The publishing industry may be struggling in the face of the cybernetic revolution, but one sector seems as hot as Tabasco -- monographs on modern and contemporary artists. In an increasingly expensive and decentralized art-world, these books give you an undeniable bang for your buck, assembling eye-catching images and esoteric info into one luxurious package. Now, if we could only find time to actually read them. . . .
One exemplary example is Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things (Tate/Abrams, $40), an elegant volume published last June to accompany the Brancusi exhibition that appeared first at the Tate Modern in London and is currently on view at the Guggenheim in New York (through Sept. 19, 2004). Edited by the shows two curators -- the Tates Matthew Gale and the Guggs Carmen Gimnez -- the 144-page tome includes 90 color plates of the sculptures, plenty of the artists own amazing black-and-white photos of his sculptures densely posed in his studio, and even a selection of pictures of the Neolithic relics, African woodcarvings and medieval bas reliefs that provided him with inspiration. The accompanying essays discuss Brancusis rural Romanian roots, his work in wood and his works in marble, notably The Kiss (1909-10) in Montparnasse Cemetery, which Brancusi considered a watershed in his career.
Another exhibition catalogue is Tamara de Lempicka: Art Deco Icon (Royal Academy of Arts, London, $55), which accompanies the show that debuted in London and runs Sept. 15, 2004-Jan. 2, 2005, at the Vienna Kunstforum. Paris haute society in the Jazz Age comes alive in the gorgeous reproductions of de Lempickas elegant Art Deco portraits, which are joined by several essays and amusing tidbits of de Lempicka trivia. "I work from eight in the morning to five in the afternoon, which means I do three portrait sittings," she writes, though periods of downtime were occupied with "champagne, bath, massage."
De Lempickas work reflected her life -- she was a looker and something of a vamp herself, as her several self-portraits show. An unfinished 1928 painting of her first husband, Tadeusz, was followed by a portrait of her future husband, Baron Kuffner, and his mistress, Nana de Herrera. The essay by Alain Blondel suggests that debilitating bouts of depression kept de Lempicka from being more productive, and Ingried Brugger, director of the Vienna Kunstforum, delves into de Lempickas depiction of the female body, and specifically the lesbian undertones in these paintings.
A slimmer version of the exhibition catalogue formula is found in Armando Morales (Robert Miller Gallery, $50), an unpaginated book of color plates of recent works by the no-nonsense 70-something Nicaraguan-born painter that complements an exhibition that appeared this summer at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Monterrey and that opens at Miami Art Central, Sept. 10-Nov. 7, 2004. Morales, who is moving from London to Barcelona so he can visit the Prado on a regular basis, is known for his phantasmagorical images of the Amazonian jungle as well as his sensuous nudes and still lifes. The book boasts a text from 1992 by Gabriel Garca Mrquez -- "This man isnt afraid of anything," he concluded when he first saw Morales work -- as well as an essay on the new paintings by Christian Viveros-Faun, the critic turned art dealer who co-directs Roebling Hall in Williamsburg.
Toward the other extreme is the formidable Edward Ruscha, Catalogue Raisonne of the Paintings (Volume One: 1958-1970) (Gagosian Gallery/Steidl Verlag, $175), a 435-page masterwork issued earlier this year. The volume begins with a short memoir by the legendary Walter Hopps, who met the artist when he first moved to L.A. from Oklahoma City in the 1950s, and an erudite chronicle by Yve-Alain Bois of the "surprisingly Spartan regimen" that characterizes Ruschas work of this period. But the bulk of the book is illustrations and entries on 137 paintings by the artist who, as Art Market Guide author Richard Polsky put it, was "the first to make words his primary subject matter."
Like the artists famous portrayal of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in flames, these pictures have recently caught fire in the auction market, with the top price for a Ruscha work hitting $3.5 million. The entries -- that is, the ownership, provenance, bibliography and list of exhibitions for each picture -- suggest a fascinating outline of the institutional underpinnings of his popular appeal. As for the social dimension of Ruschas success, that is indicated by the black-and-white pictures of the good-looking artist -- including a jokey 1967 wedding announcement photo of him in bed with two women -- interspersed among the pages of chronology, exhibition history and bibliography.
The energetic Phaidon Press has an extensive list of titles in its "contemporary artist series," and a notable recent entry is Hans Haacke (Phaidon, $39.95). This 160-page, paperback compendium is an estimable resource on the work and career -- and controversies -- of the man who is arguably the most significant political artist to emerge from the 1960s esthetic revolution. The book features an interview with Haacke by Vassar art historian Molly Nesbit, an extensive selection of the artists own writings and statements (dating from 1965 to 2000) and even a text from 1934-35 by Bertolt Brecht on "Writing the Truth." In a time in which contemporary art seems largely consumed with hedonistic pursuits, this book should serve as something of a tonic.
At the other end of the esthetic spectrum is the celebrated stripe painter Sean Scully, who is now the subject of a new 224-page monograph, the eponymously titled Sean Scully (Thames & Hudson, $65). The accompanying essay is by art historian and critic David Carrier, and takes the form of a prose dialogue in which the author responds to Scully quotes taken from conversations, correspondence, lectures and published interviews from the last 20 years. A typical gem: "I do lots of things before I paint. Nervous things. . . Reassure myself Im not alone in the universe. You have to be ready to paint something as stripped down as the stripe." The final section of the book is a straightforward Q&A between Scully and art historian Kevin Power.
In the near future, Artnet plans to launch its own series of monographs -- online, in digital form, beginning with collections of works by Richard Estes, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Donald Sultan and several other artists. These new publications -- the first digital art monographs on the internet -- promise to be an invaluable resource that will exist alongside more traditional art books.