Artful Volumes

Edgar Degas, a master at capturing ephemeral moments, found his perfect medium in monotypes, the subject of EDGAR DEGAS: A STRANGE NEW BEAUTY (Museum of Modern Art, $50). The process—applying ink or oil paint to a printing plate then transferring the image to paper using an etching press—makes the prints malleable until the last moment, granting the artist great freedom to spontaneously experiment. They are well suited to creating a sense of motion, atmospheric effects, and stark contrasts between darkness and light. Degas, who was not formally trained in printmaking, took advantage of these capabilities in figurative work between 1875 and 1885 and in modernist, nearly abstract landscapes in the early 1890s. This modestly scaled book, designed by Tsang Seymour, has a utilitarian elegance that nicely complements its subject. More than 120 illustrations alternate with concise essays, offering an ideal way—outside of seeing the exhibition that the book accompanies—to view these precursors of works by today’s most interesting figurative artists.

Among those artists is Luc Tuymans, whose off-center compositions, interest in anonymous workers and performers, depiction of unnatural illumination, and techniques for image transfer all echo Degas’s innovations. The subtitle of LUC TUYMANS: INTOLERANCE (Ludion/ARTBOOK DAP, $85) appears on the back cover of this chunky volume rather than the front or spine; its placement exemplifies Tuymans’s practice of obliquely positioning his art, with its often mundane subject matter, under grand thematic umbrellas. The plates in the book, the most extensive survey of Tuymans’s work to date, are organized in reverse-chronological order (with some exceptions), allowing us to gradually peel back the layers of his largely photography- and film-derived process and uncover the conflicted Dutch/French, provincial/cosmopolitan, Belgian roots of his art. The book’s illustrations are surprisingly flat, but the accompanying online edition allows for enlarged viewing of crisp, reasonably hi-res reproductions. For example, the online version of Ballroom Dancing, 2005 (which recalls Degas’s Pas battu, ca. 1879) reveals horizontal brushstrokes that look like scan lines, signaling the image’s video origin; these are nearly illegible in the print reproduction, which also has an unpleasant greenish cast.

LOUISE FISHMAN (Prestel, $60), a long-overdue survey of an artist who reinvigorated the AbEx idiom with feminist panache, is another book hampered by reproductions that fail to do justice to the artist’s luminous canvases. The book’s text, however, sheds new light on her work and worldview. The introductory essay quotes Fishman succinctly conveying a sense of her primary concerns: “I felt that abstract expressionist work was an appropriate language for me as a queer. It was a hidden language, on the radical fringe, a language appropriate to being separate.” For her, AbEx is art as a private language and a means of self-definition. It is ironic, then, that she is perhaps best known for a short-lived series of paintings that fuse language and image in a very public, direct way, pairing the word angry in all caps and shocking colors with the first names of feminist icons: “ANGRY DJUNA,” “ANGRY GERTRUDE,” “ANGRY LOUISE,” and so on. As Nancy Princenthal explains, Fishman soon found, in Hebrew letters and in calligraphic works by artists ranging from Franz Kline to Agnes Martin, an inspiration for her “not quite” words: gestural strokes arrayed against vigorously brushed, sometimes jarringly colorful grounds. These shapes may be read as a mysterious alphabet: a private dialect expressing her indefinable identity, or as messages from a civilization whose language we have not yet deciphered.

The moniker “Monster Roster” was cooked up by critic and artist Franz Schulze to describe a group of Chicago artists including Cosmo Campoli, George Cohen, Dominick Di Meo, Leon Golub, and H. C. Westermann ahead of MoMA’s 1959 New Images of Man exhibition (in which several of them had their debut). This critically savaged show so poisoned the well that MONSTER ROSTER: EXISTENTIALIST ART IN POSTWAR CHICAGO (Smart Museum of Art, $45) is actually the first survey of their oeuvre. The inviting design, by Glue + Paper Workshop, and excellent reproductions make for a lively introduction to the group. Unfortunately, the essays are largely superficial and sometimes even misleading. A central question is left unanswered: How is this work “existentialist”? The paintings and sculptures shown here make little art-historical sense outside the context of postwar European existentialist art, yet despite the book’s subtitle, its essays seem to ignore this fact, perpetuating the creaky myth of an insular art somehow spontaneously generated from Chicago’s mean streets and stockyards.

Robert Gober, Slides of a Changing Painting (detail), 1982–83, three-channel projection of eighty-nine 35 mm slides, color, silent, 15 minutes. From Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. © Robert Gober, Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery.
Robert Gober, Slides of a Changing Painting (detail), 1982–83, three-channel projection of eighty-nine 35 mm slides, color, silent, 15 minutes. From Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. © Robert Gober, Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery.

The front and back covers of the catalogue UNFINISHED: THOUGHTS LEFT VISIBLE (Metropolitan Museum of Art, $65) are raw book boards, a design conceit meant to signal work that is unrealized or in progress. The title-page spread also slyly alludes to the show’s subject—unfinished artworks from the fifteenth century to the present—as it is entirely empty except for a single narrow column of text on the far left side. This exhibition, the first at the Met Breuer, explores a fundamental division between artworks that are incomplete because of prosaic happenstance and those that are intentionally left unfinished. Which category certain works belong to is not always clear, and sometimes a work slips from one to the other. The latter is hauntingly illustrated by Alice Neel’s Vietnam War–era James Hunter Black Draftee, 1965, in which only the handsome subject’s head is completed. The soldier departed for boot camp and never returned for a second sitting, so Neel decided to leave the portrait unfinished, implying that he might never come back.

Encyclopedic knowledge or monumental obsession? That is the question raised by Eric Shanes’s exhaustive first volume of a planned one-million-word biography (the uncut version of the project will be available online) about Joseph Mallord William Turner. YOUNG MR. TURNER: THE FIRST FORTY YEARS, 1775–1815 (Yale University Press, $150), mesmerizing across all its 552 pages, is as much a visual as a textual biography. Its approximately 450 well-reproduced illustrations not only represent the artist’s work but are also integral to the narrative, interwoven seamlessly with the text. The author’s critical assessments and technical descriptions of the art are both engaging and convincing, and the fine-grained chapters, some devoted to spans of only a few months, offer novelistic depth. For example, describing the motivation behind the Turner family’s seemingly heartless dealings with the artist’s mother—she was committed to a mental asylum under fraudulent pretexts and ended up in the hellish Bethlem Hospital, aka “Bedlam”—the author explains (without condoning it) that Turner’s father “was shielding a son who lived in abject terror of being professionally compromised by public knowledge of his mentally ill mother.” But the great attraction of the book is Shanes’s penetration of Turner’s artistic thought. As he writes, “To delve very far inside Turner’s mind we need to get inside his art, for that is almost completely where he kept it.”

In 1920, Tristan Tzara conceived of an anthology, to be called Dadaglobe, that would comprehensively document the international anti-art movement. Now, a band of scholars led by Adrian Sudhalter, working under the sponsorship of the Kunsthaus Zürich and MoMA, have reconstructed and published the never-completed survey, which, if it had been finished, might well have been the earliest example of what we’d now call an art book. DADAGLOBE RECONSTRUCTED (Scheidegger and Spiess/University of Chicago Press, $59) is organized into two sections, one that reconstitutes the Dadaglobe itself, the other an introduction that relates both the history of the work and the editorial and design decisions that informed the painstaking restoration. Presented in a full-width trim, with vivid illustrations, and texts in French, German, and Dadaspeak, the resurrected Dadaglobe emphasizes the movement’s international character and its anarchic, purposeful silliness—seen, for example in Man Ray’s photo of a paint-encrusted palette inscribed “La mer de merde.

Although sixteenth-century Spanish conquerors consigned most of the Mayan codices they found to flames, some beautiful screenfold-paper books survived, such as the Madrid Codex, shown in a double-page spread in THE MAYA: VOICES IN STONE (Turner, $90). The subtitle may seem poetic but actually is literal: A primary focus of this sumptuous volume, a comprehensive synthesis of current knowledge of Mayan civilization, is its hieroglyphic writing system, which is preserved mainly in carved-stone inscriptions. Sections on the art and hieroglyphs of the Maya are followed by ones devoted to their spiritual and cosmic beliefs, the Mayan elite, architecture, war, and politics. Carved stone and ceramics bear most of the hieroglyphics that tell this story, but the book also features wall painting (the superb murals at Bonampak in Chiapas, Mexico), jewelry and luxury objects, and extensive full-page bleeds showing many of the imposing, and extraordinarily varied, architectural ruins. A chapter on the courtly spaces of Palenque opens with an epigraph by the intrepid nineteenth-century American explorer John Lloyd Stephens:

Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished, entirely unknown.

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