All the talk about the imminent reign of ebooks -- paperback-size screens loaded with enough novels to get you through several delayed flights -- seems to have prompted art book publishers to accentuate their own eminent domain: breathtaking pictures. This autumn's cornucopia of illustrated books overflows with glorious color in dimensions requiring a big lap to cradle and peruse them. Presto! The hand-held reading devices are reduced to the status of ghostly gizmos. Among these sumptuous volumes, a few pictorial jewels that you may buy as gifts but might not be able to bear giving up.
Songs of India
For those who like to GET AWAY on the wings of fluttering pages, India Holy Song (Rizzoli, $75) is IT. The saturated hues and asymmetrical perspectives onto dense panoramas, such as a throng of veiled women in a hazy green downpour, are hallucinogenic. There are scenes of yogis in river rituals and a crush of the faithful deliriously ringing bells. Yet French photographer Xavier Zimbardo's dramatic compositions are less "spiritual" than an ecstatic song of India's very carnal beauty. This album continues western cultures' 19th century fascination with the "exotic" East. To city-dweller in an industrialized nation, these emotionally-intense views -- who knows what the places are actually like? -- appear fantastic, their landscapes otherworldly. Yet cleverly avoiding implications of cultural imperialism, Rizzoli commissioned the acclaimed British/Indian short-story writer Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies) to write a tender introduction calling the pictures "incandescent and incantatory."
For fantasies by painters of the exotica of the East, the exhibition catalogue Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America 1870-1930 (Princeton University Press/Clark Art Institute, $29.95 softcover) contains enticing visions of our historical romance with languorous odalesques, virile Sheiks, and Islamic turrets. The smart and clearly written essays cover a panoply of our visual colonialization from Moorish-inspired hedonistic paintings to the iconography of Camel cigarette packaging. The exhibition that the Clark Art Institute originated is presently at the Walter Art Gallery, Baltimore, through December 10 and will be at the Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina, from February 3 to April 23, 2001.
Land and Sky
The title of contemporary painter Stephen Hannock's large book perfectly encapsulates his images' continuation of late 19th century artists' projection of feeling into landscapes: Luminosity (Chronicle $50). In some of these paintings Hannock channels Whistler to recreate the expatriate American's misty nocturnes along the Thames, in others he revivifies Bierstadt's theatrics of lurid sunsets over distant peaks or resurrects Ryder's crusty seascapes of a lone moonlit sailboat caught in an upsurging sea. Just when you begin to feel that its subtitle should have been taken from Joseph Kosuth's famous article in Artforum denouncing the return of representational painting, "Necrophilia Mon Amour," the survey gets to Hannock's recent pared-down abstractions. Their sweeping horizontal planes, with effusive anecdote traded for structured evocation, are the most affecting of a gorgeous group of pictures, new in style or not.
At the other end of the spectrum of an artist's relation to nature is Andy Goldsworthy's Time (Abrams, $55), sparkling photographs documenting the English sculptor's direct manipulations of natural materials. "Diaries" of works in six locales from Montreal to Holland to New Mexico during the latter half of the 1990s explain the projects' unfolding in pictorial and descriptive detail. Goldsworthy's tinting of rivers by grinding red rocks into powder, or "drawing" on their fluid surfaces with laced leaves are eerily beautiful. Not all works are outside and ephemeral; his patterned walls of densely-stacked slate or tawny cracked clay bring nature inside and up close. Goldsworthy's overtly precious approach to Nature sometimes sounds like a piety about his own actions that flips into its opposite, pomposity. But mostly, his zen-like musings deepen understanding of his constructions in and of nature.
With his The Sky Book (Arena Editions, $65) California photographer Richard Misrach magisterially achieves what so many landscape artists, and viewers, seek: awesome beauty, but of a sort that prompts spiritualized reverence. In previous bodies of work, Misrach's dramatic "Desert Cantos" depicted both western deserts' visual richness and their deterioration by social abuse. Here the large, luminous images in Misrach's song of the desert range from sunset skies capturing a spectrum of hues from horizon to the ether to solid-color nocturnes taken in time-lapse to reveal stars' trajectories of light. Each print is identified by locale and exact time. Essayist Rebecca Solnit continues her ongoing analysis of the imaging of landscape, here by focusing on titles and western place-names. Her thoughtful discussion likens these to the dark grandeur of Rothko's late paintings. Like those painterly color fields, Misrach's purified images actually manifest beauty's Other, the emotionally overwhelming sublime. Studying the effulgent celestial environments in this big horizontal volume, like a child with a storybook, one becomes engrossed and enthralled.
A Time for Religion
From this spiritualized luminescence, it's just a step to the nominal purpose of the Christian holidays, religious rebirth. Jacqueline Orsini's Mary: Images of the Holy Mother (Chronicle $19.95), is an attractive compilation of 85 visual paeans to her personifications as the Virgin, Madonna, Queen of Heaven or Mater Dolorosa. Reproductions range from disembodied Byzantine decorations to the loving 15th century Virgin of the Apocalypse on a German glass panel to a Bolivian La Virgen de Copacabana on a metal pendant, to the Hot Rod Guadalupe tattooed by Charlie Cartwright on a California man's forearm. The cross-cultural mix by this scholar and lecturer in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is current and comprehensive. With her informative introduction, this modest size, square format book is a gem.
To counteract the frenetic season, immerse yourself in the contemplative composure of Architecture of Silence: Cistercian Abbeys of France, (Abrams, $60). These squat Romanesque churches, with few narrow windows piercing thick stone walls to illuminate low arcs of rib-vaulting, were the architectural equivalent of the sobriety and restraint characterizing the Cistercian religious order. The quiet purity of David Heald's tritone (black-and-white) photographs of 11th and 12th century monastic architecture are the pictorial equivalent of a spiritual retreat. His views are unpeopled; the figures of speech are graceful arches supported by simple floral carvings on capitals and radiant light revealing mottled brickwork. The stasis of the compositions suggest time exposures, whether in the camera or evoking the photographer's own meditative pace. They are printed on ivory paper with the pristine matt sheen akin to platinum prints. Heald, the chief photographer at the Guggenheim Museum, is perfectly matched here by the scholar of medieval architecture. Terryl N. Kinder, who provides the historical background and reflective commentary, noting "These photographs awaken a longing for a quieter, simpler existence." Indeed.
Contemporary Art Made Easy
On the other hand, if someone on your gift list seeks to learn a thing or two about contemporary art, get one of the three new big tomes from Phaidon Press (each $69.95) that combine voluminous reproductions, introductory essays, and criticism contemporary with the art. All are obnoxiously over-designed, with pages varying from a single phrase splayed across a page to double-columned walls of text and to multiple illustrations with discursive captions. But for each, the graphic razzle-dazzle is offset by their choice of the top scholar in the field for its hired pen, so there's intelligence (publishing and scholarly) behind this visual jumbo-mumbo.
The most revelatory volume is Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev's Arte Povera, on the late 1960s' Italian movement toward loosely-formed sculptures or environments made of rustic natural materials. Among translations of artists' and critics' writings, finally accessible in English is Germano Celant's 1967 "Notes for a Guerrilla War." With this manifesto Celant introduced the "poor art concerned with contingency, events. . ." in which "The artist, who was exploited before, now becomes a guerrilla warrior." Christov-Bakargiev, an American-born Roman and now a curator at P.S.1, situates the origins of Arte Povera within the Genoese cultural network. Umberto Eco, teaching at the University there, wrote the important 1962 essay "Form as Social Commitment" which guided Celant's thinking. Along with her wealth of information on the background of each artist, Christov-Bakargiev considerably deepens the discussion of what was poor, and rich, about Arte Povera.
In his presentation of Minimalism, James Meyer provides a rather insular discussion of the stylistic polemics around the radically pared-down boxy sculptures that shocked viewers just comfortable with Abstract Expressionist excesses. Amazingly, the Emory University junior professor does not mention the tumult outside the gallery doors during the sixties, but I don't think that anyone has done the imaginative research to link the two.
New York, New Yorker
If you prefer your visual stimulation a little less sober, look at Covering the New Yorker: Cutting-Edge Covers from a Literary Institution (New Yorker/Abbeville $50). Of course these are amusing, but the giggle of pleasure comes from the illustrations' sly layering of references to current issues (Monica Lewinsky as Mona Lisa). Most of these have been published since 1993, when Françoise Mouly became art director at The New Yorker. She brought uptown the raucous sensibility of the magazine of comics and graphics that she published with her husband Art Spiegelman, Raw. Since then, the lyrical grace and gentle wit of the earlier era has given way to more provocative scenes (the Mayor, Police Commissioner, and Governor protested the Amadou Diallo-era cover of a NYC cop at a Coney Island shooting gallery advertising "41 shots-10c"). A conversation between Mouley and staff writer Lawrence Wechsler reveals the behind-the-cover process of selecting topics and refining the composition for a strong visual punch.