catalogue for the Paris show, substantially longer than this volume, more thoroughly represents the artist’s pastel drawings—her most natural medium—and also includes her landscapes and cloud studies of the 1820s, which are said to anticipate Monet.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, The Duchesse de Polignac in a Straw Hat, 1782, oil on canvas, 36 3/8 × 28 7/8".
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, The Duchesse de Polignac in a Straw Hat, 1782, oil on canvas, 36 3/8 × 28 7/8".

Validation of Vigée Le Brun’s importance may have taken 175 years or so, but it is still scandalous that CAROLEE SCHNEEMANN: KINETIC PAINTING (Museum der Moderne, Salzburg/Prestel, $60) is the first full-dress—or, in her case, full-frontal—career retrospective of this major American artist, now in her mid-seventies. The show and the book accompanying it were helmed by Sabine Breitwieser, the former chief curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and now the director at the Moderne in Salzburg, which explains the out-of-the-way venue, but the title still raises a question: Why “Kinetic Painting”? It is understandable that an artist rooted in the early-’60s would characterize her work in this way. But a performance-art curator should recognize that Schneemann’s outstanding contributions are not painterly: her 1963 “Eye Body” series of poses for the camera and her taboos-be-damned ’60s performances, such as the sensational 1964 Meat Joy. This survey also highlights her pioneering feminist works, including the iconic 1975 piece Interior Scroll, for which she read from a narrow paper roll she slowly unspooled from her vagina.

Can there be spiritual contemporary art? John G. Hanhardt, author of BILL VIOLA (Thames & Hudson, $60), a long-needed monograph on the work of the prominent video artist, seems to think so, but the book reads more as hagiography than art history, with comments like “Viola’s art conveys hope for mankind and a belief in the innate goodness of people.” Brewed from conceptual art, performance, and experimental video and music, Viola’s work grew increasingly theatrical and religious in the 1980s. His slo-mo tableau based on Pontormo’s Visitation, ca. 1529, depicts the Virgin Mary’s encounter with Saint Elizabeth. In 2014, he installed a four-panel video, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. A master of mise-en-scène, Viola aims to capture transcendent inner experience, subjecting his actors to apparently extreme situations and using all the tricks in the film-and-video toolbox. Yet he can’t compete with the evening news: The “Fire” segment of Martyrs unavoidably brings to mind the ISIS video of a Jordanian pilot being burned alive.

The expressive power of materiality, of art whose substance directly expresses meaning, is spectacularly demonstrated by Mexican featherwork mosaics and garments (such as shields and headdresses) made to iridescently interact with light in dances and battle, exalting the wearer by associating him with soaring birds. After the Spanish conquest, Mexico’s amantecas (feather artists) became the preeminent makers of religious art, depicting elevated realms of saints and swooping angels—a striking example of an indigenous art form adapting to the propagation of an imposed faith. These successive traditions are aptly represented in IMAGES TAKE FLIGHT: FEATHER ART IN MEXICO AND EUROPE, 1400–1700 (Hirmer, $75). In featherwork—perhaps the first truly global fine art, with examples reaching the Chinese court and every corner of Europe as glittery swag for monarchs, nobles, and church officials—exotic birds and feathers “materialized” a distant and ungraspable side of the earth.

A pair of brightly colored parasols, probably examples of featherwork by Brazil’s Tupinambá tribe, prominently appear in a colossal trompe l’oeil painting, Triumphal Procession with Gifts from East and West, in a royal palace at the Hague. Reproduced in ASIA IN AMSTERDAM: THE CULTURE OF LUXURY IN THE GOLDEN AGE (Peabody Essex Museum, $65), the painting perfectly captures the book’s subject: the overwhelming abundance of exotic luxuries that profoundly transformed Dutch art and life. Sleekly designed by Chicago’s Studio Blue, this volume catalogues one hundred intriguing objects, each with a brief essay establishing its historical context. Though one question is never fully addressed: Are we looking at the correct culture to understand the dimensions of this phenomenon? Journeys from Asia to Europe constituted only about 10 percent of the total voyages made by ships of the Dutch East India Company between 1595 and 1660; the bulk of its trading was within the vastness of Asia itself. From this perspective, Europe looks like a sideshow.

MATISSE IN THE BARNES FOUNDATION (The Barnes Foundation/Thames & Hudson, $350) is a scholarly catalogue of fifty-nine works acquired by Dr. Albert C. Barnes that, for years, could be seen only by visiting the cloistered “public” museum in Merion, outside Philadelphia, or in the dingy black-and-white reproductions permitted by the Barnes Foundation. This sumptuously designed and produced three-volume slipcased book makes these still-underappreciated works more available, but it is unnecessarily extravagant, and the $350 price tag will keep it out of the hands of many who would enjoy it. One large catalogue volume takes us from Matisse’s early years up to 1931; a second details the creation of The Dance, 1932–33, a commission that opened the door to the artist’s late career. An essay about this mural by the book’s editor, Yve-Alain Bois, appears in an introductory volume along with two other essays, all of which could have been neatly folded into the two catalogue books, eliminating many pages of repetitious illustration and making the book less expensive and thus more accessible, which was, after all, the point of wresting control of the collection from the cranky ghost of Dr. Barnes.

A time capsule of photographic sensibility and a splendid example of bookmaking, DOUBLE ELEPHANT 1973–74: MANUEL ÁLVAREZ BRAVO, WALKER EVANS, LEE FRIEDLANDER, GARRY WINOGRAND (Galerie Thomas Zander/Steidl, $125) reproduces four portfolios published in 1973–74, each of which contains fifteen pictures by one of the four photographers. This new edition collects the volumes in a slipcase along with a brochure including brief essays by Burt Wolf, the proprietor of Double Elephant Press, who, with Friedlander, originally assembled the portfolios, and Susan Kismaric, who sketches in the context. The sensibility is mainly that of John Szarkowski, MoMA’s powerful director of photography, who, in his influential 1967 “New Documents” exhibition, helped establish the careers of Winogrand and Friedlander. Álvarez Bravo’s photography is closest to the documentary subject matter that Szarkowski disavowed in favor of photography that, as he put it, aims “not to reform life, but to know it.” His formulation’s epigrammatic punch is impressive, but it is the impish humor of Friedlander and the droll visual jokes of Winogrand, both descended from Evans’s epic curiosity about his fellow man, that keep this work so fresh.

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