Artful Volumes

In the run-up to the holiday book-buying season—once the lifeblood of trade-art-book publishing—high hopes are again being pinned on the oldest of art-book genres: collection surveys, nine- or ten-pound wonders that purport to give us a deeper understanding of a museum’s “masterpieces.” That devalued word regains currency in THE PRADO MASTERPIECES (Museo Nacional del Prado/Thames & Hudson, $125), a comprehensive look at the holdings of one of the world’s greatest museums of European painting. Collection-survey books often rely on recycled photography and texts, and the Prado book is no exception. Its author is listed as the institution itself; no individual writers are credited except for the museum director, who wrote the introduction. Looking back at one of the museum’s earlier publications, The Prado Guide (2009), it becomes clear how this volume was put together: A resourceful editor has taken the Guide’s texts, written by a skilled band of freelancers, and fed them through a kind of editorial mix-master.

Remarkably, the confection here mostly works. The Guide has been transformed into a substantial history: The Prado’s holdings are so rich that the book is able to give an in-depth account of Western European painting from the late Middle Ages until the turn of the twentieth century, an accomplishment that is somewhat at odds with the organization of the museum itself—at least half of the galleries are devoted to Spanish painting alone. Many of the reproductions are quite good, as I would expect, being a fan of Spanish printing, but not all of the photography looks up-to-date. And the binding boards are too flimsy; for $125, I would expect sturdier construction. Highlights of The Prado Masterpieces include gatefolds featuring several of the museum’s brilliant multipanel works by Hieronymus Bosch, its extraordinary Titians, and—the heart of the museum—its unparalleled collections of work by Velázquez and Goya.

We often think of these paintings by these artists as masterpieces, but how relevant is the term to the collections of encyclopedic museums? And what are the criteria for a masterpiece of postwar or contemporary art? THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART: MASTERPIECE PAINTINGS (Skira Rizzoli, $75) skirts these questions—surviving wall decorations or fragments of painted glass, for example, give only a faint idea of what actual “masterworks” from ancient cultures may have looked like—but the book succeeds magnificently in evoking a global art history. Each two-page spread pairs works produced at nearly the same point in time, recalling the Met’s popular online Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, but here the art is presented in a way that only a physical book could accommodate: eye-filling reproductions in a stylish package of more than five hundred pages, nicely bound.

This book will delight the casual page-flipper, but it will also entrance art-book aficionados. The somewhat elongated trim allows both for vertical pairings on the page and for juxtapositions across a spread, and the author (or editors) has taken full advantage of the book’s generous size to compare and contrast works from disparate cultures that ordinarily wouldn’t be seen together, either in print or in the museum. A thirteenth-century Buddha surrounded by bodhisattvas at first seems an odd match for a circa-1230 Madonna and Child by Berlinghiero, until we notice how the hand gestures of the central figures echo one another. A late-fourteenth-century Japanese portrait appears opposite a page from an Ethiopian illustrated Gospel of the same period—we are being nudged to notice the highly stylized designs of the garments in both works. Artists’ trademark individual styles become increasingly dominant as the book moves into the twentieth century, and the pairings become less convincing: The most bizarre matchup is of Salvador Dalí’s Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), 1954, with Jackson Pollock’s sublime Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950, whose black and tan tones evidently struck someone as comparable to those in Dalí’s brassy concoction. Unlike the text-heavy Prado book, the majority of this volume is composed of images accompanied only by brief captions. Descriptions of the works are relegated to four compact sections, with blue-tipped pages that can be easily located for reference. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings consistently evokes illuminating connections and gives readers room to discover them without editorial intrusion.

El Greco, Fable, ca. 1580, oil on canvas, 19 7/8 × 25". From The Prado Masterpieces. © Museo Nacional Del Prado.
El Greco, Fable, ca. 1580, oil on canvas, 19 7/8 × 25". From The Prado Masterpieces. © Museo Nacional Del Prado.

The art of America, one may argue, is represented more appropriately by multiples, not masterpieces, artworks reflecting a notionally democratic market, not hierarchical culture. From colonial-era portraits and rabble-rousing scenes of British perfidy to the haunting 2010 print no world by Kara Walker, THREE CENTURIES OF AMERICAN PRINTS FROM THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART (Thames & Hudson, $60) offers splendid reproductions and a refined design. Divided into three periods—colonial America until the Civil War, Reconstruction to World War II, and postwar to the present—the images alternate with short essays by an eminent gallery of contributors. These do not cohere as a history of American printmaking but instead offer glimpses of the artistic personalities, technological advances, political crises, and rapidly changing culture that produced the prints.

To mark Robert Motherwell’s centenary, the monumental 2012 catalogue raisonné of his paintings and collages has been distilled into MOTHERWELL: 100 YEARS (Dedalus Foundation/Skira Rizzoli, $70), a compact volume with excellent reproductions. The authors, Jack Flam, Katy Rogers, and Tim Clifford, make a compelling case for why we should look again at the uneven legacy of the AbEx pioneer. An uneasy tension between a career-long commitment to spontaneity and an essentially conservative outlook as an archivist of modernism—who famously wrote, in 1950, that “every intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head”—often enough produced still-fresh results (see Fishes with Red Stripe, 1952–54), especially in the ’40s and ’50s, the artist’s first two decades.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Diane Arbus are the yin and yang of midcentury photography by women. The career of Dahl-Wolfe, more than a generation older than Arbus, blossomed from the later 1930s until 1958, when she resigned from Harper’s Bazaar after twenty-two years with the magazine. LOUISE DAHL-WOLFE (Aperture, $60) fails to explain why her work in her last years at the magazine suddenly shows a new formal rigor and high-style panache, but the arrival of a young Richard Avedon, followed by Lillian Bassman, seems to have raised the bar considerably. Arbus, miserable after a decade of shooting fashion with her husband, Allan, abandoned that world just two years before Dahl-Wolfe did. In an elegantly minimal design with lowercase light-gray display type, DIANE ARBUS: IN THE BEGINNING (Metropolitan Museum of Art, $50) shows us where she traveled artistically during the next seven years, shooting 35mm film before acquiring the Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera with which she took the iconic square-format pictures that made her reputation. The early pictures unmistakably express Arbus’s familiar vision, with freshness, mischievous humor, and a sense of joyful discovery.

Ian McLean’s RATTLING SPEARS: A HISTORY OF INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIAN ART (Reaktion, $39)—the title alludes to a sound traditionally heard prior to battle—claims to be the first “art-historical narrative” of indigenous Australian art, arguably the world’s oldest uninterrupted visual culture. There are other surveys of “Aboriginal art,” but that term situates the art anthropologically; McLean’s radical but commonsense approach is to show how indigenous artists responded to and engaged with modernity, beginning with Captain Cook anchoring off the coast in 1770. McLean treats contemporary indigenous artists not as “pure,” to be kept safe from Western culture, but as actively engaged with modernism, and in fact quite successful at making a place for their art in today’s world, while operating in both modern and traditional temporal frames. He deploys current critical terminology fluidly, insisting on a transcultural context for the art, while also explaining the “Dreaming,” the still-evolving mythopoeic sagas about ancestral beings and spirits that animate indigenous thought. He is clear-eyed about the roles that marketing, ambitious anthropologists, and cannily entrepreneurial indigenous artists played in the late-twentieth-century marketing of this work. The text is illustrated by a spare but well-chosen selection of nicely printed reproductions, from post–Ice Age pictographs to a 1990s painting with an interlocking yarn-like design by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, whose art informed the late work of Sol LeWitt.

The last photograph in the chronology concluding DANNY LYON: MESSAGE TO THE FUTURE (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/Yale University Press, $65) shows Bernie Sanders as a student protester in a sit-in at the University of Chicago in 1962. It was the same year Lyon encountered a young John Lewis, then of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Lyon soon became “the Movement’s” first official photographer. That kicked off a career of nearly sixty years of unwavering attention to social causes, beginning with prison reform in the 1960s—chronicled in his recently republished Conversations with the Dead, one of five now classic books, including The Bikeriders (1967), that secured his reputation—and continuing to recent images of American Indians in the Southwest and Occupy-movement encampments. The outstanding reproductions, mostly made from the artist’s vintage prints, are often cropped outside the edges of the picture frame, lending the images a sense of documentary authenticity. That tell-all frankness extends to collages depicting Lyon’s lovers, family, and friends, completing a picture of a creative life informed by a probing intellect and a passionate eye.

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