Artful Volumes

Spread from Duro Olowu: Seeing. Left, inset: Richard Serra, Prop, 1968. Right: Dawoud Bey, A Boy Eating a Foxy Pop, 1988.
Spread from Duro Olowu: Seeing. Left, inset: Richard Serra, Prop, 1968. Right: Dawoud Bey, A Boy Eating a Foxy Pop, 1988. © Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Duro Olowu has a flair for unlikely combinations. A single collection by the Nigerian-born designer might include flowing candy-striped silks, metallic floral brocades, crushed velvets in high-voltage hues, leopard rosettes, and intricate geometric jacquards. The effect of these kaleidoscopic contrasts is not carnivalesque but cosmopolitan—a savvy blend of craft traditions spanning several continents, Western couture, and the effortless cool of icons ranging from Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba to Françoise Gilot and Amrita Sher-Gil. Olowu brings the same catholic eye to his curatorial practice, which recently found dazzling expression in “Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Gathering hundreds of eclectic works from collections across the city, Olowu installed pieces by modernist heavyweights, international rising stars, and obscure talents alongside historical photographs and artisanal objects from Ghana, South Africa, and Gabon. DURO OLOWU: SEEING (DelMonico Books/Prestel/MCA Chicago, $40) is a companion to the exhibition, but it’s not exactly a catalogue. In lieu of sober documentation of the works on display, nearly all of the illustrations are full-page, full-bleed details. Paintings, fashion photos, and Olowu’s iPhone snapshots appear cropped and layered. One spread juxtaposes a picture of three striding schoolgirls—wearing white socks, leather sandals, and bright-blue uniforms—with a vintage photo of American highway traffic overlaid with Purple Hats, a painting by the Israeli artist Elad Lassry depicting a crowd of chic Black women in lilac capes and feather boas. Short essays by MCA curator Naomi Beckwith, fashion historian Valerie Steele, and writer and curator Ekow Eshun chart the development of Olowu’s distinctive eye, while curator Thelma Golden (to whom Olowu is married) interviews the designer. In keeping with Olowu’s maverick ethos, the book also includes a poem and two delightfully eerie works of fiction by the painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye—pieces that consider the acquisitive nature of collecting with a wry, refreshing skepticism. The format might pique readers hoping for a straightforward record of the show, but Duro Olowu: Seeing gives us something more unusual. By losing ourselves in its visual rhythms, we can better understand Olowu’s singular aesthetic. —ZOË LESCAZE

Cecil Beaton, Nancy and Baba Beaton Reflected in Piano Lid, 1926, gelatin silver print, 7 5/8 x 6 7/8".
Cecil Beaton, Nancy and Baba Beaton Reflected in Piano Lid, 1926, gelatin silver print, 7 5/8 x 6 7/8". © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

Imagine being a fashionable, fledgling member of the upper classes in 1920s London, the horrors of the Great War still achingly vivid as you, improbably, party and pose with other blue bloods and swanks, living the good life while most everyone else outside of your sphere, especially by the middle of the decade, is poor, desperate, livid. For some, these youthful swells inspired a great deal of envy. But I imagine countless others would’ve loved to have seen their throats slit. CECIL BEATON’S BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS (National Portrait Gallery, London, $50) is a photographic collection of these society gadabouts and gorgons created by the titular artist, dandy, and memoirist during that troubled and coruscating period between the two world wars. The “Bright Young Things”—as the English tabloids dubbed them—who show up in this nattily designed volume were friends (and friendly enemies) of Beaton’s, and came from a number of different realms, including literature (among them the wretched Evelyn Waugh, who terrorized Beaton when they were at prep school together), the aristocracy (Baba, Princesse de Faucigny-Lucinge, and Alice, Viscountess Wimborne), and even Hollywood (Tallulah Bankhead and Anna May Wong). Beaton brownnosed with the best of them and made even the most inbred-looking dukes and duchesses glitter like deities. But the artist, famous for his acid tongue and prickly disposition, could also wield his camera like a cudgel. Take his 1930 portrait of Florence, Lady Alexander, in a big dowdy headdress and a tinselly, baggy frock who—with a giant dark mole painted near her chin—feels more Boris Karloff than ravishing belle of the ball. (“Her snout seemed more turned up than ever, her gash of a huge mouth like a torn-pocket,” Beaton once wrote of her appearance at a summer soiree, while mentioning that she also “exuded a strong pharmaceutical odour.”) Beaton, like his photographer idol Baron Adolph de Meyer, loved creating pictures with a seductive and hyperstylized look that, frequently, only burnished the glamour of his tony sitters. But it’s comforting to know that, on occasion, he could smell the shit beneath all that soigné. —ALEX JOVANOVICH

Luigi Ghirri, Lucerna, 1973, C-print, 7 1/8 × 4 3/4".
Luigi Ghirri, Lucerna, 1973, C-print, 7 1/8 × 4 3/4". The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © Eredi di Luigi Ghirri (Heirs of Luigi Ghirri)

Pictures of pictures offer an opportunity to reflect on both the means and meaning of representation. The witty antics of the Italian photographer and master of this metamove are on display in the facsimile edition LUIGI GHIRRI: CARDBOARD LANDSCAPES (PAESAGGI DI CARTONE) (Museum of Modern Art, $45), a volume that reproduces an album of photos given to the museum in 1975. The artist arranged his color prints on facing pages so that each spread offers a playful comparison—between, for instance, an image of a man in a tuxedo and one of a man in his underwear. The photographer’s shrewd framing complicates these images and their relationship to one another. In one photo, a painting of a horse is seen behind what appears to be a gate; on the opposite page, we view a freestanding cigarette ad, the trademark camel grinning broadly. Despite its realistic depiction of the horse in a pastoral setting, this portrait undermines any conventional response, as the metal grating segments the picture plane. This image within an image is occluded and seems almost incidental—something seen, or perhaps only subliminally glimpsed, in passing. The billboard—supported by two metal “legs,” with the cartoon camel’s head cut out in relief at the top—mimics an upright human figure, one assertively visible in an empty parking lot framed by a blue sky and trees. Ideas about the role of context in how we allot visual attention, our experience of the natural world, and the incremental degrees of falsity in all depictions flow freely between the two photos. Ghirri’s pictures are at once unambiguous and enigmatic, suggesting that perception is a social, not merely a psychological, act. —ALBERT MOBILIO

Club goers dressed as The Fabulous Wonder Twins, the Roxy, New York, ca. 1993. From: In the Limelight: The Visual Ecstasy of NYC Nightlife in the 90s.
Club goers dressed as The Fabulous Wonder Twins, the Roxy, New York, ca. 1993. From: In the Limelight: The Visual Ecstasy of NYC Nightlife in the 90s. Steve Eichner, © Steve Eichner and Prestel Verlag, Munich/London/New York

Featuring two hundred color photographs by Steve Eichner, IN THE LIMELIGHT: THE VISUAL ECSTASY OF NYC NIGHTLIFE IN THE 90s (Prestel, $45) captures a mythic era in the city. The majority were shot when Eichner was the house photographer for Peter Gatien, the infamous eye-patch-wearing club lord. Eichner smartly turned his lens on patrons and performers alike, from club kids in genderqueer clown drag to hip-hop glitterati to a lone partyer dressed as Jesus in a sea of revelers. Grace Jones, Boy George, Madonna, Tupac, and Amanda Lepore all make cameos in shots both candid and posed. Missing are the DJs—though there is one picture of Mark Ronson—who kept everyone dancing. The real stars may be the venues themselves with their debauched atmosphere and extravagant decor: the Tunnel’s ball pit and Lava Lounge, the Limelight’s Shampoo Room, and Club USA’s mezzanine slide and XXX neon signs, to name a few. The most authentic thrills are found in the pics of anonymous freaks and misfits. In contrast to the creepiest photo in the book, a portrait of Donald Trump awkwardly biting his lip, they remind us of the dissolute fun on offer in pre-pandemic New York. —JANE URSULA HARRIS

Philip Guston, The Street, 1977, oil on canvas, 69 × 110 ¾".
Philip Guston, The Street, 1977, oil on canvas, 69 × 110 ¾". © The Estate of Philip Guston

The shadowy no-man’s-land where Philip Guston liked to lurk feels a little safer these days. “The artist should not want to be right,” he once quipped, advice that time proves him to have ignored. But make no mistake: there is still wrongness here, a menace that seeps from his paintings’ trembly conscience. In PHILIP GUSTON: A LIFE SPENT PAINTING (Laurence King, $85), Robert Storr traces this wayward impulse across the artist’s career, from his beginnings as a Works Progress Administration muralist and geometric easel painter, to his tenure as a key member of the New York School, and finally to his cartoonish late style—a scandalizing relapse into figuration that broke art history open. If Storr positions his subject as the only Abstract Expressionist to “escape,” he also reveals the overlooked consistency of Guston’s varied output, anchored as it is by “harrowing capaciousness,” a phrase Storr uses to describe the voids backdropping several late-’70s wastelands. It is a quality on full display in the painter’s early work and in his ’50s and ’60s canvases: quavering, inchoate growths about the ambivalence of expression itself. That theme—stalked to depths respectively deplored and celebrated in those later pictures of stacked limbs, lightbulbs, cigarettes, and dopey Klansmen—ensures Guston’s vast influence among today’s painters (eleven share their perspective in Philip Guston Now, the recently released catalogue for a delayed retrospective at the National Galley of Art in Washington, DC ). For this, he has long been labeled an artist’s artist, but that no longer sounds right; arriving fifty years after Guston’s death, this comprehensive and expansively illustrated overview suggests, via the painter’s struggle with his medium as an “ethical and existential test,” a metaphor for the universal wish, rarely fulfilled, to invent oneself anew. Guston fulfilled it, several times. And he belongs to all of us now. — ZACK HATFIELD

Amy Sillman, Joan Mitchell in her studio (after a 1957 photograph by Rudy Burckhardt), 2020, ink on paper, 14 × 11". Philip Guston, The Street, 1977, oil on canvas, 69 × 110 ¾".
Amy Sillman, Joan Mitchell in her studio (after a 1957 photograph by Rudy Burckhardt), 2020, ink on paper, 14 × 11". Philip Guston, The Street, 1977, oil on canvas, 69 × 110 ¾". Courtesy the artist

“Often, surrounded in my studio by buckets and paper towels,” jokes Amy Sillman, “I wonder what kind of Freudian mistake has been made to turn me into a painter.” Funnily enough, AMY SILLMAN: FAUX PAS. SELECTED WRITINGS AND DRAWINGS (After 8 Books, $25), the first collection of the artist’s brainy, gregarious, and often hilarious texts, will handily convince readers that her fate is no accident. Her essays—some reprinted from her ongoing zine project, The O.-G.—dig into their uncommon subjects with equal acuity and exuberance: the fundamentals of shape, the materiality of color, and the use value of diagrams, to name a few. In others, she puts her diamond eye on the work of fellow artists such as Maria Lassnig, Carroll Dunham, Rachel Harrison, John Chamberlain, and Louise Fishman, and even manages to stir up some bracingly fresh air around that old albatross, Abstract Expressionism. Though ever-responsive to changes in the weather—political, cultural—Sillman’s mortal coil seems to be set to perpetual cocoon time, spinning new forms, modeling how to override the binaries that bind us. “Anti-pomposity is an extremely important principle for me,” she explains, her work proving how a few banana peels help the gray matter stay slippery, supple, humble. In the sublime “Shit Happens: Notes on Awkwardness,” she swipes at the needlessly hifalutin perceptions of an art practice. In two self-portraits, Sillman breaks out in self-flagellations the way others break out in hives: “Just having a body is a daily comedy,” she writes. And yet it is the body’s precarity that fuels the artist’s rage at the violence done to it. In one series of drawings, she weaves the words of children imprisoned by ICE alongside menacing and menaced figures, shapes and shadows: I WAS PUT INTO A CAGE WITH 60 OTHERS . . . I HAD TO CRUMPLE UP INTO A BALL. Such punches to the gut are part of what keeps Sillman’s readers breathless, alert, and wanting more. —JENNIFER KRASINSKI