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The Year in (Books on) Art

Not only are they beautiful to look at, but a couple of them are also truly insightful.

As 2007 becomes a memory, I would like to salute a half a dozen remarkable books about the visual arts published during the year. They are remarkable for a variety of reasons, ranging from the idiosyncratic power of a text to the unexpected light shed on lesser known works of art to the particular elegance with which a volume has been designed and produced. Each is a book that I expect I'm going to be returning to in 2008--and in the years beyond.

Walker's Way: My Life with Walker Evans, by Isabelle Storey (powerHouse Books), is a striking memoir, at once gentle, lucid, and unsparing. The book suggests one of Henry James's tales of innocence confronting experience. In this case, however, the innocent is the European, for it was Isabelle Storey, a young Swiss woman in New York with her husband, who fell under the spell of the older man, the American photographer Walker Evans. And she could not bring herself to see how inappropriate he would be as a mate until after she had married him, in 1960. Walker's Way has many charms, not the least of which is the portrait of a certain mid-century bohemian milieu, with its Manhattan cocktail parties and ramshackle country houses. But there is real depth to Storey's portrait of Evans as the narcissistic voyeur who refuses to thoroughly engage with anybody, least of all his beautiful wife. Many people who have read the two excellent biographies of Evans published in the 1990s suspected that the classical clarity of his work was at least in part fueled by some essential emotional chill. Storey confirms our worst suspicions, and she does so with a rare combination of straightforwardness and delicacy. The fact that the author is not a professional writer may actually help, for there is certainly no writerly affectation about her account of Evans's failures as a lover. Storey tells it like it is, in a matter-of-fact way. Yet there is no bitterness about her retrospective gaze, perhaps because so many of Evans's friends knew him well enough to appreciate her dilemma and lend their support when the time had come for her to call it quits. Storey has created an unforgettable portrait of the most ferociously austere of all American artists.

Georges Seurat: The Drawings, edited by Jodi Hauptman (The Museum of Modern Art), is the sort of clearly focused, coherently organized exhibition catalogue that museums produce all too infrequently. Published to accompany the great Seurat show at MoMA this past fall, the book has an attractively compact format, reproductions that capture the velvety grandeur of Seurat's Conté crayon, and essays that deepen our understanding of these triumphs of quotidian lyricism. To turn these pages is to reexperience, again and again, Seurat's opulent austerity. I can't remember when the Modern last produced a book this satisfying--a book to put right up on the shelf with the great catalogues MoMA used to turn out all the time.

Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860, by Roger Taylor (Metropolitan Museum of Art), is another spectacular museum catalogue, this one for a traveling exhibition that stops next in February, at the National Gallery in Washington. If it is possible to imagine such a thing as a romantic sobriety, that is the quality of these amazing photographs of people and places in Great Britain and the world beyond. While the photographers were often setting off in search of the picturesque, the camera brought an unflappable modern intensity to their explorations, a technological disinterestedness that added unexpected resonances to glancing faces and crumbling monuments and exotic locales. The book's broad horizontal format conveys the charm of a photographic album; we are invited to linger over lost worlds, immortalized through the brave new world of the camera's eye.

The Adventures of Constantine Cavafy, by Duane Michals (Twin Palms Publishers), is only the most recent of Michals's explorations of photographic storytelling, including in this instance some ten little dramas loosely based on Cavafy's love poems, with Joel Grey playing the poet who contemplates the charms of a gallery of handsome men. Michals's work is a fascination. His photographic cycles, like short films distilled into half-a-dozen or so scenes, have elements of slapstick comedy, surrealist fantasy, naturalistic observation, all suffused with a heartfelt sentiment that Michals sometimes enjoys pushing almost to the brink of sugary sentimentality. The anecdotal informality of these images of Cavafy mooning over a young man in a café or receiving a surprise kiss on the street is complicated by the gentle precision with which Michals lights each momentary, momentous event. Michals gives plain old-fashioned lust a chiaroscuro richness. And in the epilogue, where "the poet decorates his muse with verse," the images of the bare-chested young man sitting in bed, festooned with sheets of paper, each a poem torn from Cavafy's notebook, are hard to forget. These closing pictures have a haunted sweetness.

Second Diasporist Manifesto: A New Kind of Long Poem in 615 Free Verses, by R. B. Kitaj (Yale University Press), is a wonderfully idiosyncratic book. Kitaj, who died around the time this volume was published, was a painter every bit as much at ease with words as he was with images, and not surprisingly, he wanted to create a contemporary equivalent to the blazing manifestoes that painters and sculptors had produced in the early twentieth century. But in place of the wild optimism of those modern artists, who aimed to build a world of feeling and experience from scratch, Kitaj argued for the painter as a fiercely solitary individualist, a Jewish prophet in exile in some Athens or Rome of the imagination, who had to reconstruct tradition for himself, on his own private terms. The Second Diasporist Manifesto recalls the glorious crankiness of earlier generations of American bohemians, of Edward Dahlberg or Charles Olson or Robert Duncan (who was a friend of Kitaj's). The book is niftily laid out, with Kitaj's drawings and paintings reproduced in a black-and-white that suggests the brevity of tabloid imagery, and shots of red ink added to underscore the vehemence of Kitaj's drumroll pronouncements. He ranges from the grandiose to the near-absurd. Kitaj is the Diasporist who "prowl[s] big sensual cities, haunting their books, art, heresies, sirens, and hosts." He is also the comedian who, with a nod to Duchamp's famous urinal, announces that "this Manifesto is one of my works of art, like a Urinal-in-Constant-Use."

Calder Jewelry, edited by Alexander S. C. Rower and Holton Rower (Yale University Press), adds yet another level of delightful complication to our understanding of an American artist whom too many people still take for granted. This opulent volume puts us on intimate terms with the necklaces and bracelets and pins and rings that Alexander Calder produced through much of his life. As he hammered and twisted pieces of brass, silver, and gold, Calder created shapes that ranged from the bold to the whimsical, the barbaric to the rococo. There are mobiles reimagined as earrings, pins that recapitulate a friend's or a loved one's initials or entire name, bits of broken china mounted as if they were precious gems, and ornaments resembling insects, animals, and faces of all kinds. I don't think that anybody has ever invented as many variations on the curve and the curl: casually looping lines, elaborate corkscrew lines, lines as tightly wound as the springs inside a clock. Maria Robledo's photographs, reproduced in deep color on thick, coated stock, bring us very close to the jewelry, until we feel as if we are actually touching these miniaturized fantasies, taking them in our hands, trying them on. Calder's jewelry suggests a bohemian Van Cleef and Arpels, an imagination running rampant, an ecstatic fecundity.

By Jed Perl