Artful Volumes

Thirty years ago, the movers and shakers featured in Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s (Rizzoli , $55) were right on that gutting-edge where the serrated teeth of subversion and critique met the hard white underbelly of reification. Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, and the ever-present Jeff Koons were among the rising stars playing amid the “floating signifiers” of cultural politics, the danse macabre of appropriation and disapprobation. All this is intelligently contextualized via the time lines and essays in these pages—Bob Nickas’s shout-out to the shitkickin’ perspicacity of Donald Barthelme’s 1987 Levine evaluation, très cool! But . . . no, there is no “but,” exactly. The works generally retain a sense of their original urgency, but the immediacy is mediated by enough intervening history that Gran Fury’s Silence=Death has attained the consanguinity of a Norman Rockwell gay-wedding tableau. Cindy Sherman gets lost in the shuffle, but her sense of precarious identities is to Koons’s smiling assent what Gun Crazy was to Howdy Doody. In a larger sense, a lot of these artists made an understandable miscalculation: They thought Art could tame Commodification, that you could fight, or at least ward off, media with media. You can’t blame them for trying: If Kruger et al. ended up making what amounted to bumper stickers in lieu of airbags, at least they were good bumper stickers. —Howard Hampton

The New York transportation system can seem like an immovable, permanent feature of the city, as primordial as the waterways that make Manhattan an island. In fact, it is a fragile, man-made network that was never conceived as a whole. It has always been a spaghetti tangle of different companies with their own lines, maps, and trains. New York City Transit Authority: Objects (Standards Manual, $49) offers a nonchronological account of the subway based on one enthusiast’s collection of NYCTA artifacts dating back to 1860. Brian Kelley, a product photographer by trade, began photographing used MetroCards in 2011. Damaged and bent, the MetroCards fascinated Kelley as unique yet ubiquitous. That project led to an obsession with collecting the Transit Authority’s vast historical ephemera, presented here as single objects, without comment or any overall organizing principle, though there is an index briefly describing each image. Paging through this volume, the reader ricochets from functional items (tickets, tokens, timetables) to employee paraphernalia (gloves, uniforms, patches that designate membership in the NYC transit-police ski team) to promotional gimmicks like commemorative MetroCards. With a short introduction by Eric Greene, the book reminds us that New York City’s transit system is truly multitudinous. —Anna Altman

Fleeting green lights, a pie-shaped disc, a cigar-shaped fireball, and “dome-like globes”—such are the sights detailed by citizens in the United Kingdom in recent decades and submitted along with drawings to the Britain’s Ministry of Defense. UFO Drawings from the National Archives (Four Corners Books, $25) provides a lively sampling of these accounts and their accompanying art. A 1998 opinion survey published in the Daily Mail revealed that 1.26 million people claimed they had seen a UFO or actually encountered aliens; there were eleven thousand such sightings reported to the ministry between 1962 and 2009. Even though the number of reports tended to double or triple following the release of films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the images often resemble UFOs familiar from popular culture, many of those included come from credible sources like police officers and RAF pilots. Despite the ostensible goal of accuracy, these visual representations also generate numerous modernist associations. The 1979 drawing submitted by an octogenarian in Sussex depicts what he described as “four intense white lights with pale yellow rims” and could easily pass for a painting by, say, Hilma af Klint; with its array of hieroglyphic figures and arrows, the sketch by one Mrs. Weare of Buckinghamshire brings Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine to mind; and what the Royal Observatory deemed a meteorite passing over Worcestershire is rendered as a tapered ellipse with diamond form at its center—more draft by Joan Miró for a painting than flying saucer. Fanciful, meticulous, and often eerie, these portrayals suggest that the skies over Britain may be more artist’s canvas than an otherworldly port of call. —Albert Mobilio

David Wojnarowicz, USDA Choice Beef, 1985, acrylic on found poster, 42 × 31 1/2". From Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s. © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz, courtesy the Estate of David Wojnarowicz
David Wojnarowicz, USDA Choice Beef, 1985, acrylic on found poster, 42 × 31 1/2". From Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s. © The Estate of David Wojnarowicz, courtesy the Estate of David Wojnarowicz

Since pilgrims to Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, located in a remote area of western New Mexico, can only visit six months of the year, up to six at a time, and must stay overnight in a small shelter, photographs are likely to constitute what most of us know about this massive environmental work. While the large-format color images in Walter De Maria: The Lightning Field (Dia Art Foundation, $50) strive to approximate the epic scale of the sculpture and its big-sky backdrop, it’s no knock to say they can only hint at the full drama of the high desert’s flat expanse and distant mountains interacting with four hundred stainless steel poles laid out in a one-mile-by-one-kilometer grid. Still, John Cliett spent over a year photographing the work, and the nearly four dozen images collected in this volume document various times of day and an assortment of weather conditions (including the rare lightning strikes), and thus provide a far more comprehensive sense of the art than any one-day visit could afford. Almost all the images divide sky and earth along a horizontal plane, reminding us that the poles were designed to facilitate electrostatic communion between the two. These sleek, silvery listening posts are shown at times to be alien to the landscape and in other views somehow integral—like tall stalks of grass or desiccated trees; their delicacy against tumultuous clouds and tufted sagebrush speaks to both the fragility and power of what’s man-made. —A.M.

Since the late 1950s, when she traveled solo through South America as an audacious twenty-three-year old, American artist Sheila Hicks has been exploring the extreme possibilities of textiles. Hicks began as a painter, one of a handful of women at Yale University School of Art in the Josef Albers era, but was converted by her encounters with traditional Ecuadorean and Peruvian weaving and textiles. The artist has lived in France for most of her life, collaborating with weavers and textile workers on nearly all continents, and working on corporate jobs (including creating embroidered panels for the interiors of Boeing 747s). Sheila Hicks: Lifelines (Centre Pompidou / ARTBOOK DAP, $50), the catalogue for her 2018 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, presents works from the entirety of her career, from wee “minimes”—tiny weavings made throughout her life on a DIY portable loom—to the monumental column of vivid, twisted fabric of Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column, exhibited at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Hicks’s diverse oeuvre is at once tactile, visual, and architectural, evoking thick cables, vivid mops, matted hair, tufts, nets, skeins, and occasionally even a carpet. While ostensibly a “fiber artist,” Hicks is primarily occupied with structure and color, legacies of her Bauhaus-inspired education. In the words of the exhibition’s curator, Michel Gauthier, “These works make us want to touch colour.” —Lisa Darms

“The work is what happens when you get words out of your head,” artist Chris Martin recently told an art-school class. This assertion, a wry disavowal of the text-based and decidedly anti-“painting” conceptual practices that were still de rigueur when Martin came up in the early 1970s, serves as an emphatic vote in favor of discovery through doing. Martin did not fit neatly into the prevailing art-world narratives of the first half of his career; in the following years his raucous, intuitive, psychedelic (and sometimes drug-induced) abstract-figurative hybrids were equally at odds with the aseptic theory-drenched abstraction of neo-geo and the straight-faced heroic figuration of neo-expressionism. Martin took a decade-long hiatus from painting in the ’90s and worked as an art therapist before returning to the studio full-time in the early 2000s. It was then that he finally synced up with the zeitgeist he’d presaged, with goofy tours de force like 2006–2007’s Mother Popcorn (Homage to Tamara Gonzales), which combines vibrant crimson and neon-green painted orbs with collaged tinsel strands that loosely trace the contours of the dripping black strokes that stream between the circles, and Portrait of Joe Bradley, 2009, a crude airbrushed outline of a grinning face smoking a doob. Chris Martin: Paintings (Skira, $75), a survey of the artist’s work to date, proves he knew what he was doing all along. —Cat Kron

William Villalongo, Father I Cannot Tell a Lie, 2009, acrylic, velour, and paper on wooden panel, 87 × 62". From Fired Up! Ready to Go!. Courtesy the artist and Susan Inglett Gallery, New York.
William Villalongo, Father I Cannot Tell a Lie, 2009, acrylic, velour, and paper on wooden panel, 87 × 62". From Fired Up! Ready to Go!. Courtesy the artist and Susan Inglett Gallery, New York.

Stanley Kubrick expected his epic film on the life of Napoleon to be the best movie ever made. It never got before the camera. Now it exists as a trove of documents that travel the world in a museum exhibition dedicated to the films Kubrick did make—and in a very large book. Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made (Taschen, $70), edited by Alison Castle with the cooperation of the Kubrick estate, presents the unmade film’s screenplay and treatment along with what must be described as a voluminous amount of other material: production notes, charts and graphs, photos of costumes and locations, letters from studio heads and Oxford dons, and one from Audrey Hepburn, whom Kubrick wanted to play Josephine. (She politely declined.) Essays by Kubrick collaborators and historians add to the bulk. The book is designed to resemble the kind of tome that might look best on a wooden display stand. A magnifying glass would help, too, when examining the many hundreds of postage-stamp-size items in the picture file of the Napoleonic era that Kubrick compiled. The director worked on his Napoleon in the late 1960s and early ’70s, hoping, at one point, to cast Jack Nicholson in the title role. He planned to combine what he had learned making Spartacus in 1960 with new techniques and equipment he had developed for 2001: A Space Odyssey. All he needed was thirty thousand soldiers from the Romanian Army. He never got them. In 1975 the world got Barry Lyndon instead. —A. S. Hamrah

Fired Up! Ready to Go!: Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. the Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz (Rizzoli Electa, $75) takes its inspiring title from a call-and-response that rang out at rallies during Barack Obama’s first run for president. The slogan was born on a rainy, dispiriting campaign stop in Greenwood, South Carolina. As Cafritz, an art connoisseur, activist, and founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, recounts in the introduction to this volume, the chant was started by city council member Edith S. Childs, who roused the assembled in an energetic give-and-take: “Fired Up!” “Ready to go!” Even the indefatigable Obama found he had more to give when he heard these words shouted by the small, hopeful crowd. This spirit, an openhearted call to action tempered by more than a little defiance, animates much of the art Cafritz collected over the years. (She passed away this February at the age of seventy.) Including artists such as Kara Walker, Hank Willis Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Simone Leigh, Theaster Gates, and many other contemporary African American artists, this book surveys the breadth of Cafritz’s career as a collector and supporter of the arts, and features writings by Kerry James Marshall, Jack Shainman, and more, along with a conversation between Cafritz and the Studio Museum in Harlem director Thelma Golden. Seen from the weary year 2018, whose slogan may as well be “Overwhelmed! Unsure of what to do!,” the Obama-era catchphrases feel hopelessly, changelessly worn. The art Cafritz nurtured is anything but. —David O’Neill

Album covers need to be striking, either in full-frontal mode, like Robert Frank’s byzantine freak-show design for the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., or as stealth assaults, like Warhol’s peelable banana for the first Velvet Underground record. I expected to discover lots of keen competition in Art & Vinyl: A Visual Record (Fraenkel Gallery, $75), which supposedly dredges the contributions of noted visual artists up from the cutout bins of history. Sadly, besides a few stray-cat gestures, like Gerhard Richter’s paintings made directly on the vinyl of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations (1984; edition of 100), this is predictable stuff. Fluff from Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz (Born in the USA jeans, 100 percent preshrunk) is here, but none of Pedro Bell’s brilliant comix-derived covers for Funkadelic. Black-and-white head shots, midlevel conceptualism, and squiggly cute-brut abstractions abound, but no sign of Public Image Ltd’s droll Metal Box (embossed film canister designed by Dennis Morris). So if you don’t already own Sonic Youth’s Goo, with Raymond Pettibon’s Godardian-Chandlerian illustrations, buy that instead of this book, and with the savings pick up vintage vinyl copies of One Nation Under a Groove, Big Star’s Radio City (with the William Eggleston ceiling photo), and even John Cale’s glass-masked Vintage Violence. —H.H.

Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon (New Museum, $40), an exhibition catalogue from the New Museum’s recent show surverying work devoted to exploring the fluidity of gender, by an intergenerational group of more than forty artists, including Gregg Bordowitz, Harry Dodge, Sharon Hayes, Mickalene Thomas, Vaginal Davis, Justin Vivian Bond, Anicka Yi, and the collective House of Ladosha. The title suggests combat, but the artists in this exhibition are more interested in troubling gender than in deploying it as a weapon. Works such as Nancy Brooks Brody’s delicately layered grid paintings or Connie Samaras’s photographs of twilit mobile homes approach their subject obliquely. The mood, on the whole, is subdued, tactful, and cerebral. Much of the energy comes from engagement with earlier eras: Tuesday Smillie’s watercolor reproduction of the original cover of The Left Hand of Darkness; Chris E. Vargas’s collage celebrating trans forebears; Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel’s tribute to the downtown trans activist Marsha P. Johnson; Mariah Garnett’s imagined encounters with the gay porn star Peter Berlin. In her introduction, the show’s curator, Johanna Burton, notes that a “feeling of stalemate is palpably in the air” around questions of identity; Trigger leaves you wondering how the stalemate will break. —Namara Smith