Artful Volumes

Artists who make books are as varied as artists who make anything else, and they offer just as many reasons for their fixation. For some it’s a documentary form, one that both toys with history and creates it, as in Christian Boltanski’s Recherche et présentation de tout ce qui reste de mon enfance, 1944–1950 (Research and Presentation of All That Remains of My Childhood, 1944–1950), a 1969 précis of his childhood that mixes real mementos with found materials. For Sophie Calle, Stanley Brouwn, and others, books begin as interior spaces—diaries or sketchbooks for jotting notes and thought experiments—before inspiring a mission, whether that’s stalking an acquaintance in Venice or counting the steps on a walk from the Netherlands to northern Africa. For others still, the book’s appeal is its handheld materiality, its offering of a fixed sequence of text and images that can skirt an inflated art market. In the elegant, erudite survey ARTISTS WHO MAKE BOOKS (Phaidon, $125) Benjamin H. D. Buchloh reconsiders the accepted theory—that artists embraced books as “purely communicative instruments that were cheaply made and easily available”—and argues that art makers like Ed Ruscha approached their books “with a certain degree of doubt, if not outright artifice or ironic amusement.” In all, this volume catalogues some 150 books by thirty-two artists, including Dieter Roth, James Lee Byars, Taryn Simon, and Wolfgang Tillmans. Each entry is richly illustrated with reproductions of covers and page layouts, and each tome has something distinct to say: As Lucy Lippard put it, “Artists’ books spread the word—whatever that word may be.” —Anna Altman

For a few decades, beginning in the early 1960s, photographer Sory Sanlé zipped around the streets of Bobo-Dioulasso, in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, on a motorbike, seeking out musicians, artists, and the denizens of clubs and dance parties. He had founded what would become the most famous photography studio in the city, Volta Photo, to document the propulsive cultural scene that had emerged in his country in the years just following its independence from France. Sanlé’s rich trove of pictures has been brought to wider notice by the French archivist and record producer Florent Mazzoleni, who contributes the opening essay to this slim and striking collection of black-and-white images, SORY SANLÉ: VOLTA PHOTO 1965–85 (Reel Art Press/Morton Hill, $30). The photographer frames his young subjects with a classical eye, and they respond with ceremonial dignity. Summoning his body into casualness, a teenage fan of the French singer Eddy Mitchell challenges the camera to blink as he poses with his hand quite placed on his hip and a cigarette poised between unaccustomed lips (Sanlé reports that he likely didn’t smoke). Another photo of a pair of griots, one holding a boom box and the other a ngoni (an instrument made of goatskin and a dried calabash), extends the cross-cultural vibe that percolates throughout these portraits. The encounter between tradition and modern technology may have had jarring consequences for West African society, but in Sanlé’s studio any discordant note was subsumed within the elegance of the impossibly cool. —Albert Mobilio

“I think that Fiorucci was one of the last institutions that made you want to become an adult as quickly as possible, but only after setting fire to the small town that spawned you, and after you’d watched it burn in the rearview mirror,” writes artist and novelist Douglas Coupland in FIORUCCI (Rizzoli, $45), a shiny and seductive collection of ephemera from and advertising imagery produced for the titular fashion bazaar founded in 1967 by Elio Fiorucci. The boutique was famous for cultivating a glamorously outré atmosphere, particularly at its New York branch, often referred to as “a daytime Studio 54.” At any given moment, one might encounter Spanish royalty, the drag impresario Divine, Andy Warhol, or Jackie Onassis; perhaps they were on the lookout for a Maripol bangle, Lurex cowboy boots, a Gay Bob doll (which came packaged in a closet), or “Balls, the candy that gave you courage,” as Marc Jacobs recalled in one of the book’s interviews (he frequented the place as a precocious tween). Taking in Fiorucci’s poppy aesthetic, full of 1950s Americana, Memphis Design graphics, and Italian kitsch (Positano beach sirens in too-tight hot pants; putti wearing Ray-Bans) makes one long for a journey back to 1979 and a bottomless bank account.

Fiorucci advertisement, 1979. Harry Gruyaert’s photograph of a downtown motel, Las Vegas, 1982. Gruyaert.
Fiorucci advertisement, 1979. Harry Gruyaert’s photograph of a downtown motel, Las Vegas, 1982. Gruyaert.

“Anyplace but here” has become a motto among my friends and me as we escape our new dark age by watching period dramas and prestige television. Zoë Lescaze’s sumptuously produced PALEOART: VISIONS OF THE PREHISTORIC PAST (Taschen, $100) is a gore-soaked portfolio that takes us into the realms of the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods and beyond, as envisioned by the Cimmerian imaginations of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Charles R. Knight, Rudolph F. Zallinger, and Heinrich Harder, among others: artists who render the lives and surroundings of the real-life monsters and protohumans who inhabited the earth many millennia ago. With a preface by Walton Ford—the John J. Audubon of the Anthropocene—who lends a number of stunning images to this tome, Paleoart guides us through the eccentric histories of these art makers, starting in the mid-1800s and ending in the 1990s. Many of the volume’s contributors were as influenced by Art Nouveau, speculative fiction, Edo-period painting, and the Bible as they were by the fossil record. This gorgeous book (bound in a material that looks like luminous, pebbly skin) is a welcome reminder that even the most ugly and troubled times eventually wither away into dust. —Alex Jovanovich

Vincent Sardon’s rubber-stamp artworks, on jolly display in THE STAMPOGRAPHER (Siglio, $33), revive the Dadaist tradition of artful mischief. Prurient pinup girls, extravagant swear words, and re-creations of well-known modernist works feature prominently in Sardon’s corruptions of the common bureaucratic tool. The stamps, all handmade by Sardon in his Paris workshop, create impressions that are either text-based or pictorial. The latter produce Warholian repetitions of naked cowboys, doll heads, and skulls in intricate halftone patterns, emulating the meshy quality of monochrome images in old magazines and newspapers. Especially striking are his reproductions of Pop art masterworks: Sardon superimposes three stamps, each as a red, blue, or yellow colorplate, to make miniature copies of Warhol’s portraits and Lichtenstein’s tearful women. Their precision is impressive; Marilyn Monroe’s face somehow appears finer—more photographic, even—than in Andy’s iconic silk screens. Sardon delights in holding the power to reproduce pulp-mag images and venerated artworks alike in his own hand. His textual stamps also impersonate: Unless you look closely, any one of them is indistinguishable from an everyday office supply. But ceci n’est pas un stamp you’d find at your local library. Here, in authoritative block lettering, a stamp may validate sexual achievement (“European Alt-Sex Champion”; “Jedi waterbed master”) or offer slangy insults in many languages (Romanian: “May God break His dick inside you”; French: “Curate my ass”). If the Dadaists’ aim was to both offend and enlighten, tearing down the fragile tower of fine-art sensibilities, Sardon has erected his own bawdy bureaucracy in its place and proudly serves as its notary public.

In a 2015 interview with Vogue, the Danish artist Tal R likened his artistic process to an attempted wedding toast by a drunk uncle. Unlike a guest who prepares a speech but has nothing meaningful to say, the uncle “doesn’t know how,” Tal R explains, “but he has a point.” The new compendium ACADEMY OF TAL R (Koenig Books, $50) gathers the paintings, drawings, sculptures, and collages that compose Tal R’s delightful and wandering oeuvre over the past twenty years. The hefty catalogue reveals a multidisciplinary practice that is masterfully unstudied and intuitive, somehow both deaf and in tune. A series of early ballpoint-pen drawings fill pieces of plain paper with coarsely scribbled scenes of chaos and carnage. They smack of a morbid metalhead’s doodles but still brim with Boschian beauty. His later paintings and drawings adopt a similarly naive style: “Altstadt Girl,” a portrait series of female acquaintances, displays the often-nude subjects’ figures in simple outlines, letting bodily proportions waver and perspectives collapse into Matissian patterns. All of Tal R’s work shows a preference to play with line and color on a single plane, and more recent paintings, in which pigments are applied to canvas with rabbit-skin glue, bring to mind the flattened scenes and glowing colorways of Post-Impressionism. But these fictive, at times trippy realms also carry a whiff of outsider art, and the messy expressiveness of contemporary painting stars Amy Sillman and Katherine Bernhardt. The common denominator is, perhaps, a prioritization of the instincts—a shared sense that art spills from the gut. —Juliana Halpert

The radioactive orange of smoggy LA sunsets, the pearly sea green of a freshly waxed Chevrolet: Just a few pages into HARRY GRUYAERT: EAST/WEST (Thames & Hudson, $65), readers will be thankful that the Belgian-born photographer disagreed with his famous colleague Henri Cartier-Bresson, who thought color in photographs was “disgusting.” Gruyaert, in step with his American counterparts William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, built an aesthetic from saturated hues, embracing an ad-influenced color palette. East/West gathers Gruyaert’s projects from the blistering desert cities of Los Angeles and Las Vegas in 1981 and the carefully orchestrated spaces of Moscow in 1989. In both worlds Gruyaert is a deft street photographer, capturing a citizenry indelibly shaped by its environment while rarely relying on the expressiveness of a face. Here, color tells the story. In Moscow: Majestic, impossibly tall scarlet curtains dwarf a uniformed choir; floor-to-ceiling cobalt blue tiles engulf a man lost in his own reflection. In Las Vegas: Oiled tangerine skin pops against a dazzling pool, as if each were made for the camera. Digital printing, the same technology that made Gruyaert’s beloved Kodachrome film obsolete, has rendered these photographs newly luminous, brightly displaying their quiet revelations.

While in Nicaragua as the Sandinista revolution raged, Susan Meiselas was unexpectedly sent a telephoto lens by her photo agency, which was concerned for her safety: Her crisp, detailed photographs had revealed that she was too close to the fighting. She quickly discarded the lens because it created images that were, in her view, “a lie.” This desire for authentic communion animates SUSAN MEISELAS: ON THE FRONTLINE (Aperture, $35), a five-decade survey. Like Danny Lyon and other social documentarians before her, Meiselas is propelled by a self-described “strong need to be a witness” to populations maligned by society or governments: carnival strippers in the northeastern US; the African immigrants of Cova da Moura, Portugal; the Kurds of northern Iraq. Famously, she is also unafraid to photograph death. The book opens with a searing image: An anthropologist stands in an excavated mass grave holding the skull of a teenager—the executioner’s blindfold still in place. Meiselas’s short essays trace her evolution from a tentative photojournalist into an artist whose practice is rooted in relationships and exchange. She has returned to Nicaragua many times, most recently in 2004, hanging her photos at sites of destruction she’d captured decades before. Despite her closeness, ethical ambiguities haunt her work. “She is literally vultured by us,” Meiselas says of the subject of one iconic image: her arresting 1978 photo of a breathless Nicaraguan mother fleeing a bombing raid as her child slips through her arms. With its memoir-like intimacy, On the Frontline is a stirring contribution to the caustic debate about photographing the world’s violence up close. —Sara Christoph

By the mid-sixteenth century, the phrase “il divino” (the divine one)often accompanied mentions of Michelangelo. In MICHELANGELO: DIVINE DRAFTSMAN AND DESIGNER (Metropolitan Museum of Art, $65), curator Carmen C. Bambach lets the artist’s contemporaries, most notably his chronicler, Giorgio Vasari, praise him as an unparalleled painter, sculptor, and architect. She turns her own focus to his work as a draftsman, offering a backstage look at his entire oeuvre through his works on paper: rough sketches, stunning preparatory drawings, precise architectural renderings, and highly finished pieces intended as gifts for patrons and lovers. Bambach’s intriguing book-length essay—the main event in a typically imposing Met catalogue, which also features specialized studies by other scholars and a formidable critical apparatus—views Michelangelo’s sprawling practice through the concept of disegno, an Italian term for both a physical drawing and its underlying idea. This reading of Michelangelo makes the well-known story of the master feel fresh. His drawings, Bambach writes, “afford the most direct glimpse over the shoulders of the genius, instantly melting away five hundred years to reveal a profoundly intimate creative process.” —Christopher Lyon