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
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.
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
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.
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
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