With the holiday book-buying season breathing down our necks, let's take this opportunity to talk about … sex! And when it comes to the art world, we're talking not just sex, but really, really out-there sex. Body Art, Matthew Barney, Vanessa Beecroft, Karen Finley, even sex photographer Richard Kern. Just the sort of thing to wrap in shiny black paper and put under that tree.
Begin with The Artist's Body (Phaidon, 304 pp., $69.95), the latest big picture book on Body Art and art performance, this one authored by British curator and Oxford prof Tracey Warr and U. of Cal. art scholar Amelia Jones. It includes all the usual suspects -- Chris Burden crucified to the back of a Volkswagen, Bruce Nauman being a fountain, Lynda Benglis and her dildo.
Plus, there's new stuff -- a naked Tracey Emin, a naked Jenny Saville, a naked Keith Boadwee. Too bad the authors couldn't snag a better picture of Matthew Barney, nude in mountain-climbing gear, petoning his way across the ceiling of Barbara Gladstone's old gallery in SoHo back in 1991. The Artist's Body offers a blurry video still of the ultra-sexy performance that galvanized critics like Roberta Smith and sent Barney rocketing to art-world stardom.
Body art isn't really sexy, of course -- or is it? As art, it's intellectualized rather than sensual, transgressive rather than libertine, esthetic rather than erotic. Perhaps in our fetish-friendly time, things like Hermann Nitsch's blood ceremonies and Paul McCarthy's food orgies will become avatars of 21st-century erotica.
The book also contains 100-plus pages of text fragments in a section called "Documents." This valuable resource features excerpts by everyone from George Bataille, Gilles Deleuze and Julia Kristeva to Lucy Lippard and Coco Fusco.
The Artist's Body begins in the 1960s, but we all know that the Surrealists were the first to focus their psycho-sexualized attention on the body. In Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of Anxiety (MIT Press, 296 pp., $39.95) by Portland (Ore.) State U. art scholar Sue Taylor does a fascinating Freudian analysis of the German-born Surrealist (1902-75) who made life-size female dolls (poupées) that he distorted, dismembered and invariably grotesqued.
In an interview, Taylor admits that she "set out to take revenge" on Bellmer for "his abuse of the female body in his art." She considers his work pornography, rather than erotica, but plunges into an in-depth investigation of the "perversions … phenomena such as fetishism, sadomasochism and anal eroticism" that nevertheless mark a turning away "from both biology and the social order." In the end, the author warms to her subject, but only as an object of study. Her diagnosis -- Bellmer's works are informed by a "feminine identification."
In addition to Bellmer's infamous dolls and the often hand-colored photographs he made of them, Taylor covers Bellmer's lesser-known (but no less sexually explicit) works dating from the 1940s to the '60s, for which his lovers, the Bulgarian writer Nora Mitrani and the German surrealist Unica Zürn, often served as his models.
The book also includes several critical texts by Bellmer -- previously unavailable in English -- that reveal him as an extremely visceral writer.
Karen Finley is nothing if not provocative, whether it's her famous performances with foodstuffs, her retelling of Winnie-the-Pooh as a sexual fable or her appearance as a Playboy magazine pin-up. Her new book, titled A Different Kind of Intimacy: The Collected Writings of Karen Finley (Thunder's Mouth Press, 384 pp., $17.95), demonstrates more than anything else that the roots of her incredible stream-of-consciousness performances are in the art of writing.
A Different Kind of Intimacy collects the texts for such classic pieces as I'm an Ass Man and Why Can't this Veal Calf Walk? The book also contains an account of her famed run-in with Jesse Helms over the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as plenty of drawings, photos and other writings that prove her iconic status is well deserved.
Finley's roots spread to the East Village scene, as do those of sex photographer Richard Kern, who had a previous life in the Punk era as a cutting-edge super-8 filmmaker. In Richard Kern: Model Release (Taschen, 192 pp., $39.99), he shows the command of hard-core that gets him regular assignments from the skin-mag Leg Show -- a shot of a blonde anally penetrating herself with a silicon double-headed dildo, for instance, or a two-page spread of eight "beaver" shots.
But Kern is not simply a pornographer, he's an artist (represented by Feature gallery in West Chelsea). So we also get weird anti-erotica -- pictures of a topless girl having a bowl of Fruity Pebbles, two "babes" in a bathtub flossing their teeth, a series of a girl cleaning the pores on her nose. Kern's desire focuses not only on the airbrushed erotic "peak moment" but extends polymorphously to all manifestations -- especially banalities -- of the female in his presence.
Inarguably more alluring, the full-scale monograph VB 08-36 Vanessa Beecroft Performances (Hatje Cantz, 200 pp., $39.95), features a short introduction by the ubiquitous Dave Hickey and photographs and video stills of the live performances that made her famous (numbers eight through 36, natch). It's curious, Beecroft's discovery that posing groups of young women in identical wigs, or underwear, or even fur coats could be a viable art practice. The models are sexy and clownlike at once -- and god help me if I don't see some echoes of the concentration camp in some of these pictures.
Glamour, performance, sex, voyeurism -- is Beecroft an artist obsessed with fashion or a critic of female representation and the male gaze? In any case, the spectacle of these live-action mannequins, molded by Beecroft and posed in a united front against their audience, is stimulus enough to provoke controversy among viewers -- and purchases among collectors.
Who would think you could get much mileage out of a book called Sex and the British (Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Publications, 50 pp., $29.95)? Well, I say they're an adorable bunch, especially if judged by this catalogue for an exhibition that toured Paris and Salzburg earlier this year. Leading the parade are Gilbert & George, certainly the art-world's most famous, and most amusing, students of gay life. For one work here -- Spit Law (1987) -- they appear in jockey shorts and moon the viewer.
Also included is Phillipe Bradshaw, who projects old super-8 pornography onto curtains of anodized aluminum chain, along with works by Jake and Dinos Chapman, Mat Collishaw, Tracey Emin, Angus Fairhurst, Marcus Harvey, Sarah Lucas, and "rubbish-estheticians" Tim Noble and Sue Webster.
Finally, leave the precincts of the bookshelf for The Man in Black: Drone Harness (Printed Matter, $275), a record-cum-art-object by operatic art star Matthew Barney. Published in a limited edition of 500 copies as a fundraiser for the impecunious artist bookstore Printed Matter (now relocating from SoHo to Chelsea), the record is signed and numbered by the artists -- Barney and composer Jonathan Bepler, the man responsible for the original musical score for Barney's most recent film, Cremaster 2.
The record sleeve contains images from the film, including a picture of a Bison and the photo of the very dead, bloodless body of the gas station attendant (murdered by Gary Gilmore, subject of the film). Inside, though, is this particular project's claim to fame -- a self-portrait of Barney as Gilmore with his pants around his knees, flashing a frighteningly underdeveloped penis and flipping the viewer the finger. It's enough to make me wish I had a turntable.
The Walker Art Museum, where the film premiered, has also produced a fine catalogue of Cremaster 2 ($45).
ERIKA BIDDLE is an assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.