Artful Volumes

IN A 2014 INTERVIEW with Entropy Magazine, poet-filmmaker-scholar-anarcho-feminist-writer and dreamer Jackie Wang apologetically names a “piece of art that has recently undone/inspired you” as Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. “What was it that made me receptive?” she wonders. “I don’t want to credit Lars von Trier!” Wang’s ALIEN DAUGHTERS WALK INTO THE SUN: AN ALMANAC OF EXTREME GIRLHOOD (Semiotext(e), $18) is perhaps not strictly an “art book,” but I make no apologies for selecting it, and I do want to credit Jackie Wang. Modestly illustrated with doodles, some black-and-white film stills, and stray photo nuggets, the book is no “sumptuous” display-case feat of copyright clearance and color correction. Much as I often enjoy that kind of effort to harden an artistic vision, this year left me in need of a book that would melt its own contents down. Like the protagonist of Von Trier’s film, Wang is “an odd girl. A pervert. A little observer, as most lonely girls tend to be.” Hers was the vantage on art I really wanted in 2023.

An assemblage of essays, Tumblr posts, interviews, zines, and other founts of imagination, Alien Daughters doesn’t classify, read, or display its aesthetic material. Sanitization nauseates its author, who would prefer to watch and messily metabolize Slovak absurdist film on the floor of an airport eating junk food, spend the day in “the Björk womb” at MoMA, and dream of Bakhtin and the carnivalesque and wake up Orientalizing normies. This book is less a statement than a feverish effort. Wang moves less like a critic or curator than a sister and maker of art—one who tries to get in touch with Leonora Carrington but doesn’t; tries to understand a schizophrenic Russian YouTube artist but doesn’t; doesn’t know how to talk about the relationship between art and the erotic process; thinks about the avant-garde not in terms of innovation but of aliens. The book is explicitly feral, guiding us toward a younger, less cultivated style of thought. Perhaps it is easy to lay bare your juvenilia if you’re as painfully intelligent as Wang is, but intelligence isn’t really the point here. The point is curiosity, to look with alien eyes at things we have only presumed to understand. Even if that means, on occasion, revisiting Lars von Trier. Amber Husain 

Cecilia Vicuña, Soledad: Sol en la edad (Solitude: Sun in Age), 1978, ink and pencil on paper, 8 1/2 × 11".
Cecilia Vicuña, Soledad: Sol en la edad (Solitude: Sun in Age), 1978, ink and pencil on paper, 8 1/2 × 11".

I HAVE HAD CAUSE over the past weeks to revisit an artwork by Cecilia Vicuña. La Comegente (The People Eater) has become a personal talisman of sorts—because art and poetry, despite Auden’s famous assertion, do make something happen, and sometimes we need a reminder. In Vicuña’s 2019 painting, a nude woman floats against a luminous gold background, her rounded buttocks hovering just above an empty streetscape. A line of faceless, nude, and (mostly) bald figures proceeds through the radiant air into her open mouth as she looks slyly away. A text accompanies the painting: “I dreamt I had to eat evil doers, digest them, and defecate them for my shit to fertilize the land, so a new civilization can be born.” 

These righteous words about the relationship between art and revolution, so foundational to Vicuña’s more than fifty-year oeuvre, echo in permutations written, illustrated, performed, and documented in WORD WEAPONS (CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts/RITE Editions, $40). This elegant, landscape-format, cherry-red clothbound hardback is published in conjunction with the series “Season 7: Cecilia Vicuña is on our mind,” which was “a year-long research season” about the Chilean artist who coined the term Arte Precario (Precarious Art) in the mid-1960s. 

The book is suitably dialogic, combining preexisting texts about sacred aesthetics, language, and cosmologies with new essays about Vicuña’s Palabrarmas, or “Wordweapons.” Vicuña began this series in the wake of the 1973 coup in Chile. Writing today from London, where she has since been exiled, she describes the Palabrarmas as a means of opposing violence and lies: “To work [labrar] words as one works the soil is to arm oneself with the vision of words. Words are the only permissible weapon.” Accompanying images include emblems, riddles, concrete poems, drawings, collage, and documentation of performance and props. palabrarma reads a pen held by a giant hand, a winged shovel tilling earth, a paper gun held to a man’s mouth. Poets in the service of liberation, artists in the service of liberation, reads a felt-tip drawing. Sol y dar y dad (Solidarity: To Give and Give Sun) reads a poster, a flag, a hat. 

“Precarious means prayer, uncertain, exposed to hazards, insecure. Prayer is change, the dangerous instant of transmutation,” Vicuña has written. Precarity is imposed from without. Within, we are armed with Palabrarmas, an ever-evolving lexicon. Perhaps the new civilization will speak this language. —Emily LaBarge 

William Klein, Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?), 1966, 35mm, black-and-white, sound, 105 minutes.
William Klein, Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?), 1966, 35mm, black-and-white, sound, 105 minutes.

QUI ÊTES-VOUS, POLLY MAGGOO? is a fairly unserious 1966 French film, by the Vogue-famous photographer William Klein, that follows the production of a day-in-the-life documentary about the adventures of a fashion model. She’s beautiful, bewitching designers, editors, television hosts, and princes alike. Think of it as a sort of proto-Zoolander, where instead of homeless-chic Derelicte we have a large-format sheet-metal takeoff of Paco Rabanne’s shimmering disc dresses. WILLIAM KLEIN: WHO ARE YOU, POLLY MAGGOO? (DELPIRE & CO/ARTBOOK DAP, $125) is a sort of reverse adaptation of the film put out earlier this year, freezing frames and laying out the dialogue in big, bold fonts like a web comic or a graphic novel. The only things missing are big Lichtensteinian action words leaping from edge to edge. Pose! Vamp! There aren’t any introductory essays or explanatory texts to make the farce of the thing plain, but if you can look at a catcaller get jump-cut hit by a car while badgering poor Polly during an afternoon stroll without laughing, I don’t know what to tell you. —Melvin Backman 

Joseph Philippe Karam, Shams Building, 1957, Beirut. Photo Matthieu Salvaing.
Joseph Philippe Karam, Shams Building, 1957, Beirut. Photo Matthieu Salvaing.

HOW MANY BUILDINGS does it take to tell the story of architectural modernism on the Mediterranean’s eastern shores? For Guillaume Excoffier and Matthieu Salvaing, writer and photographer, respectively, of the lush MODERNIST BEIRUT (Éditions Norma, $120), the answer is thirty-one. That is the number of projects, dating primarily from the 1930s through the ’70s, assembled here. They range from government ministries, the central bank, and a public university to discrete villas, private schools, commercial centers, factories, one beautiful mosque, two churches, and the prototype for a visionary dwelling, a hexagonal chalet with lateral glass facades, which could be erected in sixty days. Together they tell a surprisingly complex story of how the eventual Lebanese capital transformed itself from a provincial backwater to a major site of architectural experimentation. The book locates the origins of Beiruti modernism in ruins, namely, the late Ottoman-era destruction of the souks, or central marketplace, circa 1915. From there, it traces the delicate Art Deco accents of the French Mandate through the bolder lines and more daring volumes defining the period of national independence to the exuberant glamour of the city’s so-called Golden Age, which Excoffier notes was a largely imagined construct. Excoffier’s text is brief. He does not bother, as academics too often do, with defining modernism. He sticks to Le Corbusier and the proceedings, in Switzerland, of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne. Similarly, Salvaing’s photographs, in color as well as black-and-white, range from close-ups to extreme close-ups, focusing only on design details. They give no sense of context or scale. And yet the experience of the book is as airy as the architecture. What Excoffier and Salvaing share is an unyielding affection for the ways in which each project joins an aesthetic language to a specific environment. Over and over, they show how architects worked with light and shadow, lifted buildings to create sun-drenched plazas, and opened walls to bring lush green gardens into domestic interiors. The architects themselves evince a breathtaking diversity, including not only hometown heroes such as Joseph Philippe Karam, Assem Salam, and Khalil Khoury but also the French architects Michel Rubinstein and Lucien Cavro in the ’30s, Victor Gruen, Julio Lafuente (who came from Madrid via Rome en route to Saudi Arabia), Oscar Niemeyer, André Wogenscky, and the Polish architect Karol Schayer (a revelatory figure who made Lebanon his home from the ’40s). One hears a lot about violence, destruction, and war in relation to Beirut. This book offers something refreshingly different, the story of a style that urgently needs to be saved from ruin, but also loved for the history it holds. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie 

Portrait of Francisco Moncion (1918-1995), by Carl Van Vechten.
Portrait of Francisco Moncion (1918-1995), by Carl Van Vechten.

THE MOST VISUALLY FASCINATING book I read this year was Justin Torres’s novel BLACKOUTS (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30). Concrete poems made from redacted archives, snapshots, and reproduced artworks interspersed throughout the text created an uncanny experience of dredging suppressed, erased, and cherished memories. Somehow, it’s not performative but deeply personal. As far as a “true” art book, Marcel Rosa-Salas and Isabel Attyah Flower’s THE NAMEPLATE: JEWELRY, CULTURE, AND IDENTITY (Clarkson Potter, $30) was a standout in the year hip-hop turned fifty. Come for the concise history of the nameplate (as old as the pharaohs and found in the wreckage of the Titanic) and stay for the extensive oral histories and photographic portraits that correct a frankly racist void in the history of jewelry. This book began as a participatory social media project, “Documenting the Nameplate,” and one has the sense that its rich life extends far off the page. The generosity of Rosa-Salas and Flower is to center so many names in their telling, which is at once autobiography and history. —Prudence Peiffer 

Portrait of Sasha and her nameplate.
Portrait of Sasha and her nameplate.

COMPILING EIGHT VOLUMES made in Providence, Rome, and Manhattan, FRANCESCA WOODMAN: THE ARTIST’S BOOKS (MACK, $75), casts new light on Woodman’s career in DIY bookmaking, a medium that allowed the photographer to deepen her interests in metaphor and temporal indeterminacy. What happens to a photograph—something that neither begins nor ends—when it is taped onto a page, something that must be turned? The pages of Woodman’s books were largely culled from Rome’s Libreria Maldoror, whose yellowed mathematics manuals, ledgers, indexes, and ornately handwritten letters lent a desired obscurity to her “eroticized formalism” (as Chris Kraus has put it). As if for the first time, we discover in The Artist’s Books Woodman’s iconic angels and Bretonian gloves, her Victorian predilection for ruin, her homeless spirit. Proceeding in reverse-chronological order, the collection begins with Some Disordered Interior Geometries (1980), which sets Woodman’s lacunose self-portraits in gnomic dialogue with Euclidean geometry, and whose original publication coincided with her suicide, in 1981, at age twenty-two. The last book is Portrait of a Reputation (1976–77), which sees the artist stage a kind of striptease turned crime scene, the fifth and final frame consisting only of her bloodlike handprints on a wall. People often say that Woodman made work about wanting to disappear, but The Artist’s Books, with its layered materiality and emphasis on sequential structures, its foundness, suggests the opposite; whereas her beloved Proust sought to recover the experience of the past, Woodman choreographed the enfoldments of time and space to better understand what it is to be, simply or not simply, here. —Zack Hatfield 

Spread from Francesca Woodman’s Quaderno, 1978 in Francesca Woodman: The Artist’s Books (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.
Spread from Francesca Woodman’s Quaderno, 1978 in Francesca Woodman: The Artist’s Books (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

AT THE BEGINNING of artist Eric Kostiuk Williams’s comely paperback compendium 2AM ETERNAL: A DECADE OF QUEER NIGHTLIFE POSTERS + COMICS, 2012–2022 (Secret Acres, $22), there is an illustrated prologue, only six panels long, that rivals the opening title sequence to George Lucas’s first Star Wars film in thrilling import: across a two-page spread, we see a laser beam hit a mirror ball, turning the commonplace dance-floor fixture into a symbol of nocturnal decadence—a spinning, shimmering gland of sweaty disco hedonism! A series of text bubbles narrates the transformation: foggy windows / signs of life / a chance to melt . . . and / re-form . . . into / ecstatic faggot noises (!!!). It’s a glorious introduction to a book of party art that summarizes the exhilaration many of us inverts and perverts feel in spaces that were created exclusively for our delectation—safe havens from the dreadfulness and dangers of oppressive hetero life and metastatic Christo-fascism. 

Williams, who lives and works in Toronto, has been making hand-drawn announcements and brochures for all kinds of venues throughout his fair city, including The Beaver (a beloved queer dive and unfortunate casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, cofounded in 2006 by the late art legend Will Munro), Videofag (an old barbershop-turned-performance-space that was operated by William Ellis and Jordan Tannahill between 2012 and 2016), the Drake Hotel, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. His liquescent renderings of people, places, and things seem to me a heady amalgam of Steve Ditko (à la Shade, the Changing Man); Mark Dancey’s fabulous art for Motorbooty magazine; Mike Kuchar’s studly, slim-hipped comic-book boyfriends; and the Mannerist figuration of fellow Canadian and Marvel hall-of-famer, Todd McFarlane. Some of my favorite pieces featured in this volume are a step-by-step guide on how to take drugs rectally (titled “Safer Booty Bumps”), made on behalf of the aids Committee of Toronto; the poster he created for “Bad Tuck: Pro-Choice Christ”—a filthy drag event hosted by Judy Virago and Igby Lizard—in which the Mother of God is depicted giving herself a vacuum-cleaner abortion; and the elaborately illustrated reviews of concerts he attended (e.g., Above & Beyond, Lady Gaga, and Shania Twain) for Toronto’s NOW Magazine

Admittedly, I feel some sadness while absorbing these psychedelic masterpieces of gay celebration—I can’t help but think about the all-night ragers I don’t take part in anymore because of my aging, crumbling body; the homo-sexy clubs of my youth that are no longer in existence; and the pretty boys I once had terrible crushes on who, quite likely, are now all dead. Nonetheless, I am heartened by fashion designer Jeremy Laing’s words in his beautiful foreword to the book: “The party is never over. It will change, move, rise, and fall, then rise again as we do. But it can’t end, and we wouldn’t let it anyway. It’s 2 am somewhere, eternally.” —Alex Jovanovich 

EKW, poster for Bippidi Bobbidi Boop! party at Club 120, Toronto, CA, 2017.
EKW, poster for Bippidi Bobbidi Boop! party at Club 120, Toronto, CA, 2017.

AN OMNIVOROUS MAGPIE and dedicated maximalist, Pacita Abad (1946–2004) marshaled a dizzying array of global styles and motifs into an artistic practice spanning metal sculpture, oil painting, and massive trapuntos—quilted and embroidered canvases on which Abad painted narrative scenes bedazzled with beads, sequins, and other signifiers of multiculturalist affinity, which sit side by side with sociopolitical critique. (To wit, a 1991 work from her “Immigrant Experience” series is titled: I Thought the Streets Were Paved with Gold.) Abad arrived in San Francisco on a layover in 1970—just barely missing the Summer of Love and the Third World Student Movements, but still early enough to be enchanted by the countercultural milieu she found in the Haight. Born to a political family in Batanes, the northernmost province of the Philippines, the twentysomething was already well-versed in protest, having led student demonstrations against the authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos in 1969. Though she was en route to law school in Spain, Abad’s encounter with the bustling immigrant enclaves in the Mission, newly flooded with refugees from war-torn Cambodia and Vietnam, inspired her to stay and study in the city, where she worked odd jobs and joined activist circles. A whirlwind romance in 1973 led to a yearlong trip across Asia, where Abad scrupulously archived the various fabrics and craft techniques she’d learned from Indigenous communities. The relationship and artistic ethos Abad nurtured that year would prove to be lifelong, and by the time of her death in 2004, she’d traveled and lived in more than sixty countries across six continents and produced nearly five thousand works.

Selections from Abad’s oeuvre are currently on view as part of a traveling retrospective, which debuted at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center ahead of stops in San Francisco, New York, and Toronto. The accompanying catalogue, PACITA ABAD (Walker Art Center, $65), is by all measures a doorstopper: at 352 (deckled!) pages—344 of which are in full, radiant color—it honors the breadth and fervor of Abad’s roving career. Edited and with an introductory essay by curator Victoria Sung, the volume highlights the world-historical conjunctures that informed the artist’s politics with a comprehensive timeline by Matthew Villar Miranda and, crucially, an oral history conducted with Abad’s siblings and her nephew, the artist Pio Abad. As if these archival treasures and eye-popping images were not rich enough, a suite of essays adds even more texture to Abad’s astounding practice: Ruba Katrib places the artist’s immigrant experience within the legal context of migrant and refugee quotas established in the United States during the 1970s and ’80s, while Nancy Lim situates Abad’s painting within the artist’s humanitarian work. Xiaoyu Weng compellingly defends Abad’s “Masks” series against charges of primitivism and demands for authenticity, and Julia Bryan-Wilson persuades us to think of Abad’s funked-up materialism as a method for embellishing art history. If during her lifetime Abad was frequently sidelined by the staid institutional mainstream, dismissed as a peripheral artist of minor crafts, this jewel of a catalogue permits the artist’s legacy to shine, resplendently. —Tausif Noor 

Pacita Abad, Subali, 1983/90, acrylic, oil, gold cotton, batik cloth, sequins, rickrack ribbons on stitched and padded canvas. Courtesy Pacita Abad Art Estate, photo: Rik Sferra for Walker Art Center.
Pacita Abad, Subali, 1983/90, acrylic, oil, gold cotton, batik cloth, sequins, rickrack ribbons on stitched and padded canvas. Courtesy Pacita Abad Art Estate, photo: Rik Sferra for Walker Art Center.

AFTER DECADES OF RELATIVE NEGLECT, Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington have only recently been recognized as crucial figures in the Surrealist movement. The publication of several volumes featuring their art, along with gallery and museum exhibitions, reveals an originality rooted in a profoundly feminist fascination with mysticism and magic. REMEDIOS VARO: SCIENCE FICTIONS (Art Institute of Chicago, $40), the catalogue for a show at the Art Institute of Chicago, offers a generous introduction to the Spanish-born artist’s opulent and intoxicating world, one peopled by magicians, witches, and musicians who dwell in castles and forests under turbulent, foreboding skies. In these extravagant settings, Varo’s female subjects go about enigmatic tasks—drawing birds that come to life, playing a flute as runic stones rise in the air, stroking a shaft of sunlight with a violin bow—with contemplative miens, as if their supernatural doings were commonplace. A 1960 canvas titled Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst (Could Be Juliana) lends itself to complex interpretation, perhaps involving Jungian psychology: the figure emerges from a doorway into a medieval courtyard carrying in one hand a basket containing, among other items, glasses, a clock, and a key; in the other, she holds a translucent male head by its beard. In the folds of the dress that masks all but her eyes, a copy of her face is visible. Despite what may seem like overburdened thematic intentions, it is the alluring strangeness of the image, the painterly depiction of her robe, the cobblestones, her sinuous hair, so reminiscent of Van Eyck, that captivates lasting attention.  Carrington and Varo both fled Europe in the early 1940s and took up residence in Mexico City, where they became friends and even collaborated on exquisite corpse texts. 

Leonora Carrington, Sanctuary for Furies, 1974, oil on canvas, 39 × 27". Private collection. Courtesy ART VIA, cat. no. 101.
Leonora Carrington, Sanctuary for Furies, 1974, oil on canvas, 39 × 27". Private collection. Courtesy ART VIA, cat. no. 101.

LEONORA CARRINGTON: REVELATION (RM/Fundación MAPFRE, $65) demonstrates the pictorial kinship they shared. Myth, mysticism, and the domain of the subconscious served as creative wellsprings for them both. Carrington’s female figures also occupy fantastical spaces, often accompanied by equally fantastical horses and assorted fauna. Born in England to a wealthy family, Carrington moved to Paris in 1937 to begin a brief but influential relationship with Max Ernst. An abiding sense of the uncanny marks images that might otherwise seem ordinary: in The Bedside Book, 1956, a woman sporting a halolike nightcap placidly reads, oblivious to the faceless figure crawling out from beneath the bed and the large insect hovering over it. Less domestic and more clearly Surrealist is The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg), 1947, which depicts just that—a woman towering over a medieval landscape, birds emerging from her cloak, as she holds with tiny hands, wildly disproportionate to her body, an ornate egg. Most notably, for Carrington and Varo, female figures possess narrative heft and purpose; they pursue, conjure, and contend with metaphysical forces. They aren’t the decorative or bodily disassembled women common in much Surrealist art. These two volumes not only testify to their essential role in twentieth-century art but also offer a sharp counterpoint to a long period of disregard. —Albert Mobilio